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O thou brain -- exalted, senior,
Holding forth from pulpit's throne.
Feed us with thy academia,
Meted out in monotone.
     ‘We could never,
     ‘We could never,
     ‘Plumb such myst'ries on our own.'

Hear the classics now recited,
Tumbling from thy tutored lips.
Nooks ignored are now ignited,
By thy greek and latin quips.
     ‘O how richly
     ‘O how richly,
     ‘Wisdom from each sentence drips.'

Teach us frames to fathom glory,
Scriptures' tale doth not agree.
Pure distil the Jesus story,
Into subtle sophistry.
     ‘All was darkness
     ‘All was darkness,
     ‘Till thou spoke and now we see.'

Pompous, ponderous, proud, pretentious,
Leaning o'er thy preacher's perch.
Pressing out the sap that quenches,
Thirst for knowledge, Eden's search.
     ‘Breathe thy wisdom
     ‘Breathe thy wisdom
     ‘Till inflated is thy church'

O thou noble mind pray guide us,
Through the darkness and the lies.
Warn us from thy foul deriders,
We shall fear, avoid, despise.
     ‘Raise a banner
     ‘Raise a banner
     ‘We shall chant thy tribal cries.'

How to mark our true devotion?
What could ever count as praise?
But to clone thy stale emotion,
Forced to feign thy learned ways.
     ‘Where's my pulpit?
     ‘Where's my pulpit?
     ‘I'll abide there all my days.'

Marching strong into the brightness,
Resolute, we set our face.
Staunch persistence, clothed in rightness,
Rectitude, our saving grace.
     ‘Call us onward
     ‘Call us onward
     ‘Grimly to our resting place.'

Then one day in vindication,
Face to face at last we'll see
Precious few in that location,
Gathered with thy coterie.
     ‘Now receive us
     ‘Now receive us
     ‘To thy ‘ternal library.'

 

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I'll confess I'm part of the problem as much as I'm part of the solution.

But part of the solution is confessing there's a problem.

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It's an age-old question, but it's taken the Flight of the Conchords to pose it again with aching poignancy:

What man?  Which man?  Who's the man?

When's a man a man?

What makes a man a man?

Am I a man?

Yes... technically I am.

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[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLEK0UZH4cs]

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On reflection there were two models of masculinity on show at the London Men's Convention on Saturday.

The first was communicated in mainly non-verbal ways.  As John has put it, there was, at times, a 'Top Gear' spirituality (Top Gear is a popular British TV programme where middle aged men salivate over an array of sports cars).  You can guess the kinds of things - jokes about sports teams, jokes about baldness (lots of them!), jokes about scrotums.  All the usual stuff.  There was an uncomfortable insistence on making fun of the main speaker (Tim Keller) in a laddish kind of, 'Hey, you big bald son of a gun.  Not much hair on you is there? Baldy.  You big bald son of a bald man. Ha!'  That kind of thing.   Graciously Keller did not call down bear attacks as was his right as prophet of the LORD.  Now that really would have sorted out the men from the boys.

(Just as an aside - British men, the cruelty that passes for 'banter' among men is quite shocking for foreigners to cope with.  On one hand I speak as someone who's lived here half his life and, for better and for worse, speaks the lingo.  I also speak as an Australian male.  But I confess that even we hard-headed convicts gape in wonder at the incessant jibes about 'Fatty' and 'Who ate all the pies?' when the man in question is only slightly overweight.  Or 'baldy', when we're really dealing with a high forehead.  Or - and I dare not even name what red-heads are called in this country.  I would try to dissuade anyone with auburn hair or lighter from stepping foot in the British Isles.  The word "Ginger" could be followed by any number of appellations, most of them four-letter.  And this kind of culture is rife in the church too.  Last night in the pub I heard two Christian men speak about another Christian friend in shockingly unChristian ways.  But it was completely in keeping with this lads culture.)

Under this first model of masculinity we're told that we have a God given masculinity to be lived out.  Which is true.  We're told what a huge problem it is when men aren't real men.  Which is true.  But then it's basically assumed that everyone knows what a real man is.

