Sitting Alone

In John 6, Jesus appears to have a public relations disaster.  He starts the chapter with a huge crowd and an event that will become a favourite of children’s Bible story books – in fact, the only pre-passion narrative that makes it into all four Gospels.  But he ends the chapter with a question mark hanging over his core disciples and a poignant reference to one of the twelve being a devil.

How does it all go so “wrong” for Jesus?

The passage begins with a huge crowd gathering with Jesus and a reference to the forthcoming Passover feast.  He takes five barley loaves and two fish (a poor person’s food) and turns it into more than enough (a proper feast).  The response of the people seems to be on target.  They start asking if he is the Prophet anticipated in Deuteronomy 18, and they want to make him king.  From a human standpoint, it looks to be a successful operation at this point.

Overnight Jesus sends the disciples on ahead and takes a creative shortcut across the lake, ready for the morning crowds.  The morning crowds are yesterday’s crowd, plus some others from Tiberias, and they come looking for something.  Jesus cuts through the hype and identifies what they want – another free lunch.  But this is insulting to Jesus, who actually came to give eternal life.  How often do we petition Christ for the petty things, while ignoring the far greater gifts that he wants to give us?  It is certainly not wrong to pray about the little stuff, for he does care for everything, but when we only care for short-lived comforts, while ignoring his greater giving goals, then we insult him.

Along the way Jesus critiques the Jewish idea that Moses had given them the miracle bread from heaven, when in fact it was the Father.  Then, instead of making himself the new Moses that they referred to in verse 14, Jesus makes himself the bread from heaven, sent to save and sustain the people.  He will turn none away, will give them true life, and will raise them up on the last day – a past, present, and future package of assurance from God. (See vv35-40, for instance.)

This only makes the Jews grumble about him.  How can he be the bread?  They wonder if he is talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  Rather than backing away from the physicality of this misunderstanding, instead Jesus goes along with the language of eating and drinking.  (Remember how people have already misunderstood the temple language in chapter 2, the new birth language in chapter 3, and the living water and food language of chapter 4.)

I suspect Jesus wasn’t expecting to be understood in reference to the later ordinance of the Christian church – communion, Lord’s Supper, or whatever your church calls it.  Rather, I think he may well have been thinking of the Passover meal.  The people were expected to eat all the flesh of the lamb, as well as drink all the “blood of the grapes.”  It was a special meal, an “eat-it-all-because-we-are-leaving-in-a-hurry” type of feast.  It celebrated the Passover lamb, provided to rescue the people and let them live in the face of all that was happening in Egypt that night.

Jesus could have been misunderstood as speaking of flesh eating and blood drinking, but I suspect that was not the issue.  Actually, what he meant was also insanely challenging.  Just as God had provided a way for the people to live through the Passover back in Egypt, so now there was a new Passover coming.  This new Passover was for eternal life.  The provision was costly and there was an implicit demand in the meal.  Jesus was effectively saying, “It is all about me, I am giving everything for you…make me your everything.”

Jesus was the whole lamb, the drink, everything.  At the next Passover he would make it clear that his body was being given and his blood was to be shed.  What was most offensive to human sensibilities was not the potential misunderstanding of eating flesh and drinking blood, but instead the absolute nature of Jesus’ offering and implicit demand.  He gave everything, so make him everything.

We humans are not fans of such absolute expectations.  We’d rather blend our options.  The crowds certainly felt uncomfortable and quickly dispersed.  The popular vote was lost in a day.  Maybe ten to twenty thousand people left and just twelve remained.  Jesus spoke truth and they didn’t like it.  He turned to the twelve.  “What about you?  Want to go too?”

Peter’s response is reflective of our situation too.  We have been drawn to a place of belief.  We are blessed not only by knowing Jesus, but also by knowing there is no alternative!  “To whom shall we go?”  Peter’s response is spot on.  “You have the words of eternal life.”  He certainly does.  But those words are not popular.

