The Belly-god

bb-header-logo4The funny guys over at Babylon Bee have hit on a Forsythian nerve of mine.  The headline ‘Half of Congregation Dies Of Starvation As Sermon Goes 15 Minutes Over Time‘ is brilliant satire, as are almost all of their other articles; a much welcome relief to the tedium of seriousness we Protestants can so easily find ourselves caught up in.

My first thought upon reading it was to think that the people in this satirical church were dying of starvation precisely because too many sermons are woeful in their duration, content and depth;  and secondly, remembering two theological giants famous for, among many other things, their preaching.

The first, John Stott, metaphorically places the nail underneath the hammer:

John_stott“Basically, it is not the length of a sermon which makes the congregation impatient for it to stop, but the tedium of a sermon in which even the preacher himself appears to be taking very little interest.”

And secondly, in the context of a favourite of mine, the theological giant that is P. T. Forsyth, I remembered his particularly penetrating and thoroughly uncompromising assessment of the situation, as the metaphorical hammer comes down and hits the nail on the head with astonishing accuracy:

blueforsyth-5“With its preaching Christianity stands or falls… The demand for short sermons on the part of Christian people is one of the most fatal influences to destroy preaching in the true sense of the word… Brevity may be the soul of wit, but the preacher is not a wit.  And those who say they want little sermons because they are happy to worship God and not hear man, have not grasped the rudiments of the first idea of Christian worship…. A Christianity of short sermons is a Christianity of short fibre.”

The problem is that we think we’ve cornered the market on short-attention spans, so trapped in a lifestyle that we’ve chosen of instant news feeds, permanent social media harassment, portable offices that beep, flash and ping every few seconds – we call these things “mobile phones”, we must be so important in the cosmic scheme of things, that we choose not to think deeply about a lot of things, we demand to be entertained; and when we are called to think, we think thinking is time-wasting and unproductive!  I mean, doesn’t that pillock-in-the-pulpit know how distracted I am?

pt5bn7qtbIs the preacher the equivalent to the Medieval Court Jester?  Singing the sermon-songs that seek attention and promise entertaining aka Robbie Williams?  Who wouldn’t prefer Raunchy Robbie to Preachy Richy?  What chance do I have?  Let me entertain you; must I entertain you?  Do you need entertaining?  Why do you need entertaining?  Why me?  Why you?  Why here?  Why now?  Why?

Manure!  These guys, Forsyth and Stott and gazzillions of other unnamed faithful, preached at length twice on Sundays, with many people being present at both, as well as mid-week meetings that actually included exegetical study and exposition of the biblical text (admittedly the TV wasn’t so good back then), but still!

Now, may I get a little theological here?  If Stott’s comment is the reason for Forsyth’s comment (even though Stott was a generation after Forsyth – stay with me), then my goodness, preach a short sermon and get it over with – put us all out of our bored and hunger fuelled misery.  Forsyth also said that a bad short sermon is also a sermon that is too long.

Just preach well preachers.

Just eat well before church if you can.  Even our belly-god knows when our spirit is being fed and our hearts warmed by the food that is Christ proclaimed.  For we do not live on bread alone…..

Preaching: A word from elsewhere

thebible_brueggeman_theologian“I heard a Rabbi say not long ago, that Christian pastors have ruined the life of a Rabbi, because a Rabbi is a scholar and a preacher; but Christian pastors are social workers and therapists and a bunch of managers, and now people in his synagogue expect him to do that!

I would think that preachers – I think it’s exceedingly difficult – but I think that preachers have to decide what the main tasks are and practise enormous self-discipline about not being drawn away to do other things that do not properly belong to the ministry of Word and Sacrament….now you can’t do that completely…

But I believe that many preachers finally get around to their sermon in their fatigue from everything else.  And if imagination is the key to good preaching, you cannot be imaginative when you’re exhausted! 

So I think it has to do with ordering ones priorities, for the sake of ones best energy.  And that, for many preachers, that means really deciding that this is the main task, and if you want the congregation to have missional energy and all of that, preaching is the pivot point for all of it.

