10 random thoughts from a listener.

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You will have gathered that I sit and listen more to preaching than I’ve done for at least 20 years. Some observations (some of these apply to any public talk I’ve listened to); most of which make we wince- I was guilty of many of these:-

1: Reading from a script (with no eye contact) does not raise much interest- it usually kills it- particularly if your voice sounds like you are just reading.

2: Talking without a script is great, but not so good when it comes across as aimless and without structure.

3: Most people can’t speak for more than 10 minutes without being boring, so why bother with 20. Some people can’t manage 2 or 3 minutes…

4: How is it possible to be a trained preacher and not know how to speak in front of people?

5: Can you summarise what you are going to say in one sentence? If you can’t, it generally makes it harder for your audience to know what you are saying.

6: The ‘language of Zion’ used repeatedly tends to obfuscate, not enlighten.

7: The person who rarely attends, the guest or the one who is ‘just looking’ is the most important person in the room; not us regulars. If you can’t speak to them, stop.

8: Your honesty and how the passage connects with you is really appealing. If I know what makes sense/fires/puzzles you, I’ll listen.

9: Generally the thoughts of cultural figures from the 1950s who are long dead don’t communicate to us today.

10: I don’t expect to be entertained, but neither do I want to be bored to the point of fury by irrelevance.

Short of saying ‘nice tie’ I don’t know what to say to a preacher when I experience everything apart from number 8. I mean: I’m sure you’ve spent a long time preparing and it is tough, but….

In the wilderness, but it’s not so bad:6

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‘can you feel the silence?’

I don’t preach much at the moment: there are unresolved issues (that are not likely to be resolved soon/ever) that preclude that happening. But there is something else: I really like the silence.

Actually; I really need the silence. I think of all the words that I have used in 20 years of regular preaching. I was adept with words and I fear that I used them too much. Whilst the preparation for a sermon was good and forced me to face my doubts/hopes/despairs/dreams, the delivery often went on too long. I believe the Jewish people used to have a belief that a word had form and wasn’t just uttered, but existed forever. Put that way, my public speaking is enough to fill several rooms with waste words.

I need the silence as words came too easy and sometimes too glibly. Faced with a beautiful story and the thin, fragile veil between us and eternity we preachers rush to fill it with words and explanations when silence and mystery would often be a better response.

And if I’m asked to respond in public to a question in church, often I don’t. Not because I can’t think of what to say, but merely because I have so much to say. Sometimes it does you good to listen to what others are saying (and not just hear enough to give a different view) and keep silence for a while.

Maybe the words will come again and I’ll preach them frequently, but just now ‘fasting’ from them and thinking carefully when I do is the necessary thing.

Helpline preaching

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You don’t really like phoning helplines.

You often get frustrated: the person on the other end seems so ready to pick the first phrase that fits into their list of ready prompts that they do not listen to what you want to say. You get frustrated: frequently. Often you end up raising your voice (of which you are not proud) and saying ‘Please; stop talking and just listen’.

These days, when you make it, you end up listening to more preaching than doing it. You know what a tough gig it is: to even attempt it takes time, soul bearing, conquering your demons and listening to the mess, contradictions and inconsistency in the passage. It is never easy and can never be so: those who sit there and listen face enough mess, contradictions and inconsistency in their own lives. Those things cannot be fixed, but held, honoured and bought into contact with the Story of Grace.

Sometimes you feel that much of the preaching you listen to is like ‘helpline preaching’: you are struggling to see how the text has been been listened to, sat with and then wrestled with. Sometimes the first word that has been read or concept that has been deduced is the peg on which a whole sermon rides; you experience an ‘everything I know about x’ talk. The passage sits outside, alone, unheard, sad: you usually get bored and disengage. To paraphrase the Smiths ‘The words that are constantly said, say nothing to me about my life’.

You long for preachers to listen more and say less. You stand in the presence of deep mystery; I know that you know that…but don’t be scared by it. We who listen want that.

I’m preaching today: watch me ignore all of this….

Mea culpa

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By a mixture of accident and design, I rarely preach these days. When I am in a church, I’m happy just to listen and not to speak: I’ve used so many words.