So Mark Driscoll bemoans the prevalence of 'chickified' men in church.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSrZVF3FEUQ]

Apparently the real men are those "watching a ball game, making money, climbing a mountain, shooting a gun, or working on their truck."  And these are the men that are getting it done in the world.  So Driscoll wants these kind of men in the church.

Well.  Alright.  It'd be great to have them in church.  And yes, in some limited sense they'd make a welcome change from the other kind of false masculinity that abounds.  But let's be clear - all natural masculinity is wicked.  Masculinity as it occurs in its natural state is horribly and dangerously perverted.  Whether the perversion occurs in the cowardly retreat direction or the aggressive domination direction, it's a perversion.

The other model of masculinity came in Keller's talk on the cross.  He took us to Gethsemane where Jesus was at His wits end, craving the support of friends, crying, sweating blood contemplating the cross.  The furnace of God's wrath lay ahead of Him.  He begged His Father for another way.  But there was no other way to save us.  The prospect was simple: It was Him or us.  And so Jesus said 'Father, Let it be me.'

That's a man.

Laying down His life for others, bearing shame in their place, accepting weakness to strengthen them.  None of these things looked impressive.  He looked like a total failure, naked and choking to death on a cross.  He did not look manly.   And men from all sides told Him so.  They had all sorts of opinions about what Jesus needed to do to be a real man.  They were all wrong.  He reigned from that tree.  Here was the manliest thing ever done.

And it has nothing to do with back-slapping dudesmanship.  It's not about being mechanical or sports-loving.  And it's not threatened by aesthetic sensitivity or quiet thoughtfulness.  It's defined by heart-felt, loving, sacrificial service.  It's stepping into the roles Christ has for us and saying 'My life for yours.  My weakness for your strength.  Father, Let it be me.'

Oh for real men!  Oh to be a real man.  But not like those 'real men' we're told to be.

More posts on masculinity:

Larry Crabb on gender

Three thoughts on headship

He said - She said

Is the fruit of the Spirit too sissy for real men?

What real men look like

Spouse speak

Arian misogyny

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12

puffer-fish

 

Apparently the Sandemanians followed Robert Sandeman in asserting that saving faith involved mere assent to doctrinal facts.  Apparently they were soundly refuted by Andrew Fuller.  Apparently we needed to know this at a gathering of thousands of Christians today in London.  Three sentences on the subject were dropped into a short talk on how we should view the Scriptures.  These apparently important names then disappeared from the scene as quickly as they had appeared.  Only to be replaced by other names and theologies most people had never heard of.  And these were similarly disposed of with an assured riposte that must have sounded satisfyingly stinging if only anyone had known what the issues were.

Was this an accurate account of the Sandemanian controversy?  I have no idea.  Neither, I hazard to guess did the four thousand other Christians present there.  What makes me dubious of the speaker's sweeping assessments is the fact that one of the many names he dropped and then dismissed was Barth.  His three sentences on Barthian approaches to Scripture were so unrecognizable I wondered whether he had mis-typed the name into Wikipedia.

But really, dear reader, I don't care to defend Barthians and I certainly don't care to defend Sandemanians.  I don't care to raise their names at all.  Unless of course the conference was on historical or systematic theology.  But it wasn't.  It was a men's convention.  For men.  Dudes.  Guys.  The great majority were Christian but the thing's supposed to be open to non-Christians, seekers, etc.  So here's the question.  Why on earth drop names like this?

Think about the tone!  What kind of dismissive, know-it-all spirit do we convey when we raise and then dismiss whole movements in a paragraph.

What does it convey about where we think the real issues in the spiritual life lie.  Apparently they lie in debates which ordinary folk know nothing of but which clever clogs (who've been to seminary don't you know) can convey to you. 

Why do we want people to know that we know these names and controversies?

In the same letter where Paul berates the Corinthian spirit of saying 'we know...' (1 Cor 8) he tells us what he knows.  He was determined to know nothing except Christ and Him crucified.  (1 Cor 2:1-5)

If we're wanting to convey other kinds of knowledge the question must always be raised - why?

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Adrian Warnock quotes Spurgeon (h/t Matt Finn):

...to win a soul, it is necessary, not only to instruct our hearer, and make him know the truth, but to impress him so that he may feel it. A purely didactic ministry, which should always appeal to the understanding, and should leave the emotions untouched, would certainly be a limping ministry...

