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Remembering faith

A little later today I shall be preaching on the story of one of scripture’s anonymous heroes. As a young girl she was captured and taken forcibly from her family home by Syrian raiders. Sparing her life, the commander of the Syrian army took her home and had her serve as a maid to his wife. Years passed, but this young woman never forgot the faith of her fathers. When the time came, and her master was afflicted with a dire disease – she spoke up and set off a chain reaction of events which would lead to his healing. You can read her story in 2 Kings 5.

This in turn reminded me of a half-forgotten story about Regina Leininger, a young Lutheran woman from Pennsylvania. Taken captive from her parents’ farmstead in October 1755, she spent the next 9 years with the Iroquois. By the time she was set free her language, dress and appearance were unrecognisable from those of her parents. She even had a new name -Sawqhehanna.

On September 13th 1764 her mother came, along with many other parents, to Fort Pitt to see if she could find her beloved daughter. She walked up and down the line of freed captives, tearfully acknowledging that she could not see her daughter amongst them. As a desperate last move she began to sing an old Lutheran hymn: “Allein, und doch nocht ganz allein” ( I am alone and yet not alone). Something stirred deep in Regina’s memory, she broke ranks and joined in with her mother’s singing. You can see her gravestone below:

Image: pajack.com

In his book Texts that linger, words which explode, Walter Brueggemann talks about how stories resurface over the years. He notes how the description of Rachel ‘weeping for her children’ crops up once in the Old Testament, again at the slaughter of the innocents and again in contemporary New York in the story of a homeless Jewish mother called – Rachel. Brueggemann notes “in a flash this becomes that”.

From ancient Syria, to Berks County Pennsylvania, to London this morning – this has become that. The song of faith is buried deep – and there comes a time for that memory to stir.

… a lot of inspiration

Every once in a while, I run a one-day workshop for preachers on “refreshment”. Amongst many practical tips such as ‘the value of the nap’, I also urge every preacher to ensure that they are fed by the creative inspiration of others.  Whilst relaxation itself is important, it is also vital to feed the mind. Anyone who peddles words must make a regular and concerted effort to observe how others are using them. Short stories can often be a good source of inspiration – since their shorter form bears more relation to the sermon than the longer form of the novel.

At this point I would like to recommend the investment of a few minutes to visit the ‘story tree’ pictured below (you can visit it by clicking the image). Despite everything that the prophets of doom tell us about the death of verbal creativity as young people are drawn into a catatonic stupor by their video games – this tree suggests otherwise. Earlier this year BBC Radio 2 launched a competition to write a 500 word story. The competition attracted 74,000 entries from young people aged 13 and under. This seems like quite a tally for a supposedly dying art!

Go on – plunge in and pick a story or three. I have already shed a tear over Al Cappucino, and smiled at the cow on the bus – but to tell you any more would be to spoil the fun…

Don’t forget – click on the tree to find the storires

Soppy dog and floppy rabbit tug at the heartstrings

I am frequently a waste of advertisers’ money. The reason for this is that I am prone to falling asleep in front of the TV. All that money, all that creative brilliance is quite simply wasted on me as the TV plays away in the background. Every once in a while, though, comes an advert so punchy, witty and brilliant that I cannot but pay attention. The example below from Thinkbox , designed by Advertising Agency Red Brick Road would be one example. In its sixty seconds it perfectly conveys its message about the power of TV advertising – QED.

Throughout this week I am on BBC Radio 2 for two minutes twice each night. Having such a time restriction makes you think about absolutely every word you choose. If preachers only had one…or two minutes each week – I wonder how they might use them?

Can less be more?

Most preachers struggle more with saying too much than saying too little, I think. Maybe we are afraid of a silence which implies ignorance. Maybe we feel we have to justify the hours spent on knees or at desk in order to fashion this public twenty minutes. Maybe we feel God needs our help in order to join the dots. Once in a while, though, truly brilliant communication leaves the reader, viewer or listener to do just that.  Consider these outstanding adverts from the DDB agency in Australia, advertising Volkswagen’s Park Assist function.(Click on the image below to see another in the series)  I had to look two or three times before I ‘got it’, but now I am unlikely to forget its message.

Preacher – could you, would you, should you ever be that subtle?

Image:DDB Australia. CLICK for another in the series

A story of growing up

In the midst of a hectic week I have been trying to get my head around the first sermon in a new series entitled ‘What happened next’. In it we shall look at the later lives of many people who have a famous ‘God moment’ in Scripture to see what happened next. Ruth’s declaration of loyalty is renowned – but how did the story progress? And what of Stephen, or Nehemiah..or Mary? Following on from the Disciple’s way, this is all about continuing the journey of faith, ensuring that God’s investment in us pays dividends.

As I prepare to embark on this series about continuance and maturity, I find myself constantly drawn back to Frans Hoffmeester’s film below. Throughout the past twelve years, every Saturday, he has filmed his daughter. He has then edited those clips into the two-and-a-half minute film you see below. He says that this is the ‘ the most photographed and filmed generation ever’, but then goes on to ask ‘what are we actually doing with these pictures?’ The use he has made of them has attracted a global audience.

Without a doubt my favourite element of the film is the final frame, bearing the words ‘to be continued’. As I prepare to preach on Philippians 1 v.6, they will definitely be in my mind.

