James’s Blog: Acts 2:32-37 for the Modern Pulpit.

James’s Blog:  Acts 2:32-37 for the Modern Pulpit.

32 “…God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand 35 until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”’ 36 Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

37 When the people heard this, a few said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, thank you. I enjoyed that.”

And a few said, “Oh, I love Psalm 110. Let me tell you what I like about it.”

And a few said, “I think I’ve heard that sermon before.”

And a few said, “That was too simple. I wish you’d go a bit deeper.”

And a few said, “It wasn’t as good as last week’s sermon.”

And a few said, “It was too short.”

And a few said, “No, it was too long.”

And a few said,”That was just what my friend needed to hear.”

And a few were cut to the heart and thought, “Brothers, what shall we do?” but they didn’t say it out loud, or to anybody else, and by the time they were sitting down to their Sunday lunch they were already thinking about what they were going to do that afternoon and didn’t give Peter’s words another thought.

James’s Blog: How I Put Myself Outside the Church.

James’s Blog:  How I Put Myself Outside the Church.

One of the most unChristian aspects of my character is that I don’t like to eat with others. If it’s lunchtime, and the house is empty, I enjoy the thrill of choosing whatever food I want, taking however long I want to prepare it, and then sitting and enjoying it in the silence of a good book, or the rumblings of an even better film. I’m going to level with you; offer me the choice between a fantastic Indian meal with good friends, or a lonely peanut butter sandwich in front of the television, and it’s by no means a foregone conclusion.

Those of you who felt a sympathetic shiver of approval as they read that last paragraph may be a little disconcerted to hear me describe such a thing as ‘unChristian’. “The problem with you, James,” you might say, “is that I can’t tell when you’re joking.” Well, you know what? Neither can I.

I’m afraid that it’s the Bible that’s done it. Its pages are littered, right there in black ink, with words that tell me that great things happen when people gather together to eat.

We have no record of the amazing things that Jesus reflected on when he sat down to eat cheese and crackers by himself, but so very many stories of what happened when he sat down to eat with others. Have you ever noticed how many of Jesus’ parables, teachings and miracles occurred while he was at a meal table? It’s surprising. Even the risen Jesus couldn’t help himself. Whether it’s the fish barbecue on the beach, or the bread broken with two weary travellers on the road to Emmaus, Jesus makes himself known over food.

In Acts 2, Luke writes that one of the defining characteristics of the infant Church was that “[t]hey broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…” When Paul is writing to Corinth, instructing them on how to punish an unrepentant man who had brought public shame on the church, he says the worst thing that he can think of: “With such a man do not even eat.”

How interesting it is. We live in a world obsessed with food, yet all we ever talk about is what we should eat, when we should eat and how much we should eat. We never talk about the fact that God’s presence when two or three are gathered together in His name refers not just to prayer meetings, but to fish and chips too.

James’s Blog: The Sermon as Art.

James’s Blog:  The Sermon as Art.

Over the years, the line between writing a story and preparing a sermon has become blurred. These days, I tend to take the same approach with both, which means that I spend longer editing a sermon than writing it in the first place. I revisit it frequently, toying with the order of paragraphs, or searching for exactly the right image or turn of phrase.

It’s not about ‘trying to be clever’.  The sermon – like every effort to communicate – is actually a work of art, and needs to be treated as such.

Art can be a spiritual experience for people. A poem, painting, story, film or sculpture has the power to give people a taste of what lies beyond themselves. This is one of the ways in which God has weaved revelation into the fabric of what it means to be human. The sermon is unique among art in that the explicit contract between artist and audience is that God is front and centre. Some people turn hostile if they suspect that you’re trying to sneak God into areas where He’s forbidden, but with the sermon you’re allowed to be blunt.

Because of this, I find myself squirming in the pew if I suspect that I’m listening to a preacher who takes more care over constructing e-mails than he does over sermons.

“It’s about God. It’s got nothing to do with me” is an excuse used by sometimes well-meaning, sometimes lazy preachers who think that God is a KitchenAid mixer – you just throw in the ingredients, and leave Him to it. This approach denies one of the fundamental concepts of the Bible, namely that God, as an act of love, freely delegates to us responsibility for His reputation and message.