I hate to hear the terrors of the Lord proclaimed by men whose hard visages, harsh tones, and unfeeling spirit betray a sort of doctrinal desiccation: all the milk of human kindness is dried out of them. Having no feeling himself, such a preacher creates none, and the people sit and listen while he keeps to dry, lifeless statements, until they come to value him for being "sound", and they themselves come to be sound, too; and I need not add, sound asleep also, or what life they have is spent in sniffing out heresy, and making earnest men offenders for a word. Into this spirit may we never be baptized!

Now I don't think I need to argue that such critique applies to the circles in which I move and which to some degree I represent.  In fact to defend against such critique could easily end up proving the accusation!  I take it on the chin and it hurts.

But why are we like this?

A thousand reasons - but let me point to something I've been thinking about lately.  This is by no means even a major cause of such 'desiccated' 'soundness' but I think it's emblematic of some of our larger problems.

I'll phrase it as a question:  Why do we have preaching groups?

By preaching groups I mean circles of preachers (whether professional or novice) who get together to critique one another's talks.  As of three weeks ago I'm in one.  In fact I lead one, and I've found it a great pleasure thus far, but we should never be afraid of questioning why we do what we do.  So why do we have preaching groups?

On one level, we have these groups because fanning into flame God's gifts is something best done within the body.  We do it because preaching, while being the word of God, is also a human act, and human acts can be practised and improved upon.  We do it because we care about preaching and want to test it against Scripture and its proper Focus in Christ. We do it because standing in the pulpit, 6 feet above contradiction, is a dangerous place for someone to be (especially a young male / recent convert - those who tend to populate the preaching groups I'm thinking about).

Well then, why have I never joined a preaching group until being asked to lead one recently?

One answer: pride.  Submitting myself voluntarily to the "pat, pat, stab" critique on a weekly basis was never my idea of fun.  I told myself "I'm not sure I fit the mould of what is expected of a sermon and I'm not sure I want to submit to that mould."  But perhaps that translates better as "I know best what a good sermon is and aint nobody gonna tell me how to do it."  There's definitely a good dollup of that going on.

But then, there are people I'd take critique from.  It's never easy I know, but there are some who I would welcome rifling through my sermons to shake 'em up good and proper.  But there's something I've never quite trusted about the preaching groups that have been available to me in the past.

Top of the list of things I mistrust has to be this: Preaching for the sake of critique is extremely dangerous ground.  (Note well the italicized phrase, I don't want to be misheard here).

I still remember the first time I learned that preaching groups existed in which people wrote talks not for the sake of public worship or their youth group but for the sake of critique within the group.  I can remember blinking in total disbelief and asking the person to clarify what he'd said at least 12 times.

The idea of a sermon written for the benefit of 9 other hot-prots with clip-boards and a 21 point check-list makes my head spin.  The thought that these groups, run according to this dynamic, would nurture a generation of such preachers gives me cold sweats.  Really it does.

Hear me on this.  Critique for the sake of preaching is a good and godly thing.  Preaching for the sake of critique is treacherous.

I've written elsewhere on preaching itself as the word of God, but if this is the case then there is a spirituality and an authority to preaching that means the forms of critique to which we submit it should be carefully considered.

Imagine, for instance, that the standard of public intercessory praying at your church was pretty poor. Imagine that you decided to do something about it.  You invite all those who pray publicly at your church to a few sessions that you're running.  Now imagine that these sessions consisted of asking each member to get up and pray out loud using prayers they'd written in advance.  We'd listen in, pen in hand, marking the prayers according to a pre-determined criteria.  Good idea?

But you say - preaching is not the same.  Well, perhaps not exactly.  But perhaps it's a lot closer to praying than you think.

