Compensation

When I first came to preaching, I thought it would enhance my personal Bible study by increasing my knowledge of the books and of their origins. While my knowledge is growing, my personal Bible study is non-existent.

I am spending more time studying the Bible each week overall but it is for Faith & Worship and for writing worship material – and it is not daily.

I don’t know if it matters why I am studying the Bible but it feels to me like it does so I tell myself to make sure I am still spending the same amount of time at my daily devotions. 

‘Myself’ does not listen!

This has been bothering me for some time and I have been worrying whether I am a fraud to be training as a preacher despite not opening the Bible every day.

Thanks to a BBC programme about weight loss, I know why I am not studying every day. When people start exercising a few times a week, their activity levels increase overall but drop on the days they do not exercise.  This is called compensation.  Presumably this is why, despite doing substantially more Bible study overall, I am doing less each day.

How to fix it though? The programme recommended tracking activity levels using pedometers which is not particularly useful for me but I did wonder about keeping a diary. If anyone has any experience of doing this, please leave a comment letting me know what you did and whether it brought you closer to God.

Good afternoon and God bless x

Exegesis v Meditation

Today, I finished two pieces of assessed work for Faith & Worship: an exegesis on a passage from Jeremiah and a meditation on the nature of God.

Though it was the exegesis I had been dreading, it was substantially easier to write than the meditation.  Why?

An exegesis is a piece of writing detailing the context of a passage, what it meant at the time of writing and what it could mean today.  There is very clear information about what should and should not be included and several examples are available for guidance.

A Christian meditation, on the other hand, is something that helps you think about your faith. And that’s it. That is the sum total of the information I have about how to write a meditation!  The meditation is a small part of the overall assignment but, obviously, I want to do a good job if only to learn a new skill that can be used in worship so, if any of you have any advice on writing meditations that you would be willing to share, it would be very gratefully received.

Good night and God bless,

Helles x

It’s been a long day

It has been a long day – and an even longer time since I last blogged.  I have had tutorials on units 4-6, handed in and received back marks for the units 4 & 5 assignments and am working on my unit 6 assignment as well as the end of section 1 exegeses and trial service. Oh, and I’m preaching next week.

Which brings me to why I am here, blogging, right now: next week’s readings are tough!

John 1: 1-18.  Very little narrative just tons of symbolism that, I am sure meant something to 1st and 2nd century Christians in Turkey but means very little to me. Having worked my way through four commentaries, I am little the wiser.  There are clear echoes of Genesis which can be interpreted as reference to a new beginning through Christ.  The notion of Jesus’ godhood runs throughout the passage as does that of Jesus’ superiority to John the Baptist and to Moses. The question is, what am I supposed to do with it all? What is the message within this message?

When preparing to write a sermon, the Faith & Worship course gives a list of over 20 questions to answer about a passage.  These questions are separated into groups: the preacher’s perspective, the peoples’ perspective (congregation and wider world), the church’s tradition, and biblical exegesis.  The questions about the preacher’s perspective are:

  1. What echoes are there in this Bible passage for me?
  2. Are there any links with my own story?
  3. Does this passage raise questions for me?
  4. Does this passage challenge, confront or confirm me?
  5. What are the key words and key ideas in this passage for me?

How can there be any links or echoes for any human being in this passage? The passage raises many questions for me which can be summarised as ‘eh?’. It challenges my understanding and confronts me with the idea that I am not up to the task of preacher.  I find no confirmation in it. And the key words and ideas? Well, the writer uses the word ‘light’ a lot. As mentioned, there are links with Genesis and the writer is very clear about Jesus being God and of God and with God – and about John the Baptist being sent by God but not being God.  Not much help there then.

The next section, the peoples’ perspective, has eight further questions:

  1. For the congregation: does the Bible passage ring any bells?
  2. For the congregation: does the Bible passage echo the congregation’s own story/experience?
  3. For the congregation: does the Bible passage raise questions or problems?
  4. For the congregation: does the Bible passage challenge, confront or confirm?
  5. What words or ideas will stand out for those who hear it?
  6. How might the world outside the Church react to the passage?
  7. What questions might be raised for the world outside the Church?
  8. Does the passage offer a critique or confirmation to the contemporary world?

This is the first time I have visited this church so I do not know the congregation.  The only information on the Church’s worship profile is that there are ten regular attendees and that they are all over 50. Additionally, though the church is a member of the local ecumenical partnership, it is not a Methodist church and has different practices and traditions. This makes answering questions 1-4 rather tricky. Question 5 is a tricky one as history teaches us that that there are as many different versions of an event as witnesses to it so everybody will pick out different words or ideas from the passage.

What about the world outside the Church? It is difficult to see how anyone without at least a basic understanding of the New Testament could come away with anything more than Jesus is God.

Let’s look at the Church’s traditions:

  1. Are there any echoes in the liturgical life of the Church? Church year? Festivals? Rituals? Special Services?
  2. How has this Bible passage been understood in the history of the Church and in preaching?
  3. Are there hymns, creeds or prayers which echo this passage? (confession, thanksgiving, dedication, etc?)
  4. How might this passage be handled in worship?

