Book and movie reflections, Preaching

REFLECTIONS ON TIMOTHY KELLER’S “PREACHING”

Prologue: What is good preaching?

 Most pastors aspire to be good preachers and teachers. We know that the one meeting where the most members come together is the weekly worship service. A half hour or more from the start of the service, the preaching of the word takes centrestage. Even though pastors have different strengths and passions, there is a general expectation that he or she should be able to preach well.

One of my habits since I graduated from seminary was to read a book or two about preaching every year. I would glean some insights to incorporate into my philosophy of preaching. I would seize practical tips and methods and eagerly test them out. In the last decade, even though this annual readings has reduced, on the average, it is one book a year. This year I picked up Timothy Keller’s book on “Preaching”. I read it during a vacation to Bangkok. Now I am reading it again and writing my reflections on it chapter by chapter. Today I look at the prologue or introduction.

Keller gives his answers to the question, What is good preaching and how is this different from great preaching? Good preaching depends on the preacher’s gifts and skills – his ability to crystallise the truth, give it good organization and order, punchy illustrations and images, strong arguments and persuasive reasons, and applications that reach the heart. On the other hand great preaching requires fire from heaven, the Holy Sprit’s power to persuade and motivate and change. He gave the example of George Whitfield whose sermons were great and saved and transformed many lives but were sometimes poorly interpreted and structured. Great preaching but not good preaching. Great preaching is preaching with unction. Good preaching is sound interpretation of the word, with truths ordered logically, and delivered clearly and convincingly. Good preaching becomes great when the Holy Spirit takes it and open the heart of the hearer to heaven’s choir. However bad sermons can also become great when the anointing is present.

Keller says good preaching comes from loving the truth and loving people. This love makes the preacher exegete the text in its context and larger theological context to uncover the truth that needs to be proclaimed. Good preaching loves the people and knows them in the culture that influences them. It is able to analyse the culture and its counterfeit gods. It is able to show how God’s truth addresses the falseness of the culture, and how Christ actually fulfils the aspirations of the culture. Proper exposition of the text, and the transforming power of the Spirit, meet together, when Christ is revealed and proclaimed in the text..

How important is rhetorics, the art of communicating, in order to persuade and motivate people? Paul’s “I did not come with eloquent words or human wisdom” and “my preaching was not with wise and persuasive words” (1 Cor 1:22-24) does not mean that we reject all oratorical and rhetorical skills. Paul actually refers to “verbal bullying”, trickery and manipulation. Rather like Calvin, we need to acknowledge that rhetorics has it proper role: “Eloquence is not at all at variance with the simplicity of the gospel, when it does not disdain to give way to it, and be in subjection to it, but also yields service to it, as a handmaid to her mistress”.

Every pastor wants to spend adequate time and give proper attention to preparation of the sermon and its application to the hearers. However, I know from experience that its tough to do it week in and week out. The pastoral ministry is multi-tasked. Your days would be packed with planning, organising and evaluating. There are people and cell groups to meet. There are administrative and routine tasks from bulletin input to answering WhatsApp. In addition there are always interruptions and emergencies as well as the emotional drain of handling people. So the weekly ideal of ten hours allotted to the preparation of the sermon is often sliced away by urgent tasks that yelp for attention.

It would be great if churches had multiple staff or active and wise lay leaders who shield the pastor so that he can devote himself more to the ministry of the word and to prayer (Acts 6:4). Such churches are blessed indeed! For then the pastor can do justice to preaching.

However, I find the labels “bad”,”good” and “great” reminding me of the teacher’s frequent  remarks on my exercise book in primary school. Our assignments and exercises were marked, Good, or V.Good or Bad or Do Your Corrections! The better term to rule all the terms Keller used may be “faithful”.

Faithful preaching is what God calls us to do.  We have to be faithful to the text to bring out its true meaning, fulfilled in Christ, and to deliver it persuasively. We have to be faithful to apply the gospel truth to people in a culturally relevant way so that it changes lives in the long run. And we faithfully pray before, during and after sermon preparation for the Holy Spirit to guide and anoint us. And all this has to be done in time that is at times reduced due to the press of other responsibilities. However the final impact our sermons makes on people we leave into the hands of God. “Great” preaching cannot depend on quick polls, or members shaking the pastors hands and appreciatively saying Thanks pastor for that word. The label “good” and “great” are subjective and synthetic. We need to strive to be faithful preachers who preach Christ.

