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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…

The blessings of awkwardness

Earlier this week I spent an hour as the guest of one of the groups who meet on our church premises: Baby Sensory. For the duration of the session our small hall was transformed into a multi-sensory wonderland of music, light, colour and movement for babies from 0-6months and their mums. I stuck out like the sorest of thumbs on account of being a) male and b) unaccompanied by a baby! That said, it was the most worthwhile investment of an hour for any communicator. Here was communication stripped back to its barest sensory minimum, where colours and sound predominate and a mother’s face is the Pole Star in the baby’s firmament.

As preachers and communicators we are usually in control of the environment where we communicate. Often we do the speaking and others do the listening.  To reverse those roles is both healthy and humbling. On the occasions where I have visited in prison my nervousness and hesitancy are my greatest companions – reminding me to listen and learn more than I talk and teach.  A little later on today I am attending a ‘banquet for the homeless’ , where I shall feel similarly inept and it will do me so much good.

People say we should all do one thing each day which scares us. If that idea is too scary – how about one thing each day which discomfits you?  Go on, give it a try – and those who listen to you in other contexts will thank you for it.

Fresh air or hot air?

Preachers are frequently accused of generating hot air, which is why I often get to use the picture I took below when training others:

What about fresh air, though? Shouldn’t our words come as a breath of fresh air, throwing open the window and letting God’s wonderfully disruptive Spirit in to upset our certainties and ruffle our feathers? Some years ago, writing about the first Pentecost, I described it like this:

In through every window and funnelled down every alley it came.It rattled and whistled and ruffled wherever it went. A curtain was torn from its mounting here, a jar toppled from its table in the street there – shattering in a hundred un-noticed pieces.A barking dog flattened its ears and whined at this strange phenomenon. A child stuck out his pudgy arm to feel it, only to be snatched back by his protective mother. The robes of the priests flapped round the grey heads of their wearers and wrapped them up like clowns in a show.Many cowered, shielding eyes and faces from the dust. Jerusalem had never been like this before. You can find the rest of this in Stale Bread.

Last night I saw a television advert which advertised an air freshener fragrance entitled…’open windows’! Am I missing something? Surely there is an easier way to achieve that particular fragrance? Preachers – make sure you keep the windows open when you preach!

Kiki and Booba in the pulpit

When psychologist Wolfgang Kohler presented people with the two shapes below and asked them which was called ‘kiki’ and which ‘booba’, the results were surprisingly clear. Which would you name as which?



In fact , between 95% and 98% named the angular shape on the left as ‘Kiki’ and the rounded one on the right as ‘Booba’.  It gave some indication as to the function of naming in language, and also indicated the way in which the brain makes connections. Occasionally we can ‘cross’ over from one sense to the other – as people have done here with assigning a sound [hearing] to a shape [sight]. People with synaesthesia, or synesthetes, take this involuntarily one stage further.  For some synesthetes, particular letters are always perceived as a particular colour (‘O’ as white and ‘T’ as blue, for instance) and for others particular words may have their own flavour.For some individuals, and in some cultures this is seen as a gift (like a kind of second sight), whilst for others it is simply a condition which must be endured.

As preachers we do our best to apply the word of God to those who will listen to it. In order to do so, we need to encourage them to make connections in order to retain what is heard. The more often we forge connections between different parts of the brain, the greater the synapses , or neural pathways, become down which information can travel.  Like  the sheep track below, travelling many times down the same pathway makes it permanent and permits easy travel. This is why good preaching, like good teaching, connects the senses together.  Connecting together the audio and the visual in preaching, or even the theoretical and the practical, helps to hone the Christian mind as an instrument for God.

Image: Copyright Sarah McGuire

In our church we have set ourselves the target of learning 50 Bible verses by heart as part of Biblefresh year. Whilst ‘memory verses’ is something often associated with children’s work – it is a rather different prospect when it involves all ages. In order to help us we are using images, sounds, and (wherever possible) physical objects. With only 5 verses learnt so far, it is too early to tell whether the approach is working. However, this multi-sensory approach can be used for preaching as well as for learning verses by heart, surely?

To what extent does our preaching encourage those who listen to it to connect their senses together, do you think?

A moment of joy

As a preacher, I find the prospect of ever losing my voice pretty terrifying. Maybe that’s why Zechariah’s story grabs my imagination so much. Some years ago, in a sermon entitled “the sound of silence”, I tried to capture the moment when he rediscovered his voice:

As he handed the tablet back, so it began.  At first it was like the distant rumble of an underground river, strength hidden deep below the surface.  Then it grew stronger, like molten lava pounding on the doors of the earth, waiting to be released.  Finally it was like the thunder of a hundred horses’ hooves, all churning up the dusty ground in unison.  Zechariah spoke.  Doubt was replaced with certainty.  Disbelief with faith.  Sadness with joy.  And his old cracked voice found its depths again.  Like a bird long asleep, it spread its wings, shook them and took to the skies.  Every other babbling sound in the house was hushed as his deep and beautiful voice scaled the heights of praise.  In a song that seemed as old as Moses the lawgiver and as new as tomorrow’s unformed dew, he told of the goodness of God.  “The tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven”

The rest of the sermon can be found in my book Stale Bread.