It cannot be a coincidence that this reading is during Christmas so that is the beginning of an answer to question 1. A copy of the 1893 Methodist Commentary on the New Testament often helps with question 2 though, having been written by very learned clerics on a very dense passage, it has not enlightened me today! Question 3 is the most fun question: which hymns could be used.  The hymns might emphasise a particular aspect of the passage or echo a general theme for the service as a whole. The Methodist Church has a fantastic resource http://www.singingthefaithplus.org.uk/ which gives suggestions for hymns linked to the lectionary readings.  Question 4 is, in my opinion, somewhat ahead of itself – it is to decide how to handle the passage that this exercise is required. However, I have already determined that a dramatic re-enactment of the passage’s events would be tricky.

And, finally, the research element of the exercise: the biblical exegesis.

  1. Why is this Bible passage where it is? What comes before and after it?
  2. What might it have meant to its original hearers/ readers? What reactions did it provoke then and why?
  3. What is the cultural background of the passage? (author, type of literature, audience, etc?)
  4. What themes/ theological ideas are touched on in this passage?
  5. What are the key words?

The passage is the introduction not just to John’s Gospel but to Jesus’ divinity. It immediately precedes John the Baptist’s denial of Messiahship. I often think 2 and 3 would be, more usefully, answered in reverse order so: the Gospel of John was written around 100 CE in Turkey.  His audience would have been mainly gentile with limited understanding of Jewish tradition. The passage reads like a hymn with the addition of information about the ministry of John the Baptist. It could have acted as a creed for the new church showing the differences between it and the followers of John the Baptist and of the Jewish people.  It would have reminded the listener that Christ represented a new beginning in humanity’s relationship with God because, for the first time, God and truly walked among us. Lived among us. The main theme is of the eternity of Christ: His relationship to God and His eternal nature as well as His nature as an intermediary between a Heavenly God and earthly man. The key ideas are that God was made flesh, that knowing the nature of Christ brings us to God, and that the darkness of man cannot subsume the light of God. The key words are light, logos and life.

And, after all that, I still have no idea of Sunday’s theme.  The solution? Pray on it and try again tomorrow.

Good night and God bless xx

Why Christians are too nice

As strange as this may sound, I would like Christians to be a bit less nice.

If you have read yesterday’s post, you will know that I prefer really specific feedback (how many seconds should I pause after the sermon before announcing the next hymn??). To this I can add my preference for constructive feedback.

Many of the people I meet while preaching clearly want to be as encouraging as possible. As a result, the feedback they give to new preachers like me is very positive.

Now, positive feedback is offered for one – or both – of two reasons: because something was genuinely good or because the speaker wants another person to feel good.  How can one distinguish the motives behind positive feedback? I find it extremely difficult.

Equally, when giving feedback, I am prone to forgetting that responding to others from love can sometimes mean risking a small amount of hurt in the short-term to help the other person to reach their potential over the long-term.

There is a difference between negative feedback (I did not like…) and constructive feedback (it would be even better if…) so I am not suggesting that commentators should be unrelentingly harsh. More that the desire to be positive needs to be overruled by the kindness of being constructive.

Ups and Downs

Last week was my first Leaders of Worship and Preachers Group meeting since moving from On Note to On Trial so it was my first experience of accounting.  There was a generally positive murmur when I said that my assignments for unit 4 (The Teaching of Jesus) and unit 5 (Exploring the Bible) were being marked – more on this later.

Any member of the LWPG who has witnessed a service led by me has both the right and the responsibility to provide feedback at the meeting.  This can be useful to the trainee preacher as the feedback is from ministers, preachers and worship leaders based on their years of experience.  However, if the comments are to help the new preacher, they must be specific and speakers must not shy away from giving ideas for improvement. An example of specific feedback I received was the suggestion to leave a pause at the end of sermons to allow the message to be processed but most other feedback was too general to be useful and I could not help but wonder whether the speaker felt they needed to be generous in their praise to build up the confidence of the new preacher (me) in that very public setting.  Personally, I would much rather be told a way to improve a service than be told that the service was ‘very good’.  Several members talked about reforming the process so it will be interesting what happens at the next meeting.

I had my tutorial on unit 5 tonight. I completed the unit a few weeks ago but this was my first opportunity to discuss the contents with my tutor (R). We talked about the distinctions between the Hebrew bible, and the Protestant and the Catholic old testaments but the majority of the tutorial was a discussion of biblical authority.

There may well be as many different understandings of biblical authority as there are christians, and we spent some time discussing how the different models can be justified as well as their weaknesses. It was very clear to R that I had not done justice to this topic in my essay for unit 5 so it has been returned to me to have another go at it. R felt that there is the potential for the assessment to better reflect my knowledge and understanding as well as being a better learning experience for me.

