Wednesday, May 14, 2014


In 1996 a Baylor University survey named Barbara Brown Taylor one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world - the only woman alongside Billy Graham, Fred craddock and John Stott.

(from Time, 6-page article, April 28, 2014, pp. 26-31). 

Excellent sermon - at Riverside Church - Jul 16, 2013 . 


Ten greatest preachers of the Twentieth Century - 

(James Stewart heads the list, followed by Billy Graham)...


I got a phone call a couple of hours ago...
Female voice: Is that the Baptist?
Moi: Well, I'm a Baptist, sometimes...
FV: I'm Sister **** from the Psych Ward of the **** Hospital, and we have someone who'd like a visit from a Baptist... His name is Bill ****
Moi: OK, I'll be there in an hour.
Arrived at the Hospital's IPU just as they were serving dinner, so I joined Bill and his friend Bob while they enjoyed a pretty good meal. Bill's a butcher, but wants to teach food management rather than cut up meat all day; and Bob's a builder. Between mouthfulls they told me about their work, eg. I learned the technical definition of 'lock-up stage' when building a house etc. They were each quite open about their mental health situation - one admitted himself before the CAT team got to him ('they got my medication wrong'); the other: 'I'm bi-polar and I got far too high...'
After dinner Bill and I adjourned to a private room for a chat and a prayer. He wanted to be 'blessed by a priest' because it was Sunday, and he'd missed church...
All in a day's work (names etc. have been changed).
I just prayed for those two young blokes again... Being a pastor is a great privilege...

I forgot to mention: why did this Catholic want a Baptist? 'Cos his church was named 'Parish of St. John the Baptist'  and the nurse must have heard 'Baptist' when he asked for a priest... Couple of confused people there... 


Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation

Transformative Suffering

Wounded Healers

Friday, April 11, 2014

Only people who have suffered in some way can save one anotherexactly as the Twelve-Step Program also discovered. Deep communion and dear compassion is formed much more by shared pain than by shared pleasure. I do not know why that is true.
“Peter, you must be ground like wheat, and once you have recovered, then you can turn and help the brothers” (Luke 22:31-32), Jesus says to Peter. Was this his real ordination to ministry? No other is ever mentioned. I do believe this is the ordination that really matters and that transforms the world. Properly ordained priests might help bread and wine to know what they truly are, but truly ordained priests are the “recovered” ones who can then “help” people to know who they are too. We have been more preoccupied with changing bread than with changing people, it seems to me.
In general, you can lead people on the spiritual journey as far as you yourself have gone. You can’t talk about it or model the path beyond that. That’s why the best thing you can keep doing for people is to stay on the journey yourself. Transformed people transform people. And when you can behealed yourself and not just talk about healing, you are, as Henri Nouwen so well said, a “wounded healer.” Which is the only kind of healer!
Gateway to Silence:
God is in this with us.


[John, aged 22]: 'I am doing a course with Professor David Tacey, at
Latrobe University, Melbourne, on the topic of Spirituality Studies.
I'm one of those young Australians the prof writes about in his books.
I believe I am a spiritual person, but I don't like the idea of
church. Religion for me is something that is routine, regulated,
conventional... it does nothing for me.

I've been 'to church' and it was all dead, and boring. Some of the
words and ideas in the hymns and sermons were antiquated and not
relevant to me.

I was confirmed in the Anglican church as a young teenager, but
gradually drifted away, especially as the church I was associated with
seemed to be a social club for oldies, with a bit of religious ritual
for an hour a week to provide the context for their getting together
to drink tea and swap stories.

I'd like spirituality to be relevant to where I am. The Anglican
Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote a book about all this - 'Christianity
must change or die' - and I am inclined to agree with him. He's very
critical of religions which are fundamentalist and/or dictatorial,
imposing a culture of conformity and compliance, linked with threats
of hellfire and damnation.'



