So, what did you think?

How do you give constructive feedback on something that you found unhelpful? Or, to be more specific, what do partners of preachers say to their orating half if / when they ‘preach a stinker’ and ask you what you think?

That was a question that was discussed at a group for the partners of trainee Baptist Ministers when I was at College. Sally came back from that group with the mischievous twinkle in her eye and joyfully told me of the answer that the group came up with: “It was a good text.”

I was left wondering when she was planning to bring that one out of the cupboard – perhaps on the way home after preaching at one of the many churches where we cut our preaching teeth while at College; or maybe over lunch…

I am glad that she did not know of that phrase when I preached my first ever sermon. Although, to be honest, I am not sure she would have found a text in there anyway! It was technically deficient in many ways. It was long, it was rambling and (I am ashamed to admit, even today) I managed to preach about the crucifixion of Jesus without once mentioning the reason why he died! I never explained God’s love! I did not set out to preach a naff sermon, I wanted to preach God’s word. I just preached it badly.

I still have the handwritten manuscript from that sermon, but cannot bring myself to read it again. It serves as a reminder of God’s grace and the incredible ability of the Holy Spirit to speak through even abysmal sermons. You see, the thing that makes me smile (and sometimes even LOL) about that is that at the end of the sermon I had the nerve to invite people to give their lives to Jesus. That’s not the funny bit. The funny bit is that at least four people DID give their lives to Jesus at that moment!

I can honestly say, hand on heart (although that does make typing more diciffult) that it was not because I am a good preacher. It is not because the sermon was powerful. It is not because of me at all. It is entirely down to God who, despite the flaws and faults in the sermon, spoke to people that night. People came to faith in Jesus almost despite me! Trust me, this is not false humility. This is not humility at all. It is simply the truth.

The view from the gallery at our church

And that is how I answer the question I began this blog with. I try to be truthful. I try to be tactful, balanced, encouraging, helpful, supportive, but primarily tell the truth. It does nobody any favours if I am less than honest.

And the astonishing thing about the first sermon I preached is that it still speaks to me today. It reminds me that God chooses to use flawed human beings to communicate his truth. Not just through sermons, but through our lives, our conversations, our attitudes, our words, our strengths and our weaknesses. Our responsibility is to be as well-prepared as we can be, to represent Jesus to the best of our ability, to be and tell the truth using the gifts he has given us and revealing the character he is uncovering within us. God’s Spirit does the rest.

And I give you permission to tell me when it was a good text!
Things you never hear at church:
Hey! It’s MY turn to sit on the front pew!
Personally, I find services much more enjoyable than golf.
I volunteer to be a permanent teacher for the Sunday School.
I love it when we sing hymns I’ve never heard before!
Pastor, we’d like to send you to this Bible seminar in the Bahamas.
I wish you had not stopped preaching after only 40 minutes.

A visiting preacher was greeting people at the church door after the service when a bloke came up to him and said, “You went on far too long,” and then strode off. The preacher was a little taken aback at the honesty but regained his composure and carried on greeting people.

A few minutes later the same bloke was back. “I didn’t understand anything you said.” Off he strode.

The preacher was deflated but persevered in his greeting duty.

A short while later the bloke approached him again. “I hated the songs you chose.” Off he went before the preacher could respond.

The next person to arrive at the door was the church secretary and the preacher nervously told him what had happened.

“Oh, you shouldn’t pay any attention to him,” said the secretary. “He doesn’t have a clue about anything so he goes around repeating what he hears everyone else saying.”

of sermons and cam belts

Because of other things happening later in the week, today is day one of two days of sermon preparation. It feels a bit strange because I do not usually tackle a sermon until later in the week and I will have had longer to ponder. It remains to be seen whether or not this is a good or bad thing.

I have also taken my car to the garage to have a new cam belt fitted. It seems that it is about due a new one, and given what happened to a previous car when we did not get a new cam belt and it broke, freeing up the valves in the engine to go and play in new places (fatal for the engine) it feels that this is an important thing to do (albeit an expensive one!).

In my weird and wonderful world I think that the two things are linked. I will try to explain why with the help of some correspondence to a newspaper (The Times I think). A while ago someone wrote to the Times (for the sake of argument) and said that they had been to church each week for thirty years and could not remember one sermon. What was the point, it was clearly not doing him any good. Perhaps he should stop. A lengthy and sometimes humorous correspondence ensued, which was ended by another letter. The final correspondent wrote to say that he had eaten meals every day of his life for the previous fifty years but he could not remember one. Clearly they were not doing him any good. Perhaps he should stop.

