A tip for average preachers

No teasing – here’s the tip for average preachers: pray for better listeners.

This post is not about extraordinary and brilliant preachers. These people have wonderful content that’s true and challenging. Their communication is excellent, being clear, engaging and memorable. Even those who disagree enjoy the listening.

This post is not about poor preachers, who fail in both content and communication. Everyone who hears them goes away confused.

I am writing about the majority of preachers. They have something to say, but  are not Einsteins of the text. These preachers communicate adequately, but they won’t take Olympic gold medals for oration.

I’m convinced that, especially for average preachers, the quality of the sermon depends on the quality of the listeners. Faithful and devoted listeners make for good sermons. Grumbling and faithless listeners make for poor sermons.

the quality of the sermon depends on the quality of the listeners

Why? Because the listener to average preaching will find what they’re looking for.

A grumbler has real reason to say, ‘He’s not that insightful. The jokes are half funny. And those tongue stumbles when he gets excited – I just can’t listen.’ It’s poetic justice that a selfish listener gets no benefit for self.

A good listener is the opposite. This person finds the gold amid the dross, and overlooks odd verbal habits of the preacher. This generous listener is kind to the preacher, and the result is spiritual blessing to the one who hears.

So, as an acknowledgement of our own ‘averageness’, pray for better listeners.



The words in my head in a bike race

I race relatively rarely and very poorly. But I have great conversations inside my head. Here’s some of what I say.

During the race

  • Two minutes in and my heart rate is already too high. I hate that
  • I hate this rise in the road. I wish it looked as hard as it feels
  • Stop staring at that rear hub, stop staring at that rear hub, stop staring …
  • There’s always gravel on this bit. I hate that
  • I’m sure my gears were OK when I rode to the start today. Now they’re clunking
  • Perhaps it’s not the gears making that noise – the brakes are rubbing
  • Mouth so dry, bladder so full. How?
  • Is he working hard? Is she working hard? Am I?
  • I hope I get to the turn-around with the rest of my group. I hate getting dropped before then: do I ride the whole course or just turn around and go home?
  • I hate getting dropped after the turn around. Why didn’t they accelerate 5km earlier and save me 10km of riding?
  • Here’s the place to attack, here’s the place. Attack!
  • That wasn’t the place to attack

After the race

  • That was fun! When’s the next race?



Psalm 10 and living faith

Reading Psalm 10 for church led me to describe three types of people, with different mixes of faith and pattern of life. I came up with three terrible titles (as usual!), so want to try and explain less terribly. (The sermon recording is here.)

Practical atheist
The practical atheist believes and lives as if there is no God. At times he will say, “There is no God” (verse 4), but that’s not a philosophical position. It’s practical: in practice there is not God who does anything. God probably exists, but he’s away: “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it” (verse 11).

For the practical atheist, the existence (or non-existence) of God makes no difference to life. God could be real or false, biblical or Canaanite, powerful or made of ice-cream … If you’re a practical atheist, who cares?

According to Psalm 10, the result of this is arrogant injustice. The practical atheist, once holding any type of power, uses that power against others. ‘The wicked hotly pursue the poor’, “I shall not meet adversity”, ‘in hiding places he murders the innocent’.

Impractical theist
The second type of person I imagined is the direct opposite of the first. This one is a theist – one who knows the truth of God and whose life is shaped by this. The changes would include prayer and other acts of devotion. This person’s understanding is, ‘There is a God, and he sees me.’ There’s a big Amen! to verse 16: ‘The Lord is king for ever and ever’.

But it’s impractical. This person is not moved by the oppression all around. Though not unjust towards the afflicted, he or she has no urge towards justice.

This type of person is not identified in the Psalm. He’s closer to home, for us – for it could be me, or you, or any Christian. We can become immune to the pain of this world. If so, we become different from the Lord (‘you hear the cries of the afflicted’, verse 17).

Practical theist
The third ‘type’ is the practical theist. She cries out with concern, ‘Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?’ He prays, ‘Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted.’ This person is very practical and has a soft heart to the downtrodden – especially those of faith’s household (listen to the cries of Revelation 6:10, for example).

The practical theist does not allow a soft heart towards the poor to cause a hard heart towards God. Cries and prayers that apparently border on disrespect to God are really calls for God to be truly known. Effectively, ‘Show them, Lord, that you are present, that you do see, and that you rule with justice!’

The practical theist is the ideal member of God’s kingdom: compassionate and passionate, prayer-filled and theologically deep. The only one to perfectly pray Psalm 10 is Jesus – but Jesus invites all who trust him to become like him.



The value of work

A good question, from the early sixteenth century (from Thomas More’s Utopia):

what justice is there in this: that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a banker, or any other man, that either does nothing at all, or, at best, is employed in the things that are of no use to the public, should live in great luxury and splendour upon what is so ill acquired, and a mean man, a carter, a smith, or a ploughman, that works harder even than the beasts themselves, and is employed in labours so necessary, that no commonwealth could hold out a year without them, can only earn so poor a livelihood and must lead so miserable a life, that the condition of the beasts is much better than theirs?

