A sermon in five pictures

When I am teaching groups on preaching, I generally confront them quite early on with opposing view of what it is all about. Consider, for instance, these two very different definitions:

‘To preach: to give advice in an offensive, tedious or obtrusive manner’
What am I doing here? Hilary Brand

A sermon is: ‘the most fruitful and powerful form of public discourse.’

-Leslie Griffiths in The Preacher

We generally move on from that to looking at different ‘pictures’ of the sermon.


In some traditions. with the pulpit built off to one side, the sermon serves as a ‘comment’ on the main event, which is the liturgy.


In others, the sermon may be seen as an opportunity for the preacher, or indeed other members of the congregation, to pass on (or recycle) insights they have gained from the Word in their daily living.

Meeting point

In some traditions, especially the Black Majority Churches, the sermon is the meeting point where dynamic word and needy people encounter each other in a moment of powerful interaction.


In some traditions, with a solidly constructed pulpit built front and centre in the church, the Word is delivered from on high to the waiting congregation.

Which is it in your church, I wonder…and which would you like it to be? Reading from Romans 10 v. 8 – 17, we went on to look at the role of the Word in worship.

It is an intimate word: close to the beat of our hearts, the conflicts of our minds, and the messiness of our lives, which so often seem far from God.

It is an indispensable word, without which worship is denuded of its power. It is the word of God which brought the universe springing to life in Genesis 1, and it will be the word of God which brings down the curtain on the apocalyptic chaos as described in Revelation 21.

It is an incarnate word, for in the end it is all a ‘word about Christ’ (Romans 10 v.17)


Behind the colossal statue of Martin Luther King erected in Washington DC in 2011, there is a granite wall bearing 16 of his most famous quotes. They ring with the tone of God’s word and echo its timbre with every syllable. The man who famously said ‘I have a dream’ said so many other truly prophetic things. We often mock somebody by saying that they sound like they have ‘swallowed a dictionary’. A Christian should sound like she or he has swallowed the word. This is not because they quote it all the time, but because it has invaded their very soul until they sing with its hope and speak with its poetry and breathe with its promise. I have a bit of a dream about that, as you can probably tell!

Image: wikipedia



When a President sings

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation online with a friend in North Carolina about a feature of the Welsh Revival – the hwyl. In the Preacher’s A to z, I describe it like this:

Some describe it as the word for sail, whilst others describe it as the kind of whoop uttered by followers of cock-fighting when their bird is winning!  It encapsulates that moment when the preacher becomes so caught up with his theme, that the Spirit of God seems to carry him along, like the wind filling the sails of a huge sailing ship and sending it skimming across the waves.  During the revival, a particular feature of this was that the preacher would move from an ordinary speaking voice into a kind of song, where he would begin to intone the sermon in an almost sing-song way.  Each preacher would have his own distinctive tune, and when he moved into it he was said to be preaching ‘with the hwyl’.

When President Barack Obama segued from speech to song and back again in his funeral address in South Carolina last week, was this the phenomenon we were seeing? It is tempting to be very sceptical about this. Obama and his team are past masters at judging mood and tone for every crowd and occasion. This is a man who can stride energetically to and fro in shirtsleeves for a College audience, or speak with measured statesmanlike tones from the White House lawn as the world’s cameras turn. Was this just another outing for the consummate pro and a true communications chameleon?

I would be tempted to say that it were, except that the song in Obama’s address started long before the music began. Consider this segment, for example:

This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones. The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons. The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals — the one we all know: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.  He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves.  We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

The timbre of these words is such that for anyone from certain traditions breaking into song would be almost inevitable. From such heights and depths of speech, where else would you go?

To see a British politician do such a thing would be almost inconceivable. Maybe it is because they do not ‘do’ religion in the same way that American politicians do. Maybe it is because our own scepticism would not allow us to believe that such a thing were genuine. Are we really capable of singing… or hearing such a song in public discourse, I wonder?

A discussion on music and worship

Last Sunday I preached on the purpose of worship. Preaching from Genesis 1 v.26 – 2 v.7, I talked about it as:

Instinct – we have a genetic inclination to worship every bit as internalized as a pigeon’s homing instinct or a border collie’s instinct to herd things. Some express it in a football stadium, feeling their spirit soar with 20 or 30,000 home fans as the deciding goal is scored. Some feel it at a gig as they press nearer and nearer the main stage until their rib cage shakes and shoes vibrate with the sound.  Others climb up and up and up the highest peak until they feel they can all but touch the sky. These things are not the kind of worship which engage heart and mind in an intentional encounter with God, but they are evidence of a worship instinct.