In an interactive world where you can find almost anything with the click of a mouse sermons may seem an outdated and unlikely way of communicating. But I believe (and, yes I would say that) that a sermon is more than just someone talking at a congregation for a while. I believe that God, who inspired the Bible-writers to write, is just as present when I prepare a sermon. And he’s equally present when it is preached. He takes the words and applies them to us (preacher included). It is another way in which the word becomes flesh (for theologians and pedants the lower case letters are intentional to distinguish from John 1.14).

Last night I was at a prayer meeting with our deacons and they helpfully reminded me that the spoken word is more powerful than the written word. Apparently it was a nineteenth century American preacher Phillips Brooks who described preaching as ‘communicating truth through personality’. I think there’s a lot of truth in that! But it’s more than that. It is incarnational. It is a meeting place between God and humans in which his Spirit is as fully involved as well as we are.

That places an onus on us (word play unintended but enjoyed). The preacher needs to ensure that we are preparing prayerfully and seeking to hear what God’s Spirit is saying today through the words he inspired centuries ago. The preacher needs to ensure that we communicate that truth clearly and relevantly today. And the congregation need to come having a desire to hear, a willingness to listen and an intention to respond.

So what has this got to do with car cam belts? Well… Sometimes it seems to me that sermons are like emergency rescue organisations like the AA or RAC (other emergency rescue organisations are available). They come when we are in a crisis and show us how God can help. Others are like a cam belt change. There is no obvious problem but it helps us avoid them later on. The amazing thing is that because God is involved the same sermon can do both of these simultaneously without the preacher being aware of it at all!

An elderly woman walked into church. The friendly steward greeted her at the door and helped her up the flight of steps.

“Good morning,” he said, “It’s lovely to see you today. Is this your first time with us?”

“Yes, my dear, it is,” said the old lady.

The steward handed her a hymnbook. “Where would you like to sit?” he asked.

“The front row please.” she answered.

“You really don’t want to do that”, the steward said. “The minister’s sermons are really boring.”

“Do you happen to know who I am?” the woman inquired.

“No.” he said.

“I’m the minister’s mother,” she replied indignantly.

There was a pause.

“Do you know who I am?” he asked.

“No,” she said.


feeling a bit of an ass (ie ‘donkey’ not the other use of the word!)

To my loyal reader, I am sorry. Yesterday I was rather tired and could not muster the energy and enthusiasm to blog. It has nothing to do with England’s exit from the World Cup at the hands of Germany. And it’s nothing to do with the goal that was not given that may have changed the result. A friend has sent me a photo that proves the ball did not go over the line.

I think the reason I was unable to gird my creative loins yesterday may be something to do with the warm weather. I think it may also be that I overdid things on Sunday. I preached in our church for the first time since before the operation and it felt quite an ordeal. I struggled to feel like I was connecting with people. The words were coming out of my mouth but I did not feel like I was communicating. It’s not often that happens, but I don’t like it when it does.

I do find, however, that on those occasions God still manages to say something helpful to someone despite me. I reckon it’s a bit like Balaam and his donkey. Balaam was an Old Testament prophet who (like Jonah) disobeyed God and did his own thing…

Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the LORD stood in the road to oppose him.

Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, she turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat her to get her back on the road.

Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between two vineyards, with walls on both sides. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat her again.

Then the angel of the LORD moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat her with his staff.

Then the LORD opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.” The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”

“No,” he said.

Then the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell face down. The angel of the LORD asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her.”

Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, “I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back.”

Donkey(Numbers 22:21-34)

If God can speak to someone through a donkey, he can do so through me, through you, through anyone and anything. The corollary of that is that we need to keep our spiritual eyes and ears open to receive what he may be saying to us.

A man bought a donkey from a preacher. The preacher told the man that this donkey had been trained in a very unique way, (being the donkey of a preacher). The only way to make the donkey go, was to say, “Hallelujah!” The only way to make the donkey stop, was to say, “Amen!”

The man was pleased with his purchase and immediately got on the animal to try out the preacher’s instructions. “Hallelujah!” shouted the man. The donkey began to trot. “Amen!” shouted the man. The donkey stopped immediately. “This is great!” said the man. With a “Hallelujah,” he rode off very proud of his new purchase.

The man traveled for a long time through some mountains. Soon he was heading toward a cliff. He could not remember the word to make the donkey stop. “Stop,” said the man. “Halt!” he cried. The donkey just kept going. “Oh, no… Bible!….Church!…Please Stop!!” shouted the man. The donkey just began to trot faster. He was getting closer and closer to the cliff edge. Finally, in desperation, the man said a prayer. “Please, dear Lord. Please make this donkey stop before I go off the end of this mountain, In Jesus name, AMEN.”

