Lent: An Invitation

The season of Lent is a time for us to reflect on our spiritual journey, and a chance to practice the spiritual discipline of fasting. Just as Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days, Lent affords us that same opportunity to give up something in order that we might rely on God more.

Something that's more traditional to give up for Lent is food, whether it be sweets or chocolate, or coffee. The point is to choose something that won't be too easy for you, otherwise there's no real challenge, is there? If you're choosing a food related item, make it something that you'll notice each time.

Another suggestion might be a negative behaviour that you want to give up. Maybe now would be a good time to give up smoking, or maybe swearing is a problem for you. Perhaps you could refrain from using your smartphone at mealtime. All of these would be great candidates to give up for Lent, and even beyond!

Finally, another suggestion would be to consider giving up some form of leisure or entertainment activities. Video games, watching TV, checking social media, Facebook, Youtube... any one of these could be given up during the season of Lent. Ironically, you're reading this online right now, but it's still worthwhile to consider giving it up.

Whatever you decide, remember: we are not trying to punish ourselves, nor do we want to become legalistic about it

Simply use the fast as a way to help you to live a more disciplined life, and to help us focus our attention more on God.


A review: “I Believe In Preaching” - John Stott

John Stott’s book I Believe In Preaching is one of a series of books examining various aspects of the Christian life and faith, including topics such as the church, evangelism, the Holy Spirit, the second coming, and the resurrection of Jesus. According to series editor Michael Green, “the aim of this I Believe series has been to take a fresh, biblical, positive look at some of the important areas of Christian belief and practice which have been neglected or minimized in modern times.” Stott definitely meets the expectations for this series, and the scope of his book is wide. He begins by tracing the arc of preaching through history, beginning with Jesus and the apostles through to the present day. Then he turns his focus to the contemporary objections to preaching, of which there are many, and offers his reply to them. The next chapters deal with the theological foundations for preaching, of preaching as building a bridge between the bible and the culture, the need for study, and some practical suggestions for sermon preparation. Stott’s final chapters examine the character of the preacher themselves, calling for sincerity and courage and humility.

The historical overview of preaching through the ages highlights the common theme and mandate of Christian witness through preaching. There is a commitment and dedication to the Word which is evidenced in every example of Stott’s great preachers. One particular example stood out, that of John Chrysostom. According to Stott, the main characteristics of Chrysostom’s preaching was that it was biblical, with a simple and straightforward interpretation of the Scripture. During that period of the early church, there was a school of interpretation that emphasized the use of allegory, which Stott calls “fanciful” . Chrysostom was more literal in his interpretation, and Stott commends him for it. Furthermore, Chrysostom was very down to earth in his applications, and was not afraid to tell it like it was. Stott characterizes him as “fearless in his condemnations.” Can we take a cue from Chrysostom as well? Perhaps we ought to be more straightforward and direct with our preaching, and not ‘pull any punches’ so to speak, but be down to earth and not afraid to speak the truth, even though it might be unpopular or painful. Stott’s brief history shows us that preaching has been accorded an important place throughout the history of Christianity, and that the testimony to its importance has been consistent from one era to the next.

However, preaching has and continues to come under attack. In his chapter on contemporary objections to preaching, Stott identifies the mood of anti-authority as one particular objection. People are unwilling to accept any kind of authority over them, and to them the preacher is merely another authority figure to be rejected out of hand. To be sure, many bad preachers merely contribute to their own bad image, and Stott gives a number of examples of preachers who are of no help to the cause. To counter this atmosphere Stott encourages the reader to remember a number of important points. First, be reminded of the biblical view of the nature of human beings. We were created to be morally responsible and free, and that freedom only can come in the context of some authority. Stott exhorts, “Freedom unlimited is an illusion. The mind is free only under the authority of truth, and the will under the authority of righteousness. It is under Christ’s yoke that we find the rest he promises, not in discarding it.” Secondly, we must remember the doctrine of revelation. Preaching is not the espousing of man-made ideals, not a convincing human argument, but it is God revealing Himself. We only know God through His own self-revelation. Thirdly, we must recall that the centre of authority does not lie within us, but with God and His Word. Furthermore, we must go one step further by demonstrating in our speech and behaviour that we are also under this authority and willing to submit to it. Fourthly, Stott reminds us of the relevancy of the gospel. The word must be close to life, not ‘ivory tower’ discourse with no connection to the listener’s life. In quoting Dr. Clement Welsh from his book Preaching in a New Key, he proposes as careful a treatment of the audience as the text itself; essentially, this is the exegesis of the audience. Stott’s final response to the anti-authority mood is to remind us of the dialogical nature of preaching. The sermon must ask the questions that the congregation is thinking, and dialogue with itself, so to speak. In this way, the listener is allowed to interact with the sermon, because you have done it for them. It legitimises their questions and objections to your points, and it demonstrates that you have given it thought and are not unaware of what they think and feel. As a result, the audience will be more apt to listen to what you have to say.