I don’t propose compulsory rearrangement of pay scales (not necessarily, anyway!), but how foolish it is to value people by the measure of their salary.



Quick review: Honk if you are Jesus

Honk If You Are JesusHonk If You Are Jesus by Peter Goldsworthy

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Very disappointing! A book written by rote, it seems.

I greatly enjoyed Goldsworthy’s Maestro, so had been looking forward to Honk if you are Jesus. I can’t see how it’s the same author.

‘Honk’ is entirely predictable. Every plot turn is telescoped. And the characters! Awful examples of mere types, barely encompassing even two dimensions. There is a lonely-brilliant-cynical woman professor, a fat-gay-epicurean diva, a nagging mum, a two-faced televangelist, a scruffy-brilliant-geneticist, a trophy wife … And these are the filled-out characters!

All this is a pity. Firstly, because I’m convinced Goldsworthy can write. Secondly, because he’s nodded towards a whole library full of fascinating topics.

The story touches on: private tertiary institutions, the decline (or not?) of religion in Australia, genetics, the nature of scientific enquiry, the personality-driven nature of ‘objective’ progress , and the ethics of interference.

These wonderful ingredients, however, are poorly articulated. ‘Honk’ made me feel like it was a neat colour-by-numbers book (#1, make medical expert a cynic with nagging mum, etc).

There is one exception – the last chapter is SO MUCH better than the rest of the book. It has shade and nuance, it’s more reflective, and it hints at (not yells out) a surprising plot twist. The whole book could have been like this!

As a Christian, it’s kind of encouraging to see how poorly this book is written. There’s pressure, both subtle and direct, that tells Christians to butt out of these big topics. I hear the message that Christianity has nothing worthwhile to say about abortion, genetic engineering, medical funding decisions, etc. This book reminds me that so many Christians, simply by being interested in these things, already have a more thought-out point of view than our neighbours who float along with current popular opinion.

So, if you have an idea, speak up! Test it out. Measure the idea by the gospel of Jesus. See how to explain it to a general audience, with varied points of view. And, respectfully, speak. In other words, ‘Honk if you know Jesus.’

View all my reviews



Christians should be great at politics

I’ve long been convinced of the truth of the old saying: Politics is the art of the possible (attributed to Otto von Bismark – in German, natürlich - from 1867).

In other words, politics is about getting things done. It’s a rough tool for activity.

By contrast, politics is not a place for pure ideology. It can never deliver 100% of any idea or plan. Its essence includes realism and negotiation. To place one’s hope for humanity and the world in politics is inherently foolish.

And that’s why Christians should be great at politics. Our hope is Christ (1 Timothy 1:1), whose kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). We know it is useless to place great trust in kings or war machinery (Psalm 33:16-17).

Because of all this, Christians are free to see politics as it really is – a useful tool. We’re free to engage in all sorts of politics: write to local council members, agitate for better laws, join a political party, becoming a parliamentarian, … as long as we remember not to get caught up in the imagined importance of this politics.

Politics is not life or death for followers of Christ. And that’s a great freedom to get involved and retain some objectivity. It’s not politics that lasts. What lasts is the love for neighbour that politics (at its best) can facilitate.



Modern conservative atheism

There was a time, it seems, when atheism tried to build new things. I think atheism has given up, and now tries to conserve old ideas from other people.

Nietzsche (1844-1900) railed against the Christian values he both understood and loathed – and he strongly urged a new way. He wanted strong people, not the Christian softness of humility. For him, Jesus’ meekness ‘as a lamb before his shearers is silent’ was pathetic weakness.

Likewise, Marx (1818-1883) was not only against religion, but actively for a new social order. He argued the need for fundamental change.

Nietzsche and Marx illustrate the line of atheist intellect that argued for something, and for something new.

In this early part of the twenty-first century, I don’t hear that kind of atheist argument. Atheist arguments are no longer for something new, but for old values. And these old values are not atheist at all – they are usually Christian (or ‘religious’, if you like).

Atheist arguments are no longer for something new, but for old values. And these old values are not atheist at all

These values include: justice, living with difference, and listening to the other. I hear atheists argue for them (great!). And when I seek to find why, there’s no answer. These ideas are assumed as good and important. ‘They’re obvious, they are common-sense.’

Even more, there’s the refrain that Christians don’t own justice, love and mercy.

But Christians do own these things. Our belief – right or wrong – is that the whole creation springs from the eternal, loving God who will bring justice to bear. In consequence, those who trust God should also live these values.

But if the material world is all there is, it is very hard to argue for universal and enduring values. Mercy might make us feel good – but hormones are a sufficient explanation for that. It’s a big stretch to suggest our emotions infer universal moral order.

(Here’s an example, in a fascinating article. The author views religion or atheism as not really important. What counts is a liberal social and political system. But why? It just is, that’s all.)

