that moment when your computer needs to update and you need to use it… urgently

I usually prepare my sermons in the first half of a week. That gives me space to reflect on it and adjust things. I usually wait until the Sunday morning to do any final adjustments before saving it as a PDF and sending it to my tablet computer from which I like to preach. This is what works for me.

Yesterday morning I switched my computer on just before 8am and gone to get a cup of coffee. When I got back to my computer I was faced with a message that told me that Windows 10 was installing new updates and that it may take a while.

old-man-window
Sometimes you have to wait for ages for your windows to update

Oh.

I needed to be on my way soon after 9.30am.

I did research options to see if I could intervene and stop the process but none of them seemed safe enough to attempt if I wanted to be certain of accessing my computer afterwards.

I then prayed. I prayed that the update might finish in time for me to access the computer and get hold of the sermon, or that at the least I might be able to remember enough to preach something close to what I had been working on earlier in the week.

I thought of an update(!) to an old joke that I could tell at the start of my sermon: A preacher’s computer decided to update itself on the Sunday morning so he couldn’t access his sermon. He had to go to the church without his notes. As he stood up to preach he explained the situation to his congregation and finished with these words, “… so today I will just have to rely on the Holy Spirit for my sermon. Next week I hope to do better.”

I posted something on social media via my phone so I could get some sympathy (with hashtags in case Microsoft monitors them) and perhaps some extra prayers. Other Ministers expressed that they were having similar problems – solidarity in frustration.

And I looked again at the passage from which I was preaching and tried to recall what I thought I was going to say.

By 9am I was entirely ready to leave: the car was packed, the satnav knew where to direct me, and I was clean and tidy. But my computer had only reached about 75%.

By 9.30am we were at 96%. But the final 4% seemed to be taking ages.

At 9.38am the computer announced that it had finished installing the updates. I smiled with relief and waited for it to boot up.

Except that the booting up was taking much longer than normal, presumably because it was still updating itself.

I managed finally to get into the computer and print off the sermon (on paper, not high tech tabletty stuff) and leave the house by 9.45am. I got to the church safely and on time and all went well from there…

This morning I tried to find out if there were settings I could change to ensure that this didn’t happen again. I couldn’t find a ‘ask my permission before installing updates’ setting. Instead there was a setting in which I declare my normal working hours within which Windows should not install updates. It had been set to 8am – 5pm. The updating process had happened just before 8am, but it took well over an hour and a half that took it into my declared working time. I have now adjusted that setting so that my declared working hours start earlier and finish later (at least as far as my computer is concerned).

So I offer a few reflections:

Did God speed up the updating process? I don’t think so. But he gave me the patience and serenity to cope in what was a very frustrating time. That often seems to be how he answers prayer – changing me rather than the circumstances.

Will I change the way that I work? Probably. I will transfer the sermon to my tablet earlier in the week so I have a back up I can use, but still do my final preparation on a Sunday morning and if necessary send a newer version to the tablet at that stage. Do we adapt ourselves to others or expect them to adapt to us?

What else have I learnt?

  • That God is more reliable than the other things I rely on to fulfil the calling he has placed on my life and I need to rely on him more and them less.
  • That it’s helpful having some good friends who offer good advice, prayers and (if nothing else) make me smile. I need to be ready to do the same for them.
  • The computer programmers who designed the software don’t appear to have thought through the implications of not asking us whether it is convenient to update at that particular time. How often do I pause to think through any unintended implications of my actions that may inconvenience others, even when they seem like a good idea?
  • It would have been helpful if a pop-up message had told me that they weren’t going to ask my permission to update in future so I knew what to do about that. How often does my failure to communicate fully with others cause them upset?

Be blessed, be a blessing

Fed up with sermons

shocked
Photo by permission from http://www.sxc.hu/profile/bigevil600

Yes, really.

I am fed up with sermons.

That’s probably not what a Regional Minister ought to have as the title for one of his bloggages. But I am honestly fed up with sermons.

Not, I hasten to add, in the usual sense of that phrase! (Put the stones down…)

I am fed up with sermons because when I sit and listen to a sermon I get fed. Unbelievably that even happens when I am preaching a sermon myself. God’s Spirit takes the human being who is stood at the front and uses them to nourish those who are listening. (I recognise that not everybody who is sat in the congregation is actually paying attention – and nowadays you don’t even have to be present as lots of sermons are recorded and put on church websites). Somehow a miracle happens when God’s Spirit takes words that are spoken by one person and applies and interprets them into the lives of those who are listening in different ways. The same words can have a different impact. Indeed sometimes when I have been preaching he has somehow fed someone with words and meaning that I didn’t use! I believe that’s a miracle.