Stott characterizes preaching as ‘bridge-building’, spanning the distance both temporally and culturally between the Bible and the present day. The purpose is to connect the two so that there can be communication between the two sides, and that the faith of the ancient world can be relevant to people of the current era. There are, however, two traps one could fall into. The first is to be so conservative that we remain firmly on the Biblical shore, and never construct the bridge. While we may feel it safer not to venture over to the other side, to fail to do so is to be irrelevant. The other trap is that of being so swayed by the ever changing attitude and mood of the contemporary world that “all their sermons are earthed in the real world, but where they come from (one is tempted to add) heaven alone knows. They certainly do not appear to come out of the Bible.” While Stott admits that both examples are a bit extreme, he is very much on point. We notice these tendencies in our own experience, and to be reminded of the balance and the need to connect the two sides. The aim is to be relevant, but to challenge the suppositions of the contemporary world with biblical truth.

A book on preaching is likely to contain some guidance as to how to prepare a sermon, and Stott does not disappoint. His general outline is very similar to Haddon Robinson’s:

1. Choose your text
2. Meditate on it
3. Isolate the dominant thought
4. Arrange your material to serve the dominant thought
5. Add the introduction and conclusion
6. Write down and pray over your message

In each section, Stott gives advice that would be familiar to any Robinson devotee, however, there are a number of highlights. One concerns the meditation on a text, and Stott quotes Spurgeon, “…let us, dear brethren, try to get saturated with the gospel. I always find that I can preach best when I can manage to lie asoak in my text .... and then, after I have bathed in it, I delight to lie down in it, and let it soak into me.”

Stott also provides some direct advice on how to use words, and what kind of words to use. The preacher ought to keep her words simple, and not commit ‘verbicide’ (the murder of words), to use C. S. Lewis’ term. Words should be vivid, conjuring up images, and honest. Say what you mean, and do not over-inflate words by overuse of superlatives. C. S. Lewis’ advice: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’, otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”

The concluding chapter of Stott’s book focuses on courage and humility. On courage, Stott highlights Phillips Brooks speaking out against being enslaved by popular opinion:

Courage is the indispensable requisite of any true ministry … If you are afraid of men and a slave to their opinion, go and do something else. Go and make shoes to fit them. Go even and paint pictures which you know are bad but which suit their bad taste. But do not keep on all your life preaching sermons which shall not say what God sent you to declare, but what they hire you to say. Be courageous. Be independent.

What encouraging words to the preacher! And what a challenge as well. We require the courage to speak the truth, and also the humility which combats pride. Lest we begin to feel arrogant, we must submit ourselves to God’s Word, we strive to achieve “visible invisibility” as we preach, and we depend on the Holy Spirit and His power. It is a fitting end to a book on preaching.

Advent Week 4: "Joy"

Do not judge men by mere appearances; for the light laughter that bubbles on the lip often mantles over the depths of sadness, and the serious look may be the sober veil that covers a divine peace and joy.
- Edward Chapin

Do you ever judge a book by its cover? Or better yet, do you ever talk about books you've never read? A professor of literature at Paris University, Pierre Bayard, published a book "Comment Parler des Livres que l'on n'a pas Lus (How to Talk about Books that You Haven’t Read)" which caused quite a stir when it was released in February. Bayard's aim was to help alleviate the guilt that people felt about not reading a book completely, while acknowledging that there are many ways to interact with a book: skimming it, starting and not finishing, or looking at the index.