If a pastor decides that, then a pastor is going to make more time for reading and study and prayer, which are the disciplines that cause the pastor to live, to some extent, in a different zone.  And if we are to bring a word from elsewhere, then we have to live to some extent, elsewhere, and I don’t think that’s very easy given the huge demands and expectations on most pastors.”

Walter Breuggemann

(You can see this short interview here)

Although this very short interview does not fully outline the task of preaching or pastoral care, as this was not Breuggemann’s point.  To my mind, he is suggesting that Christian ministry of any kind but especially that linked to Word and Sacrament, is less effective when conducted in the toxic atmosphere of fatigue.

The problem is that our toxic atmosphere of fatigue is also a toxic atmosphere of relentless activism (I wonder if there’s a link), so much so that we’ve made it a virtue, to the point where we feel guilty or feel compelled to express embarrassed justification when ‘caught’ reading a book – because when in-toxic-ated, we neither view nor value reading a book, or study, or even prayer as work!  

So although not all questions are answered here, what WB does remind us of, is the supreme importance that the Gospel subverts our common narrative and purifies the toxicity all around us and crucially, in us.  We need men and women called by God to Word and Sacrament, who are serving and feeding the Church from playful and thoughtful rest; playful and thoughtful study and playful and thoughtful prayer!

I don’t even know how to do it but I’m gonna die trying…..

Preaching is like the blurred image of a mountain on the bosom of the French teacher – A Preaching Parable

text-message-preaching-scripture-in-the-multimedia-age-by-ian-stackhouse-0718842634I am currently reading a great little book edited by Ian Stackhouse and Oliver Crisp about preaching, called Text Message – The Centrality of Scripture in Preaching, and can be found by those who seek!

It is a collection of essays by thirteen writers, each contributing to the book within its three main categories:

Part 1:  Biblical and Theological

Part 2:  Historical

Part 3: Textual

It really is a wonderful collection and should be on every homiletics course reading list in our colleges and universities, not to mention the shelves of ministers and preachers alike.

In any case, there is much to say about this book, but I was re-reading the foreward by Thomas G. Long, a professor of preaching  at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, USA.  I was struck by a story he told of a preacher (James A. Wharton) remembering his French teacher from school and how it related to preaching:

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How to Listen to Sermons

ear handBooks abound on preaching.  Its art and craft, science and form.  But there is a dearth on how to listen.  Even if sermons have fallen for the old cliche, ‘a monologue by a moron to mutes’, it still begs the question: What of hearing?

Yet Jesus said, “Consider carefully how you listen….” (Luke 8:18).

The preacher has a responsibility to preach faithfully; and the congregation has a collective and personal responsibility to listen faithfully.  Sometimes what we think are ‘bad sermons’ are actually the result of bad listening.  For sure, there are bad sermons out there, no one’s perfect, but how often have we considered our own listening?

 

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Pathetic Illustrations

“The great appeal of Christianity, from which all else flows, is to the conscience, and, in the actual situation, to the sinful conscience.  It is easy to make any assembly we may address cry with a few pathetic illustrations. . . . But, to follow evil to its inmost cell, to track the holy to the heart of things, to touch the devious and elusive conscience of a world, to rouse, to renew it – that is hard.”

So wrote P. T. Forsyth in ‘Congregationalism and Reunion’ (p. 16).

blueforsyth-5He is addressing the preacher and preaching’s importance.  “With its preaching Christianity stands or falls’ he stated boldly in his Yale lectures (from whence ‘Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind’ was birthed).

What I love about the “great appeal of Christianity”, is the way Forsyth knowingly and quite deliberately mocks the sentimentalism that must have characterised much preaching in his day (as in our day!) – the “pathetic illustrations” designed to provoke tears in the hearer, and heart warming puppy-love towards the speaker/preacher!  When I first read that line, I laughed out loud.  How we see this in our day, and no doubt I may even stand accused myself of such Gospel-mockery – the Lord forgive me!

relating-faithAs Forsyth was, we need these prophetically-empowered, theologically astute voices in our day too – because the problem persists.  One such voice is Anthony Thiselton, Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology at Nottingham University.  In the outstanding book ‘Relating Faith’ (mentioned on this blog before), Dr Rob Knowles, a theologian shaped by the life’s work of Thiselton, we see how “pathetic illustrations” and their ilk, are the mockery of the pulpit and the church:  When Christianity becomes a “mere vehicle of self-affirmation, peer group self-promotion, or triumphalism that espouses a notion of “God” that amounts to a projection of human desires and interests”….we discover “neo-pragmatic pastors who ape chat-show hosts and design their sermons in such a way as to create a pragmatic rhetorical effect and win ‘local’ audience applause.  With every effusion. . . . . greeted with a storm of ready-made applause”, however, “[t]he result is vanity and self-sufficiency” (p. 103).

