Treasure Shifts – part 2

9781844746026Here is the rest of the list of treasure shifts that can occur in the heart of a pastor/preacher.  Paul Tripp hits the nail on the head on almost every page of his Dangerous Calling, but I am just offering this snapshot for now (review to follow in the next weeks!)

4. ESSENTIALITY: Moving from rest in the essential presence of Jesus the Messiah to seeing oneself as way too essential to what God is doing.

. . . I begin to load the burden of the individual and collective growth of God’s people onto my own shoulders.  This causes me to devalue the importance of the gifts and ministry of others and tempts me to assign to myself more than I am able to do.  In ways that I probably am not aware of, I’ve begun to try to be the Messiah instead of resting in my identity as a tool in his faithful and powerful hands.

5. CONFIDENCE: Shifting away from a humble confidence in transforming grace to overconfidence in one’s own experience and gifts.

. . . We are all capable of becoming all too confident in ourselves.  A confidence shift begins to take place from the treasure of humble confidence in the power of rescuing, forgiving, transforming, and delivering grace, to rest in my own knowledge, abilities, gifts and experience.  Because of this, I don’t grieve enough, I don’t pray enough, I don’t prepare enough, I don’t confess enough, and I don’t listen to others enough.  I have begun to assign to myself capabilities I don’t have, and because I do, I don’t minister out of my own sense of need for Christ’s grace, and I don’t seek out the help of others.

Book Review: Pontius Pilate by Paul Maier

PilateI am just re-reading a book I devoured a couple of years ago.  It is historical fiction, but don’t let that put you off.  This historically annotated piece of work is a brilliant read.  It presents a biographical insight into the life and career of Pontius Pilate–his background in Rome, his prefecture in Judea, his confrontations with the Jewish authorities, his history shaping encounter with Jesus of Nazareth.

I suppose this review is a little late for this year, but if you ever preach around Easter, then you must read this book.  It was originally published in the 1960’s, but the timeless content means it could have been written last week.  Paul Maier is a pre-eminent historian of the first century and this makes his reconstruction of character and event particularly insightful.

Why did Pontius Pilate feel so trapped?  He was two strikes down with the Jewish populous when Jesus was presented to him.  This man was clearly innocent, but Pilate could not afford another disaster.  He could not face another report to the Emperor about his failure to manage the pesky Jewish religious affairs.  His ring declared him a friend of Caesar, with all the rights that went with that.  But the Sanhedrin turned the Jesus trial into an ultimatum for Pilate.  Was he really a friend of Caesar, or were these Jewish leaders more concerned with peace in Judea than he was?

Even if it is too late for this Easter, Christianity is an Easter faith and so I would strongly encourage you to get a copy of Pontius Pilate.  Don’t read it to your children, but grab a drink, get comfortable and step back into the first century.  Any preacher will benefit from doing so.

Book Review: Jonathan Edwards, A Life

51QLzAKPcZL._AA160_Written by George Marsden, 2003, Yale.

Mammoth?  Maybe.  Magisterial?  Absolutely.  Marsden’s 505 pages plus notes on the life of Edwards is an absolute joy to read.  He neither falls into the culturally critical Edwards bashing of years gone by, nor into the presentations of Edwards as if he fit every theological mold of his tradition.  He certainly avoids the bizarre agenda of separating Edwards’ genius from his vibrant faith.

The Edwards offered in Marsden’s work is the Edwards of history, a man profoundly gripped by the glory of the triune love of God, a man who remained resolute in his disciplined life of study and ministry, yet who progressively grasped the captivating wonder of God’s gracious intratrinitarian love and grew beyond a self-determined resolution approach to spirituality.

I won’t give Edwards biography here.  However, for anyone who has only seen Edwards through the caricature of a single sermon title, Marsden is a must read.  Bridging the historical worlds of puritanism and enlightenment, Edwards is a massive figure in theological, philosophical and modern church history.  Marsden gets the Augustinian heritage of Edwards, shining light on the emphases sometimes perceived by some to be imbalanced, yet showing Edwards to be a brilliant mind coupled with, and guided by, a captured heart.

Since I suspect it is mostly preachers who visit this blog, let me suggest that we do well to spend time with the greats by means of good biography.  Marsden has also written A Short Life of Edwards, which is not an abridgement of this work, but another biography cast in an entirely new way, as it were.  I look forward to reading that now that my thoroughly marked up copy of A Life is no longer next to my reading chair.