Integration – to truly worship God, the creator of all things, integrates us more with the rest of the created order than any other form of human activity. This is part of what Pope Francis was driving at in his encyclical, published last week:

If we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously

In these few verses of Genesis we have the most perfect picture of integration between humankind and nature ever painted. In truth, the whole of Scripture between that passage and the last word of Revelation is one long held breath as we await a return to the face-to-face worship for which we were purpose built.

Interim – in the meantime, we have worship as we know it now – imperfect, beset by little battles of taste and bigger divides of theology, and yet something without which we cannot survive. For now, it is what we have and we do it as honestly and hopefully and humbly as we can.


So far, so theological. On Monday morning I sat down in my office with one of the country’s finest worship leaders and songwriters. We made for quite a pair – him in his artfully ripped jeans and me in my pressed trousers. Where I wore striped shirt and tie he wore a designer t-shirt. His fishtail coat and woolly hat hung on the back of the chair, and my raincoat hung downstairs. We could not have been more different. And yet, we had one fundamental similarity. Worship has transformed us and is transforming us still. We share a frustration with mediocrity and a hunger for depth in every encounter with God. Faced with such things, every detail of age, background and style becomes no more significant than the wallpaper music playing in a lift as it moves you between floors. Moving, or rather being moved by God is what the conversation was all about…and I thank God for it.


A review of ‘Hitler’s forgotten children’ by Ingrid von Oelhafen

Every once in a while you think you have heard the most grotesque and bizarre extremes of Hitler’s National Socialist madness and then another revelation comes along. Reading Ingrid von Oelhafen’s book was just such a moment. To be honest, it was not a book I would usually pick up. Any book bearing the Swastika on a Baptist minister’s desk takes some explaining! However, I was invited to review it, and I am glad that I did.

The Lebensborn programme was an ugly scheme to sire generations of ‘pure’ Aryans to ensure the onward march of the thousand year Reich. Some children were born to unmarried mothers and fathered by SS officers. The children were then raised within the programme. Others, like Ingrid, were snatched from the arms of their mothers in the occupied territories and taken away to be placed with ‘proper’ Nazi families. Ingrid, like so many others, only discovered much later on that she was not the girl she was brought up to be.

So what is this book, then? Is it a history book, an autobiography or a tract on the evils of extremism? It is certainly not the latter, and it has elements of the former. Above all, this is a book about identity.  All through its pages, the desire to know ‘who I am’ beats like a distant drum for Ingrid. She can neither ignore it nor rest from its insistent call. In the end, though, identity proves to be something of a ‘will-o-the-wisp’ vanishing almost as soon as it is caught. Is the author of this book really Yugoslavian, but turned into a German, or is she really a German whose origins happen to be Yugoslavian? You will have to read the book to find out – but the answer is as complex and intricate as many of the loose threads which still hang from the Second World War.

Two of the most remarkable features of this book are its human warmth and its absence of rancour. The author has every right to bitterness and self-pity after the treatment she received, but she yields to neither. Towards the end of the book she writes ‘I knew I had to learn not just to understand but to forgive’. It is my belief that she has done both.




Something for father’s day

Like Mothering Sunday, Father’s Day can be fraught with all kinds of complications when it comes to a Sunday service. Maybe the best thing is to concentrate on God as father. I wrote the story below for our ‘teatime special’ in advance of Father’s Day yesterday. Please feel free to take it and make use of it f you can. I called it ‘a boy comes home’.


This is the story of 4 pigs, 2 boys and one amazing dad. The boys lived a long time ago on a farm way out in the countryside where they helped their dad with all the jobs around the farm. Some days they helped with the ploughing, some days with herding the cattle…and on some days with the stinky, smelly job of cleaning out the barn.

One day, the youngest son had had enough. First he got bored, then he got really bored , then he sulked, then he puffed…and at last he decided to tell his dad all about it. “Dad”, he said. “I’ve had enough. I can’t stand it any more. One day, when you’re gone I’ll have some of your golden coins – so can’t I just have them now?” His dad looked sad, his brother looked shocked, but he handed the coins over all the same – jangling in a little cloth bag.

With that, the younger brother took off like a rocket. He couldn’t wait to leave the cows, and the plough and the farm and his brother all behind. As fast as his legs would carry him, he headed for the city and began to spend and spend and spend those gold coins in his bag. He bought everything he wanted, he made new friends who only wanted his money and so he bought things they wanted too.  Before long, he reached into his bag to pay for the next thing, and there was nothing left – not a single coin. He opened it up, peeked inside, turned it upside down and shook it – but they were all gone.

Whatever was he to do? To keep himself from starving, he got a job on another little farm- looking after the pigs. There were four of them, and he named them noff, oink, snuffle and grunt. Each day he would care for them, and some days he thought they looked better cared-for than he did. “Oh piggies” he said to them one day “whatever shall I do?”. They looked at him with their muddy pink noses. “Noff” said noff, “oink” said oink, “grunt” said grunt, and snuffle just turned away and snuffled.

“Turn away” thought the boy. “That’s what I shall do. I’ll turn away from all the silly mistakes I’ve made and I’ll go back home to dad.” Waving goodbye to the pigs, he set off back down the road. As he got closer, his heart started to beat a little faster. “Whatever will dad say”, he wondered. “Will he be really really cross”? He needn’t have worried.

Just as he rounded the last bend in the road, he could see a figure at the end of the farm driveway. It was his dad – looking out down the road, hand across his eyes, to see if maybe today would be the day when his lovely boy came home. When the two of them spotted each other, they both ran as fast as they could – the boy on his young legs, and the dad on his old ones. When they met up they had the biggest hug you can ever imagine, and the boy never ran away again.



Jesus told that story about His dad – and you can find it in the Gospel of Luke



A new addition to the desktop

Long ago, before computers were part of our everyday lives, an icon was a word we associated with religion in general and Orthodox expressions of Christianity in particular. Properly understood, an icon is not a thing to be venerated, but rather it functions as a window which opens onto a greater reality beyond itself. Thus a depiction of Christos Pantocrator, for instance, would lead the worshipper to reflect on the limitless power of Christ who holds the universe (including the icon and the church in which it hangs) in his hands.

Then computers came along, and an icon became a window of a different kind. These little pictograms became instantly recognisable access points to the data or software which they represented. Earlier this week I added an image to my desktop, and it sits there nestled in amongst the familiar icons:

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

The picture shows a young woman, Elaine, and her husband, Neil. Every time it catches my eye, it reminds me of the greater reality behind their story. Life is very tough for them both, and they are meeting their adversity with courage, humour, humanity…and most of all faith. The quote below will give you a flavour of what I mean:

Amidst the tears that are weighted with intense pain and sorrow, there is a joy that beats to a different drum. Because Christ is risen. And, cheesy as it sounds, in my death, I will be more alive than I have ever been. I don’t want to die. I have a desire to fulfil my role as a wife and mother, amongst other things. But I’m not scared to die, and I have Christ, and Christ alone to thank for that.

These are not perfect people, nor are they giants of faith or super-heroes of any kind. They are just very ordinary people trusting in an extraordinary God – and I would encourage you to read their story here.

Puts all those other little icons in perspective, don’t you think?



The #MissingType campaign

Of course, the title of this blog post should read ‘fewer vowels and more blood’.  The omission of every ‘o’ ‘a’ and ‘b’ makes it impossible to write the sentence. Without those letters at my disposal I am unable to write any sentence.

There are people right now for whom the absence of ‘O’ ‘A’ and ‘B’ is much more than a grammatical problem. They need a blood transfusion today, and there is not enough blood from the three blood groups O, A and B to go round. 240,000 new donors are needed in the UK if the needs are to be met.

As someone charged with delivering a vital message every day, I salute those behind the National Blood Transfusion #MissingType campaign this week. It is funny, eye-catching and arresting – and all done with minimal cost. Lots of people, from finance houses and chocolate makers to London Boroughs and NHS hospitals have joined in. Will you?

More importantly, will you join the queue to give blood? Two years ago, I overcame a number of (altogether unfounded) fears to do so, and I am glad I did. Why not CLICK here today do so something about it?

Y u will  e gl d y u did.


Ideas on preaching from the Christian Resources Exhibition

Last month I gave a seminar at the Christian Resources exhibition on the ‘Preacher’s paint box’. The idea was drawn from my childhood, as I have vivid memories of opening the lid of a new paintbox and feeling a frisson of excitement at all the possibilities it contained. What if preacher’s could feel a similar tingle of creative possibility at the prospect of crafting a new sermon from the words and skills at their disposal?

A 1930s gem...

A 1930s gem…

Since my aim was to speak about the power of words, like the great Alistair Cooke saying that he ‘preferred television to radio, as the pictures were better’, this seemed like an occasion to ditch the power-point and go with something simpler. My presentation was supported by the 9 sheets of coloured card you see below.

9 colours

Flesh tones

It is important that the preacher remembers to look after him or herself as a real flesh and blood human being. We may do this by something as simple as taking a nap on a Sunday afternoon, or by choosing to work in a different environment when we write a sermon so as not to stagnate. Feeding the mind matters too. In doing so it is important that creative communicators expose themselves to the creative communication of others – in novels, films, plays or works of art.


My eyes happen to be blue, but you won’t be able to tell that when I preach if I am forever avoiding eye contact with you. As human beings we read truth and falsehood, sincerity and engagement from the eyes. A little more on that here from the Preacher’s A to Z:

When you first begin to preach, you may find the whole business of eye contact very disconcerting.  You may feel that people are staring at the spot of breakfast you failed to wash off your cheek, or seeking to communicate some unspoken approval or disapproval to you.  Resist the temptation to lose your concentration by interpreting every facial gesture you observe.  After all, you might be quite wrong!  Avoid, too, the ‘nodding dog’ approach – where you simply sweep your gaze from one side of the congregation to the other like one of those toy dogs on the parcel shelf of a car.  When you first start you may find it helpful to pick a spot in the air just above the back row and focus on it.  With time, though, you will relax into a more natural form of eye contact with your congregation.  You may even learn to enjoy this collection of faces.


Having driven many time sin France, I know of their great love for flashing orange road signs – the purpose of which is not always obvious! The most spectacular one I ever saw was a full size animated mannequin, dressed in day-glo vest, who was waving flags up and down to warn of road works. It was a gesture you could not miss! Note how much we “read” from gesture:

    Body posture can denote anything from measured reflection (stepping back) to forward thinking (stepping forward) to prevarication (stepping from side to side. Hand gestures can either invite response and participation, or shut it off inadvertently. It is worth watching Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention on August 28th 2008. The energetic person striding to and fro from the campaign had been replaced by a rock solid statesman-like presence who hardly moved from the podium.


As a (very average) watercolour painter, I know that green can be the hardest tone to get right in landscape painting. Too much blue in the mix and it feels cold, too much yellow and it feels acidic. Radio work has taught me the value of tone and that a good tone can enhance and average script, whereas a poor tone can ruin even the very best script. We cannot help but read the tone of the preacher – which means that he or she must select it carefully.


It was the ancient writer Horace who declared that ‘purple passages’ were unnecessary in prose to make it interesting. That said, most preaching is so anodyne that it could do with a splash more colour. Too often it addresses only the analytical left side of the brain and not the creative right side. Preaching must cross over the brain’s divide to forge neural pathways, or synapses, where the lesson preached can be retained. Consider the great Exilic prophets, whose prophecies contained no new theology, but evoked old truths with such startling poetry as to make it seem new.


Red is, of course, the colour of passion. We need passionate preachers – like the great S.M Lockridge of old. However, there is a narrow dividing line between passion and anger in human speech. It is worth considering that an intentionally quiet voice may convey great passion, and that silence in speech functions like white space on a page – making us notice the words all the more.


When painting, the pure colour white must be used with extreme caution, as it draws the eye instantly. Even a speck of it can affect the whole painting. However, when dealing with big themes the small highlight can be a way to highlight the issue. Consider this excerpt from Stale Bread, in  sermon on John 5 1 – 11 entitled ‘the death of expectation':

38 years is a long time.  Younger men had come since then, men with families and friends to carry them when the moment came.  By now, even his view of the water was obscured.  Way back, underneath the colonnade, his day was spent looking at the twisted backs and passing healthy feet of others.As expectation died, and hopes withered – tiny things became absorbing.  Today he was watching a beetle in the dust by his wretched feet.  For hours on end it had been struggling to roll a morsel of bread away from the crowd – to feed its children, perhaps.  The morsel was two or three times its size, and many times it had rolled back on top of the hapless creature – mocking its efforts.  ‘Give up’, the man mouthed – ‘its easier in the end.’  But the creature would not give up, and was rallying from its last defeat, when the man’s view was obscured.