But I am not just fed by sermons, I am fed up. Any sermon in church that points me towards God has, in my view, achieved its purpose. It should make us look upwards. I was reminded of that on Sunday when I was speaking from John 21 and pointed out that while the message I was giving was about fresh starts, the subject of the passage is Jesus Christ – risen, meeting with his friends, renovating Peter and offering the same fresh beginnings to all who seek them. If when I preach one of my sermons it fails to make people look up (metaphorically and spiritually) then I have failed the main objective.

A long time ago there was some correspondence in The Times about the value of sermons. Someone had written a letter to ask about the point of sermons as he had been going to church for over 30 years and could not remember one of them. The correspondence went back and forth on this subject for a while with people defending or attacking sermons. The correspondence was ended when someone wrote that they had been eating Sunday lunches for the past 30 years and while they couldn’t remember any of them they were pretty sure that they had done them some good.

I like that.

It makes me smile.

It’s a gentle but wise answer, seasoned with a touch of levity.

But…

(didn’t you know there would be a ‘but’?)

How many of you eat Sunday lunch and then don’t eat anything for the rest of the week? Could you survive like that?

So why do so many Christians think they can do that spiritually?

How are you nourished daily?

There are many online resources nowadays: you can get emails daily to your email inbox from organisations like Scripture Union’s WordLive, Bible apps on your phone  or tablet like YouVersion and there are Bible websites like Bible Gateway. There’s no reason why we can’t be fed daily. Is there?

Be blessed, be a blessing

some assembly required

I have been given two books. The lovely Sally, my wife, went to a charity shop yesterday and came back with a carrier bag of books (they are selling them by the bag now!) and two were for me. One was a book of card tricks, and I won’t be sharing any quotes from that with you. The other is a selection of stories told by after dinner speakers. This one tickled me:

A visiting clergyman went to a small village to take the evening service as the resident parson was ill. As he had not been there before he arrived in good time and had a look around the church. He saw a collecting box with a card over it: ‘For church expenses’ and he put in 10p.

When the service was over the verger came into the vestry with the collecting box. He said, “It has always been our custom to give the contents of this box to any visiting clergyman we may have.”

coin handHe selected a key from a bunch he held and, after opening the box, he said, “My word, sir, you are lucky tonight: there’s 10p in it!” and he handed the money over.

When he reached home the clergyman told his wife and small daughter of his experience. The girl’s answer was, “Well you see, daddy, if you had put more into the box you would have got more out of it.”

[insert your own application here*].

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*That’s where some assembly is required for this bloggage.

news

I think I may have mentioned before that I used to love the start of the new term at school. It was the newness of everything that I loved, particularly at the start of a new school year but also at the start of the term. I used to love having new pens and other stationery equipment, or perhaps even a new calculator. You might get a new exercise book or start with a fresh ring binder. And occasionally you even got a new teacher thrown in for good measure.

StationeryI think it is for this reason that I enjoy the start of a new preaching series. I don’t generally have new pens, stationary equipment or teachers (although I might treat myself to new commentaries or other books if needed) so the excitement is not really to do with tangible newness. It is the freshness and new possibilities that are contained in a new series that I find invigorating.

Planning a series is a time-consuming task but it is also pregnant with possibilities and therefore is also quite special. As different themes and series are considered and perhaps discarded or put on the backburner the messages from those themes remain with me even if they will not be used currently.

So you can imagine my excitement levels are quite high given that on Sunday we will start two new series! Those who attend our church will be relieved to know that they are not both in the same service. In the mornings we are starting a series entitled “life in all its fullness”, looking at how Jesus wants his followers to live. In the evenings we will begin a series looking at the book of Acts entitled (with a certain homage to Star Wars) “a new Hope”.

I was ordained in 1994 and must have preached 6 or 700 sermons in that time (I have been blessed by being part of team Ministry and working for the Baptist Union of Great Britain in their national office, which is why the number is less than it might have been). Yet there is always something fresh and exciting in the Bible. Even looking at the same passage in the Bible reveals different things each time. This is because it is a living book not a dead text. The same Spirit of God who inspired its writing inspired its reading and its preaching.

Hope you will find something fresh from God in these series if you’re able to join us (or if you listen to them online from our website (now more accessible from tablets and phones)). And if you don’t come to a church and don’t listen to our sermons I pray that you will still find something fresh from God if you open the pages of your Bible.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

A man and his ten-year-old son were on a fishing trip miles from home. At the boy’s insistence, they decided to attend the Sunday worship service at a small rural church. The father forgot to bring any cash, so he reached in his pocket and gave his son a ten pence coin to drop in the offering plate as it was passed.

As they walked back to their car after the service, the father complained. “The service was too long,” he lamented. “The sermon was boring, and the singing was off key.”

Finally the boy said, “Dad, I thought it was pretty good for ten pence.”

the failing of fear

Yesterday evening a Minister friend of mine posted on Facebook about how poor their sermon had been. I felt immediate empathy for them because sermons are quite personal things, and if they are not as good as we would like there is a sense that we have let God down, the church down and ourselves down*.Nick Lear

“Communication of truth through personality” is how the 19th Century preacher Phillips Brooks described sermons. They are not:

a dry speech about a subject; an opportunity to get a few things off my chest; a collection of thoughts and ideas that I have read that week; stand up comedy routines; or even the dictated words of God.

My sermons find their origin and direction from the Bible. I believe that God’s Spirit inspired writers to record experiences of his interaction with people: not dictated verbatim but inspired in an amazing way. Poets and artists being inspired by the wonder of nature or the complexities of human emotion are a pale imitation of this, but give an idea of how an outside influence can inspire us to express ourselves.

But sermons are not just about being inspired by reading something in the Bible. If I am honest there are plenty of times when I look at the Bible and it does not make sense or seem that inspirational. Sometimes finding the truth within is hard work, requiring a lot of reading, praying, thinking, pacing, solitaire (to give the brain a rest) and then more of the same.

And because the sermon creation process is a collaborative process in which God uses my intellect, personality, experiences and context to communicate to others, it is an intensely personal experience for me when I preach. It’s almost as if I have raised an orphaned animal or bird and am sending out, setting it free, releasing it into the wild as I preach. So it matters to me whether or not I feel that it was good. I know that God speaks through the worst of sermons (I had that experience with my first ever sermon where people became Christians despite the sermon). That miracle can be a humbling experience (indeed any time God speaks through me is humbling), but that does not make me feel much better if I have bombed in my own mind and not preached as well as I wanted.

Which brings me to the bloggage title – the failing of fear. When I prepare a sermon there is rarely a sense of fear that it will come together in time for the service – I prepare well in advance. There is occasionally a sense of fear that it will not make sense to those listening as much as it does to me. There is sometimes a sense of fear that I will not have communicated as well as I want.

But for me unless there is first and foremost a fear of God, then the sermon is wasted (perhaps in both senses of the word wasted). Often when I have preached a ‘stinker’ I can trace it back to having no fear of God, no sense of the significance of what I am doing – communicating God’s truth through personality.

Fear of God is that sense of awe and wonder at who he is. It is an awareness that he gives us a glimpse of his magnificence. It is the hairs standing up on the back of the neck, shiver-down-the spine realisation that you are in the presence of the Almighty.

If I come to the sermon blasé about or overly familiar with God I am at risk of complacency about what I am about to do – communicate God’s truth to people through my personality. I will be disrespecting God and his people.

If I get to the stage where I think, “It’s only preaching” I reckon I will have lost the fear of God. I will be doing it in my own strength and it will cease to be God’s truth communicated through personality.

If I think, “I can do this on my own,” I should listen to the small voice whispering, “Go on then, I’ll be waiting for you afterwards, and I’ll make the best of what you do for the sake of those whom I love.”

If your fear of God is failing, why not try to write / draw / sculpt / sew / enact / imagine (or whatever you find easiest) a complete description of God.

[shiver goes down spine].

Be blessed, be a blessing.

The wives’ group at the vicar factory where I trained had a session that my wife attended about supporting your husband in his ministry. (The group existed even though there were women training for ministry too!) The group decided that if their husband ever preached a ‘stinker’ they could console them with these words: “It was a good text, dear.”

*insert joke about the inflatable boy here. If you don’t know it, you can find a link to the Youtube video at the end of this bloggage.

preparation, preparation, preparation

I am getting ridiculously ahead of myself at the moment. I have already prepared the service for this Sunday morning at our church; I have the talks ready for two sessions next week; we have planned the Easter Morning service at our church; I only have to finish planning for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday Services… phew! It’s a good thing that God does not limit his Spirit’s inspiration to a certain period before events.