Edwards is intriguing on many levels, and from many angles: Revival, Calvinism, Augustinian Trinitarianism, puritan theology, church polity, academic institutional history, philosophy, cross-cultural missions, religious affections, hermeneutics, and so on.  Take the time to get to know Edwards with this biography and you will find your own life and ministry stirred in many ways, all beneficial.

Not wanting to give away the ending, let me share the final paragraph anyway:

How can the creator of such an unimaginably vast universe be in intimate communication with creatures so infinitely inferior to himself? . . . Edwards’ solution–a post-Newtonian statement of classic Augustinian themes–can be breathtaking.  God’s trinitarian essence is love.  God’s purpose in creating a universe in which sin is permitted must be to communicate that love to creatures.  The highest or most beautiful love is sacrificial love for the undeserving. Those who are given eyes to see that ineffable beauty will be enthralled by it.  They will see the beauty of a universe in which unsentimental love triumphs over real evil.  They will not be able to view Christ’s love dispassionately but rather will respond to it with their deepest affections.  Truly seeing such good, they will have no choice but to love it.  Glimpsing such love, they will be drawn away from their preoccupations with the gratifications of their most immediate sensations.  They will be drawn from their self-centered universes.  Seeing the beauty of the redemptive love of Christ as the true center of reality, they will love God and all that he has created.

(To buy Marsden’s work in the UK, click here.)

The Preacher’s Clock: Preparation

clock2Yesterday I mentioned Robinson’s advice on moving from a five-day to a ten-day cycle simply by shifting the initial exegetical work back to the previous Thursday.  I know that in my own experience most weeks are not consistent and so I have to be flexible on my preparation schedule (even if I have my own ideal).  But I suspect that even many who have a standard weekly schedule still have to flex more than they would like.  So what kinds of time go into a sermon preparation phase?

1. Blocks of concentration – Good sermons don’t get crafted in snatches between emails.  Having significant blocks of concentration time is critical and need to be carved out of normal life.  This can mean taking deliberate steps: turning off the phone, moving away from the computer or turning off the email notification, perhaps leaving the office and finding a “study” zone that allows for concentration.  When we moved I left behind my favourite wooded area where I used to sit in the car and work without phone signal, but gained access to a church building that is quiet at key times.

2. Chunks of process progression – Some things don’t require being “in the zone,” but are needed to move the process forward.  Perhaps researching a specific issue for an illustration, or chasing a quoted passage to gain familiarity.  The key thing here is to know what needs to be done, and to have some days in which to get these chunks of work done.  It doesn’t matter that it is only three times twenty minutes worth of work, if you are already at Saturday afternoon, these will get squeezed out.

3. Brief and extended moments for contemplation – Focused and planned prayer time is important.  Taking prayer time when available also counts.  Praying through a message in the car is better use of time than hearing the same cycle of news and chat on the car radio.  I wouldn’t want to rely on car time for prayer.  That makes it sound unimportant.  But I wouldn’t want to be without those “non-traditional” times either.  These times to think and pray are cumulative and valuable.

4. Focused prayer time – So as well as fitting in prayer and spilling out prayer as you soak in a message and anticipate preaching it, it is also worth scheduling and planning real prayer time.  I like to spend some time praying in the church, focusing in on the people I associate with certain seats.  Some like to pray and walk, others have a prayer closet.  I don’t think God minds where.

5. Pre-delivery time – I value that time the night before and the morning of preaching to be able to run through the message.  This is why I can’t just preach from old notes as if it were fresh.  At this stage the work is done, but it is amazing how much can be improved when hearing the message through your own ears.

All of this time takes, well, it takes time.  Hence starting the process earlier always allows opportunity for both the planned blocks and the smaller pieces in the whole puzzle to come together.

Providence and Preaching 2

In my last post I wrote about the issue of interrupted “zone-ish-ness” – that is, what happens when we are in the zone for a sermon and something comes out of nowhere and knocks us so that we wobble?  I say let’s learn to trust God’s providence and become better preachers.

Here are some thoughts to probe the notion further:

Unsolicited information may be pure gold – One of my most creative sermons was never preached.  Probably a good thing, too.  I had this great idea to preach Ezekiel 16 from another room.  That is, it would just be a voice speaking out to the gathered people, perhaps in low lighting.  The idea was developing nicely, and then the chap giving the church announcements made the suggestion that people might like to bring their friends along to that particular event.  Uh?  No!  Oh wait, perhaps the creativity was a little off target anyway.  I’m glad I didn’t preach that without thinking through the very real possibility that guests would be present (announcement or no announcement).