When used carefully in a painting, black can bring real depth – turning an object three-dimensional through shadow, or making a doorway so intriguing you want to walk through it.  There are times when every preacher will have to preach in the midst of personal sorrow. They should not parade it for all to see, buy equally they should not eschew the depth it may bring to preaching. In his book, the Jazz of Preaching, Kirk Byron Jones talks about this:

‘When it comes to preaching through times of emotional strain and pain, the question is not how to preach when your heart is not in it.  The question is how to preach with a different heart, a wounded heart.


When all is said and done, preaching is a great privilege, and should put a little sunshine in our hearts. It puts us in a line of prophetic speech stretching all the way back to Isaiah – as Paul expresses in Romans 10 v.15. The preacher;s words, so carefully crafted, may have an impact months or years after they are preached.

Why not enjoy these 40 seconds of colour as you contemplete your paintbox today?

A review of ‘Death’s summer coat’ by Brandy Shillace

Amongst the most unusual questions I have ever been asked as a Baptist Minister is whether or not I “do deaths and that”.  The answer to the question is that I do. In my role it falls to me to sit with both the dying and the grieving. I find myself frequently admitted to the innermost circle of grief when it has shrunk to the person dying and their closest family, or simply that person and their professional carers. This confined space is a privileged place to be, and in it we see humanity in its rawest form.

Dr Schillace has been there too, both as an academic and a human being. Her academic acumen and historical analysis is plain for every reader to see, but so is her warm humanity. In a journey which takes us from the sky burials of Tibet to the jewelled skulls of Bolivia and from memorial tattoos where the ink is mixed with the ashes of the dead to the questions surrounding digital legacy on Facebook – we actually start and end with her own family. The mixture of the analytical and the personal is part of what makes the book so readable. This is not a detached and mawkish analysis of death, nor is it an indulgent exercise in auto-counselling.

For Shillace we live in an age where we are caught between the twin polarities of immortality and disposability. Unable to reconcile the two, we may be even less able than our ancestors to articulate what we feel about death. ‘Death denial is a privilege’ , she says – with characteristic candour. She does not hold back on the reality of losses :

Such losses are more like amputations. We carry them always; the world is changed after loss. And so it should be. The challenge is how to respond properly to that change.

Readers will find that the book’s centre of gravity leans more towards America than the UK, and more towards the medical than the spiritual. I found that neither of these troubled me, though. More than anything else this book is a plea that we should have a conversation about death and dying. Those who have heard me talk about it on the radio and from the pulpit will know that  I could not agree more.


The hunt for answers

In our evening services over the past couple of months, we have been looking at some pf the problems with praying.  We have considered how prayer is unnatural, how easy it is to be distracted, and how much we need to learn about listening.  For the most part, we have dealt with these topics interactively, talking to each other around tables and sharing our insights.  This week we come to the topic of ‘spotting the answers’.  It is not always easy to discern the answers to our prayers.  In Luke 7 v. 18, we find John the Baptist in a terrible state. He has devoted his life to announcing the Messiah, but now he is uncertain as to whether he has missed the point. Even the unshakable enthusiasm of his disciples doesn’t seem to help. When they ask Jesus for clarification in v.21 of the same chapter – he puts the onus on them to make their own minds up. These are vexed questions.

I wonder whether you could ‘road test’ the little exercise below, and let me know how you get on? Your help is greatly appreciated.

Martha, John and Sally all live in the same block of flats, and all are Christians. Up until recently, they have had a lovely view from their second floor windows.  Now that has all changed, and the spoil heap from nearby construction work has all but obscured it.  Last night they held a prayer meeting in one of their flats, asking God to do something about the situation.Early the next morning Martha rushes to her window, throws open the curtains and sees that the spoil heap is still there.  She puffs, and turns away.  Sally looks out at the same view, sees the sun coming up over the ridge of the new spoil heap, and feels her spirits lift.  John sees a digger moving into position at the foot of the heap, and nods with satisfaction.

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