Earlier this week, news broke of Brenda  Jensen’s story.  During surgery in 1999 her larynx was irreparably damaged during surgery.  It was not until a radical new procedure involving the insertion of a voice box and trachea from a donor body that she found her voice again.  When at last they came, her words were surprisingly ordinary: ‘Good morning, I want to go home.’  Since then she has been building up her repertoire of speech, training her new muscles to work and form the necessary sounds. ‘Every day is a new beginning for me’, she says.

To those of us reluctant to open our mouths today, lest what we say is flawed or imperfect – her words come as a rebuke. The perfect sermon was never yet preached by any of us and our mistakes abound. Like Brenda, though, every opportunity to speak is a gift, and we should seize it.

A word in search of definition

The other day I responded to a tweet about the threats to preaching, and accidentally invented a word. Or at least I thought I had invented it, until a quick trip round the googleverse revealed that there are other people using the word “pulpiteer” – not all of them ironically.

So how would you interpret the word if you came to it fresh, as I did?

  • Mountaineer – it could be like a mountaineer, scaling great heights of oratorical brilliance, and gazing down on the lesser mortals below.
  • Orienteer– it could be like an orienteer – trying not to get lost and not to lose those who are running alongside you.
  • Rocketeer– it could be like the Rocketeer in the film of the same title – righting wrongs and wow-ing the crowds.
  • Electioneer– it could be that the pulpiteer is a kind of spiritual spin doctor, persuading you to ‘sign up’, even against your better judgement.
  • Charioteer – perhaps the pulpiteer could be a kind of Jehu of the homiletical world – riding in cavalier fashion over feelings and opinions.
  • Pioneer – maybe the pulpiteer is a person who charts a way into new territory.

As you can see – the possibilities for understanding (or misunderstanding) this word are considerable- and you would be welcome to add to them. When I used the word in my ignorance it was to express my concern that we should not use our pulpits as a means to establish our own little fiefdoms where we rise above all possibility of challenge or critique.

What do you think?


Coming soon to a pulpit near you? (


Mine for a year…

As part of a school charity auction a friend has recently adopted a word for me. It came with instructions to look after it well, to take it out regularly, and to exercise it with punctuation. The word was…Bible.

It’s a great idea, especially since it raises money for literacy education in other parts of the world. What if I were actually responsible for the word ‘Bible’ for a year, though? What if I were personally responsible for the way it was heard and perceived wherever it went? What if people drew their impressions of the Bible from me?

Of course in one sense all those things are true. As a Biblical interpreter I have a  God-given duty to ensure that the Bible is as well understood and absorbed as it can be insofar as I can do anything about it.  I may not actually be the adoptive parent of the word “Bible”, but I nonetheless have a huge responsibility towards it. As a preacher who explains it I have a bounden duty to understand it as well as I can – with all the homework that involves. As a preacher who speaks about it on my feet  it falls to me to absorb it in silence on my knees. When I stand to preach I must not stand in front of it, obscuring it from view with my clumsy personality. Nor must I stand behind it, neglecting my duty to explain and expound to those who would hear. No, I must stand beside it, pointing out its complex beauty and inviting others to enjoy it.

Thankfully, God is responsible for the Bible – but it is a responsibility he gladly and dangerously shares with preachers like us. are you up for it?

A prayer for Sunday

The following prayer was prayed by a Roman Catholic priest at the moment of his ordination. It seems sort of appropriate for every weary preacher on a Sunday though, don’t you think?

Tormented thought and worn out shoes – take both and dwell therein.

God bless you on this day.

"Holy Ground" installation by Paul Hobbs

Where is it now?

Of course sometimes it’s not so much that it runs way – more that it limps away with its tail between its legs and licks its wounds somewhere beyond the third row of seats! However it went, though, it now has a life of its own. After the hours of preparation and the moments of delivery it is no longer your responsibility.

Some have packed it away with their work things and will examine it in their minds on the train or the bus. Others have lodged it somewhere between the shopping list and the address book and it will fall out at the moment when they least expect it.  Others have buried it deep down – like a bulb planted last year out of sight and out of mind. A harsh frost and a spring rain or two will have to come before it bears fruit.

As preachers we rarely get to hear about much of this, and so it is a treat when we do. Two years ago, a Pastor in the Philippines asked if he could use MP3 recordings of my sermons in his church. I gladly agreed, and he has continued to do so. Yesterday he even wrote and said that they were being broadcast on a local radio station. I find it hard to get my head around that – but I am glad they are being used.

Those of you who have read Stale Bread will have come across the Siberian legend of the “whispering of the stars”. Basically it is the folk belief that words spoken in the depths of Winter freeze as they are spoken and fall to the ground. Many months later, when the Spring comes and brings with  it the thaw…the words can be heard again in the place where they were spoken. Only a legend, I know – but a reminder that the words you preached yesterday may have a far longer life than you expect.

Richard Littledale

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