Next week I will write about my reflections on chapter one: PREACHING THE WORD.

CHAPTER 1: PREACHING THE WORD expository preaching today

Keller cites a seven volume history of preaching by Hughes Oliphant Old. Old names five basic types of sermons preached throughout the centuries. They are the expository (systematic explanation of scripture week by week based mainly on a single passage), evangelistic (conveying truths to nonbelievers), catechetical (teaching church’s confession and theology), festal (related to observances of the church year like Christmas), and prophetic (landmark sermons that addresses a juncture in history, event or culture).

To Old there are two main types of sermons: the expository organized around a single passage; and the topical or thematic which communicates a biblical idea from many passages or texts. Keller is of the conviction that “expository preaching should provide the main diet of preaching for a Christian community” (32) even though both main types of preaching would be needed today as it has been throughout history. He gives several reasons for his view: 1) expository preaching is the best way to display your conviction that the whole Bible is true. 2) Such preaching “makes it easier for hearers to recognize that the authority rests not in the speaker’s opinions or reasoning but in God, in his revelation through the text itself” (36). 3) It enables God to set the agenda for your Christian community. 4) It also “lets the text set the agenda for the preacher as well” (37). 5) It teaches your audience how to read their own Bibles and interpret the text. 6) It leads you to see the one overarching theme of Christ.

Expository preaching is not without its dangers. In the first 500 years the church used the lectio continua method, systematically working through whole books of the Bible taking years to bring the church through the Bible. This was followed by lectio selecta because of the increase in special feast and holy days. Selected texts covering large themes and special days like Christmas are used. In the last century great expositors have risen to revive the lectio continua and it has garnered quite a following. Even so Keller gives his warnings about this.

Times have changed and people are much more mobile. They do not stay their whole lives in one city like in the ancient days. And they do change churches for a variety of reasons. And they are various stages of maturity. Just going through a large book like Isaiah may take 2 years. So the pastor will have to ask himself: do I want to follow a rigid whole book approach or do I want to be more flexible and arrange a richer diet for the members and expose them to a greater variety of passages and themes from both Old and New Testament? Keller advises expository mini-series that cover various parts and genres of the Bible: Old and New, narrative, didactic, poetry, gospels in a reasonable amount of time.

The other danger Keller warn of is the tendency of expository preachers to dwell so much on sharing the gleanings of their exegesis and research that they neglect another vital area. “Neglecting persuasion, illustration, and other ways to affect the heart undermines the effectiveness of preaching- first because it’s boring and second because it’s unfaithful to the very purpose of preaching” (42).

The third danger is a too narrow definition of what constitutes “expository”. To some it has to be verse by verse. To others it is the one central truth and a streamlined outline. For others there is only one main point for any passage and only one!

I like what Keller says. More flexibility and creativity is to be welcomed. I believe that expository simply means bringing out the real meaning of the text. It could be based on a single passage or it could be based on many texts as when you preach about the Trinity. The main thing is that the texts should all be properly interpreted in their proper context. That is expository preaching: whether single or multiple texts were used. The benefits of the single passage exposition (stricter definition of expository), applies to the multiple texts exposition (topical) too, if a lectionary was used, or if one intentionally worked out a plan for a balanced coverage of biblical themes.

Let me end with a summary of Keller’s idea of expository preaching: “Expository preaching grounds the message in the text so that all the sermon’s points are points in the text, and it majors in the text’s major ideas. It aligns the interpretation of the text with the doctrinal truths of the rest of the Bible (being sensitive to systematic theology). And it always situates the passage within the Bible’s narrative, showing how Christ is the final fulfillment of the text’s theme (being sensitive to biblical theology).”(32)

Next week I will put out my reflections on chapter 2: Preaching the gospel every time.

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Personal and family

Visiting Toowomba and Brisbane

This was a trip my wife and I looked forward to. April 2016 would mark about six months since my son Matt, his wife Juyoung, and our granddaughter Chloe headed Down Under because of work. Of course they had looked forward to it and were excited. We weren’t for we knew we would miss Chloe. She stole everyone’s hearts.

