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Refreshing thoughts on Mothering Sunday

Once upon a time, a preacher found himself puzzling about what to say on Mothering Sunday, just as he did every year. As ever, he would be faced with the dilemma of how to meet so many different needs: those who love to be mums, those who want to be mums, those want their mums, and those who want this particular Sunday to be over. On this particular occasion, just to make matters worse, he had to think of something to say not only to his congregation, but to a national radio audience too. What to say?

That was when he stumbled upon an old tradition of mothering Sunday as ‘refreshment Sunday’. Falling as it did exactly halfway through Lent, and having as its text on that day the feeding of the 5000, it did not seem like a day for fasting. Instead, the Lenten rules were relaxed, and those going home to visit their mothers on this special day were permitted to eat a nice meal with them. Thus refreshment Sunday was born, and thus a two minute radio script was written. As you can see here, the preacher asked people in the script what they could do to refresh someone on that day.

On the day of the broadcast a senior project manager of an enormous construction project nearby was listening to the radio in his car. That very morning he had been praying about what do to in his role as Corporate Social Responsibility Manager for his company.  He heard the broadcast, spoke to the preacher, pulled some strings, and over the next few weeks a project was born. By the summer of that year an inaccessible and overgrown garden at a group of homes for disabled people had been transformed. All parts of the garden were now accessible by wheelchair and flowerbeds were raised.  Refreshment indeed!

Click on photo to see the change

Of course it’s not a fairy story, and it did really happen.  That little two minute radio broadcast happened to reach the right ears, and in doing so unleashed a chain of events which led to real, practical blessing.  Isn’t that what we pray for every time we preach, though?  Don’t we long for the word of God to touch hearts and unlock goodness and blessing for others?

I repeat the tale here for fellow preachers who approach the minefield of Mothering Sunday with extreme caution. Be encouraged - your words may have far more effect than you anticipate.

 

Problems with translation

Yesterday @holinesseeker drew my attention back to the old adage of being the only Bible some people ever read.  In this Biblefresh year, that really got me thinking – what kind of Bible would I be?

  • Would I be a red letter Bible – meaning that I SHOUT every time I say something particularly religious?
  • Would I be a heavily paraphrased Bible – appearing to be over simplified for the complex  world in which I am read?
  • Would I be one of those Bibles written in cutting edge language…of the 1970′s?
  • Would I be a Bible in a ‘trendy’ cover , such as denim or shiny metal – but still with the same contents inside?
  • Would I be a dog-eared Bible – not much to look at but with an air of comfortable familiarity?

Some years ago I wrote a dissertation on ‘The preacher as translator in the Twenty First Century’ With a background in modern languages and translation methodology I expected to conclude that a translator is exactly what a preacher should be. In fact, I only partly concluded that was the case. We translate the word of God into our own lives and those of our congregations through both hermeneutics and incarnation.No matter how hard we try, though, it will always be a word from another place – foreign and troubling.

Catalan artist Antoni Muntadas has devoted his life’s work to engaging playfully with concepts of meaning, translation and understanding.  Muntadas, who believes that every act of communication, be it visual or verbal, involves translation, comments enigmatically that ‘to live is to translate’. Below is one of his works entitled ‘warnings’. It seems like an appropriate thought as we consider translating the Bible into flesh and blood.

Image: artnet.com

Thoughts on handling the parables

When I wrote the foreword for the little book below, I stated that parables are:

‘the preacher’s bar of soap.  Either we tread on them carelessly and send ourselves and the sermon spinning off in ungainly fashion; or we try too hard to grab hold of them and elicit their meaning.  The result of the latter is that they slip out of our grasp and end up further away from the truth than they were when we first started.’

The first thing to remember about the parables is their twin heritage.

In Jewish thought, parables were used as a means to describe the almost indescribable – namely the nature of heaven.

In Greek thought a parable was a parallel, setting two truths or views alongside each other, with the hope that some new understanding would arise from the comparison.

When Jesus started using them to address his ‘mixed’ First Century audience, his approach combines the two.