Often I’ve been grateful for what has been offered: I know how difficult it is to stand and speak and how much ‘wrestling’ is involved in preparation. I speak frequently in front of groups people: that is much easier than preaching.

Sometimes, however, I have been disquieted by what I have heard. As I have thought about this, I have realised that the faults I have found in others are merely reflections of my own failings over the years.

So I am sorry for these things:-

I sometimes spoke for too long. I reckon that 10 minutes is all I can bear to hear before I stop absorbing what you are saying to me; goodness knows how people put up with 20 minutes or more of what I said.

I mistook the promptings of the Spirit for my own adrenaline. What feels good in my head may not feel the same for the listener. The rush of adrenaline means that it is sometimes hard to stop or pick up the sense that you need to just shut up. We are full of words and now we are drowning in them.

Truth is personal and any sermon that has nothing of ‘you’ in is a waste of words. However, sometimes I went the other way and made it too much about ‘me’ and my life. You have to live this faith; you don’t need me as sole exemplar.

When my ego got bigger than the Bible. I’ve heard people say things like ‘ I preached up a storm’ ‘I gave it to them’ ‘I was on fire’ etc etc. Sometimes I joined in. Those phrases belong in the basket marked ‘self aggrandisement’, not in the one marked ‘gospel’ or ‘humility’. (And while we are at it, I know that you preach- does your personal social profile pic need to be of you preaching. Come on; is your ego really that fragile....)

That I sometimes got too ‘preachy’. I remember an old phrase : ‘you catch more wasps with honey than with a brick’. Sometimes I used bricks…. and did not use honey, because, let’s face it, those who aspire to be dominant males love ‘telling it like it is’ (which translates as ‘listen-I’m right and you are not’).

We need to do more’ is not a summary of the Gospel. It does not motivate and it only heaps up guilt. You came looking for beauty, life , a sense of hope, relief from a forbidding present and I sometimes turned ‘life in all of its fullness’ to ‘you are not doing enough jobs in the church. Sometimes I forgot you were doing your level best to be faithful in the jobs, relationships, failing health and life that you were living.

I turned poetry into prose... or the wild jungle of faith into a manicured suburban garden. I know I was supposed to provide a path through the thicket so you could see, enjoy and begin to make your own, but at my worse, I tried to impose regimented order on something that was wild. It sounded good, but the Mystery went.

Mea culpa.

 

Back in the saddle

On the 3rd day of Christmas….

To be honest, I never thought I’d do it again: preach on Christmas Day. I’d had 15 Christmas Days in a row in the pulpit and then I left pastoral ministry: perhaps never to return. But the opportunity came up and my family (who have made so many compromises for me over 15 years) said yes. So I did.

I’d forgotten how hard it was. On the face of it, it is an open goal: Christmas, Jesus, people coming to church in greater numbers than usual and a story that is ‘known’- who wouldn’t want to?

But the other side- it is so familiar that people stop listening- you only have to sing a carol and people (including me) are in a world of 3 kings, choral angels, cuddly shepherds in tea towels and an innkeeper saying no room at the inn: none of which are actually in the Biblical stories in that way. It is easy, with a minimum of preparation to put something out there.

So you pray, you read the stories again and again…and then deeply…and then try to imagine that you have never heard them before. You read widely; trying to understand the cultural background (shepherds are apparently not cuddly and neither do they wear tea towels). Then you begin to ‘read’ your area, your culture…and not just that inside the churches (try and avoid the temptation of 3 cliches and a bit of Christianese….I will kill if I hear the phrase ‘the babe in the manger’ again).

After that…simple, but not simplistic- profound, but ‘earthed’ and then accessible to all ages without straying into the ‘dear children’ category. And then worship that is worship and not gimmicky…

I think I just about managed it…

…but then most preachers think they preach well…

Summary

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Preaching is hard/a dying art/redundant/a relic of a bygone era/inspiring/necessary. It could be all of those. Certainly as I have sat and listened I have felt all of those things on different occasions.

