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Words are a gift from God, and language is one of those things which enobles the human race. Of these truths I am sure. To quote from a recently published book on the subject:
The ability to form and receive words may be seen as a gift, a precious element of our make-up as created beings. As we have seen, it carries all sorts of possibilities, both negative and positive. It gives us the ability to create new realities and destroy old certainties simply by speaking. It equips us for creative endeavour and exposes us to careless failure. As such this gift must be treated with both wonder and caution.
Hmm – wonder and caution, eh? I would guess that every one of us has had the experience of opening our mouth only to change feet! If you have a few minutes on a Saturday morning, why not use them to enter the small communications confessional below?
When I wrote Who Needs Words it was written out of a profound sense of gratitude for the priceless gift of language. It was also written with an uncomfortable awareness that our communication, both written and spoken, often lets us down. We sow muddle when we want confusion, we sound angry when we want to sound compassionate and message gets swallowed up by medium instead of being enhanced by it. My hope is that by taking a warm, human and spiritually honest look at communication we can all improve some aspects of it. After all – there is plenty of scope!
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
The Bible & I
I wrote last week that in a charity auction I had been made the adoptive parent to the Bible for one year. Ever since them I have been reflecting on this awesome responsibility. As those who handle the Bible ‘professionally’, there are many different ways in which we understand our relationship with this God-breathed book.
Keeper – to talk about myself as the Bible’s keeper rather implies that I am in charge of it. I can maybe persuade it to do my bidding or coax it into a corner of my choosing. The times when we do those things as preachers, even inadvertently, are ones we would rather forget. On the other hand, a keeper is devoted to his or her charge and will spend many hours tending it.
Guardian – to see myself as the Bible’s guardian might suggest that it is little and vulnerable and needs me to protect it. After all, every minor needs a parent or guardian to look out for their interests. Clearly the Bible doesn’t need me to protect it, since it preceded me by centuries and will probably succeed me by centuries too. That said, an attitude of responsibility (so long as it is not proprietorial) can be a good thing.
Herald – I like this one. A herald is there to draw attention to someone or something far more important than himself. Often stationed high up in a gallery out of sight at state occasions, the clarion call of the herald announces the grand arrival of the king or queen. To ‘announce’ the bible in this way is a great privilege.
Servant – this is a catch-all term, but maybe it is all the better for that. When all’s said and done I am a servant of the Word of God. Whenever I allow it to speak I serve it well, and whenever I muffle its sound with my own I serve it poorly.
Take a look at the poll below. If you could choose only one word to describe your relationship as a preacher to the Bible – what would it be?
Polluting or cleansing?
I spent a lot of last weekend in the car, which gave me ample opportunity to listen to programmes on the radio which I would usually have missed. In one of them the speaker alluded to a concept in Janet Winterson’s novel Sexing the cherry, which was so intriguing I just had to look it up. In the novel people’s words rise up into the sky above the city and form a thick layer of cloud . Every so often the cloud of words grows so thick that cleaners are sent up in balloons with mops and buckets to scrub them off and allow people to think clearly once again. Winterson writes ‘the oldest and most stubborn form a thick crust of shattering rage. Cleaners have been bitten by words still quarrelling’.
If such a cloud of words were to form above your pulpit – what would it look like, I wonder? Would it be a whispy, dainty tuft of cirrus cloud, or a gathering mass of cumulo nimbus storm cloud? Whichever it might be, it is vital that preachers cleanse the spiritual atmosphere, rather than pollute it through their words, surely?