Interpreting them today, whether in a Big Read group or elsewhere, here are four pointers ,

They are single point stories – each one intended to make one single teaching point. To drill down too far into the details is to miss this.

They describe the essence of the kingdom of God, rather than its appearance.

They both hide and reveal the truth – revealing more of it to those who have taken a step of faith and obscuring it from those who choose not to do so.

They act as a spiritual thermometer, showing how far those who listen have slipped from their spiritual heritage.

Of course, if we are to talk about the parables as a bar of soap, you’ll have to decide for yourself as to whether it might be:

…with its Holy Spirit associations.

… with its echoes of rescue…

..or maybe, just:

The power of encouragement

I confess that most of The Matrix film series left me cold. Either it was too clever for its own good or I’m too dim for my own good – but either way it failed to engage me. However, I do remember the scene early on where the lead character, Neo, was offered a choice of two pills to swallow:

Image: copymatch.com

Which pill is it, I wonder, when you are offered positive feedback after preaching?  Does it just give you a warm glow, or is it something more? Sometimes a simple “thank u” text can be all it takes to make you feel that the effort on your knees and the energy in the pulpit was worthwhile. You don’t need to know that it was the best sermon ever, just that it met somebody’s need on this occasion.

I was once at a crowded lunch party in someone’s flat, and inadvertently knocked the coffee table.  This would not have mattered, had there not been a small brass box balanced on its corner. The box contained tiny sweetener tablets, and they cascaded down onto the carpet. Of course I did the decent thing and offered to clear them up. Strangely, though, their sweet smell lingered in the air long after the last pill was cleared away.  They were so potent that their effect outlived their presence.

As preachers we expect our words to last after the service is over, and rightly so.  What about the words spoken to us, though?  Often it is the sweet pill of encouragement which we forget, whereas the bitter pill of critical words churns round and round in our minds.

Preacher – have you taken your medicine today?

Insights from the recording studio

This article appeared last week in The Preacher, which is the journal of the College Of Preachers. It appears here by kind permission.

Introduction

My introduction to preaching on air came on 15 October 2006, when I participated in a live service on BBC Radio 4 broadcast from Wesley’s Chapel in Central London. On that occasion I was one of three preachers from the College of Preachers who all preached from the same passage in Isaiah.  Spurred on by many who had enjoyed the broadcast, I went on to contact the BBC regarding possible involvement in Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2.  One thing led to another, and since then it has been my privilege to record over 70 such talks for them. Some of these have been two-minute slots on late night shows, and others have been two and a half minutes on breakfast shows.  Audiences on these programmes range between half a million and three million.  Over the past four years I have been coaxed, cajoled, moulded, critiqued and helped by a string of very gifted producers, and I am grateful to all of them.  When I first started on this journey with some trepidation, Mark Wakelin said to me that ‘every preacher should be produced’, and I think he had a point.  The following are some reflections from my experience of preaching on air so far.

Know your audience

When I first started on late night radio, the BBC sent me a multi-page document on my audience.  It told me how many of them there were, what sort of jobs they have, what sort of programmes they listen to and what sort of words they use.  It even gave me advice on what sort of words to avoid.  This was absolutely invaluable.  Other people had put hours of research into this so as to help me refine my message for my audience.

Respect your context

When presenting a Christian thought on mainstream radio, the audience is not the only factor you have to consider.  When I first got my invitation to provide these slots for Janice Long’s show – I listened to programme after programme, and even got a friend to transcribe the Pause for thought slots so that I could study them in more detail.  Janice’s programme is a late night zany blend of live and recorded music, quirky stories from the news and the occasional raunchy joke.  To insert a talk with any kind of spiritual value into that takes a deft touch.  When I recorded my first batch of Pause for Thought talks at BBC Manchester I had a stab at my first one, and my producer then stopped me.  She played me an excerpt of Janice in full flow from the programme at loud volume (especially loud in the confined space of the studio) and said ‘now fit into that.’  Too much of a clash between the presenter’s tone and the preacher’s tone can be disastrous in such a context.