Hearing just before standing up to preach that such and such a person is present, and is struggling with this or that harsh reality . . . this can be pure gold information.  Suddenly a message that was true and good can become targeted and precise.  It does involve prayer and a bit of thinking in the final minutes before preaching, but perhaps that is exactly what the message needed?  I know I was planning a message recently and it was a bit flat.  A comment from my wife about a conversation she’d had could have sent me spinning, but instead I thank God for that piece of information – it reshaped the message for good.

I remember finding out as I stood up to preach a 20-25 minute message that it had to last exactly 65 minutes.  Not sure I did so well there, but maybe someone listening needed the extra repetition and reinforcement that they got as a result!

There are many times when we find out information a bit later than we might have preferred.  It could be about the listeners.  It could be about the church.  It could be about the passage (hopefully not).  Whatever it is, let’s be leaning on God and trusting Him to be providentially in charge, since, after all, He is.

Review: The Good God, by Mike Reeves

Whatever else we may be or do, we present God to others.  We present God in our preaching of the Bible, and we present God as we live our lives.  A critical question, then, has to be this: which God do we present?

Mike Reeves’ new book, The Good God, from Paternoster, is exactly what the doctor ordered for the church today.  And not one of those miserable doctors that prescribes some yucky fluid in a plastic bottle.  I mean one of those doctors that suggests a break in the sun and a feast of good food to help you feel better from all that ails you.  The church today needs to bask in the sun and feast on the truth offered so gloriously and accessibly in this little book.

Mike introduces the reader to the God who is loving, giving, overflowing, relational.  With his light and accessible manner, Mike shares a profound taster of just how good God is.  Clearly Mike loves God and it shows throughout.  Some books on the Trinity can come across as a technical manual of heresies to avoid.  Others as an exercise in premeditated obfuscation.  This little book sizzles with energy, addresses the issues with clear insight rather than excessive technicality, and stirs the reader’s heart to worship, to delight, and sometimes even to laugh in sheer joy.

Mike’s biblical references scattered throughout don’t come across as a defensive attempt to prove a point, nor as a theological citation method that distracts the reader.  Rather they subconsciously stir the reader to want to get back into the Bible and see this good God afresh.  As you’d expect from a Reeves book, there are also enjoyable windows into church history as key voices from folks famous, and not so, pop up to share a thought along the way.

The book is shaped, well, um, trinitarianly.  An introductory chapter invites the reader into the pre-creation love relationship that is the Trinity.  Then the book looks at creation, redemption and the Christian life (as in, Father, Son, Spirit, although brick walls can’t be built between the roles of each in each chapter).  The book closes with a chapter that asks who among the gods is like you, O LORD?  I won’t give away the end of the book by sharing Mike’s answer, but I know if you start, you’ll want to read to the end anyway!

I will say this though, the advance of anti-theist “new atheism” gets a clear response in the final chapter.  Oh, and for one final twist, just when you feel like there’s nothing left to add, he also addresses three of the big issues that Christians sometimes throw out in opposition to an emphasis on God’s loving relationality. Superb.

This book is a must read and a must share.  As you read it you will think of others you wish would read it – from atheists to strident single-author-reading Christians. But most of all, I think you will be thankful that you read it. I am genuinely excited about how God will use this book in the years ahead!

To pre-order your copy in the UK, click here or the book image above.  Note – the book will be released in the USA later in 2012 by IVP under the title, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith.

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Book Review: Is There a Doctor in the House?, by Ben Witherington III

Is There a Doctor in the House?  An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Biblical Scholar, 2011, Zondervan.

I picked up this little book thinking it would only appeal to my interest in academia, but found it to be of value to all involved in Bible handling – students, preachers, teachers, scholars.

The label “scholar” gets thrown around a little too easily.  If one person in the church is starting to learn biblical Greek, they get labelled a scholar.  They may  barely even be a student yet!  In this book, Witherington reflects on his experiences as a student, pastor, teacher and writing scholar.  His manner is winsome, his sometimes amusing experiences shine through, and his insight helps the reader to see just what is involved in being truly earnest about God’s Word.