I used to think that he did. Yes, honestly! It was to do with prayers and liturgy that had been prepared and written down in advance. Shamefully I have to admit that I (perhaps subconsciously) used to think that they were not as inspired as prayers and liturgy that emerged ‘in the moment’. I had no theology behind my attitude, merely free-church prejudice. And I was unaware of the blatant hypocrisy of this attitude.

You see, I hold the Bible very dearly to me. It is the most wonderful book written and is the scaffolding that supports me as my life and faith are built up day by day. But if I was correct (that inspiration ‘in the moment’ trumps inspiration that has been written down beforehand) surely I had to discount the Bible as being less reliable, less inspired than any thoughts that come to me today which I believe come from God. That leads to a whimsical faith which is subject to being blown around by whatever fads are current in the church and influenced as much by how much cheese I have eaten as by God. That is not to say that God is unreliable, but I am.

On the other hand, if the Bible is the collection of writings of people who have been inspired to write by God’s Spirit, as I believe it to be I cannot be disparaging about prayers, liturgies and poems that have been written down beforehand. They do need to be weighed against the Bible, but they can be as God-inspired and infused as any contemporaneous prayer… and in fact are often more helpful because there has been time to hone and refine and for God’s Spirit to edit out the bits that are not of him!

I hope that the same may be true of all that I prepare this week in advance of next week!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

A pome:

Perspectives on History
History is boring, history is bunk
It leaves me snoring, looking at junk
Stuff that happened years ago can’t help me today
It’s out of date if it happened yesterday
 
History is boring deep down into the past
Illuminating old things to light our current path
If Og hadn’t invented the wheel and fire
We’d still be darkly walking everywhere

recycling sermons

Unless or until I ever get my hands on a Tablet PC I will continue to print out my sermons on paper each week. And after each Sunday I empty the ring binder I use, putting the sermons into my paper recycling bin. (That’s what the heading refers to, I’m not talking about reusing old sermons or using one that somebody else has preached).

I’m about to begin work on next Sunday morning’s sermon and the thought struck me that most of our congregation will have done the same as I have: discarding last week’s sermon and looking forward to the next one (possibly). Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I think the preaching sermons is irrelevant or unimportant. I know from the feedback I received week by week that God speaks to people through sermons.

Sometimes he speaks to an individual with a particular word or phrase. sometimes the theme of the sermon is relevant to a person. Occasionally it can seem as if the preacher knows everything about you with what they are saying (I can assure you I never intentionally preach like that) as God’s Spirit engages with you. I have had the experience occasionally that someone will thank me for what I said in a sermon, and when I ask them what it was they tell me something but I’m sure I didn’t say! God certainly moves in mysterious ways.

Sometimes perhaps people forget what was said much more quickly, particularly if God did not say something that was directly relevant to their own current circumstances.

I’m reminded of some correspondence that took place in a national newspaper awhile ago. Someone had written a letter in asking whether there was any point in listening to sermons. They had been in church for 40 years, week by week, and they could not remember any of the sermons that had been preached. They wondered whether these sermons were doing any good. the correspondence continued for a while and was ended when somebody wrote in that they had eaten meals every day for the last 40 years and could not remember any of them. They wondered if they had done them any good.

Be blessed, Be a blessing.

 

thundersermons??

I am prepared for my sermon preparation today. Yesterday I bought a new jar of ground
coffee. My coffee machine is warming up. My Bible is open and ready. The books I will use to help me are within reach. My procrastination levels have diminished (although this bloggerel may disqualify that claim). As soon as the coffee is with me, thundersermons ho!

Hmmm. That description (thundersermons) grates with me a bit. It was intended to be a play on the classicly silly Thundercats from my childhood days, but it has left me feeling uneasy. Let me try to explain.

I am not (I don’t think) a hellfire and brimstone preacher. I very rarely raise my voice. I only thump the pulpit for illustrative effect. The ‘thundersermon’ label conjours up all sorts of memories of frightening men (they were all men) who would harangue the congregation into submission. If they didn’t leave the pulpit perspiring (and us shaking) they had not succeeded.

I prefer to let the Bible speak for itself. It sometimes says some very uncomfortable things (we are working our way through 1 Corinthians at the moment and Paul wrote some VERY uncomfortable things), but that’s no reason for the preacher to make people uncomfortable. It often says challenging things, but that it no reason why listening to the preacher has to be a challenge. It usually says profound things, but that’s no reason for the preacher to plumb the depths of emotion in order to convey the truth.