Tone is king

Probably the biggest lesson I have learnt over these four years is the value of tone in broadcasting.  The best script can be undone by an uninteresting tone, and even an average script can be elevated by an animated tone.  Here I must pay tribute to my producers whose endless patience had made them willing on occasion to analyse and remould my tone even on a sentence by sentence basis.  I have lost count of the number of times that I have been asked to say a certain word differently, or to adjust the tone and emphasis of a particular phrase.  If it is done well you would never know it – but you would soon miss it if no-one paid attention to it.  I soon learnt that it doesn’t do to be too ‘precious’ about your script in broadcasting.

Timing is key

I once heard an after dinner speaker who went on too long in the hopes of becoming interesting described as being ‘like an ugly girl who thought that if she stood around long enough she would become beautiful’.  It doesn’t work.  My late night slots last for two minutes and my breakfast show slots for two and a half minutes.  Within that there is a tolerance of ten seconds either way, but no more.  One of the things this has done for me is to make me rather less tolerant of those who feel that they ‘cannot say anything worthwhile’ in a short sermon.  Why ever not?

Don’t be twee and do be real

Within the confines of that very short time it is sorely tempting to pick some funny story and then ‘stick on’ a spiritual application and be done with it.  I have done this on occasions, and been caught out by my producers on every single one!  The trouble is, if you don’t link story and application seamlessly it just sounds like an ‘add-on’.  Instead of commenting on life from a spiritual perspective, which these talks should do – you end up turning life into some sort of corny object lesson.   It is important, too, to speak with your own voice.  In one early script I was describing the ‘speck in your brother’s eye’ passage, and talked about having a ‘dirty great plank in your own eye’.  My producer asked me whether I would really say that – and I had to admit that I wouldn’t. I was just trying to keep up with Janice’s informality and it didn’t ring true.

______________________________________________

The thing is, all the skills I have mentioned above apply as much to preaching off air as they do to preaching on it.  We should always take time to know our congregation – to understand their habits and vocabulary.  We should always respect the context of worship in which we preach too – for a sermon is rarely heard in isolation.  We should pay as much attention to tone in the pulpit where we can be seen as we do on the radio where we can’t.  If we really believe in the power of the sermon as a word-event then we should believe its impact is not determined by its length. And as for being twee, I couldn’t possibly comment!

There will be a wider discussion of this in my book, Who Needs Words, available from Saint Andrew Press in the Autumn

Listen before speaking

I have spent this morning closeted away in a country house now gloriously restored as a Christian training and retreat venue. My aim was to spend a few hours listening and praying as I devised the church’s preaching programme for the next quarter. I was all alone in the beautiful panelled library with my Bible and my note book, but loved the notice on the door:

After all, that was the point, wasn’t it?

Following on yesterday’s frenetic (and fascinating) discussion on tweeting in the pew, it is important to remember that our most basic instinct as human beings is to meet with God. One of the journals I read this morning talked about ‘cultural attention deficit disorder’ – with too many things clamouring for our attention.

Once in a while, we just have  to shut them out…

Preaching and the second screen

Research published yesterday by in the UK by Digital Clarity, confirms what many have believed for some time about trends in TV viewing habits. Amongst the under-25s ‘social TV’ is on the increase, where people watching TV are simultaneously communicating with their friends via a second screen on Twitter or Facebook. 80% of those surveyed said that they used a second screen, with 72% of them using Twitter.  This transforms TV  viewing from a passive to an active experience, and allows those who are geographically separated to watch TV ‘together’.  Reggie James, founder of Digital Clarity, commented ‘Social TV has changed this completely by turning programmes into online events where you have to watch them as they happen’. Instead of passively absorbing the content of a TV programme, people are discussing it, laughing about it, and even suggesting the way it should go.

