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On being reviewed
Those of you who went through any formal training as preachers will probably have endured the ritual of sermon class, or something like it. At Spurgeon’s College, where I was privileged to train, it followed the pattern below. The ‘victim’ (or ‘volunteer’) would preach for twenty minutes, lead worship for twenty minutes – and then have their efforts critiqued/ analysed/ de-constructed by faculty and students of the College. It was an uncomfortable exercise for those in the hot seat – but taught everybody a huge amount. After all, in the general run of things our feedback from preaching tends to be restricted to the warm handshake or the query about a misquoted verse or date. Awaiting a book review this week for my new book felt a bit like being in sermon class but at a distance, a bit like a witness addressing the court by video link.
Last night, the review was published – and it was full of the wit and humour I would expect from its writer. If you want to know what he said, or what the two sets of pictures below have to do with it – you’ll have to read the review here. Not sure the comparisons are deserved – but I’ll leave that to you to decide!
The risk of silence
From July until October I have been releasing one small excerpt of my new book, Who Needs Words, on the first day of each month until publication. In the excerpt below, we think about the risk and opportunity of silence.
Today we are constantly bombarded by messages from all quarters. Our computers spew out e-mails, our phones clog up with voice and text messages, our journeys to work are surrounded by billboards advertising every kind of product. Were we but able to see it, the air around us is in fact a thick soup of data of every kind. Upwards of a billion text messages are exchanged in the UK every month alone. In such a noisy place, silence can be an act of defiance. The call to silence, a bit like the call from the ‘Go Slow’ campaign to slow down our busy lives, can seem like a very odd thing indeed. Go Slow began in Italy – a nation famed for the frenetic pace of its language and lifestyle. What began as a campaign about slow cooking and eating, spread to travel, communication and lifestyle. Since the movement began, London has now held its first Slow Down festival – encouraging citizens to slow down, talk less and listen more. As appealing as that might be to some, it still feels profoundly counter cultural. Conditioned as we are to noise and bustle, the alternative can fill us with dread
Who Needs Words can be pre-ordered from the Saint Andrew Press.
On Sunday I was speaking to a Frenchman in church about the complexities of linguistic acrobatics. I told him about the first sermon I ever preached, which was in French, and how I had puzzled the congregation with my exposition on the teeth (dents) as opposed to the gifts (dons) of the Holy Spirit.To think that one tiny tweak in the shape of my mouth could make such a difference! Language is a slippery thing, even when we are speaking our own. The pictures below, which currently sit on my Twitter profile, show quite how easy it is to get it wrong. I feel especially sorry for those whose mistake is tattooed permanently into their own flesh.
In just over one week my new book, Who Needs Words, is published. As well as offering an analysis of what happens when we communicate and advice on how to do it the book also addresses the question of why we should do it at all. When all is said and done this book is a plea to use our God-given ability to communicate, and to do it well.
To celebrate the launch of the book, I would love to hear about your own experiences (a bit like my disastrous French sermon) where your words have let you down. You can share them directly via the comments on this page, or using the #whoneedsworsd hashtag on Twitter. Saint Andrew Press will award a free copy of the book Who Needs Words to the entry which makes the Preachers’ Blog laugh the most. Entries close on October 6th
A book is born (nearly)
Three years ago, two blokes got together in a back room in Southwark cathedral and talked communication all day. We laughed, we sighed, we cogitated, ruminated and scribbled. We talked about the best and worst of communication that the Christian church has to offer, and we looked beyond the church’s walls to see best practice elsewhere.
Out of that conversation a project was born, and three years down the line it has flowered into a book. One of the men in Southwark cathedral that day was me, and the other was Rt Rev Nick Baines. Over the intervening period it has been my privilege to write the book Who Needs Words, to which Nick then added a thoughtful and provocative foreword.