It has been a long time since we were last in the eastern coast of Australia. The last time we were there, our children were primary school age. We went to Brisbane, the Gold Coast and its theme parks, and we visited Sydney and the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary in Camden. So it was good to make a visit to those parts again.

We enjoyed our time thoroughly. We stayed with family and it was good to catch up with them and play and read with Chloe. They brought us around Toowomba and the Mooloolaba Beach and Brisbane. I returned with fresh impressions:

  1. Australia is a big and beautiful country.
  2. Chloe grew up fast: taller, smarter, more agile, able to converse intelligently with her mother in Korean, but less so in English.
  3. Small churches in small towns struggle. Although I made a decision not to preach outside of my church in 2016 I felt I had to accept an invitation from a small Korean church that my son’s family attends. He gets relieved from preaching for one Sunday.
  4. I met a few skilled workers (mechanics, photographers, etc) who were trying to obtain or who had already obtained permanent residency. It was never an easy process.
  5. The rate was reasonable but staying in an apartment under Airbnb felt awkward as the owners’ clothes were hanging in the wardrobes, the bicycles and golf clubs, the magazines and books, the food in the refrigerator and their family photographs on the wall. Here is a slideshow of our trip:

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Trekking, cycling and other pleasures

The Brompton goes into Chinese and Japanese Gardens

One person leaving the Japanese Garden was saying, They should not allow cyclists into the Chinese and Japanese Gardens. So unsafe. I went to the security guard to confirm if what I was hearing was true. Can cyclists enter the Gardens? I thought there was a rule that said we cannot? I have been stopped before. The security guard said, Yes you can now cycle in the Gardens. Later, my wife and I were walking out at the Chinese Garden’s exit at the Chinese Garden MRT side. I asked the security guard there, Can we cycle in the Gardens? Yes you can. What happened? I thought all along we cannot. The management made a decision this week to allow and we have been instructed to allow cyclists in, he replied.

Last week I was disappointed to see one thirds of the Jurong Lake Park Connector boarded up completely for upgrading works. Now there is some comfort in this piece of good news that we can cycle inside the gardens.

Here are some photos to prove this is for real but I do not know if this is temporary or permanent.

Near the Chinese Garden lake

Brompton in front of lake in Chinese Garden

In front of MuLan

Tern in front of MuLan

With a Chinese loyal prime minister or something

Brompton with some famous and loyal Chinese prime minister of the past

Brompton in front of main building of Chinese Garden

Brompton in front of main building of Chinese Garden

Tern in front of the twin pagoda

Tern in front of the twin pagoda

Confucius meets Brompton for the first time

Confucius met Brompton for the first time and advised it not to bid for any government tenders

Wefie on the bridge that joins the Chinese with the Japanese Gardens

Wefie on the bridge that joins the Chinese with the Japanese Gardens

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Book and movie reflections

“Unfolding His Story”: blogpastor’s book reflection

Unfolding His Story by Georgie Lee and Galven Lee

Unfolding His Story by Georgie Lee and Galven Lee

“Unfolding His Story” by Georgie Lee and Galven Lee tells the story of the Charismatic movement in Singapore through the flesh and blood of personal accounts and the skeleton of sound historical research. Like a kaleidoscope, the varied mini-narratives in the book form varied patterns and repeated colours from similar materials with the twist of time and circumstances. It is a must read if you want to gain prophetic insight into the times we are living in. You may not agree with the conclusion of the authors regarding the direction that the altars of the past are pointing to, but you cannot ignore this book.

I first met Galven in Dawson Place. He was an NUS history student doing research on the charismatic movement. My Hyundai Matrix was being serviced and he interviewed me to capture an account of the outpouring of the Spirit upon students that I was a part of. People had heard about the “Clock tower revival of ACS” but little was known about the outpouring of God’s Spirit upon students who were fasting and praying at the back of the science laboratories of Dunearn Technical Secondary School. Later I bumped into his father at a Love Singapore Pastors’ Prayer Summit. He was on fire about a school of discipleship that the FGB Gatekeepers have started. I did not know that at that time the idea for this book had already taken form. It was with some anticipation when I held it in my hands.

It is not follow a strict chronological account of the charismatic movement. In keeping with the living throbbing movement it seeks to describe, the best structure seems to be that of the authors weaving together all the testimonies of many witnesses who were called to the stand to recall their stories as accurately as they can remember them. Repetition, differing nuanced viewpoints and bias will inevitably be present in the integration of these stories, like in the synoptic gospels, but the discipline of historical research that forms the spine would keep that to the minimum.