Joy can't always be discerned from outward appearances. You can't just skim a person's life and expect to know their joy. Joy is somewhere deep, somewhere real, somewhere that needs to be lived and needs to be alive in order to experience joy. It doesn't always reside at the surface. You can't talk about joy without having experienced and lived it. Such discussions invariably confuse joy with happiness, but to do so is to miss the point. By all appearances, the young pregnant girl and her husband forced to spend the night in the stable with the animals would be the last place you would look to find joy. And yet, there in the most lowly and awkward of circumstances, to Mary and Joseph the greatest joy the world has ever known was born, Jesus Christ. It is possible to know joy, even in the unhappiest of situations.

With Christmas just a few days away, let's not get fooled by what appears to be joy in the hustle and bustle around us, or in finding that perfect present or last minute shopping. The real joy at Christmas is Jesus Christ.

Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”
- the prophet Zephaniah, speaking about the Messiah, the Saviour, to come (Zephaniah 3:14-17)


Advent Week 3: "Peace"


Jesus can you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line
Peace on earth

To tell the ones who hear no sound
Whose sons are living in the ground
Peace on earth

Jesus in the song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on earth

Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won't rhyme
So what's it worth

This peace on earth
Peace on earth
Peace on earth
Peace on earth

from "Peace on Earth" - U2

Advent Week 2: "Hope"

I was drawn to this article by Rev. Ron Rolheiser this week as I reflected on "hope" during Advent.

Isn't it striking how the lighting of candles can be seen as subversive, even defiant? The simple candle, the light from which helped to topple apartheid, reminds of the hope for the world that is embodied in Jesus Christ.

1John 1:5 ¶ This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.

Advent Week 1: "Faith"

Candles can give us light, they can set a mood, and they can even (apparently) eliminate household odours. :) Candles can also teach us about how we use our time. As a candle burns down, it becomes shorter and shorter, until all the wax has been consumed and it can no longer burn. We use the expression "burn the candle at both ends" when we want to mean that we are working late into the night and rising early in the morning because we have so much work to do.

Are you "burning the candle at both ends"? Each week during the Advent season, we'll be lighting a candle around the Advent wreath until all four are lit on the last Sunday before Christmas. It is an ancient tradition, and each candle has been given a particular significance by different groups of people. Faith, Hope, Peace, and Joy will be our themes this Advent season.

Take some time this week to reflect on the candle, and how it burns. Perhaps it can be a reminder not to let our own candles burn down so far that they burn out; a reminder that traditions can increase our faith, if we let them.

Wisdom from Superhero movies

I went to see the movie "Fantastic 4: The Rise of the Silver Surfer" this past week. I used to read a lot of Fantastic 4 and Spiderman comic books, so in spite of mixed reviews, I still enjoyed watching my heroes come to life on the big screen.

The Silver Surfer is the servant of an incredibly powerful space entity called Galactus. The Surfer's job is to fly around the universe on his cosmic surf board looking for suitable planets for Galactus to devour. Galactus saps a planet's energy to sustain himself, leaving the planet and it's inhabitants lifeless. The Surfer summons Galactus to Earth and tells Susan Storm, member of the Fantastic Four, that Galactus is coming and they only have a short time to live.

Susan asks the Surfer, "Why are you doing this?"The Surfer answers, "I have no choice."Susan then says, "You always have a choice."This reminds me of the Spiderman III movie when Peter Parker's (aka Spiderman) aunt says: "Remember, Peter, you always have the choice to do the right thing."

One of the greatest gifts that God has given human beings is the power to choose. You can choose to follow God, or to go your own way. You can choose to hold a grudge, or to forgive. You can choose despair, or hope. Ultimately, your choices will determine the kind of person you are, the quality of your relationships, and what becomes of your life.

Remember... you always have a choice.