Perhaps some of this series has felt like the ravings of an embittered cynic, or the thoughts of someone still searching, or gratitude at what is offered. It is more than likely a combination of all 3 and more. I know that there are some preachers I would gladly get out of bed for and others I would find other things to do rather than to attend a service where they were at (whereas in the past I would have tolerated them). However, in fairness, increasingly the whole act of worship is much more important to be than ever it was.

All I want is for someone to preach and be their warm and lovely selves, not be an image of anyone else, not pretend and not be apologetic that they are not wise/educated/holy enough. Where this happens; and it happens more often than you realise from ordinary, everyday preachers.

After all, the old Jewish proverb says something like: ‘At the end, God is not going to ask you why you were not Moses, but why you were not yourself?’.

And that is not too much to ask is it?

(This is the 14th and last in an inexorable, occasional series called’Being a punter’- how I feel listening to preaching now that I am mainly ‘back in the pews‘).

Brevity

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I confess: I can go on a bit.

Even now, get me in front of an audience and I reckon I will talk too much.

I tried blogging as a way to get out all the thoughts in my head so as not to overwhelm congregations, but I fear that I often failed. Once the adrenaline flows you feel better, but sometimes you stop noticing your audience.

I’ve tried, since I have stopped preaching regularly, to make what I say more brief and more pointed, but I am not sure how well I have done.

With all of those mea culpas to the fore, I’d have to say that many of my brother and sister preachers struggle in a similar way…. and I have been known to avoid preachers who talk and outstay their welcome.

What can I say? I’m not perfect, but life is too short for long sermons.

(This is the 13th in an inexorable, occasional series called’Being a punter’- how I feel listening to preaching now that I am mainly ‘back in the pews‘).

That voice

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To talk in front of people you need a ‘voice’. Your breathing has to alter from normal speech in order to project your voice, you have to slow down slightly and you also have to enunciate your voice. It is a hard technique to learn and there will always be a difference between your ‘normal’ voice and your ‘preaching’ voice.

Over time, however, you learn to close the gap, so that how you are in public is not a lot different to how you are in private. You try not to be a ‘glittering image’ but instead be ‘normal’; this is not a show.

Occasionally, however, you encounter ‘that voice’- someone talks very differently in front of others. It is fine for an actor or someone playing a role. When it comes from preachers- a loud booming voice from a normally sensitive person or a speech peppered with the ‘language of Zion’ (ie jargon), it is off putting.

Sometimes you wonder if they are frightened or nervous, which is understandable. Other times, however, you wonder if their bombast hides an insecurity or maybe they are playing a role as if they feel that this is how they are ‘supposed’ to sound. Worse still, maybe they want to ‘be’someone.

Pray for them Graham; don’t try to judge them…don’t; whatever you do blog about it….

 

(This is the 12th in an inexorable, occasional series called’Being a punter’- how I feel listening to preaching now that I am mainly ‘back in the pews‘).

At the centre

I love hearing how this passage moves you, how it makes you sing/scream/despair: sermons that are impersonal are hard to listen to. I love how the faith that you have seems real to you and earthed in everyday situations.

But I don’t like it when you are at the centre of every story, or ‘the holy family’ (ie yours) is. Similarly, I don’t really want name dropping unless there is an element of self-deprecation. Neither- and worse- do I want to hear how you are the messiah: how you have helped people or people seemed lost/confused until they encountered you and your wisdom.

I came to hear about one messiah and it wasn’t you….

(This is the 11th in an inexorable, occasional series called’Being a punter’- how I feel listening to preaching now that I am mainly ‘back in the pews‘).

Don’t just describe

I can preach a beautiful exegetically perfect sermon, I can tell you everything about a passage, I can examine the context like you have never known…

..But… if I didn’t make any attempt to apply it imaginatively to today or trace where the passage’s story intersects with ours, I would be just wasting my time.

But I have heard many who seem to do just that.

..And by the way….. when you do try and put the story into today’s context, don’t just tell me to ‘do more’ or join more things.

 

(This is the 10th in an inexorable, occasional series called’Being a punter’- how I feel listening to preaching now that I am mainly ‘back in the pews‘).