Pulpit blues

One of my favourite preaching books of all time is Kirk Byron Jones’ book The Jazz Of Preaching.

He explores a number of interesting themes in this lively and provocative book. One of them is the idea of syncopation – the combination of two different rhythms so vital to jazz. In a similar way two rhythms, such as Old and New Testaments, or sadness and joy, can be combined in one sermon.

However, for me his richest theme is the origins of Blues music in great sorrow. As mellow music arose from great trauma – so preaching can be born in the midst of great sorrow:

‘When it comes to preaching through times of emotional strain and pain, the question is not how to preach when your heart is not in it.  The question is how to preach with a different heart, a wounded heart’

Oh yes, Dr Byron Jones, yes!

Who Needs Words indeed!

Time to return from Wales and back to preaching tomorrow. However, before I do so, a brief stop in the Welsh Valleys. On Thursday I spotted a road-sign so obscure and intriguing that I almost lost my concentration whilst craning round to look at it. Thankfully there was another example a little further down the road, so I got a second bite of the cherry. As it turns out I was particularly fortunate – since only four examples of this particular sign exist in Wales. When I looked at it numerous possible interpretations sprang to mind:

  • Danger of alien abduction (unlikely)
  • Star wars testing range (improbable)
  • No mobile homes with satellite dishes (feasible, in a popular holiday destination)
In fact, the signs were erected to tell the drivers of heavy goods vehicles not to rely on their sat navs to send them down these narrow roads, since many had come to grief by doing so.

Image: presettext.com

The thing is, with signs as with sermons, unless they are clear, there is little point having them. A pictogram like the one above must make sense instantly if it is to be of any help at all. Maybe this is why only four of the signs were ever displayed?

Yesterday Nick Baines, who wrote the Foreword to my book Who Needs Words, was kind enough to blog about it. He writes that it gives ‘confidence to those who feel a bit daunted by the plethora and complexity of modern communications media‘ and that it offers ‘good stuff to anyone interested in communicating better’.

Hopefully all of us want to communicate better. I know that I shall never remove my ‘L’ plates in this particular field whilst I still have the power of speech. As a communicator and preacher, though, I shall keep the picture of the little sign above in my head – and try to prize clarity over obscurity every time!

Subliminal preaching?

Earlier this week it was announced that Nestle in Germany were using a commercial for their Purina dog-food which was designed to attract dogs to the screen. High pitched sounds during the 24-second advert, some of them outside human hearing range, are designed to appeal to the canine audience. Of course without another quantum leap in bio-technology they will be unable either to select or buy the product once attracted to it! That will doubtless have to await the advent of the i-pooch app, or similar.

Preachers – if others can generate sounds outside the normal hearing range to attract dogs and repel teenage gangs – how about generating some sounds within the human hearing range to attract listeners? Isn’t that what winsome preaching is all about? Just sayin…

Its bin done

As a preacher I have heard just about every joke ever made about preaching rubbish. There’s jokes about drilling for oil (if you don’t strike any, stop boring) jokes about speaking long after you have stopped preaching and jokes about being 6 feet above contradiction (pulpit-less churches need not apply).

One of the reasons I write books and conduct training sessions on preaching is that I really believe it should be better. Preaching should be an electrifying encounter with God and not a stultifying encounter with the preacher.

All the same, next time I hear someone talking about a preacher being a ‘frustrated actor’ or something similar – I shall think of those actors who have reached the zenith of their career by providing the voice of a litter bin!  Click on the picture for full details of the story.

Image: BBC

Would be great to hear your favourite preacher jokes via comments!

Looking up

On Thursday last week Huw Tyler urged readers of this blog to ‘live in the shoes’ of people in the Bible. I couldn’t agree more. There is a power to the stories of the Bible which is best released when we plunge into them. In many ways this was the whole purpose behind Stale Bread – to help people unlock the power of the Bible’s stories through the prayerful and humble use of Bible-driven imagination.  Been at it again this week, as I prepare for Pentecost. Below is the introduction for today’s sermon on ‘Pentecost’s most important word’.  If you can’t wait to find out what that word might be, you can always click here (though you might stretch the imagination a little further by puzzling over it first).

With a collective sigh they accepted Jesus’ parting words, and then they watched ,and watched, and watched. Some found the muscles in their necks began to twist and knot, like old ropes exposed too long to the elements.  Others found that their eyes played tricks on them.  The clouds began to form patterns before their eyes

–         a fortress, mobbed on every side by baying troops        

–         a tiny matchstick boat, tossed about on a chaotic sea          

–         a cross, a cross, another cross still – all wavering as if with beckoning arms

When a voice at their elbow disturbed the heaven-gazing, it was almost a relief.  It was a measure of their great stress of mind and anguish of heart that they barely flinched.  There was none of that ‘falling down’ which had marked so many encounters with heaven’s messengers before.  These angels had no need to mouth their standard greeting of ‘do not fear’.

Fear had been replaced with a new master.   His voice was quieter and deeper.  He stirred within, like a fire rekindled, rather than attacking from without with the damp fingers of anxiety.  Determination was the new boss. He cracked his knuckles, opened his shoulders,  put his best foot forward , and a downward roll towards a needy world began with an unstoppable momentum…

Richard Littledale

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