Christianity is par excellence the religion of the Word. When we speak, we disclose ourselves: so does God. God has spoken in various ways – nature, history, conscience, prophets and ultimately in his Son (Hebrews 1:1,2). Jesus Christ IS God’s word to us. God also speaks through the written word, the Bible. And the word of the Lord comes to us in the living voice of the church as it proclaims, preaches and teaches. ‘Going to worship’ is more than ‘going to preaching’. The question we Protestants hear from someone who missed church was, ‘What did the preacher say?’
Preaching is not done well in many churches. Homilies in many ‘liturgical’ churches are polite sermonic essays which won’t offend – or change – anybody. Well-educated preachers in some mainline churches fill their sermons with theological abstractions. Pentecostal preaching is often a loud reiteration of exhortations lacking theological substance. And other churches which may have better preaching often don’t know how to be ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’ in their worship.
Good preaching on its own will not fill churches anymore, but bad preaching will empty them. The preacher stands between heaven and earth, speaking for God to us, and strengthening our faith, hope and love. Good preaching is inspired and inspiring, bringing the Bible to life, and life to the Bible: it is rooted in the biblical text but relevant to our needs. It is interesting, warm, ‘confessional’ (the preacher is a sinner needing grace too), dialogical and interactive. Preaching, according to Phillips Brooks’ famous dictum is ‘communicating truth through personality’. The best preachers are ‘bilingual’, understanding the terminology of theology, but also communicating plainly in the language of the people.
May I suggest three essential characteristics of authentic preaching:
‘Baby Boomers’ – those born after World War II, between 1946 and 1964 – are the first adults to be raised on the mass media. Television, radio, rock music and computers have shaped the way they view reality. Yet George Gallup’s research says 99% of young Americans are ‘religious’ in some sense, and 40 per cent say they’re ‘born again’. But they don’t feel at home in the traditional church; it’s boring, quite frankly. They don’t like rigid structures, old-fashioned music, or the church’s conservative politics. One 33 year old pastor of a large church in Colorado said: ‘The church is the last standing barrier between our generation and Jesus.’
So preaching to baby-boomers and young people will have to be relevant and interesting – and dramatic. Study Tony Campolo’s ‘sermons’ for an example of superb communication to these groups.
One way to reach these generations is through stories. Parables, stories, are good preaching in any culture and to any age-group. They appeal to the imagination. More than half of the Bible – both Old and New Testaments – is narrative. Stories communicate images and pictures, to which hearers then attach their own feelings, emotions and experiences. Stories open windows to life. They help us get in touch with hope, compassion, love, the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness.
Try something different sometimes. How about a sermon preached from behind the congregation, or from the middle of a row, or with a child in your arms?
If preaching about the prodigal son, maybe interview the various people in the prodigal’s family (including a neighbour and the family’s pastor!). I heard of one re-enactment of this story which ended with the elder brother hitting his father: quite unforgettable! But don’t be ‘gimmicky’ for its own sake: always explain the reason for changes. Does the sermon always have to come ‘after half-time’? Can it be broken up sometimes, and interspersed with other worship-activities to reinforce the main points made?
That is, it must have a teaching component. But good preaching is not simply imparting information. It aims at ‘transformation’.
How do we mature in our faith and life? How do we develop a sensitive Christian conscience, a strong desire to live obediently to the word of God, a love for Bible study and prayer, a dedicated commitment to ministries of evangelism, mercy and justice? A discussion of teaching must work backwards from these questions.
When asked ‘What or who were the formative influences in your life?’ most people name a parent or teacher. ‘I teach’ says US professor of the year 1983, Peter Beidler, ‘because I see people grow and change in front of my eyes. Being a teacher is being present at the creation, when the clay begins to breathe. Nothing is more exciting than being nearby when the breathing begins… I teach because, being around people who are beginning to breathe, I occasionally find myself catching my breath with them.’
Paul and Barnabas majored on teaching (Acts 11:26). The church at Antioch had a list of their teachers (Acts 13:1: does yours?). The religion of Israel was a teaching religion (see eg Exodus 18:20, Deuteronomy 6:1): the law of Moses was first a lesson, then a command. Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher (eg Mark 1:38), and commanded his followers to go into the world and teach all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). The early Christian churches took seriously the function of teaching (Acts 13:1, 1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11, 2 Timothy 1:11).
The purpose of Timothy’s teaching, Paul says, is to ‘arouse the love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a genuine faith’ (1 Timothy 1:5). ‘Bible teaching’ is therefore much more than a ‘jug to mug’ approach: it’s meant to produce better-behaved rather than merely better-informed Christians. Christian leaders should be able, or apt to teach (1 Timothy 3:2).