It’s got nothing to do with human effort or creative manipulation, rather it recognises that art and communication have divinely-ordained rules. Don’t tell me that Jesus, who painted pictures of plank-eyed people, camels squeezing through needles, and angry vineyard workers didn’t take how he communicated at least as seriously as what he communicated.

I’m not saying that every preacher needs to be a poet, or that clever structure is an adequate substitute for a vibrant relationship with God. What I am saying is that every preacher needs to realise that things like language and format actually matter. A preacher doesn’t need to succeed in creating art, but a preacher needs to at least try.

James’s Blog: Who Knows What Failure Looks Like?

James’s Blog:  Who Knows What Failure Looks Like?

One of the things about my life thus far is that it’s so blatantly intertwined with God that it’s impossible for me to answer a simple question like ‘What do you do for a living?’ without getting all spiritual if I so choose.  However, when I try to explain the labyrinthian nonsense of the past twenty years I get a bit self-conscious.  When I step outside myself and listen to what’s coming out of my mouth, I worry that I just come across as an indecisive loser, saying “I did this for a while, but that didn’t quite work out, so I went and did this…” ad infinitum.  By now, it would have been nice to have found something that was a) sustainable and b) that I was actually good at.

The issue is that, precisely because it all involves God, I get a bit worried about how it reflects on Him.  I’m not confident that I sound like a particularly good advert for a life committed to following Jesus.  “Make God the centre of your life,” I seem to be saying, “and you too can know the joy and freedom of repeated painful failure!”  So, the temptation is to be not quite honest about the path I’ve walked, but only because I want to make God look good.  Nothing wrong with that, right?  Well, actually, it’s all a bit ridiculous.  It makes me think of a lyric from the Blindside song Silver Speak – “I’m an ant trying to protect my dinosaur friend.”

There were once three men who were very concerned about making sure that God got a good rap.  They had a friend who was going through a hard time, and was not shy about complaining.  “Stop blaming God for your problems!” the three men said.  “Who are you to drag His name down to your level.  Pull yourself together!”  They were angry with their friend, because he was making God look bad.  In the end, God said to them, “You’re angry on my behalf?  Well, I’m angry with you because you have not spoken of me what is right, like my servant Job has.”

I have to keep reminding myself, you see, that the journey I’ve been on has been because of God.  I’m not someone who has tried a variety of career paths and not stuck at anything.  I’m not even someone who “…just hasn’t found his calling yet”.  I’m someone who has done what I believe God has asked me to do.  The difficulty is that, in the Kingdom of God, success looks a lot like failure, and failure looks a lot like success.  A sick church is unable to distinguish between the two, and chases success, unaware that all the time it’s just failure in a pretty wig.  In the end, all God asks for is faithfulness.  It’s my job to live honestly, and not worry about how that makes God look.

James’s Blog: Soul Jar.

James’s Blog:  Soul Jar.

The soul is like a jar.  It’s probably made of clay.  God seems to have a thing for clay.

Sometimes you go to someone’s soul jar and it’s empty.  You look at the person, and you see the bitterness etched on his face and you roll your eyes.  Words spring to mind: small-minded, tiny-hearted, empty soul.  No wonder, you think, that this soul jar is empty.  He is mean, wicked, horrible and anything poured into that jar would turn into vinegar the moment that it splashed against the sides.

But it doesn’t work like that.  The jar is not empty because of bitterness, but rather there is bitterness because the jar is empty.

Let me explain.

I watch a child dancing with breathless joy in the morning, while the world around me shouts “Fire and Fury!” and I think, She doesn’t understand and that’s why she dances.  But then God taps me on the shoulder and says, “No, James, she does understand, and that’s why she dances.  You may have lost your way for a moment.”

The jar starts full, but a swift kick here and a rough push there and a crack will show, and if we don’t attend to it then the soul starts to leak out.  If we don’t watch those chips and fractures then we’ll dry out.  It might take years, but it’ll happen.