I have been blessed immensely by our recent morning series on prayer. Now that may sound arrogant, since I have been the preacher, but it’s not meant to be. In the preparing and in the preaching I have found God speaking to me, prompting me, nudging me and occasionally giving me a kick up the rear about my own prayer life, expectations, practice and teaching. It has broadened my appreciation of prayer and has increased my awareness of my need to pray in order to keep close to Jesus. At times I have found myself quite moved. I have always tried to be honest (even when that’s difficult). I have tried to be winsome (a characteristic encouraged by a tutor at Spurgeon’s College after hearing me preach). But most of all I have tried to be me, so that God can speak clearly to me and (I hope) through me.

There’s recently been some bloggaging on other sites that have generated some excitement about preaching styles. I have surveyed this from a discreet distance, mainly because I have been unsure of myself. I am uncomfortable about those who say that we should have a particular style and disparage others. I am unhappy with those who say that some forms of preaching are better than others. I don’t agree with those who say that it is outdated and irrelevant as a way of communicating truth.

And the reason why I am feeling that is because most of those approaches seem to exclude the gracious, powerful, gentle, challenging, moving, uncomfortable, blessing, exciting, personal, joyful involvement of God’s Spirit in all of this. Yes, there are other ways of communicating truth and we should definitely be using them too. Yes, there are some people whose sermons are technically better than others. Yes, there are common styles to some of the more ‘successful’ preachers (don’t get me started on success!). But God is not bothered by that. The one who spoke through a donkey speaks through me.

The least technically correct and most poorly delivered sermon I have ever preached resulted in four people becoming Christians. I KNOW it wasn’t that I was a good preacher. I KNOW it wasn’t that I used an engaging style. I KNOW that it wasn’t contemporary. I KNOW it was poor (how can you preach about the cross of Jesus without once mentioning God’s love??!!). But God spoke. That is the mystery, privilege and joy of preaching.

Be blessed. Be a blessing.

A boy was watching his father, a pastor, write a sermon on his computer.

“How do you know what to say?” he asked.

“God tells me,” replied his father benevolently.

“Oh,” said the boy, thoughtfully, “so… why do you keep deleting bits?”

double-talk

I must be in touch with my feminine side. I am multitasking. Not only that, but I am

The Artist and his creation work together

multitasking by preparing two sermons simultaneously. Many alarm bells are sounding in my head about why this is not a good idea, but I can’t help it. Thoughts relating to both of Sunday’s sermons have been surfacing and if I don’t get them down I may lose them. Hopefully I can keep the two sermons separate so that people don’t have more of a problem than usual following what I am saying.

I have found in recent weeks that the two sermons have complemented each other quite significantly. If it was down to human planning I would have been very surprised because the topics and passages for mornings and evenings were considered separately and I didn’t bring them together until they were both complete. So (without wanting to make any special claims of infallibility or divine knowledge) it feels as if God has been engineering things – at least from my perspective!

I suppose that’s the sort of experience for which we pray… that our lives will be consistent with God’s message; that our actions will be consistent with what we believe and what Jesus teaches; that whenever people encounter us they will find that we are Jesus people. The only way that this is possible is if we allow God to do some engineering within us – allowing, inviting, encouraging his Spirit to change us and bear spiritual fruit in us.

Then we not only start to look like decent free samples of Jesus, we are also walking talking spiritual greengrocers!

An oldie but still a goodie:

A preacher’s little boy inquired, “Daddy, I notice every Sunday morning when you first come out to preach, you sit up on the platform and bow your head. What are you doing?”

The father explained, “I’m asking the Lord to give me a good sermon.”

The little boy said, “Why doesn’t he?”

preaching proverbs

Short posting this morning as I am off to the quiet day… but I thought I might offer ten proverbs for preachers:

  1. Don’t work out your frustrations on your congregation.
  2. It is better to leave them wanting more.
  3. Illustrations are there to illustrate not to be the main point.
  4. If you can’t summarise it in one sentence how will your congregation?
  5. Your job is to preach, the congregation’s is to listen. If they finish their job before you finish yours you may hear snoring.
  6. A winsome word works well.
  7. Don’t use your children / spouse as an illustration without checking with them first.
  8. Sermons are like meals. You may not remember all the meals you have eaten but they will have done you good.
  9. It is difficult to be heard when you have your foot in your mouth.
  10. Remember the rule of glutal tolerance… when people’s bottoms start hurting they tend to stop listening.
These may be of help to preachers and those who have to endure listen to them. I am taking the risk that those who read my blog from our church will start quoting me back to myself…