A trend which I have started to notice in the past month or two is people tweeting live on a Sunday from the sermon they are hearing. They are not doing it in vast numbers, and it doesn’t happen every week, but the hashtag #sermon or #sundaysermon is becoming a familiar sight on my Twitter feed. I find myself slightly torn over this.  On the one hand, as described in my post on circular preaching, I welcome anything which turns preaching into a more interactive experience. People tweeting about it means that they are engaging more of their brain with the process of listening, which has to be good. On the other hand, the sight of people looking down at their phones whilst I am preaching, as if uninterested, could be distinctly unnerving. Also, does it mean that they are thinking more about how they can translate the message into 140 characters than how they can translate it into their character? I would love to know what others think about this.

Some of you may remember the sequence in Life of Brian where a group of people at the back of the crowd listening to the Sermon on the Mount all mishear Christ’s words differently. Perhaps today it might look something like this:

Help Japan

Sometimes preachers get seduced by the power of the visual, as if it will make otherwise dull words fascinating – it will not.  Other times they ignore it at their peril, thereby disenfranchising many of those who listen to them. There is a place, though, for elegantly understated visual material, as seen in James White’s poster design below.

Image: signalnoise.com

Like many of us, this gifted designer has watched aghast at the series of calamities rocking the nation of Japan. Not only that, but he has found a way to put his particular talents to work in designing and selling this poster. Isn’t that something we are always urging people to do in the church – making their particular contribution, rather than envying someone else’s?

If you love the image, why not visit the site and order a poster?

Thoughts on Twitter’s fifth birthday

The brainchild of a bunch of techy geeks in San Francisco has definitely outgrown its playpen. People are currently tweeting at the rate of over 140 million tweets per day, and over 300,000 new people are joining in on a daily basis. Of course more communication does not necessarily mean better communication, as evidenced by pamorama’s infographic below. In my view, face-to-face is still at the top of the communication tree.

So what do you buy a precocious five year-old on its birthday? On my bookshelf I have an enormous leather-bound Bible with hefty brass clasp which was presented to a five year-old boy on his birthday. I doubt whether he could even lift it, let alone appreciate it.

Here are five suggestion’s for celebrating the fifth birthday:

  1. Tweet something today which is positive without being twee
  2. Tweet a picture of something today which makes you smile, in the hopes that it will do the same for others
  3. Retweet something today which will contribute to a life-enhancing cause
  4. Find and follow someone in a troubled place around the world
  5. Tweet #happybirthdaywhale at 1305 today – see what happens!

Not so ‘super’

Lost moon‘ is the title of Commander Jim Lovell’s account of his experiences on Apollo XIII. In it he recounts his failed attempt to reach the moon in April 1970, even at a time when the Apollo space programme had made it seem so close.

Last night, along with tens of thousands of others, I gazed in wonder at a moon so close it looked almost touchable. Its mountains and valleys were revealed in all the sharp contrast hitherto only seen through a telescope or a spacecraft window. Like the little boy who tried to capture the moon in a net, I tried to capture it in a photograph. It was not a huge success!

At first the moon was outshone by all the lesser sodium lights in the streets below.  When at last I found an uninterrupted view with a solid surface to lean on, the moon was so bright that it confused my (very cheap) camera, and it was unable to focus on it.  I even tried photographing it dramatically through the silhouetted branches of a pine tree – but then it focussed only on the branches of the tree and left the moon as an indistinct blob in the background. In the end, I turned my back on this astronomical phenomenon and walked home, flicking through my disappointing photographic results as I did so. All the while, the moon shone serenely on, unaffected by sodium lights, cheap cameras or inept photographers.

As preachers, we often try to describe things so wonderful that they are on the far edges of human vocabulary, or so profound that they can only be understood through incarnation rather than description. There are certain aspects of our faith which we can only understand by living them.

Like most lunar astronauts, Lovell’s experience has filled him more with a sense of wonder for the earth than a sense of romance about the moon. It also gave him a sense of admiration for the human temperament which always reaches for the next star or crosses the next ocean. “From now on we’ll live in a world where man has walked on the Moon. It’s not a miracle, we just decided to go”.

If you decide the describe the indescribable or capture the unimaginable in your words today, may God lend strength to your efforts.

Is it just me - or does it look like there is a hand cupped around the moon?

 

Richard Littledale

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