Category: sermon

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

yes we’re better together

In a matter of days the people of Scotland will be voting in a referendum to decide whether or not they want to remain part of the United Kingdom. I have my own view on this but I don’t get a vote (as a sasanach) so this bloggage is not about my opinion.

It’s about the difficulty of making a campaign out of a negative. The campaign in favour of independence has a very simple slogan – ‘yes’. The campaign for keeping the Union has had to use ‘better together’. The ‘yes’ campaign can speak of new, exciting things – of freedom and possibilities whereas the ‘better together’ campaign can only say that it’s better now than it will be. You can’t spin ‘now’ as easily as you can spin a possible future because people know what it is like now, we don’t know what it will be like in the future.

Thinking about this was complicated further by an email conversation yesterday about whether or not to join an organisation. One of the participants was already a member and had considered leaving whereas others were not members and were wondering about the message that would be given by joining. It seems to me that publicly leaving or joining an organisation (or a country) will make a statement that others will interpret whether or not we intenThumbs Up - With clipping Pathd it: voting in favour of Scottish independence is also a vote against the UK. Voting against Scottish independence is also a vote in favour of the UK. You might only intend one of those messages, but the other can be inferred along with it.

Christians are often portrayed as having a negative message. 7/10 of the Ten Commandments are expressed as negatives: ‘Thou shalt not’ (to use archaic language). The puritanical / Victorian approach to life based on Christian foundations was ‘no’ to most things that looked like enjoyment. The inferred message from a lot of Christian pronouncements on moral and ethical issues seems to be ‘no’ – we are against a lot of things that are an accepted part of our wider culture.

But when you look at Jesus he was not a negative person. His most famous teaching, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) starts with a series of blessings. He continues by affirming people before reframing the Ten Commandments as a way of reflecting on our attitudes to others rather than a legal framework. He said that God is not interested in religious robots who follow their programming as in radical relationships with us (I paraphrase a bit). He was rather down on religious hypocrisy, admittedly, (a warning for religious people) but he suggested we replace it with a prayerful relationship with our Father in heaven. When he had a negative comment it was usually about how people had thought God wanted them to be and he replaced it with a freedom about how they could be with God.

Perhaps Christians could take a lesson from the Scottish referendum. Perhaps we could summarise Jesus’ message as both ‘yes’ and ‘better together’ and emphasise the positives. When God looks at us, the ones he created and loves, he looks at us positively, optimistically, hopefully not negatively and condemnatorily (is that a word? It is now – another new word from my bloggages). He wants us to know the joy and freedom of being in the relationship with him for which he designed us – what Jesus described elsewhere as ‘life in all its fullness’. In case you think I am saying that is a life that is a bed of roses, well I am because it contains thorns as well as fragrance and beauty. But it’s not all thorns!

Be blessed, be a blessing

the inevitability of disappointing church services?

I’m currently searching for inspiration for our Mothering Sunday service this week.

I find that this is one of the most difficult services of the year to prepare. That’s not because the subject is difficult. Neither is it because I don’t have any ideas. It’s because it is one of the services where different people have very different hopes and aspirations for the service and it’s almost impossible to meet them all. To some extent that is true of most services in churches, especially those like ours that have an eclectic congregation (a good thing imho). But on Mothering Sunday it seems to be heightened.

For example: some want to maintain traditions that go back a long time, such as giving out flowers. And others don’t want flowers at all and would prefer we stopped that tradition. It’s not easy to give out flowers and not give them out simultaneously. Now I am not against the flower-giving, I am just using as an example of the sort of tensions that exist. I could also have mentioned the difficulties for those who are childless or have been bereaved in contrast with those who want to celebrate their children, or those who want to focus on the ‘motherhood’ of God and those who struggle with seeing God that way, and many more…

Each year I (usually along with other colleagues) seek to prepare a service that blesses all those who come. And each year I know that some people will go away upset or unhappy. And that’s the last thing that I want to happen. But is it inevitable?

As ‘worship’ is not for our benefit but for God’s, shouldn’t we all simply put aside our preferences and focus on him? Shouldn’t we come expecting to give him pleasure rather than hoping to be pleased by what happens? It is possible that this is part of the answer – if we come to give to God rather than looking to receive, we will not be so disappointed, unless the service does not enable us to give our worship to him.

Yes. I have often heard speakers say things about us not bringing our consumer culture into church services for that reason. I have probably said it myself.

Honey, I brought You GiftBut I want to add a rider to that. Because God is so gracious and generous that he does not want us to leave empty-handed when we have gathered together in Jesus’ name. Long before it became the thing to do to give out party bags at the end of children’s parties, God was giving out party bags at the end of services. Yes, they are metaphorical, but they contain blessings from him – a glimpse of the divine, an encounter with Jesus.

It may be that a worship song or hymn blesses us, lifts our spirits or inspires us. It may be that someone prays in a way that blesses us. God may speak to us through the reading of the Bible or (dare I suggest) even through the sermon. One of the mysteries of collective worship is that as we offer our worship to bless God he meets us by his Spirit and blesses us.

While we may not come to church because of what we get out of it, just as we don’t attend a birthday party for the party bags, we should expect to be blessed because we were there. So if or when people leave a service disappointed or upset it is right for the people who were leading the service to think about what happened and whether they gave God enough opportunities to bless people through the service even as we worshipped him.

That brings me back to the original conundrum about the inevitability of disappointing some people this coming Sunday. I am coming to the conclusion that while there are things I can do (or avoid) so that people are not unnecessarily upset, a service is first and foremost for an audience of One. If we can enable people to worship Jesus they may also see Jesus in the service. If we can help them to encounter him, then they will not leave the service empty handed, even if the contents of their party bags are not what they were expecting!

Be blessed, be a blessing

Mums who have teenagers understand why some animals eat their young.

A mother’s love never ages, but a child ages you quicker than anything else on the planet.

If at first you don’t succeed, do it the way your Mum told you to do it.

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.

sneaky shopping

you never know who’s watching you

I have been undercover today. I have been a ‘mystery shopper’. I can’t say where or for what, but it was quite a strange experience. I had to pretend that I was interested in a particular purchase and then ask the assistant to help me with it. (On the whole the assistant did well, but was let down by a lack of stock).

You may be aware of the Ship Of Fools Mystery Worshippers. They visit different churches and write a review, which is then posted online. I am fascinated by them and at the same time worry about what might happen if one visited our church. Would we be as welcoming as usual? Would the service be up to its usual standard? Would they like the sermon? And so on. It is a very subjective process and I suspect that if someone came to our church who preferred a church that is much further up or down the candle than we are they may not enjoy the experience as much as if their preference was for our style of church. And there have been some Mystery Worshipper reports on churches I know that have been somewhat devastating in their analysis. How would that feel? A one-off visit and your church is slammed?

I have decided not to worry about it though. The reason is that our services are not put together to please mystery worshippers, or even to please the regulars. First and foremost they are prepared and delivered for an audience of one: God (okay, perhaps three if you are being theologically pedantic!) What we do is an act of worship to God, not an exercise in consumer satisfaction. Yes, we hope and pray that people will feel welcome, comfortable, be blessed and be enabled to worship God, but that should not be the way in which we evaluate our services. Was it an act of worship to God where we gave our best?

And the same question can be asked of the rest of our lives, all of which can be an act of worship as we seek to be the best ‘us’ we can be.

Be blessed, be a blessing.