The unit 4 assessment, on the other hand, achieved 73% which was most pleasing. The assessment was to complete a narrative sermon on a passage from Matthew or Luke. The notes I made when researching the task were also assessed. Somehow, despite scoring only 60% for the exegesis, I scored 80% for the sermon itself.  Since I already find exegesis a struggle, it is clear that I need to practice this skill more. One of R’s suggestions was to make the links I have made in the exegesis more explicit and more detailed and I certainly think that would be beneficial for writing sermons for services as well as for assessment.

My next service is for my own congregation which, bizarrely, I am finding far more nerve-racking than any other to date. More on that in my next post.

Good night and God bless x

First Solo Service – the sequel

This morning, I lead my first service as an On Trial Preacher. It was a morning of firsts as it was also the first time I had preached in a URC church. The circuit I belong to is ecumenical. Some of the churches are an amalgamation  of URC and Methodist congregations, most of the churches are Methodist and a few are URC.

The only difference in the preparation for preaching for a URC congregation rather than a Methodist one was the use of Rejoice and Sing rather than Hymns and Psalms or Singing the Faith.

That isn’t to say that my preparations for the service were easy. Now that I do not have to send my sermon to my mentor for checking, I found myself niggling away at it until it became so convoluted that I deleted the whole thing and started over. Twice. Most recently, yesterday.

That’s a good note: each time I change a sermon, I will save it as a new version so that I can go back to what I had before I complicated it with unnecessary additions.

As the URC congregation meets in the next village I decided to walk there. Not wearing a watch, I panicked a little when I arrived to find several cars in the car park. Entering the church I, rather breathlessly, asked if I had arrived late and I was relieved to discover that I had half an hour before the service started. It seems that that the elders of the church are in the habit of arriving early for a brief meeting. Phew!

This week’s readings, from the book of Jonah and the gospel of Matthew, suggested a theme of the dangers of being angry at God.  As unit 4 of the Faith and Worship training course requires a narrative sermon, I got some practice by interweaving an exegesis of each reading with the story of Bruce Almighty focusing on the change in Bruce’s relationship with God.

With the exception of the second hymn, ‘For the fruits of all creation, thanks be to God’, which nobody – including me – seemed to know, the service seemed to be well received by the congregation. It being the third Sunday of the month, I was able to talk to several members (about slugs, snails and compost; we were typical gardeners!), over a cup of tea and a biscuit afterwards.

And, as quickly as that, my first service was over and it is time to begin preparations for the next.

This seems to be a natural point to look back on my decision to heed the call. 

It has been a surprising and rewarding few months. I had thought my knowledge of Scripture was not great but, at least, reasonable but I knew not one tenth of my current knowledge and, I am sure that in six more months I will be able to look back to today and say the same. 

My faith is calmer than it was; I don’t know why, and I am not sure I could explain how, but I feel almost serene on occasion. I like to think it is because I am no longer fighting the call to preach.

In some ways, I have started to think of preaching as my true work funded by my day job. That is not to say that I have lost my sense of vocation for my paid work; more that it has a more balanced position in my life.

I have had many hugs, hundreds of handshakes and, every time, compliments on my speaking voice. Never a mention of my singing voice, thankfully.

Even during the periods of controlled panic immediately before – and after – each service, I am very pleased I stopped protesting and very grateful for the opportunity to facilitate the worship of my brothers and sisters in Christ.

I heartily recommend giving into the ministry to which you are called.

God bless you and keep you x

A lot has happened

Yes, a lot has happened since I last posted. I have been to a retreat centre as a volunteer, finished the introductory units of Faith & Worship, had a breakdown and passed my trial service.

So, in order, I had ten days available while my son was away with Scouts. Between my poor mental health, and the library of religious books I knew to be at the retreat centre, it seemed like a good idea to have a plan rather than sit alone at home.  I am so glad I went. To live within a christian community, sharing a common purpose and fellowship was wonderful – if only I was childless and a Roman Catholic, I would take holy orders. 

Coming home to my son was wonderful too – it is remarkable how much a 13 year old can change in such a short period of time. He seems to have become a man in the time he has been away – or maybe I could look at him with fresh eyes.

The introductory units of Faith & Worship conclude with an in-depth study of the Gospel of Mark. Using several commentaries from the house’s library, I completed a verse by verse study of the Gospel.  It took the full ten days and, even now, I am adding to it most days with further commentaries lent to me by friends. I think this is a project that will never be finished!

The next unit requires me to do the same for the other synoptic gospels which means cross-referencing them with Mark for a comparative study.

My breakdown I will say little about except that I am glad it is over.  I was fortunate that people who care about me sought help on my behalf. I am improving each day.

Finally, my trial service.  What a rollercoaster of a day that was.  The service was scheduled for 6pm and, when I got up that morning, I wanted to glance over the service I had planned, make a few improvements and print it off.  I couldn’t open the file.  Somehow, in the space of a day, it had corrupted.  Cue grabbing a huge pile of books, my notes and the laptop and starting over.  I ended up (I think) with a much better sermon.  And I passed.  The next step is to be passed to On Trial which will happen at the next Local Preacher’s meeting.  Once that happens, I can fly solo.  I don’t know if I am excited or scared but, sometimes, I think there is not much difference between the two anyway.

God Bless You x