If you could choose one verb to describe what the pastor/s do in your church, would it be ‘teaching’? In churches battling to survive, the leaders spend their time ‘oiling the church’s machinery’ or ‘keeping the people happy’ through routine visitation (so-called ‘maintenance’ ministries). But where the ‘pastor-teachers’ (Ephesians 4:11) take their teaching role seriously, they use many means to encourage their people to mature in the faith, serve others, and become ‘reproducers’. Pastoring and teaching go together: we don’t teach theory, we teach persons. The best teachers love those they instruct, model what they teach (‘truthing it in love’ as Paul puts it in Ephesians 4:15), are enthusiastic, hard-working and systematic in their preparation, and always assume their students will teach others (2 Timothy 2:2).
Preaching without teaching can be propaganda: by-passing people’s minds to get them to make a commitment they don’t fully understand. And teaching without persuasion can be dry, sterile dogma.
The teaching process will be ‘dialogical’, as John R W Stott put it (pp 60ff). It will be inductive and deductive, propositional and relational, doctrinal and life-centred, from the pulpit, in classes, in small groups, and one-to-one. Every church ought to have a bookstall (positioned where people will fall over it!); and an audio and video cassette library. Perhaps small-group studies can be related to the whole church’s theme for the week, where the sermon is followed up by discussion. (That’s better than the reverse order: experience shows too many will come with their exegetical – and critical – minds made up to truly hear the voice of the Lord in the preaching).
When we hear the Scripture read we are listening to the voice of the living God. We don’t listen to the Bible reading simply to learn something interesting. Our silent prayer is always ‘Beyond the sacred page I seek you, Lord. My Spirit yearns for you, O Living Word.’ The Bible readings should be somewhere near the preaching, to make clear the connection. I like the discipline of the lectionary; it ensures our readings and preaching range over the whole Bible. But don’t follow it slavishly: in biblically literate congregations there is merit in preaching consecutively through various books of the Bible, with rotating themes from Old Testament, Gospel, and Epistle, interspersed with ‘special days’ (Trinity Sunday, Pentecost, Advent, Christmas, Easter etc). The reading of scripture should be done well. In some churches the Bible reading is as exciting as if someone read a telephone directory! Train your readers. Introduce the reading with a sentence or two describing its background. Use drama, dance, mime, and audio-visuals to assist in ‘sitting where the readers first sat’. God wants his word understood; the scriptures were written in the common languages of their day, so use a translation closest to the language we speak (eg. the New Revised Standard Version). After Scripture is read, be silent to listen with the heart.
This is hardest for pastors. This week I have been re-reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s ‘Leaves from the Notebooks of a Tamed Cynic’. If ever there was a twentieth century prophet par excellence it was Niebuhr. About prophets he writes that they’re likely to be itinerants (‘we preachers are afraid to tell the truth because we are economically dependent upon the people of the church’ p.74). And ‘the church does not seem to realize how unethical a conventionally respectable life may be’ (p.118). So it’s easier for pastors to preach about charity than justice. But it’s difficult for a pastor to be prophetic without being cynical (‘I don’t want anyone to be more cynical than I am’ p.158). If you have to choose between bitterness and blandness, choose the former; but ‘speaking the truth in love’ is always our aim…
To understand all this, let’s take a short excursion into the sociology of institutions. Max Weber used the term ‘prophetic’ in opposition to the terms ‘tradition’ and ‘institution’. All institutions, said sociologist Robert Merton, are inherently degenerative. In the church, only prophets can really ‘see’ it – which is why they’re sometimes called ‘seers’. Over time, a representative institution will see people inhabit, roughly one of four stances if they have to face institutional change. On the left, radicals want to change everything (they’re mostly driven by anger). On the right, traditionalists want to change nothing (they’re driven by fear). Next to the radicals, progressives want to change some things, and to the right of them are conservatives, who are prepared to change very little. Now if you’re going to lead this motley group, you have to be somewhere in the middle: if you’re too radical the traditionalists/conservatives (who have the power mostly) will throw you out. But if you’re not ‘with it’, you’ll be left behind in an irrelevant backwater. So pastors, for example, to survive, must appear to be not too radical and not too traditionalist.
But prophets are always radical. There’s the rub. Remember Woody Allen’s movie about Leonard Zelig? Filmed in documentary style, Zelig purportedly recounts the life and times of a ‘chameleon man’ who was so completely compliant than his physical appearance changed to accomodate his companions.
Talking to some Orthodox rabbis, he sprouts a beard and side curls. In a Chinese laundry his features become Asian. To psychiatrists he utters much psychobabble…
Good preaching has both heat and light: heat without light leaves us scorched and brittle; light may help us ‘see’ (and as Horace Bushnell once said, there can be no preaching worth the name if there is no thinking), but knowledge without faith won’t save anybody. W B Yeats in his poem ‘The Second Coming’ says ‘the best lack all conviction’ while ‘the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ We must search for the dividing line between enthusiasm and fanaticism…