He begins with an excellent illustrated guide to a PhD, before explaining his own experiences getting a PhD in Durham in the 1970’s.  It is great to read of his exposure to such scholars as C.K. Barrett, C.E.B. Cranfield, T.H.L. Parker, etc.

Even if you don’t care to understand the differences between the British and American doctoral systems, the book quickly moves into a survey of the necessary fields of study required of biblical scholars.  While brief and maintaining momentum, these chapters give helpful insight into language study, historical/cultural background study, literary sensitivity, as well as integrating biblical research into theological and ethical studies.

The latter chapters address the necessary subject areas of research and writing, hermeneutics, key skills in lecturing and teaching, as well as the character issues that can easily get lost in the mix.  The book ends with a brief survey of the sacrifices involved (not just for the scholar, but also for the spouse), and a resounding, “I would do it all again!” from a man delighted by the privilege of his study, his career, his vocation.

I interact with folks who hold to a kind of self-taught piety.  They have their library of 66 and the Holy Spirit and consider themselves to be un-credentialed scholars.  Maybe some are, in some way.  But where their attitude becomes derisory toward academic biblical scholarship, I do get concerned.  This book should be required reading for all who care to sit in judgment over the academy, as well as those fascinated by it.

Most of all, this book graciously raises the bar on our commitment to really doing the work involved in handling the Bible well, and offering the fruit of that study to others in ministry.

(If you are in the UK, click here to go to the book on Amazon.)

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Book Review: Lit! by Tony Reinke

Lit! – A Christian Guide to Reading Books by Tony Reinke is bordering on a must read for preachers and church leaders.  Years ago it was a given that leaders have to be readers, but today I wonder if we’ve not bought into the notion that leaders have to be too busy to be real readers.  Headlines?  Yes.  Emails?  Of course.  Web browser?  Certainly.  Blogs?  Staying in touch.  Books?  Uh, too busy, sorry.

This book is a thoroughly enjoyable pithy little promo for the right kind of reading.  The first half of the book lays a theological foundation for books and reading.  The second half offers nine dynamite chapters of practical wisdom to help the motivated reader become a real reader.

When we commit ourselves to literature rather than a superficial spinning through surface hype, we find a richness of personal enlightenment that is truly of God.  Reinke doesn’t advocate an only-Christian book approach to reading, but he does clearly recognize two categories of books in the world.  The Bible.  And everything else.

The book engages with what to read, as well as how to read.  It addresses issues of conscience, of priorities, of benefits.  And it does it all in an engaging energetic manner that makes you want to keep reading, and pick up something else, something good, to read at the same time (if only that were possible!)

Should we read non-Christian books?  Absolutely – at least, the best of them, if we already have a well-formed biblical worldview (which I think he assumes too easily and most readers would also assume naively).   In fact, Reinke gives biblical examples of reading non-biblical authors as well as a couple of giants from church history on the subject.

Actually, with a passionate commitment to reading like Reinke, we are having to leave behind over 10,000 books for every one that we choose.  So we need to choose well, read discerningly, and benefit as fully as possible.

I’ve been struck many times by how many people do not read wisely.  “I can’t buy another book until I’ve finished the last one I started . . . three years ago!”  Bad logic.  Preachers need to be reading and we can’t afford to get log-jammed by a bothersome book.

Randy Alcorn writes of Lit! : “Seldom have I enjoyed a book more than this one.”  I concur.  Hence I read it in a day.  I think your ministry would be blessed if you enjoyed it too.

(If you are in the UK, click here to buy book.)

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Exegesis and Application

I’ve recently been reading student responses to Fee and Stuart’s book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.  This is a rare book, a hermeneutics book that has sold massive numbers.  If you haven’t read it, you probably should.  That doesn’t mean it is perfect though, there may be much in it that you might quibble with (it may be the willingness to take positions on issues that makes the book such a bestseller).  One point that struck me as I looked at it again is the unfortunate decision to define hermeneutics as the follow on step after exegesis.  I know I’m not the only one that doesn’t see these terms as sequential steps in a process.  (They even acknowledge this is not the normal use of the term.)

I would agree with their definition of exegesis as “the careful, systematic study of the Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning.”  But surely the following step, thinking about the significance and potential impact of the passage in contemporary terms should be called application?  And hermeneutics?  Well, that refers to the guidelines that enable both exegesis and application to be done effectively.