We live in a world where people live in fear of saying something that will receive the backlash of irrational intolerance and hatred.  To stand for truth is as unpopular as it has ever been, and there is no longer a Christian-worldview majority ready to affirm and support us in these times.  Instead it feels like everyone is fleeing the scene and chasing empty alternatives.  Will we leave him too?  To put it bluntly, where would we go?  This world has no viable alternatives to Christ.

And so we sit, almost alone, before Jesus.  Do we want to follow the crowds and reject Christ and the God he came to reveal?  It would certainly feel easier to follow the population, for the popular vote is never with God.  But honestly, we would do well to follow Peter’s pathway here… “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus gave everything for us to have eternal life.  Will we make him everything and follow him, even if nobody else will?

Grow Closer, Serve Better – Jonathan Thomas

Ok, I couldn’t resist one last little clip from Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny.  Click here for the clip.

To see the full interview, which is well worth it, please sign up to the Cor Deo Online mailing list and we will give you access when it is released later this week.  Click here to sign up.

How Does Preaching Change Lives? – Jonathan Thomas

Here is a great little three minute clip from Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny.  Click here for the clip.

To see the full interview, which is well worth it, please sign up to the Cor Deo Online mailing list and we will give you access when it is released later this week.  Click here to sign up.

Thank you to Jonathan for the interview for Cor Deo Online – it has proved to be a very helpful series of clips for this site too!

The Pastor’s Job – Jonathan Thomas

Last week I interviewed Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny (Wales).  I’m linking to a clip from this interview because I think you will really appreciate what he has to say.

Jonathan talks about how easy it is to reduce ministry down to a litmus test for evangelical orthodoxy, but then tells his own story of growing into a fuller appreciation of the magnificence of Jesus.

To see the full interview, you just need to sign-up to the Cor Deo mailing list and we will make the full interview available to you!  Click here to sign-up – http://eepurl.com/drPqj1

7 Thoughts About Fear of Public Speaking

One of the quickest ways to find a false use of statistics is to look up the fear of public speaking.  Given a list of options for their greatest fear, more people selected public speaking than death.  The wrong way to say that?  “More people would choose to die rather than speak in public!”  (Please don’t “tabloid” interesting stats to make them sensational and nonsense – people weren’t given that ultimatum!)

By the way, this could be our first helpful thought: (1.) If so many people fear public speaking then you are already ahead simply by standing up front – after all, you doing it means they don’t have to.  At the same time, this initial credit fades as fast as they sense that you are a poor communicator!

Speaking to a crowd of people is something that is unnatural for everyone, and fearful for many.  Whether you have been asked to preach for the first time, or have been conquering this fear over many thousands of sermons, here are a few more thoughts that may be helpful:

2. It is natural to feel unnatural about doing something that isn’t natural.  Whether you feel tangible fear is besides the point.  Speaking to a crowd of people is unnatural.  They are looking at you.  They are potentially listening to you. They are expecting something of a certain standard from you.  This is not a conversation with a friend you are passing in the corridor.  We need to recognize the unnatural reality of public speaking, but then look for ways to communicate in a more natural way (even if we are quaking on the inside).

3. Don’t follow silly advice to overcome your fear.  Please don’t imagine anyone without their clothes on – that is unhelpful on so many levels.  Please don’t look just above peoples’ heads – they notice that far more than you think they will.  Please  don’t concentrate solely on your content and ignore your listeners – again, they will notice if you don’t care about them.

4. Do care about your subject and your listeners.  Being an expert on your content is not as important as caring about it.  When you care about it you will communicate with greater enthusiasm and emotional integrity.  Obviously it really does help to know what you are talking about though, always remaining humble because there is always more to know.  Care about your listeners too.  Once you become more comfortable with delivering your content, you will be able to grow in sensitivity to the people that are sat before you.  Their facial expressions and body language can become really helpful for you over time.

5. Have something to say.  Ultimately this one is asking for more than just coming up with a message for each particular occasion.  This is also the reason I don’t tend to teach public speaking skills without spending more time on Bible handling, spiritual growth and theological instruction.  Honestly I don’t want to increase the number of people who can say things well without having anything worth saying.

