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  • Receiving (2) - and Connecting

    Sunday morning, and I just listened to last week's service on the podcast.  Again, it was great to tune in and be part of what was happening, even if separated by time (I think it's right that we don't live cast as some of what we share is sensitive or confidential).

    The Nazareth Manifesto, which was the gospel passage set in the lectionary is one of those 'gift' passages that can also be a challenging to preach on - it's so familiar and so many 'angles' have already been explored that finding something new to say is tricky.

    Actually, the sermon didn't say anything I hadn't heard or thought before, and that didn't matter.  If we always seek novelty in preaching then we are probalby missing something valuable as a result.

    I loved how the sermon began with an exercise of the imagination, even if every time the preacher said "Temple" I automatically corrected it to "synagogue"... And I know they realised because the final time they said synagogue-temple.  Did it matter?  Not really.  In other contexts it might have done, but the skilful story centred on the fact that Jesus was among the people he'd grown up with, who had sat in that synagogue before he was born and so on.

    It was a sermon gentle and affirming in style and content, and I felt 'stroked' as I listened.

    Then came my nugget, a connection with what I had heard/discerned listening last week.

    After some introduction, this song was played, and people invited to ponder it, to use it as a prayer...

    The song speaks of God as the light in the darkness, the one that brings hope to, and transforms 'this city'.  Here I found, or made, a connection to last week's sermon on Sodom and Gomorra, and the role of the 'righteous' in saving - and transforming - these cities, this city.

    The sermon on the Luke passage noted the "now and not yet" of the fulfilment of the prophecy, and the tension that holds for us as believers.  It seemed to me to go back to the salt and light idea, the truth that we are 'Christ' in this place, that God's spirit is the breath that energises us for service in our tiny ways, that God achieves good things through flawed and frail folk like us.

    Greater things are yet to come, greater things are still to be done in this city...

    And in your town, your village, your city... because scripture is fulfilled, history is made whenever God's people, however inadequate do their best to live out their faith where they are placed.

    Another thoughtful and thought-provoking sermon, a sense of God's spirit leading me to make connections.  I am excited to discover where my thoughts go next week, as I listen to what has been preached today!!

  • How Long is a Piece of String? (Or Sermon/Service Prep)

    Recently I heard of a novice preacher who was concerned that it took them two weeks, on and off, to prepare a sermon they'd be happy to deliver.  How could they ever be a preacher if that was the case, they wondered.  The answers to that question are varied, but clearly as an occasional preacher they are already fine, as a regular, but relatively infrequent preacher they would be fine, but they are not yet at the stage of weekly, let along twice weekly preaching.  And that's absolutely fine - they are just starting out, this is all new and they are learning the craft, not just of preaching but also of preparation.

    This reminded me of a NAM residential way back (at least a decade ago, maybe more) when one of the invited speakers was a very well respected preacher, whose task it was to speak to us about sermon and service preparation.  His talk was wide ranging and had lots of good stuff, but what struck me then, and has stayed with me since was his (in my view utterly impracticable) view of sermon prep.  You begin on Monday morning, he said, be reading the passage(s), checking the commentaries and noting down ideas, themes, questions, conections.  On Tuesday you create a first draft.  On Wednesday you refine the draft.  On Thursday you reduce the script to notes.  On Friday you reduce the notes to headings (he predated the term 'bullet points').  On Saturday you rehearse and tweak.  On Sunday you deliver the polished sermon, sans notes, with just a few headers to keep you on track.  So that would be something of the order of 20 - 25 hours just on the sermon.

    Yeah, right!

    There is so much impossible - and wrong - with this model!  It is wrong because there is no rest day, no day on which the preacher is able to relax and be refreshed.   It is wrong because it assumes that note-free preaching is de facto better than scripted preaching, that this is the epitome of how it should be done; it is not, some of the best preachers I know always use full scripts.  It is unrealistic because service preparation, at least in any church I've served, involves a whole lot more than sermon writing - hymns, prayers, all age bit, etc..  And it is impossible because, frankly, there just aren't enough hours in a week!

    That said, to an extent, I follow a similar model most weeks.  On a Tuesday I will read the passages and any supporting material or commentaries I find useful or helpful - though sometimes a pure 'reader response' feels equally valid.  Usually I will try to get down some ideas and, if it's a busy week, a first draft.  Ideally I will note some ideas and leave them to mull in my subconscious overnight.  I like to have a full draft by Wednesday and am concerned if I don't have one by Thursday!  Most weeks, but not all, the draft will be refined and 'put to bed' on a Thursday, with enough time for final mulling and last minute tweaks, re-writes or whatever if needed.  I think I've only once still been working on a sermon on a Saturday; twice in my life I have woken up on a Sunday and known I had to completely re-write my sermon; a similar number of times I've abandoned my script and just spoken.  In each case, it was the discipline of preparing that meant it was possible to be flexible at the last minute.

    So, a sermon is usually three or four days in the making, but obviously not the whole of those days.  And then there are the prayers to write or select, hymns to choose, interactive all age slot to develop, communion liturgy, blessing and so on and so forth.  So how long does it all take?

    The answer is, how long is a piece of string.  And it is also related to how experienced a preacher is.

    Choosing hymns/songs never takes less than an hour, and can take half a day, because it is important to me to get it right.  A balance of styles and moods.  Different purposes - gathering, praising, teaching, responding, praying, sending and so on.  Well known, or at least familiar, and new material.  Avoiding having the same songs every week.  Alertness to 'sensitive' hymns (those recently used at a funeral for exmaple).  Awareness of my own likes and dislikes (I am known quite regularly, if not very freqeuntly, to choose hymns I actively dislike!)

    Writing prayers, or sourcing them on the days I feel devoid of inspiration (and begin to understand why RC/Anglican churches use the same words every week!), probably takes around an hour.  If it is my turn for intercessions - which it is roughly once a month - then that will at least double the time spent.  Now and then I'll do interactive intercessions which mean less time writing and more time thinking through process - asking the congregation to write, draw or symbolise prayers is not an easy way out, if done properly.

    I usually create new communion liturgies ex nihilo to blend with the theme of the service.  Now and then I borrow or adapt them from published works, but even here there is the time to identify, read and copy (even electronically) the words I will use.  Probably another hour or so, maybe two if it proves more challenging.

    If you tot up these times - and I have not specified the hours on the sermon, the 'all age' bit or the PowerPoint (my choice) it is clear that, even for an experienced preacher, with a fair wind and few interruptions, it's around half a day to formulate the service into which the sermon will be preached, and as much as three half days to create it.   I leave it to the congrgeation and the Holy Spirit to decide if that's ~15-20 hours well spent!  Sometimes it is longer.  Sometimes it has to be a heck of a lot less.

    The other week, when I abandoned my script and spoke, I mentioned that two days earlier I had needed to give an 'address' at about fifteen minutes notice, and that frankly, if after 16 years of regular preaching, and 30 years of doing Girls Brigade devotions, I couldn't do that, there was something wrong.  At a push, I can write a sermon in an hour, pick hymns in ten minutes and pray totally extempore.

    There are weeks when services are prepared in a hurry, when what I share is the first draft of something I didn't begin to prepare until Thursday.  There are weeks when, having stared at a blank screen day in, day out, I offer something I feel is inadequate.  And, yes, there are weeks when I feel chuffed with what I've achieved.

    I recall the first time I came to The Gathering Place to "preach with a squint" in English-Baptist parlance.  As I prepared, it struck me very forcibly that it would be wrong, very wrong, to go all out to make this the best prepared sermon I could muster, with all the bells and whistles I could think of.  Wrong because it would not be sustainable.  Instead I deliberately treated it as a 'normal' preach in a good week... if my 'good average' wasn't good enough, then this was not the place for me, or I the minister for it.

    Six years on I have preached a lot of sermons here.  Some I have been pleased with, some I felt were terrible, most have been around my 'good average'.

    Service prep time has to be flexible - ministry is not just about the words spouted on a Sunday.  Sometimes it is the sermons I've toiled over, seemingly to no avail, or have thrown together in a rush, through which God's Spirit touches people.  Such is the mystery.

    I wish I could speak to the young, inexperienced preacher myself and assure them that what they are feeling is normal, natural, healthy and mature.  I wish I could reassure them that it will get 'easier'.  But perhaps we have to discover these things for ourselves... and be given places safe enough in which to do so.

  • The Eye of the Beholder

    I'd been saving the picture linked to Ecclesiastes 3:11 for an opportune time to colour it... I love the truth it speaks, but the time to savour the colouring had felt like "not yet."

    Over on social media, I found I had been tagged by a friend in a 'challenge' to post five photos of myself that I considered expressed beauty.  As someone who has never considered herself to be physically beautiful, indeed who has been told she is 'plain' and even 'ugly' (long ago and far away) I was surprised, and not a little chuffed to be 'tagged' by someone who I described as "beautiful inside and out".

    Rather than reinvent the wheel, I'll post the same words here I posted there, and then add some further reflections (I won't put the photos here due to memory constraints)...

    The "I'm beautiful the way I am" Challenge

    I never think of myself as beautiful, and let's be honest I'm a bit of a tom-boy with sensitive skin that dislikes makeup [the skin dislikes it], so I am honoured and a little bit chuffed to be nominated for this. The inevitable physical scars of cancer (and related) surgery - totalling almost a metre if laid out end to end - and the invisible scars of life in all its rich reality are part of who I am ... if I have beauty, then these, too, are part of it. Learning to acknowledge my unique beauty is a life-time's work: this is part of that.


    The verse from Ecclesiastes reminds us, reassures us, tells us, urges us, to believe that everything - EVERY thing, every THING, EVERYTHING is beautiful, because God has made it so.  Beautiful slugs, beautiful cacti, beautiful fleas, beautiful rocks, beautiful people, beautiful water, beautiful stars, beautiful dust... beauty isn't [just] about outward attractiveness, it is, if we dare to trust this verse, an implicit quality, waiting to be discovered or uncovered.  Beauty is not about picture-perfect physcial attributes, but is something that shines or glimmers despite them.

    Beauty is not something we may feel we possess - perhaps we need permission to hear, let alone believe that we each have our own unique beauty.  This is not to deny ugliness, by which I don't mean physical appearance but an inner being that has shrivelled or grown hard or negative,  but it is to say that the potential for beauty remains 'in our time', because God has made us beautiful, and redemption is always possible.

    Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder... and the beholder is none other than God.

  • Unity in Diversity

    Thursday 4th Febraury is, so I recently discovered (or maybe rediscovered, my memory is rubbish) World Cancer Day.  This year in the UK four of the major cancer charities have chosen to work together, each selling ther own 'unity bands' to raise funds for their work, but with the common theme of 'unity'.  With the hashtag #adaytounite individuals and families are invited to post photos wearing their band/bands as a sign of this unity.

    The four charities each offer something unique...

    CRUK is primarily a research charity, covering all kinds of cancer and funding work right across the UK.

    The Anthony Nolan Trust is concerned solely with blood cancers, and central to its work are the bone marrow donor registers, as well as research and support.

    The Movember Foundation, famous for it's November moustache fundraiser, focuses on mens health in general with key areas including male cancers - prostate and testicular - a mixture of research, education and support.

    Breast Cancer Care as it's name suggests is a support charity concerned with cancers affecting the breast in women and men, with education and awareness raising as well as all sorts of practical support.  Unlike the others listed above, it is not a research charity, though increasingly it is involved in campaigning in the area of secondary breast cancer.


    I opted to purchase two bands - CRUK and Breast Cancer Care as these are the two that resonate with my experience, and for which I have raised, and do raise, money.

    What I like about this awareness and fundraising campaign is that these charities are not competing, they are standing alongside each other, recognising the unique contribution each makes in a huge field.  Sometimes charities do compete, sometimes one will deliberately start up services another already offers... not so unlike churches really!  What is good is when, as here, they can work alongside each other.  There is lots of small scale charitable ecumenism for sure - here in Glasgow I know of joint projects between these and other charities.  This all seems good.

    On Tuesday I will have my annual check-up and "squish" - which will be five years since my surgery and, all things being equal, five years NED.  Supporting the charities whose work directly or indirectly has helped me seems a good way to celebrate that.

  • I did that!

    Seeing the footage of Jo Brand walking the Trans Pennine Trail (TPT) brought back many happy memories of doing more or less (well, more: the route we did was 40 miles longer) the same back in 2006. 

    My friend and I walked west to east, Liverpool to Hull in ten days, averaging 20 miles a day (peak was about 24 if memory serves) and carrying everything we needed on our backs.  We set off in blistering heat - with one of us (me) experiencing horrendous blisters and the other (her) suffering with the heat.  We had some crazy adventures, not least the B&B that had double booked and we had to go another three miles to the alternative he'd found... which was good as it was nearer the trail but we'd already walked about five miles off trail to get there... (thankfully he gave us a lift to it).  By the time we arrived in Hull the weather had done what it does in Britain, and turned to cold, lashing rain and a strong wind... having been frazzled we now froze and went into a pub to drip dry and warm up by consuming jam roly poly and custard.  But it was fun, we raised a lot of money for a small research charity, and we made some special memories.

    So I enjoyed watching Jo brand walk where I'd walked (or some of it anyway) and savoured the fact that here was a celebrity doing a challenge that was in the reach of ordinary people.  No canoeing down the Amazon or cycling up Africa or any other impossible aspiration... Instead in the dark and cold and wet of January, she took on a demanding schedule to cross this island in the public eye and did it with aplomb.

    I really respect her for taking this challenge and completing it.