This is especially important for preachers (and then, by extension, to all believers).  As I wrote on here some years ago:

The difference between a true expository sermon and an interesting biblical lecture is often the speaker’s awareness of sermonic purpose. As Bryan Chappell wrote (Christ-Centered Preaching, p52) “Without the ‘so what?’ we preach to a ‘who cares?’” In his own way Haddon Robinson has put it like this, “Preaching can be like delivering a baby, or like delivering a missile – in one your goal is to just get it out, but in the other your goal is to hit the target!”

Perhaps the problem goes deeper though. While it is true that we must think through the purpose for a sermon before preaching it, there seems to be an issue at an earlier stage in the process. Are we saying that it is possible to study a passage, but not follow through and consider its application? Hermeneutical purists argue about whether application is a part of the hermeneutical process.Yet as preachers our concern is not academic wrangling, but bringing the Word of God into the lives of His people, by the power of His Spirit, to see His purposes worked out. May we never fall into the trap of studying a passage, determining the author’s intended meaning, but failing to consider the contemporary application of that passage in our own lives.

Perhaps a lack of application in the pulpit is the fruit of a lack of application in personal study. The implications are frightening.

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Review: Why Johnny Can’t Preach, by T.David Gordon

It’s a short book,108 pages, but it packs quite a punch.  T.David Gordon wrote Why Johnny Can’t Preach during a year of treatment for cancer.  Given only a 25% chance of survival, he found his focus clear and the desire to compromise his message absent.  The book is hard-hitting, but I found the tone entirely appropriate and not harsh despite the subject matter.

The writer is a media ecologist – that is, one who studies the effects of the change of media forms on the culture.  Taking his title from two books in the 1960’s on the growing inability of students to read and write, this book focuses on why the present state of preaching is so dire.

The first part of the book sets out his evidence for his claim that preaching is ordinarily poor.  While admitting freely that his first line of evidence is merely anecdotal, I found the presentation of evidence hard to argue with (not that I’m inclined to argue since my experience largely reflects the author’s).  Yet Gordon’s evidence is not merely subjective.  He goes to some pains to make clear that there are some objective measures of sermon quality that can be used to identify problem preaching.  It is too common to hear “that is just your opinion” if a sermon is ever questioned or critiqued.

The author’s argument culminates with the almost total absence of the annual review, not missing in any other profession, but indicative that all sides know there is an issue.  Gordon doesn’t blame seminaries for this state of affairs.  In his perspective they haven’t changed, but the calibre of incoming student certainly has.  What has changed?  Because of the change in media forms, Johnny is no longer able to read, nor write, nor discern the significant, and hence he can’t preach either.

True preaching requires close examination and study of a quality text, something non-readers have no experience of today.  People don’t study classical languages.  They don’t read literature.  They aren’t equipped to really study a text.   People read for content, but don’t learn to look at how a text communicates.

True preaching requires careful composition.  But people don’t write letters anymore.  They talk on the phone. Instead of careful composition, we live in a day of easy and cheap talk.

True preaching requires a sensibility of the significant.  But the only way to watch hours of television is to turn off such sensibility, so most do.

A once-common sensibility (close reading of texts) is now uncommon, and a once-common activity (composition) is now comparatively rare.  A once-common daily occurrence (face-to-face communication allowing us to “read” the unstated feelings of another) has been replaced by telephone conversation in which visual feedback is absent.  A once-common sensibility, the capacity to distinguish the significant from the insignificant, is becoming rare.  For a minister today to preach a basic average sermon by early-twentieth-century standards would require a lifestyle that is significantly countercultural.

The book is not solely concerned with capacity to study and compose.  The fourth chapter looks at the content of sermons and gives a fine rebuttal of four contemporary approaches – moralism, how-to, introspection and “so-called culture wars” . . . helpful content that I will come back to in other posts.

At certain points I would suggest that the author’s view of Christian preaching is a little narrow.  There is more to an inherently relational faith than merely submitting our will to God’s will.  Perhaps the Bible text, if read carefully, might present the heart of God such that our hearts might be changed in response.

Nevertheless, even taken on the author’s terms, the book’s message is important and needs to be considered.  All of us live in a fast-paced world that simply doesn’t allow for careful reading of God’s heart in His Word.  Perhaps it is time we were more counter-cultural in order to be able to read the text well.

Thankfully, T. David Gordon is still alive and serving the church through his teaching and writing.  We should be grateful for this little gem of a book.  Buy this book, perhaps even pass on a copy to someone else!

(If you are in the UK, click here to buy.)

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