I'm rambling really.  Let me just list ten dangers for preaching groups off the top of my head.  These are dangers mind - they are not inevitable:

  1. Preaching itself is not considered according to its proper nature - a divine encounter
  2. With this spiritual nature minimized, the preaching itself takes on a more cerebral tone (see Spurgoen quote)
  3. The preacher is sorely tempted to preach for critique rather than for the Lord and for the congregation
  4. The listeners are trained in standing over rather than sitting under the word
  5. Preachers are taught to pretend that they're communicating to real people (and actually that can be how a lot of live preaching sounds too - could there be a link?)
  6. Check-lists for critique become old wineskins that will only accommodate old wine
  7. Therefore we learn to preach according to the check-list
  8. The audience for the sermon becomes extremely narrow
  9. Not only is it possible to be unaffected by the word (as we concentrate on its delivery), we can even be trained in such an innoculation.  A skill that transfers beyond the preaching group.
  10. Praise for sermons becomes professionalized and tempered "Thanks, that was helpful."

Can you think of more?

Well what can be done?

Here are some pointers I've given to our group that I'm hoping to emphasize and re-emphasize as we go.

  1. Make sure you preach what you've prepared to real people.  It could be to your sunday school, your spouse, your best friend, I don't care - but preach it to someone who doesn't have a clip-board.  And prepare it with that audience in mind.  This is non-negotiable.  We are not preaching for the sake of critique.
  2. Let the preacher themselves tell you their criteria.  If they say for instance: 'I'm just wanting to highlight a single verse or a single word from this passage', then assess things according to that.  Now you can discuss what makes a good criterion at another point - but don't judge people according to check-lists that won't necessarily fit.
  3. First thing I ask after the sermon is delivered is addressed to the preacher: What spoke to you most from the word in preparation.
  4. Next thing I ask is to the listeners: what struck you most from the word that's just been proclaimed.
  5. At that point we discuss how the word has impacted us - we spend time being hearers and receivers of the word
  6. Only then do we discuss ways that the preacher has blessed us in the particular manner that they brought it home.
  7. Critique comes in the form of assessing the preacher against their own criteria.
  8. In the spirit of Spurgeon, both its didactic and its emotional aspects are up for discussion.
  9. We give praise to God for His word and for His preacher.
  10. We give praise to the preacher and thank them for how they've blessed us

In an ideal world we'd do all this by watching a video of the talk given in its true setting, but that's often unrealistic.

Now some of you will say - that's what all preaching groups are like, why are you so fearful of them.  I don't know.  Am I being too cautious about preaching groups?

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This week I've been listening to sermons from the web on Luke 14.  I'm preaching on it on Sunday.  It's Jesus at a banquet.  He heals on the Sabbath, He teaches about not taking the seats of honour, He calls people to invite the poor, crippled, lame and blind to dinner and He speaks of the kingdom as a great feast.  Wonderful stuff.

But do you know, in all the sermons I've listened to from the web, what's been the number one application of Luke 14??  Quiet times!  From both UK and US pastors, the predominant take-home message was 'make sure you get alone with God every day.'  I'm not going to name names but I listened to some big hitters.  And they preached on the feast.  The feast where Jesus tells us to throw feasts and then speaks of the kingdom as a feast.  And what's their conclusion: 'We need to get on our own more!'  ??!  Usually the logic was: Don't take the places of honour => Therefore Get humble => Therefore get on your knees => Therefore commit to quiet times. 

Now there were two notable exceptions:  John Piper was good.  And so was the Australian (obviously!) Mike Frost.  (Those two aren't usually positively lumped together but there you are).  But the rest took Luke 14 and boiled it down into some very individualistic applications.

Now I'm all in favour of ensuring that our doing flows from a lively relationship with Christ.  But why does that equate to 'getting alone with God'??  I mean how do we get from the feast to the prayer closet??  Are conservative evangelicals that afraid of getting our hands dirty in mission, in rubbing shoulders with the poor, crippled, blind and lame?  Are we that individualistic and moralistic?

Anyway...  I do think a healthy relationship with Christ means talking and listening to Him daily.  But why is the quiet time the touch-stone of evangelical spirituality?  Why is it the default application for every sermon?  (I say this against myself)  Why do we reach for the privatized exhortations so readily?

And how many times have I heard Robert Murray McCheyne's daunting challenge:

What a man is alone on his knees before God, that he is and no more.

I mean it's right to be challenged by that.  But is it true?  And is it right to aim for this as the very model and highpoint of Christian maturity?  What about: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."  (John 13:35)

I dunno.  Bit of a rant really.  What do you think?

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