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

10 second sermons? you’re having a laugh!

Regular bloggists among you will know that I like a good joke. Actually, regular bloggists among you will be questioning what I consider to be a ‘good’ joke, but be like Paddington and the Brown family and bear with me here (what do you mean that’s not a good joke?).

I recently bought a copy of Milton Jones‘s Even More Concise 10 Second Sermons, the aptly-named sequel to 10 Second Sermons. These books contain very brief and yet very pithy (and often funny) observations by Milton Jones on life and faith. Let me give you a couple of examples to whet your appetite (I am not on commission but the books are available to be ordered from local bookshops or online retailers – published by DLT):

A lot of organised religion seems like a man who was told that the only thing he could give God could be found in a mirror. So he went off and made God a hugely elaborate ornamental mirror.

Praying seems to be like trying to undo a knot. You never know quite what’s going to work, it’s just important to keep going. (Also, best check what you’re trying to undo isn’t holding up something else important.)

‘Upholding Christian values’ can be a way of insulating myself from the world, which is the ultimate un-Christian value.

Brilliant, aren’t they? You could ponder each one for ages and there would still be more to reflect on.

How about these:

Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

‘No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.’

‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

It seems Jesus was rather good at the pithy, humorous observational comedy too. (If you’re not sure about the humour try pushing a camel through the eye of a needle, enjoy the slapstick of the second observations and think about a blind guide. And the final observation is perhaps the earliest occurrence of ‘waiter, there’s a fly in my soup’ with the kicker that you missed the camel!

Humour can be a very effective way of communicating truth because it disarms and then comes at you from an unexpected direction to make you laugh (the reflex action) and then, maybe, reflect.

Which one of the six sayings above has God spoken to you through today?

Be blessed, be a blessing

preaching to the preacher

plant growThe Eastern Baptist Association has an interesting tradition: the incoming Regional Minister (aka me) preaches at their own induction. I pondered this for a while and in the end felt led to preach to myself. You may have heard of ‘preaching to the choir’ but I was ‘preaching to the preacher’. This is an extract from the sermon I preached. I hope I was listening and that you will forgive the change in ‘person’:

There is one verse in this passage that really resonated with me. It is the verse that came to my mind immediately when I started thinking and praying about this sermon.

1 Corinthians 3v6: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.”

The church in Corinth had become divided by allegiance to different preachers and teachers. Paul instead saw teamwork in the different leaders. His job had been to plant the church and see the seedling of grow. Apollos had come and watered the plant, tending it and helping it to grow strong. That is why an image of a hand holding a seedling was on the invitations for my Induction.

Just as Paul recognised that there are different roles for everyone in the church, he also recognised that these are best expressed when we work in partnership with each other rather than on our own or, worse still, in competition. He would not let the church in Corinth create a division between him and Apollos which did not exist.

Teamwork is incredibly important. I have been so privileged to have been part of amazing teams throughout my ministry – in Horsham, at Baptist House and latterly in Colchester. And now I am privileged to work in a new team in the Eastern Baptist Association.

But Nick, you need to recognise that you have already been a part of that team. For the past 6½ years as one of the Ministers at Colchester Baptist Church you have also been part of the Eastern Baptist Association team. The team includes Regional Ministers, yes, but it also includes Ministers of local churches and chaplains, and it also includes all those who are part of those local churches. And the EBA is part of a wider team: partners with the Central Baptist Association; partners with the other churches in the area and beyond; part of the national Union of about 2100 churches and of course the global family of believers – the Church.

Like you, Nick, Paul had moved from local church to a more itinerant ministry, but he still saw himself as a partner in the gospel with Apollos who was in the local church, and the local church in Corinth. Make sure you don’t lose sight of that and make sure you partner with others for the sake of the gospel.

Teamwork is really important. But it is important to recognise the whole team and play your part well. Paul described himself and Apollos as ‘servants’. The word here is used for those who wait at the table – waiters. And in a Michelin starred restaurant you don’t praise the waiters you praise the chef! All that Paul and Apollos were doing was serve the food which God had prepared. The key member of the team is the one who brings the growth: Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God brings the growth.

Growth has all sorts of dimensions. It can be spiritual growth as individuals as we follow Jesus more closely and his Spirit works in us. It can be growth in churches – numerical but also becoming more mature (moving from milk to solid food). It can be, and please God is most of all, growth through conversions – people coming to faith in Jesus. All of this is Kingdom growth. All of this is growth brought about by the King.

That should encourage us. God brings growth. Sometimes we can see it – perhaps it is under the surface. Sometimes we are looking for the wrong sort of growth – often we want to see more people in church on a Sunday when God might be bringing about another sort of growth altogether. But Nick never forget that it’s God’s task to bring the growth not yours.

That releases you from some of the burden and responsibility that you might feel. But it does not mean you can sit back and let it all happen. You are to plant, water, nurture, weed, dig and do all you can to help the churches you serve be places where God’s growth can take place.

Be blessed, be a blessing

reliance

There’s an old story of a church where the visiting preacher failed to turn up. The Minister was seriously unprepared but felt that he ought to preach. He stood up…

” Today I will have to rely on the Holy Spirit for my sermon. Next week I hope to do better.”

I think I know what he meant. But I also know that many of us would have to admit that we work like that.

We work in our own strength, rely on our experience and hope for the best. When our resources fail we rely on God.

He’s gracious enough not to let us down. But how different would your life be if you started with the Holy Spirit and he added your skill and experience to what he has in mind?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

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.