“And it’s not just your jar, James,” says God.  “You know what Fred Craddock says the rule for all big families is, don’t you?”

“Yes, God,” I reply.  “The older ones help the younger ones.”

“Good.  Now fix your jar, and I can always top it up for you.  And when you see someone else in danger of leaking out all over the place, you know what to do, don’t you?”

“Yes, God,” I say.  “The older ones help the younger ones.”

How’s your jar?

How about the jars to your left and right?

Don’t just watch the treasure leak out.

James’s Blog: The Scraps from My Table.

James’s Blog:  The Scraps from My Table.

I’m well aware that God doesn’t always get the best of me.  It’s just that I’m busy, and I get tired, and – to be honest – there are plenty of things that I’d rather be spending my time and energy on than God.  Of course, sometimes God does get my best, but not often.  He gets what I feel like I can afford, which is much less than I can actually afford.  I think that God is used to living on starvation rations.

I was thinking about this because I had been reminded about a story I was told once.  It’s about Jimmy Carter, who was the 39th President of the United States, and it’s from his book Why not the Best?.

Apparently, Jimmy Carter was once asked to speak at a church in Preston, Georgia on the topic of ‘Christian Witnessing’.  Carter had been a member of Plains Baptist Church, which held an annual one-week outreach event where members of the church would visit people in their homes and share the gospel with them.  He thought that, as part of his sermon, he would share from these experiences.  He worked out that, in the fourteen years since leaving the Navy, he had visited 140 homes to tell people about Jesus.  He felt quite proud of his efforts.

Then he started thinking about his 1966 campaign to be elected governor of Georgia.  During the three month campaign he spent between sixteen and eighteen hours a day trying to reach as many people as possible.  He calculated that he had met about 300,000 Georgians.

Carter was humbled by the comparison.  In fourteen years he had reached 140 people for God, and in three months he had reached 300,000 people for himself.

God isn’t the only one who has to make do with the scraps from my table – I also have a family that doesn’t get the attention that they deserve.  I don’t think that there’s any point feeling guilty about such things, but I do like to try and keep myself honest.

James’s Blog: …the More they Stay the Same.

James’s Blog: …the More they Stay the Same.

Sometimes, I find it hard to remain totally committed to hope when a cursory look around provides plenty of reasons to despair.  Thankfully, I am totally committed to hope.  When I wrote Look on the Bright Side (which appears in The Listening Book) I was trying to nail my colours to the mast, the reasoning being that if I publicly put my beliefs on paper then I can’t really give up without looking like a hypocrite.  That’s one way to make pride work for you. Read more

James’s Blog: No Rest for the Righteous.

James’s Blog:  No Rest for the Righteous.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about spiritual warfare, it’s that Satan is no gentleman. He isn’t one to say, “Hey, James has had a really rough week. Let’s go easy on him for the moment.” Quite the opposite in fact. There may be times where the conflict is more overt, and I am more aware of it, but rarely do the guns actually stop.

As a preacher, I know that the build up to a sermon can be a time of conflict. The act of preparation, with the temptation to take shortcuts or play fast and loose with the truth, feels like a battle. When we’re working towards something specific, we can be conscious of the spiritual struggle, wrestling with motives and prayer, but it’s a mistake to think that after the event there’s a ceasefire. As soon as the seed has landed on the path is the best time for the birds to swoop. The moment the preacher sits down is as good a time as any to push him into pride or drag him into despair.

However, as relentless as the Enemy is, God is even more so. The truth doesn’t ever stop being true. There is not a moment where resisting the devil doesn’t cause him to flee from us. I don’t stop being a child of God because I’ve had a bad week. We are always vulnerable to attack but, equally, the Enemy is always vulnerable to the truth.

James’s Blog: Naming & Shaming.

James’s Blog:  Naming & Shaming.

One of the many wise things that my counsellor, Derrick, said to me was, “You can humble yourself, or you can let God humble you. The first one is less painful.”

How do you humble yourself? Well, that’ll be between you and God, but it will require some decent soul-searching and some brutal honesty, I can tell you that. Read more

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