The donkey came to an abrupt stop just one step from the edge of the cliff.

“HALLELUJAH!”, shouted the man.

it is finished

I have finished. I can’t quite believe it. It should have been a very difficult task. I should be struggling through it. I should be looking for distractions that will keep me from the task. But it happened so quickly and easily that I am now wondering whether I have got it right!

What have I finished?

The sermon I am going to preach at my Mum’s wedding this weekend.

It’s a strange feeling, writing a sermon to preach at my Mum’s wedding. What can I say to her? What will she think? What will her new husband think of his son-in-law preaching to him? Will I get away with some of the jokes? (If I do I may share them on my blog next week – if I am still alive!)

The good news (and what I am relying on) is that I am not basing my words on my experience or being nominated as the best husband in the world. It would be an extremely short sermon if I was! My words are based on God’s word. Preaching is an amazing experience where the same Spirit who inspired lots of different people to write things down about God over many centuries is the same one who inspires as I read those words two millennia later (at least) and is the same one who gives me words to say and then inspires them in the hearts and minds of those who listen. It’s an immense privilege. Not just to do that at my Mother’s wedding, but to do it week in, week out.

TRUE story about preaching

A famous Baptist preacher was on a preaching tour in Africa. It was his tradition to ask his interpreters how you say ‘Good morning’ in the local dialect so he could begin his sermon with those words.

One morning, as he walked from the vestry into the main church he went past two doors which, from the symbols on them, were clearly the ladies and gents toilets. There were words on the doors which he decided to add to ‘good morning’ in the local dialect.

Rustic Lavatory Signs 1Rustic Lavatory Signs 2At the start of his sermon he stood up and said what he thought was “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.”

There was a stunned silence.

Then one or two sniggers.

Eventually the whole congregation was roaring with laughter.

Confused, he turned to his interpreter and asked, “What did I just say?”

The interpreter grinned. “You just said, ‘Good morning water closets and urinals!'”

Count Your Blessings

Baptist Christians don’t seem to do Lent in the same way that other Christians do. Sure, some of us give up chocolate but that seems to be more for dietary reasons than to bring us closer to God. This year I have been following the Christian Aid ‘Count Your Blessings’ Lent reflections which I have found have helped me to reflect on my own circumstances as well as to respond to challenges from God.

Each day there is a brief statement about an issue of justice, poverty, care for the planet and more, together with a suggested response. The response may be a prayer, it may be to reflect on my own consumption or wealth and make a small donation to Christian Aid, or it may be a challenge to take practical action.

Today I was challenged to recycle old phones and ink cartridges. A quick search revealed more than 10 empty cartridges and 3 phones that were lying around waiting to be recycled. I have registered with and they are sending me envelopes to send the stuff back in. Christian Aid get £4 for every phone and £1 for every cartridge. Everybody wins – the old stuff does not get lobbed into a landfill site and gets recycled and reused so the planet’s resources are preserved fractionally, I get rid of some of the stuff that was cluttering up my shelf which I have been meaning to recycle for ages, and Christian Aid get some dosh to help their work around the world. If you have these things lying around, why not register too?

As I am in a recycling mood, I am going to recycle an old joke in honour of my colleague Lynsey who preached so brilliantly last Sunday morning on the subject of the joke.

A minister was complaining to her husband that nobody listened to her sermons. They all fell asleep, read the weekly notice sheet, started doing crosswords or knitting, or simply gazed out of the window. But at the end of the service the congregation all shook her hand and politely said what a nice sermon it had been.

“I could preach about anything and they wouldn’t notice,” she said with a hollow laugh.

“Why don’t you try it?” suggested her husband. “Preach on something mundane and see if they still say what a nice sermon it was.”

“I’ll do it!” said the minister giving in to a surge of enthusiasm. “I’ll preach on riding a bike and see if anyone says anything about it.”

Sunday morning came around and after the children and young people left the service with the minister’s husband (who was one of their leaders), the minister contemplated what she was about to do as the congregation murdered the hymn before the sermon. Suddenly she had a flash of inspiration. She would not preach about riding a bike, she would preach about sex. That ought to get their attention!

So she did. She was witty, she was honest, she was helpful, she was biblical, she was brilliant. Everyone was captivated by it.

At the end of the service everyone wanted to talk to the minister and thank her. One parent went out to collect her children and the Minister’s husband gently asked her what the sermon was like.

“Oh it was brilliant!” enthused the parent. “She was so honest and helpful.”

The Minister’s husband was taken aback. “I’m rather surprised to hear you say that,” he stammered. “She’s only tried it twice – the first time she fell over and the second time her hat blew off!”