Why point this out? Two reasons.

First, if I am right, it’s handy to know the change in feel and argument that has happened over the last century. When any person makes any point it’s polite to listen. I am trying to listen to what’s being said today.

Secondly, I think the change indicates a number of underlying issues. It may be a sign that creative and constructive atheism has failed. It might also indicate that atheism’s important intellectual problem right now is the problem of good (the mirror of theism’s problem of evil). These two require argument, of course, but they arise from a real observation.

So, over to you. Is there any merit in my observation? Could things be explained differently? Does it really matter?



To Japan on mission

The Clapham family are linked to Albury Bible Church. They were part of our fellowship while living in Albury (and Nathan was a ministry trainee with us). And we have an official link with them in mission to Japan.

They cannot be at church with us every week. So support for them needs dedication and discipline. Regular reminders help. And that’s what this is!

Here’s a map/video to show their location (I don’t believe they’re actually on the railway line, however).

And here are some prayer points from July 2014

  • Please pray for a non-Christian family the Claphams are getting to know
  • Pray for the Claphams’ godliness and character as they continue to settle into Japan
  • Pray for Samuel and Ian as they learn the language and settle into school
  • Pray for wisdom in care for Samuel and Ian, when they struggle with life in Japan
  • Pray for the gospel to affect peoples heart and lives in Japan


Solid Christian … keep listening (ii)

In the first part of this two-poster, I urged well-established Christians to keep listening to God’s word.

Part one is the real meat of this mini-series. So if you only have enough mental space for one blog idea today, ignore this second post.

(There’s a bit of danger in part two: if it’s cut free from listening closely to the Bible, what is written below could become an excuse for ignoring God. You can ask me more about that, if you like.)

earHere’s the nub of this post: well-established Christian folk need to keep listening to people.

Those who have been Christians for some time become involved in many ministries. They lead Bible study groups, teach Sunday School, visit people in homes, preach, talk to the grieving, pray for friends, follow-up newcomers to church, … Some people are employed to to these things, many aren’t.

We heard God’s word about Jesus, so we press on as servants of Jesus.

We can, however, become so good at our ministries that we stop listening. We have a answer to trot out. We easily identify the emotions someone is experiencing. We know the theological category that ‘fits’ the problem. And so we speak, without listening.

  • When youth group member raises predestination, we shoot out a pat answer (instead of asking, ‘Why do you think this is important?’)
  • When the parent speaks of tiredness, we think first of their poor techniques in keeping discipline (instead of asking how fatigue affects them)
  • When a friend starts to explain how they are, we finish their sentences

Often our impulse is right – we do have relevant experience, or helpful knowledge. But by not listening we mess up the opportunity to help. We come across as know-alls, rather than as help-alls. We look strong on knowledge but weak on wisdom.

Of course, ministry situations are always routine. There’s nothing new under the sun: the call to repentance and faith, struggling with deep ideas about God, striving to obey God in hard places, despair at continuing sin … they’ve all happened before.

But when a person shares with us their situation, it’s not routine at all – it’s personal. So let’s honour the privilege of hearing by actually listening.



Solid Christian … keep listening (i)

Here’s half a plea to people who are well-established in their Christian faith: keep listening.

(The second half of this plea is really quite similar, and will be a separate post. But I’ll give you a hint: it’s keep listening.)

There’s something I’ve noticed in Bible study groups, general Christian conversation, sermons (live and on-line), social media posts, … People who I consider as solid Christian people using the Bible very loosely.

Perhaps they throw a single Bible phrase at a complex problem as if it solves the whole question. Perhaps they rote-speak a big Bible idea (‘Christ died for us’) as if we need to say this so the conversation can get to the really interesting stuff. Perhaps they hijack a Bible passage to use it as a hook for their latest hobby horse (and ignore what the passage really says). Or perhaps they complete a Bible study with no need of a Bible – every comment is a pre-digested ‘lump’ of theology dutifully regurgitated.

Preachers become enamoured with some philosophy, or the major ’cause’. Committed church members find more pleasure in serving that learning. Initial Christian instruction feels like enough thought to last a lifetime. The activity of life makes slow pondering feel like a waste of what’s precious, our time.

Whatever form it takes, my (half) plea comes from this observation: I see solid Christians lose the wonderful joy of discovering new things in God’s word.

I understand how we can become almost too familiar with some Bible words. ‘You must be born again.’ ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ ‘Jesus Christ is Lord.’ ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’

When we feel this over-familiarity, we need to remember the problem is in us. These truths are still wonderful, still life-giving, still refreshing. Every passage is newly a challenge – even if it’s most familiar.

See how the delight of the psalmist brackets active dedication to meditation on the Lord’s teaching:

In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.
(Psalm 119:14-116)

Let’s not just see this delight and meditation in our printed Bibles. Let’s see it also in ourselves – and all the more as we mature in faith. Keep listening!