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: 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: 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: My Philosophy of Communication.

James’s Blog:  My Philosophy of Communication.

Isn’t it nice when you discover that someone has put into words something that you already knew to be true on an instinctual level?  A few years ago I stumbled upon a quote that resonated with my soul.  As a preacher/teacher, I sort of knew what I was trying to do – I wasn’t really so interested in ‘educating’ as I was in ‘inspiring’.  However, ‘Inspiring’ is not usually listed as a Learning Outcome on many course outlines, much to my disappointment. Read more

James’s Blog: Getting their Attention.

James’s Blog:  Getting their Attention.

An actor and a preacher were discussing their work.

What I don’t understand,” said the preacher, “is why my congregation will come to one of your performances and sit for hours, engaged and alert the whole time, while I can hardly get them to stay awake during one of my twenty minute sermons.”

Maybe,” said the actor, “it’s because I present fiction as though it were the truth, and you present the truth as though it were fiction.” Read more

James’s Blog: Fair Trade.

James’s Blog:  Fair Trade.

This is an edited version of a sermon I once preached (though I’ve not edited it much). It’s a true account, though the lesson I was taught took a while to formulate and wasn’t delivered to me in the divine monologue that I have written here. However, I knew that when I told this story I wanted to present it as something personal that took place between God and myself, because it was… Read more

James’s Blog: A Guest Blog from Rev. Ulysses Giblet.

James’s Blog:  A Guest Blog from Rev. Ulysses Giblet.

I’ve been told that every good blog needs a guest blogger now and then. Fortunately, I’ve been able to convince a long time friend, the Reverend Ulysses Giblet, to contribute to my page. Here’s some of his thoughts on preaching.

When James asked me if I’d write something for his blog, I was happy to help. I decided I should write a short article on a topic that James knows nothing about – preaching. Read more

James’s Blog: A Preaching Odyssey

James’s Blog:  A Preaching Odyssey

The only thing that I miss from when I was a minister is the preaching. I think it’s because it’s the only part of the role where I ever felt competent. It’s taken me many years to get to the point where I feel comfortable acknowledging that I am a good preacher. My reluctance to do so came from a combination of insecurity and that common Protestant brand of pride – false humility. I know now that if God has made you good at something, pretending that you’re not very good at it is just extremely disrespectful.

I preached my first sermon on Boxing Day 1993. I was just short of my 17th birthday and had been a Christian for about six months. I don’t know many churches that would have given someone like me a chance in the pulpit, and I will always be thankful to Peter Taylor for taking that risk. Every now and then, during my A-Level years, I would turn up at some village chapel to preach. The congregations were always kind, because I was something of a novelty. I don’t think anyone else in my school was investing their youth in that particular way. What it means is that, as I approach my 40th birthday, I have had nearly 25 years of preaching experience. That’s very helpful, because sometimes it can take you that long to figure out what, how and why you should be preaching what you’re preaching.

At some point I will probably share some of my thoughts on the art of preaching, probably on this very blog. Preaching is an art, and a responsibility. Those of us who are doing it should take the development of our skills seriously. I have very high standards for preachers, I’m afraid, but that’s OK. Now that I’ve finally managed to divest myself of false humility it frees me up to start working on developing the real deal.

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 3 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 3 of 4

Fred Craddock.

I’m cheating a little bit here. Fred Craddock has influenced me not so much by what he has written, but rather by the way that he has said what he has said.

I hadn’t heard of the diminutive American pastor until my preaching classes at Spurgeon’s college, where we were exposed to one of his uniquely crafted sermons. For me, it was love at first sight…well, at first hearing anyway. He was, beyond doubt, one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century, and many of you have probably never even heard of him.

There’s a collection of his sermons (The Cherry Log Sermons), the style of which I slavishly attempted to emulate for my long-suffering congregation during my later years at Hayward’s Heath, but it’s the volume Craddock Stories that has shaped my own writing. The book is a collection of stories that Fred used in some of his sermons over the years, and they’re fantastic. Not just the stories, but the way that they are told and the truth that is drawn from them. Fantastic. He tells countless anecdotes from his rich life, but if he ever lacked a suitable story he would just make one up. I don’t mean “Did I ever tell you about the time I had dinner with the Archbishop of Canterbury…” made-up, I mean a skilfully constructed parable of the imagination made-up . Let me give you an example:

I remember one night, sitting in a little rural church on a Sunday night. It was a summer meeting, so it was hot, and the window was open beside my pew. The minister was preaching on his favourite text, “Be not the first by whom the new is tried, because a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and it’s better to be safe than sorry, because fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

I was listening to him drone away when a man came by the church building and stopped by the window and said, “Psst, psst.”

I said, “What is it? I’m listening to the sermon.”
He said, “Come with me.”
I said, “Where are you going?”
He said, “I know where there is a pearl of great price that’s more valuable than all the other pearls in the world.”
I said, “There’s no such thing.”
He said, “In fact, where I’m going, there is treasure buried in a field.”
I said, “You’re kidding!”
He said, “Where I’m going, bums are invited to sit down at the king’s table.”
I said, “That’s ridiculous.”
He said, “In fact, they give great big parties for prodigals who come home.”
I said, “That’s stupid.”

Well, I listened to the rest of the sermon and after it was over, I told the preacher about how I was disturbed and that I hoped it didn’t upset him during the sermon.

He said, “Who was that?”
I said, “I don’t know. Telling me all this fancy stuff.”
He said, “Well, was he getting anybody?”
And I said, “Well, none of our crowd went, but I noticed he had about twelve with him.”

I had never heard anything like this before, at least not in a sermon, and therein lies Craddock’s influence on me. Stories make good sermons all by themselves but imaginative stories make powerful sermons. Let us try harder than to just pull out the same tired old illustrations that have been doing the preaching rounds since year one. Let us let our imaginations run rampant. Why should the devil have all the good flights of fancy?

Of the four writers that I am mentioning in this blog series, Craddock has had the most blatant impact on The Listening Book. There would probably be no book if it weren’t for him. It contains more than one tale where I am self-consciously trying to ape his style of storytelling. Hopefully you won’t be able to spot them! I’m finding my own voice now, but I don’t want to ever forget the influence that Fred Craddock had on me.

%d bloggers like this: