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  • Singing Theology

    A pretend book cover, based on a quote by Bible scholar Gordon Fee.  And whilst it's not saying anything new, it says it very well.

    The quote can be heard either postively (if we are happy with what it implies) or negatively (if we don't like it) or maybe even as a challenge to reflect on what that might say about our own church.

    Personally, I'm very happy with the idea - which is perhaps as well, given that I choose the bulk of the hymns/songs each week.  I am also more than happy that the balance of the music, chosen by our Musical Director (or whatever posh title we give him) expresses our theology too.

    Some of the music we sing is overtly aspirational - this is the kind of church we long to be, are on a journey to becoming, a theology we are working out even when it's tricky.  Songs/hymns in this category would include:

    Jesus call us here to meet him
    Great God, your love has called us here
    Let us build a house where love can dwell
    For everyone born a place at the table

    Some of the music we sing explicitly expresses the hope we have in a God of grace, mercy, justice and love, such as:

    Come to me and I will give you rest
    Do not be afraid, I have redeemed you
    The Lord's my shepherd (in assorted versions!)
    O love that will not let me go
    What a friend we have in Jesus
    Great is thy faithfulness

    Some of the songs we sing express our ethnic diverity and sense of being part of the World Church, so we from time to time sing songs in languages including


    Sometimes we sing very cheesy songs and have fun - because church can be awfully staid and 'proper' and I'm sure God has a great sense of humour

    God's people aren't super brave super-heroes
    Father Abraham has many kin
    If you're black or if you're white or if you're in between (God loves you when you're being good and even if you're bad...)

     We sing songs that express hope, and songs that act as prayers, we sing old songs and new songs.  No writer or 'stable' is off limits as the collection of music books on my shelves demonstrates...

    Baptist Praise and Worship (red book) and Baptist Hymnbook (green) and the ill-fated 'Praise for Today'
    Methodist Hymnbook and Hymns & Psalms
    Rejoice and Sing and Congregational Praise
    Hymns Old and New, RC and Anglican editions
    Church Hymnary, Fourth Edition
    Sunday School Praise
    Mission Praise, Junior Praise, Carol Praise
    Songs of Fellowship original series and new series!
    Really Good Songs for Junior Church
    Kid Source
    A complete set of Iona books including 'Love from Below' and others whose names I cannot, just now, recall
    Assorted books from Taize
    And a whole load you'll never had heard of, and I can't recall off the top of my head.

    My church has a very wide repetoire of songs and hymns, and is always willing to learn fresh (new or old) material.  Week by week, as I choose the hymns and as the MD chooses the choir pieces, we have always in mind very strongly that the songs we sing both inform and are informed by our theology.

    Of course, very occasionally I will be totally self indulgent and choose something just because I like it!  But maybe that's a theological expression in its own right...

  • Resistance is Futile!

    I've used very basic, pay-as-you-go mobile phones for however long it is I've had a mobile phone.  In the last week circumstances have meant oodles of texts and a fair few international calls that have gobbled up credit.  So today I gave in, signed up for a pay-monthly contract and ordered myself a smart-phone for my personal use.  My current personal phone will then become my work phone.  My pre-historic work phone will go in the drawer as the emergency spare phone!  This is allowed, as all the phones are my property, and I have saved each of my churches a small fortune by being PAYG, and still will be for my work phone for as long as it is feasible to do so.

    Resistance is futile, and I'm now about to join the ranks of smart-phone sheep baa!

  • The "Treadmill"?

    This is how one theological educator I know describes the disicipline of regular preaching - a treadmill that cannot be escaped (except through advance negotiation or sickness).  It's a slightly harsh/negative descriptor, but one that carries a deal of truth... Apart from those print journalists whose task it is to produce 'leaders' or 'comments' I find it hard to think of many other professions where there is an inbuilt expectation of a decent deliverable every week, rain or shine.  Although I know that as soon as people read that, they'll think of others.

    The discipline of preaching, the routine of preparing at least one (and when I started out at least two) acts of worship every week is demanding.  Having preached weekly for eleven years, twice weekly for a year before that, fortnightly (plus occasional others) for four years before that and infrequently before that, I can safely say I've prepared and delivered a heck of a lot of sermons (of which I'd say less than a dozen have been used more than once).  Sometimes it is pure joy, other times it is sheer slog; mollty it is somewhere between the two.  Above all it is a deliberate discipline.

    So here are a few stories and quotes from my experience, some of which fess up to things most preachers/ministers probably will never admit, about how it sometimes is.

    In Season and Out of Season

    This phrase, from Paul's charge to Timothy, and hence my own call, is one that I often wonder quite what it means.  Preach whether anyone listens or not?  Preach whether the time feels right or not?  Preach whether you feel like it or not?  For this reflection, I am choosing to hear it more along the lines of the latter.  Preach whatever 'season' of life you are in.  When the words come easy and when you stare at a blank computer screen with a brain devoid of words....  When ministry is rewarding and when, for two pins, you'd throw in the towel and become a checkout operator...  When your congegation seems totally engaged and the charismatics would assert that "the Spirit is moving" and when hardly anyone is there and you are not sure anything you are saying makes sense anyway.  I think it is a call to resilience, a call to "keep on keeping on",  that the LORD's servant refused to be discouraged (my interpretation of the Isaiah words).

    If preaching is a vocation, we do it not because we can, but because we cannot not; not because we may but because we must... Because it isn't about us, but about the one who, out of the whole world, looked at us and said "it's you" (and there was no-one else that might have been meant).  "Here I am, I can do none other" - unless that's at the heart of it, then the resilience to preach when your heart is breaking or your faith is flickering or your body is exhausted will not be there.

    Preach Faith until You Have Faith, Then Preach Faith

    These words, or something very similar were spoken to none other than the great John Wesley when he was on a mission trip to the north Americas.  An ordained Anglican, he was going through a season of questioning his faith and wondered, should he still be preaching.  He took advice and was told to preach faith until he had faith, then to preach faith.  We know the rest of the story.

    In my second year at college, I chose to work with a Roman Catholic church, which was challenging and painful, engaging and enjoyable in roughly equal measure.  Roman Catholics can do major festival brilliantly, and especially Easter.  We jourrneyed through Holy Week to Good Friday, culminating in the moment at 3 p.m. when there is no doubt whatsoever that Jesus is dead, and the empty ache of Holy Saturday must be faced.  The Easter Vigil from Saturday to Sunday is an amazing spectacle but it took me the closest I have ever come to losing my faith.  The church gradually filled with light and colour as the first Mass of Easter was celebrated... and I, as a non-RC person was excluded.  The emptiness was not displaced.  Christ did not rise, and I wondered if he ever would.  I had an evening service to preach at elsewhere, and no choice  but to preach faith... (who knew the first year Sprituality course for which I'd chosen to research Wesley would prove so helpful...).  It was only when I came to preach on Thomas at an evening serivce a full week later that something pierced my inner gloom.  I've never got back to where I was before that moment, but fifteen years later I still believe, still preach.

    Part of the disicpline of preaching, the treadmill, is to preach faith when you have little faith, to speak of hope when God seems silent or adsent.  The challenge is, perhaps to do so in a way that honours the struggle and avoids glib platitudes.

    Let the Dead Bury their own Dead - You, Preach the Good News

    It was August 2008, I had just completed walking Offa's Dyke south to north and I had agreed to preach at my "Sending Church" on the Sunday before heading home.  At 7 a.m. that morning my mobile phone rang with the news that a member of my congregation in Dibley had died after a short, courageous journey with cancer.

    This was one of my very rare 'repeat perfomance' sermons, adapted from one that I'd preached at Dibley a few weeks earlier, I think (I have not checked) on some of the harder words of Jesus.  It included "let the dead bury their own dead, you, preach the Good News."

    Standing in a familiar church, with people who had watched me morph from engineer to student to minister, and wanting to be in Dibley embracing the congregation entrusted to me, I stood up to preach.  Suddenly I understood these words in a whole new way, and, like my experience in Easter 2001, I can never go back to the time before it.

    Whatever is going on, no matter how I feel, the call is a call to preach Good News... to find hope, love, promises, hints-of-glimspes of God.  Afterwards I can crumple and crumble; afterwards I can weep or rage.  But in that moment, my task is to preach...

    People tell me I do a good funeral, I'd like to think that maybe that is a practical outworking of this tough call.


    Preaching, for me, is not so much a treadmill as a disicipline.  Feelings and circumstances may (and perhaps should)  inform my preaching, but they can never control it.  Likewise, faith or its lack, questions or confusion are not a bar to my preaching, and sometimes I must preach despite them. 

    I am 'contracted' to lead worship 41 Sundays a year... to prepare and deliver that number of sermons.  In addition are a few evenings, a share of Uni Chapel prayers, some mid-week reflections and a very occasional guest preach.  It goes without saying that the 'quality', whatever that means, will vary.  That sometimes what I deliver is prepared in haste and lacks refinement.  That sometimes I will have agonised over a word or phrase.  That sometimes I will have stared, impotent at the screen for hours,  That sometimes I will be wowed by a new insight I long to share...

    And always, always there is the mystery that is preaching.  That my words are heard and morphed into something meaningful for someone or several someones.  That now and then there are 'hmmmm' moments.  That occasionally someone will say "that was for me".  And that very, very occasionally, I will abandon the notes I've laboured over and simply speak, because that, too, is Godly.

    You, preach the word, be ready in season and out of season.

    Preach faith until you have faith, then preach faith.

    Let the dead bury their own dead, you preach the Good News.


    This, for me is the disicipline of preaching, and if it's a 'treadmill' it's one I am happy to tread, trusting that somehow this is what God requires of me.