I recently saw an example of a very poor communicator who is putting videos online, but really doesn’t have much of value to say.  Sadly, and predictably, he has multiple friends who are ready to offer their gratitude in the comments and perpetuate the cycle.  In the old days exposure and opportunity would grow with demand, but now we can all “self-publish” via podcasts and YouTube.  If you are really growing in your spiritual maturity, then you will increasingly have something to say … which in turn will help to overcome the nerves.

6. Practice saying it.  Since public speaking is unnatural, work on becoming natural with what you have to say.  There is nothing wrong with running through your message, out loud, to improve it and to prepare yourself to preach it under the increased pressure of listeners.  There will always be something you can work on in your delivery too.  Maybe better use of pauses, or variation of pace, or appropriate size of gestures (and in the right direction from the perspective of the listeners).  It takes work to naturally point to your left when you are referring to the future, but once you do, it looks natural to the listener.

7. Fearlessness is not your goal.  It is understandable that those with a tangible fear of public speaking would long for the day when they can stand and deliver without the slightest qualm.  This may not be the best target.  Some nervousness, awareness of the significance of the situation, concern about your own weaknesses as a communicator, etc., are all potentially helpful.  Whether we listeners realize it or not, we want you to preach in reliance and dependence upon God … that will always bear greater fruit than you relying on yourself because you have become so good at it!

Your Culture and Your Preaching – Part 2

Yesterday we began the series by flagging that your preaching is probably more influenced by your national culture than you tend to realize (click here if you haven’t read part 1 already, it will help to make sense of this post.)

Here are some aspects of our preaching that may be more reflective of our culture than we realize:

1. Self.  How much of ourselves do we inject into the talk, and how do we speak about ourselves?  How comfortable do we feel telling stories about ourselves to support what we are saying?  Do we assume our listeners want to hear about us because we are the one speaking, or are we further down the continuum that assumes our role is to point them to the subject at hand rather than to the person stood before them?

2. Authority.  Do we tend to take the stance of the celebrity expert, or the authoritarian scholar, or use the indirect authority of gentle encouragement?  It is not just whether we speak with authority or not, but how that authority is wielded.  This is about whether we are more direct or indirect, instructive or suggestive, bold or subtle.

3. Confidence.  Related to authority is the issue of confidence.  Do we tend to show confidence when we speak, and is our confidence (or lack of it) usually more focused on subject matter, or on ourselves?  What can seem confident and humble in one culture can be heard as arrogant and aloof in another.

4. Humour.  Even though every person’s sense of humour is highly personal, there are cultural cues in our use of humour too.  What can have one crowd guffawing with laughter can easily leave someone from another culture wondering what all the fuss is about.  Some cultures value personal wit, others leave all humour to the experts, some cultures thrive on scripted stories, but others will naturally find such staged moments tiresome.  Self-deprecation will be another ingredient that shows at differing levels in different cultures.

5. Emotion/Passion.  Some cultures generate more public speakers with flare and enthusiasm, others are much more reserved.  While many will joke about their own cultural stereotypes, what shows in preaching is not always so obvious – in fact sometimes it can go in the opposite direction (I can think of some cultures known for being at one end of the continuum and yet generating many preachers who seem to reflect the opposite end of the scale!)  How does enthusiasm show, and in what element of the message does that energy become manifest?

These are just five categories of cultural influence on our public speaking.  What would you add to the list?

7 Quick Ways to Improve Your Preaching – Part 3

So far we’ve mentioned cross-referencing, quoting scholars and meandering in part 1, then apologizing and illustrations in part 2.  Now, let’s finish this list of seven quick fixes with part 3 of the list:

6. Stop trying to be funny.

To put it bluntly, either you are funny or you are not funny.  But trying to be funny is not funny.  It is annoying.  That is not to say there can be no humour in our preaching, but let it be more natural.  Unless you are a great joke teller, don’t invest minutes of a sermon in telling a joke.  Trying to entertain or seek approval by laughs is not fulfilling your role as a preacher.  Instead let your demeanor be saturated with genuine gospel joy and enthusiasm that comes from living in the text you are preaching and walking closely with God.  It will be more sincere and people will appreciate it more.  If they want stand-up comedy then the internet is replete, ready and waiting.