I read the book during my Chinese New Year vacation in Bangkok. It was interesting, a page turner, and it helped me fill in the blanks in my knowledge of what happened, and I gained some insights as I reflected on what I read. Let me share several of the things I gleaned and some understanding of God’s ways I observed.

Firstly, God loves to use the most unlikely of people to glorify his name. Why was the Spirit poured out on secondary school students? Though they have time and energy, they have no power, position nor money to change the rusty machinery called church. Why was the Spirit poured out on Anglican clergy? They were drier than the bones lying in the valley of Ezekiel’s vision. And the two key persons he used: a mild mannered liberal Bishop, and a prickly social gospel minister. Yet the Holy Spirit saw what humans do not see: one was a stabilizer and the other a bulldozer, and both were needed for the spread of the movement. Then there was that multitude of bored, discontented, nominal, mid-life professionals and businessmen of denominational churches. When the breath of God went into them they became an exceeding great army. Finally even foreign talent were unlikely tools in God’s workshop: an Indian healing revivalist by the name of Edgar Webb; the ang mohs Brother Baker, white haired and mono-toned Rev Brian Bailey and long haired Rev Trevor Dearing.  You cannot help but see that it is God at work through these unlikely heroes.

Secondly, Georgie argued that the spiritual development of the church mirrored that of the development of a Singapore in its search of identity as it sought to shake free from colonialism, its rapid development, and its formation of external wings, and now a maturing and plateauing economy. This was a gem and his arguments were quite convincing.

Thirdly, he mentioned the interesting symbiotic and resistive relationship between the charismatic and Pentecostal movements. It was with refreshing honesty that this was raised in the book. I do recall that each group would avoid the events planned by the other group. The Pentecostals tend to look down on the new kids on the block even though it was their faithfulness to the full gospel that was no small factor in the beginnings and the early nurture of the charismatic movement in Singapore. However, like the elder brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the Pentecostals generally stayed away from the charismatic party of fatted calf and joyful music that the undeserving denominational people were sovereignly blessed with.

Fourth, the authors rightly mentioned the three waves that revived God’s people and swept multitudes of Singaporeans into the churches. The first were the Pentecostals. The second wave was the charismatic wave. The third was the Third Wave. You get a better picture of what these are when you read the book. In addition there is a helpful glossary of these and other terms that are placed at the beginning of the book.

Fifth, the fruit of the outpouring of the Spirit can be seen in many new converts in many new small churches begun, in church extensions or plants, and in the rise of several megachurches in Singapore. This is fruit of breadth. The revival also spawned many missionaries and full time workers and pastors. Out of the revival that birthed the church I serve, I can easily count 19 missionaries and pastors and full time ministry staff. Many other clergy and pastors I have met in countless conferences share a similar participation in the charismatic revival. This is fruit of depth.

Sixth, the Full Gospel Businessmen Fellowship International (FGBMFI) was the platform that God used to rapidly spread the message of the baptism of the Spirit and the spiritual gifts for all. This platform was a catalyst for many great blessings. The organization’s incredible success bred its own decline.  As church members were strengthened and equipped by attending FGBMFI events and returned as revived members, their churches became more capable of doing what FGBMI did. Her revitalizing role suffered gradual erosion and she drifted into irrelevancy.

Seventh, the church today mirrors the maturing economy of Singapore. What is needed for the church to get out of the plateau is to make a paradigm shift and think kingdom of God and not merely local church. It has to focus on uniting to transform all the different aspects of society and culture. The FGBMFI has gone through a name change (now FGB Gatekeepers) to reflect their new cutting edge vision of wanting to transform and disciple all realms of society and culture.

What did I like about this book? It is interesting and chockful of facts and bits of history and testimony that helped fit in the missing jig saws in my understanding of what God did during the 1970s to 1990s. What happened at Jedburgh Gardens; and how the charismatic revival came to the Anglicans and Methodists; and who’s who in the leadership of the charismatic movement, were all puzzles that this book solved for me. It helped me connect the dots. It also gave a clue to the future. Connecting the dots of the past gives me a general sense of where the dots are prophetically pointing to. And of course I liked it that one of the many valuable photos in the book showed a younger me.