Good preaching touches mind and heart and will: we learn, we love, and we change. It goes without saying that good preaching is not constantly negative, opposing anything and everything. We shepherds sometimes spend too much time mending fences rather than feeding sheep. There ought always to be a prophetic dimension to our preaching, calling us to repentance.
The ministry of prophets was very important in New Testament times. Paul regarded it highly, urging the Corinthians to seek this highly prized spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 14:1, 39). Paul wanted them all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. Why? Because tongues helps the individual; prophecy helps the church. In the three lists of church ministries (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4) only one ministry is mentioned in all of them – the prophetic.
Prophecy is a direct communication from God for a particular people at a particular time and place, for a particular purpose. Prophecy gives the church fresh insights into God’s truth (Ephesians 3), of guidance about the future (Acts 11:27ff), or encouragement (1 Corinthians 14:3; 1 Timothy 1:18), or inspiration or correction. It either edifies the church or brings it under judgment (‘God is in this place!’ – see 1 Corinthians 14:25). The biblical prophets combined judgment with hope. Their messages were sometimes very challenging: prophets ‘disturb the comfortable’ while pastors ‘comfort the disturbed’! Prophets ‘tell it like it is’.
Paul told the Thessalonians not to despise prophesyings (‘inspired messages’
1 Thessalonians 5:20-22) but ‘put all things to the test: keep what is good and avoid every kind of evil.’
Hans Kung has written: ‘[A church in which the prophets are not heard]
‘declines and becomes a spiritless organization; outwardly everything may seem all right, things run smoothly, according to plan and along ordered paths… but inwardly it will be a place where the Spirit can no longer blow when and where he wills.’ (The Church, London: Burns and Oates, 1968, p.433)
In true worship God speaks, we answer, God speaks again, we respond. ‘The Lord said to [Jeremiah]‘… ‘I answered…’ ‘But the Lord said to me…’ (Jeremiah 1:4-7). ‘I heard the Lord say, “Whom shall I send? Who will be our messenger?” I answered, “I will go! Send me!” So he told me to go…’ (Isaiah 6:8-9).
Over and over in the Bible God tells us he is not pleased with worship that’s just words or formulas, and does not lead to a changed life. Indeed if worship does not change us it is not true worship. As Jesus, God’s Word, was totally obedient to the will of his Father, so we must respond with our total selves (Romans 12:1,2).
Being ‘saved’ is more than ‘receiving Jesus as your personal Saviour’ (an expression, incidentally, that’s not in the Bible). Biblical salvation/wholeness includes justice and mercy as well (Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42). ‘Take away from me the noise of your songs! …But let justice roll down like an ever-flowing stream.’ (Amos 5:24). ‘I cannot tolerate your… festivals. When you lift your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you.
Though you offer countless prayers I will not listen… Cease to do evil and learn to do right. Pursue justice and champion the oppressed…’ (Isaiah 1:14ff. see also Mark 7:6-8).
To sum up: good preaching ‘exalts Christ’: our response is not ‘what great oratory!’ but ‘what a great Saviour!’ In a moving article in The Christian Century (August 24, 1994) Martin Copenhaver describes his last sermon to his congregation. He preached on the text ‘Who do people say that I am…? But who do you say that I am?’
‘The first question is as easy for us as it was for the Twelve. As Casey Stengel used to say, “You could look it up”. And you can answer a question like that without offending anyone… A scholar can answer that question historically or sociologically. A preacher can answer it with a sermon packed with quotes from Schillebeeckx and Crossan. It does not ask for commitment of any kind. But then comes the second question: “Who do you say that I am?” Only one word is different, but that one word makes all the difference. There is no escape into comfortable objectivity. This question demands not so much the insight of our minds as the allegience of our lives…’
Copenhaver mentioned a conference when evangelist Michael Green asked a the clergy: ‘When was the last time you told your congregation what Jesus means to you?’ The question haunted him. So he told his people, on the last day of his ministry with them.
‘At the conclusion of that sermon I stood at the door and shook hands with the congregation. One woman, a beloved saint of the church, came to the head of the line but was so overcome with emotion that she could not speak and went to the back of the line. I assumed that she simply did not know how to say goodbye. But when she finally reached me again, her voice cracked slightly as she asked, “Why didn’t you tell us this before?”‘
Further Reading: Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation (Fortress Press, 1989); John Claypool, The Preaching Event, (Word Books, 1980); The Light Within You, (Word Books 1983); Fred B. Craddock, Preaching, (Abingdon 1985); Rowland Croucher, Your Church Can Come Alive (Melbourne: John Mark Ministries, 1996); Michael Duduit (ed.), Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, (Broadman 1992); Bill Hybels, Stuart Briscoe, Haddon Robinson, Mastering Contemporary Preaching (IVP, 1989); Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebooks of a Tamed Cynic, (Meridian, 1960); John R W Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century, Michigan (Eerdmans, 1982); William Willimon, Richard Lischer eds., Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching (John Knox Press 1995).

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