7. Stop scratching at your passage.

Ok, this is probably not a quick fix, but it is significant.  A lot of preaching barely scratches the surface of the preaching text.  No matter how much you add careful illustration and clear structure, you can’t overcome the lack of biblical rootedness in this kind of preaching.  Instead of adding filler, or jumping around the canon, or whatever else you might do, dig down into the text you are preaching and make sure the message has the fingerprints of this specific passage all over it.

That was quite a random list, but maybe one of two of these quick fixes fit for you?  Feel free to comment with other things you have tweaked that helped you, or what you need to do next!

7 Quick Ways to Improve Your Preaching – Part 2

Sometimes a little tweak can make a big difference.  Yesterday I started the list with stop excessive cross-referencing, excessively quoting scholars and meandering (click here if you missed it).  Here is the next installment of the list.  Do any of these quick fixes fit for you?

4. Stop apologizing.

I don’t know if you do this, but if you do, don’t.  Apologies for lack of preparation, or for complexity of subject, or for lack of illustration, or for lack of time to do justice to the subject (you’d have had more if you didn’t apologise for not having enough!) … there are probably a dozen opportunities to apologize in every sermon.  Generally speaking, don’t.  I apologized the first time I was up front at church.  The visiting missionary thanked me afterwards and told me not to apologize because everyone else was encouraged to see me up there.  Then the first time I took a lecture for one of my profs at seminary I apologized for not covering every aspect of my subject.  He firmly told me to let people think they have the full meal deal.  Generally speaking, with some careful exceptions, don’t apologize.

5. Stop using illustrations that don’t work for most listeners.

Illustrative material generally should either work for all, or be combined with parallel illustrations that together will cover the congregation.  For example, I have some teens in my house.  If I talk about parenting teens then what about parents with smaller children, or those who couldn’t have children, or empty-nesters whose memory has faded?  (Plus, what about my teens who have to sit through the illustration – maybe your own family isn’t as good a source of illustrations as you might think!)  Then there are my hobbies, or my film choices, or my life experiences…all of which are quite specific to me.  Actually, finding illustration material that most can relate to is not easy.  But being irrelevant to a group of people for too long in a message is too damaging.

I will finish the list tomorrow…watch this space!

Feeling Flat?

When the Covid-19 crisis rolled across Europe in March, everything changed.  Maybe you found the experience overwhelming, or challenging, or perhaps even invigorating.  Somehow, when crisis hits and our adrenaline surges, we tend to lean on the Lord and find ways through the situation.  But after adrenaline there is always a settling period, when it is the most normal thing in the world to feel emotionally flat.  Maybe by now you have arrived there too?

Two Types of Feeling Flat

When we feel flat we tend to have lowered motivation and energy.  We may be doing less, but somehow feeling more tired.  We feel a loss of creativity and initiative.  Flatness is not a new feeling, but having so many of us experience it at the same time is slightly unusual.

“I’m feeling flat” is something I’ve heard a lot recently.  But there is another type of flatness that is perhaps more concerning.  It is the unconscious flatness that we don’t tend to recognize in ourselves – we don’t spot it in the mirror.

Unconscious flatness could be called spiritual coasting.  Coasting is where you disengage the motor of the car you are driving and allow past momentum and present circumstances to roll the car forwards.  This kind of driving is dangerous.  It changes the braking and steering in the car, but perhaps most concerning is that it can give a false sense of security.  After all, the engine noise reduces and the car keeps moving forwards.

We need to respond when we are feeling flat, especially when we become aware of this unconscious flatness, or spiritual coasting.

Responding to Feeling Flat

The typical human response to feeling flat will not be spiritually healthy.  We may default to distraction, to self-recrimination, or to laziness.  That is, we can fill the void with busy work, new pursuits, or entertainment.  We can beat ourselves up with the “I need to try harder!” kind of self-coaching.  Or we can settle into our flat state and get comfortable.  Typical human responses will tend to be self-oriented and spiritually unhealthy.