Pathetic illustrations are designed to accomplish exactly that.

But the challenge from Forsyth is laid plain:  Preaching is to track evil to its heartless and beastly core.  It is to similarly trace to the heart God’s holy things, to expose, to touch, to point out in loving but salvific tones, the devious and elusive conscience of the world.  It is nothing but the hard graft of Gospel proclamation.  And it is hard!

If ever it were easy, I doubt it is being done at all.

preach-the-word

Christ and the World

This is stunning…..

Subversive Preaching in a Postmodern World – A Targum based on Colossians 1:15-20 by Brian J Walsh

In an image-saturated world,

a world of ubiquitous corporate logos

permeating your consciousness,

a world of dehydrated and captive imaginations

in which we are too numbed, satiated and co-opted,

to be able to dream of life otherwise.

A world in which the empire of global economic affluence

has achieved the monopoloy of our imaginations;

in this world,

Christ is the image of the invisible God.

In this world,

driven by images with a vengeance,

Christ is the image par excellence;

the image above all other images,

the image that is not a facade,

the image that is not trying to sell you anything,

the image that refuses to co-opt you.

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Preachers as Watchmen of the Night

For all the negative diatribe spoken about preaching in our day, we must realise that it isn’t new, nor are preachers to lose heart.

Preachers mustn’t pander to so-called “short attention spans” of our high definition, graphics saturated age. Preachers are not to make the message more palatable by joke telling, or attempting to give a biblical text the wiff of relevancy by surrounding it on all sides about the wondrous examples you are experiencing that make your point so perfectly!

Night-Watchman

Not a bit of it.  Preachers are the messengers.  Messengers of God.  Angels.  Prophets.  Watchmen (or women – I don’t buy Complimentarianism).  Jeremiah was commanded to “Tell them what I tell you to tell them…”  Likewise Ezekiel, literally, “Open your mouth and eat what I give you…”  And so Moses, the prophets, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul and others.

They were messengers of the One who himself is the Message, the Word.  Jesus doesn’t bring the message, because He is the Message, in a way that everyone else isn’t:  We preach Christ and Him crucified.  We preach the whole counsel of God.  The whole Bible for the whole person in the whole world the whole time!

We do not select, pick and choose, cut and paste, add to or ignore.  We don’t embellish with cute stories, nice pictures, snazzy powerpoint (God deliver us from this banality)!  We preach with utmost courage because all of it is God’s Word and all the world is God’s.

Preachers are thus Watchmen.  A watchman does not fall asleep when everyone else is asleep.  A watchman stays awake, alert to danger, alert to mischief.  Alert to everything that may or may not be going on.  And when danger comes, and it will for the devil does indeed prowl around like a roaring lion – looking for people to devour – it is the duty of the watchman to raise the alarm, to fend off the danger, to proclaim a Redeemer who has conquered the lion.

The watchman must eat the book, even when people do not even think the watchman is necessary.  Even if they think they can do it without the watchman, lulled into a false sense of security, they do not eat the book, the nibble the edges, the palatable bits, the familiar bits, ignoring the wideness and vastness of God’s Word, whilst consuming the familiar, embellished as it is with the odd joke and tired story.

The Bible has enough material of its own for us to use, without our trivial attempts to make it palatable.  It is already relevant; it is already palatable.  We need to eat it and simply be faithful proclaimers among God’s people, faithfully declaring the Word of the Lord in all its beauty and glory and majesty, in all praise and inexpressible joy, with tears and hearts open to a God who heals and saves.

So, watchmen, stay awake.  Stay alert.  Be faithful.  Preach the whole word.  It is literally a matter of life and death.