The book is definitely not a last word on communication, but it might just be the first word of a conversation about it. It draws on sources outside the church , as varied as industrial relations and neuro-linguistic programming, in order to examine the subject. It also reflects on the church’s twenty centuries of communicating across racial and ethnic divides. What have we learnt, and how much do we still have to learn? Any organisation which started with papyri and now uses podcasts must have collected some insights along the way. As well as practical advice on communication in different contexts it contains some honest reflection on what to do when it all goes wrong.
Caleb Rutherford, who designed the cover (below) described the design process as somewhere between a conversation and an act of creation “The idea is the lump of clay”, he said “and from the to-ing and fro-ing of conversation it becomes a vase”. His final design combines the simplicity of wordless multiple conversations with the polished finish of slick high-tec communication on the carpet of words below.
From today until October 7th you can order the book with a pre-publication reduction and free post and packing if you click on the image below. My greatest hope is that it will start conversations about communication. As the conversations grow and develop the book itself will fall far away, like the landscape below a hot air balloon as it rises. When it does, its the communication itself which will really matter – which is just as it should be.
From July until October I shall be releasing one small excerpt of my new book, Who Needs Words, on the first day of each month until publication. In the excerpt below,consideration is given to the idea of the prophetic voice.
A fortress mentality which sets Christians against the wicked world ‘out there’ leads to a kind of communication which breeds fear and misunderstanding. Those who fear they will be misunderstood often end up fulfilling their own prophecy, because their message comes out in a garbled mixture of jargon and arrogance which alienates their listener straight away. If I am convinced that you will reject what I am going to say anyway, then it can make me very careless in the way I communicate it. Equally, if I think that you are so spiritually dull, or so antagonistic to my beliefs that you are bound not to understand them, then I will make little effort to help you understand them when I speak. If I have convinced myself that you are fundamentally opposed to the beliefs which I hold dear, then the communication space between us becomes so infused with hostility and fear that any reasonable communication becomes impossible. It is true that many Western European nations have moved away from their former Christian heritage. This certainly requires great care in crossing the communication gap. However, if Christians simply shout louder to guarantee a hearing, people on the other side will just turn away and go in search of more peaceful conversation elsewhere.
In such a context, those who call themselves prophets may actually court controversy and relish opposition as proof of their spiritual authenticity. Accusations of bigotry, arrogance and intransigence bounce off them like pebbles thrown at the armour plating of a tank. Like the tank they advance remorselessly, crushing everything before them, and leaving many things flattened in their wake. This does not mean that there is no place for the prophetic voice. What is needed is the ability to express prophetic insight in such a way that others will feel inclined to listen to it.
Who Needs Words can be pre-ordered through the Saint Andrew Press.
A visit to Chawton
Having first encountered Jane Austen as a reluctant teenager, I would never describe myself as her biggest fan. However, when I paid a visit to the cottage in Chawton where she wrote most of her opus today, I have to confess to feeling a certain awe. As I gazed down at the little, battered, wobbly octagonal table below, shunted up close to the window to get the most of the light, a distinct frisson went through me. At that table, no bigger than a MacBook, Jane Austen had scritched and scratched her string of tightly observed novels which would go from there around the world and back. Statesmen, poets, singers and soldiers would be inspired by them. They would be translated into languages of which their author had never heard, and uploaded onto devices which would have appeared to her like the stuff of legend, or worse.
My frisson of excitement was matched only by the chill of disappointment I felt at the end of my visit. Whilst buying a postcard of a prayer by the famous author (some of the text is below), I overheard an enquiry by a young man who was contemplating a paid visit to the house. On learning that this was not in fact the place where recent films of Jane Austen’s books had been filmed, his disappointment was palpable and he turned away. ‘Missing the point’, is the phrase which comes to mind…
May we now, and on each return of night
Consider how the past day has been spent by us
What have been our prevailing thoughts, words and actions during it
And how we can acquit ourselves of evil.
Give us a thankful sense of the blessings in which we live
Of the many comforts of our lot,
That we may not deserve to lose them by discontent or indifference.
– from a prayer by Jane Austen