What should we do when we understandably feel flat or discover we have drifted into a state of flatness?  Our emotions are great indicators of deeper realities in our hearts, and they should be prompts to connect relationally – with others, and with God.

When we feel flat, we tend to pull back from others.  Living through a pandemic only reinforces that possibility – it is a government-mandated withdrawal!  But spiritually we need to connect and fellowship with our brothers and sisters in whatever way we can (even if that means using Zoom!)

Most of all, we need to re-connect with Christ.  We need to spend time with Him, because only Christ can invigorate our hearts and stir life in us.  And yet our default fleshly response will be to pull in the opposite direction.

Let me share one thing about Christ that may encourage you to bring your tired and emotionally flat heart to Him in these days.  I want to point to two passages and focus particularly on what they teach about how Christ cares for the weak and vulnerable.  Does going to Christ mean accessing the ultimate personal trainer who can shout the loudest?  Not at all.

Motivation for Connection

Isaiah 42:1-4 is the first of Isaiah’s famous “Servant songs.”  At first glance it could look intimidating.  After all, three times it declares that this servant of the LORD will establish justice on the earth.  Surely one who is tough on crime will be overwhelmingly powerful and intimidating?  But not so.  Verse 2 tells us that he is not full of himself, nor does he demand everyone’s attention.  And verse 3 describes his way of dealing with the weak:

                         “a bruised reed he will not break,

                                         And a faintly burning wick he will not quench.”

That is the kind of God that motivates me to lift a bruised and tired heart up toward him.  Feeling flat?  Connect with the only one who can be fully trusted with your heart.

That truth is painted in narrative colour in John 21.  The adrenaline of the first Easter has faded and seven of the disciples are back in Galilee, heading out to fish for the night.  Whatever their motivation, I am sure that part of the issue was that they felt flat.  Read the chapter and watch Jesus care for them.  He could have criticized, shouted, corrected, berated, or chastised them.  He didn’t.

Instead, Jesus gently reminds them of their calling to ministry by miraculously filling their nets with fish, again.  He gently reminds them that he will continue to provide for them by lovingly preparing a barbecued breakfast, a God-given meal of fish and bread, again.  He gently re-established Peter’s position within the group by re-affirming his shepherding role.  In this chapter he reminds them of their calling to evangelism and edification ministries, he reminds them of his ability to continue to provide for them, and he even grants Peter his desire to die for Jesus – only this time with a 30+ year warning.  The content of his teaching is powerful and challenging, but his manner is gentle and tender.

This is the kind of God that can motivate us to lift our flattened hearts up toward him.  Dare to connect with the only one who can be fully trusted with your heart.

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I have recently been adding highlights from John’s Gospel to my YouTube channel:

5 Insights Into Your Feelings Under Lockdown

As we live through this lockdown, we are being given a unique opportunity to observe ourselves under different and difficult circumstances.  It is as if we are in a laboratory, with lots of normal elements taken out of our lives.  What we may be discovering is that we are experiencing emotions in a way that we are normally too busy to notice.

Traditionally the church has not been very good at talking about the subject of emotions.  Many of us were raised to feel bad about feeling, as if good Christians should not really feel a whole lot of anything.  Others of us were raised with a modified view that we should feel bad about feeling bad.  It is as if there are some acceptable feelings, but also some that are automatically bad.  If we feel these “bad” feelings, then we may blame ourselves and confess these feelings to God, looking for a quick escape into the good category.  Or we may blame the person that made us feel that way, convinced that they must be wrong because of the feeling that was stirred up.

In real life it is not so easy to categorize every feeling as good or bad.  Good feelings can come from bad choices.  Bad feelings can be a good thing.  The fear I feel when I hear glass smash downstairs in the night is a good thing – it wakes me up, keeps me awake and gives me the focus I need to go downstairs and confront whatever is going on.