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Trekking, cycling and other pleasures

Brompton goes to Brompton Road and Ponggol Park

Finally we're at Brompton Road.

Finally we’re at Brompton Road.

A must have photo for keepsakes.

A must have photo for keepsakes.

Pastor Richard Wong offered to bring me around the Ponggol Park and the Coney Island. He also requested that we search for a road in Jalan Kayu named Brompton Road. I am not fully initiated into the Brompton bicycle cult so I was thinking, What’s the big deal? He read my mind and went on to explain that he wanted to pose in front of that road sign and take some photos of himself with the Brompton bike. He had seen it in many Brompton Facebook groups and wanted to have some pictures too. It was near Ponggol, so I didn’t mind, though I was mildly amused by his enthusiasm.

So I picked him up at Potong Pasir and the two folded Bromptons fitted snugly into my Nissan Latio car boot. I keyed in the road and the Google navigation system brought us to Brompton Road. We could not find the road sign and had to circle a few times to finally land near the spot. We unfolded our bikes and took turns to pose and take pictures . I couldn’t believe I was doing this, posing in front of the Brompton Road sign with a Brompton bike beside me.

A late morning coffee with workers from Seletar Aerospace Park.

A late morning coffee with workers from Seletar Aerospace Park.

The Anglican Church of the Epiphany

The Anglican Church of the Epiphany

Later we rode around and stopped for coffee and pau at a rustic coffee shop opposite the Seletar Aerospace Park entrance. It felt like we were in the 1960s. We later rode around and I saw the Anglican Church of the Epiphany, that my friend Bishop Raphael Samuel and his wife Michelle served with in his early years of ministry several decades ago in the 1980s.

Waterpoint Mall is next to Ponggol River - cool.

Waterpoint Mall is next to Ponggol River – cool.

Punggol Marina Club in the background.

Punggol Marina Country Club in the background.

We parked the car at Waterpoint Mall which was along the Ponggol River. We pushed our bikes through the shopping mall ( you can only do this with a Brompton) and to the riverfront and began our burning hot ride under the overhead sun. It was nearly 11 am when we started off.

At the Punggol Promenade

At the Punggol Promenade

Beautiful promenade overlooking the Johor Straits

Beautiful promenade overlooking the Johor Straits

Most photographed gate of Coney Island

Most photographed gate of Coney Island

Lovely coniferous trees grow lushly on the island

Lovely coniferous trees grow lushly on the island

Nice open stretches with great vistas of the river

Nice open stretches with great vistas of the river

The reddish brown Halus Bridge in the background.

The reddish brown Halus Bridge in the background.

One day I would like to cross the bridge into Pasir Ris

One day I would like to cross the beautifully designed Halus Bridge into Pasir Ris

Pastor Richard knew the area inside out. We rode around the river all the way to the Ponggol Promenade and to Coney Island. On the way back we passed by Halus Bridge which links Pasir Ris to Ponggol. Richard knew which were the best spots for taking shots with beautiful background.

Beautiful public housing HDB flats by the river.

Beautiful public housing HDB flats by the river.

Green surroundings landscaped to catch the eye and to be easily maintained

Green surroundings landscaped to catch the eye and to be easily maintained

Reaching the Mall. It was a long loop.

Reaching the Mall. It was a long loop.

I was a satisfied Brompton rider.

I was a satisfied Brompton rider.

The HDB homes built about a stones’ throw from the river banks were beautiful and such real estate along a beautiful riverfront is rare at the prices that the residents bought them. Their value would probably double by the time they are able sell their properties.

One thing left to do: have a good lunch and talk shop.

One thing left to do: have a good lunch and talk shop at the Subway.

After the ride we had a Subway sandwich and coffee for lunch. We conveniently parked our bikes near where we sat and chatted in the wonderfully chilled shopping mall. Later, we folded our bikes, put them in the car boot and we were off again. It was interesting and fun. Although the sun bore down on us, I was glad I finally rode the Ponggol Park. Pastor Lawrence Koo, another pastor, who rides a Brompton, often bragged about Ponggol Park in his Facebook. I must agree with him that it is a beautiful park. Give it another five years for the young trees to grow bigger and shadier and it will be perfect.

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