Feelings are like the lights on the dashboard of your car.  They indicate that something is going on, and they prompt you to connect.  I don’t drive my car better by covering over and ignoring all the lights on the dashboard.  Nor do I drive my car with my head through the steering wheel looking only at those lights.  But when a light comes on, I take that as a prompt to action, a prompt to connect.  With my car I call the mechanic who can figure out the issue and fix it.  With my life, I need to seek out other believers and I need to seek out God.  He created us with an incredible set of emotions to help drive us through the challenges of life, but he never intended us to travel that path alone.

Biblically, we could look at the Gospels and see the emotions of Jesus, with dozens of discernible emotional reactions evident in his life.  We could look at the people who met Jesus, and notice how the numbing effect of this world was reversed by encountering Jesus – people left Jesus feeling so much more alive!  But instead, I’d like to look at an old favourite Psalm for a few more observations to help us – Psalm 73.

This Psalm was written by Asaph, a worship leader in Israel.  Let me just make some quick observations about this text that may be helpful to us today:

1. Conflicted – The believer, even the leader among God’s people, can experience contradictory and conflicted feelings.In the first two verses we see Asaph, the worship leader, declaring that God is good to Israel, “but as for me…” He has almost slipped over to the other side, almost stumbled into giving up on God. Even though we are in ministry, we can still feel conflicted on the inside.  We can know and even feel the truth of God, but also struggle with contradictory feelings pulling us away from Him.

2. Convinced – What we feel is often based on what we see, and so we can be convinced that the feeling reflects reality. From verses 3-15 we see Asaph’s “reality.” He saw the prosperity of the wicked, how they arrogantly dismissed God, and yet thrived.  Their lives were a contradiction to all he knew, and yet they lived long and happy lives, without being held to account, without consequences.  He knew this was wrong, but it felt so true.  Our issue today may not be envy of the wicked, although it could be.  Maybe we only see difficult financial circumstances due to the pandemic, or we only see grief and people unresponsive to the gospel, or we only see and feel the hopeless tension in our homes.  What we see feels so complete and so real.  But it could still be wrong.

3. Clarity – We only see clearly when we come to God.In verses 16-17 everything changes for Asaph. He comes to the sanctuary of God and suddenly the whole Psalm turns upside down.  The reality of who God is, where He chose to dwell, and all of the history and reality wrapped up in that tent pierce the balloon of Asaph’s despair and flood his heart with perspective.   Actually, it is helpful to remember that only as we come close to God can we see reality clearly.

4. Confusion – With hindsight we often see how confused we were, even though we felt so convinced. From verse 18, Asaph now is seeing how precarious the wicked are, how their day of reckoning is coming. And in verses 21-22 he looks back on how he was before.  Now with clearer perspective he sees that he was brutish and ignorant, like a beast.  Maybe you and I have been there too.  After a big mess up we can so easily look back and say, “I was so stupid, what was I thinking!?”  Knowing our capacity to be so convinced, and so wrong, maybe it is good to not linger long away from God!  Maybe this lockdown is causing you to consider something that later will cause you to cry out, “I was so stupid, what was I thinking!?”  Starting a foolish relationship, ending a God-given relationship, restarting a problematic drinking habit, or whatever.  People under pressure feel all sorts of things, and those feelings are based on something going on, and those feelings feel so real.  Be careful.

5. Comfort – God’s presence is the comfort we need in the midst of difficult times. From verse 23-28, Asaph seems to be almost triumphant, but that would be to misread this passage.  It is not saying everything changed when he came into the sanctuary and now those circumstances were all different.  They weren’t.  Everything that had bothered him before was still true.  The difference is that now he is facing difficult circumstances with an awareness of the comfort of God’s presence.  God holds his right hand.  God guides him with counsel.  These assurances wouldn’t be necessary if everything was now perfect.  And so he finishes with another “But for me” – unlike in verse 2, in verse 28 Asaph can now say, “But for me…it is good to be near God.”

This lockdown is stirring all sorts of emotions and feelings in us.  We will be tempted to trust those feelings because they are based on the reality that we see all around us.  Our problem is not the feelings.  Our problem will be if we leave God out of processing the feelings he created us to have.  Our feelings indicate something about what is going on in our hearts.  Our feelings should prompt us to connect – with trusted others, and especially with God himself.