John Sung: a manic depressive?

John Sung the revivalist

Dr. Alex Tang wrote a fascinating post about the late John Sung a well-known Chinese evangelist and revivalist to South East Asia and China of the 20th Century.

I have read John Sung’s biographies by various authors, and perused the notes of his fiery sermons. His dedication and the life-changing responses to his ministry everywhere he went, had stirred me to seek God, pray more and study the Word more.

What is interesting about Alex’s post is that he presents an unknown or ignored view of this man of God’s life and ministry. He proposes that John Sung might have been mentally ill. He in fact thinks he might have suffered from manic depressive psychosis. He quotes a source that stated:

Recent research, based partly on reliable archival materials from Union Theological Seminary, paint a different picture. It seems that Song really did suffer some sort of psychological breakdown, leading to hallucinations, strange dreams, visions, and bizarre behavior, including impenetrable letters and diagrams. Having been diagnosed as psychotic by three psychiatrists, he signed the self-admittance form to Bloomingdale Hospital in White Plains, New York.

There is a further citation which you can read in his blogpost HERE.

We know a preacher can be effective in his ministry even though he suffers from a physical health problem. But can a man of God have a mental illness and still be effective in his ministry, even perhaps aided by the symptoms of that illness itself? Why do we find it hard to believe that this may be possible?

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Reflection and journaling alternatives

Journaling is not everyone’s cup to tea. However some kind of record of God’s work in our life and what we are experiencing should be kept if we want to grow in discernment and in awareness of ourselves.

The ancients were instructed to put up stones of memorials to remember the mighty deeds of God. Joshua picked twelve stones from the river bed of Jordan and set them up so that God’s people remember what God has done and therefore what God is like. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob set up stone markers to remember the encounters they had with God and the words God had revealed to them.

Journaling is one pragmatic and simple way of doing this. Recording what God has done for us, in us and through us. Recording our encounters with Him and what he taught us. Recording our insights, emotions, memories, desires, dreams, and feelings. Reviewed regularly, whether monthly, quarterly and yearly to reflect on what God has been doing for you, in you and through you and what he is saying to you is a healthy way to discern God’s work and will in your life.

My new journal. Yes, paper and pen!

With the annual review I could give a name to my year. One was a year of stress. One was a year of desolation. One was a year of clarity. Last year was a year of release of burdens. I could see what God was doing with my life and how I was progressing spiritually and in ministry.

If you want to see spiritual growth in your life the organic way, you will want to record what you are experiencing, reflect on what God is doing and saying to you, and grow in discernment. No short cuts. The path of patience.

However not everyone likes recording their experiences with words, whether on paper or digitally. Here are a few other ways to remember God and our encounters and experiences:

  1. Use a voice recorder and talk through what happened and what you felt.
  2. Draw pictures and images to symbolise or express your emotions and desires.
  3. Make something: origami, clay work or plasticine, or embroidery to represent what happened.
  4. The smartphone is always with us and you could download an app that allows you to take short notes for each month. If you have a Samsung Note like I do, you have wonderful access to S Pen and S Note folders.
  5. Take a large cardboard and draw twelve large stones, each blank stone to represent each month, and write significant key words of events or emotions.
  6. Use Facebook to write private notes of what happened and emoticons to express emotions. Change the privacy setting to keep some of these for your eyes only.
  7. Use Instagram and use pictures and words to record your encounters, feelings and events.
  8. Start a free blog on blogspot or wordpress and keep whatever you record private.
  9. Do a selfie video of yourself talking.
  10. Use that neglected camera in the drawer and set it up on a stand and record yourself talking about what God has been doing in your life periodically.

I am sure there are several other creative ways besides deepening on our unreliable memory.  Do share with us in the comments below how you do it personally?

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Preaching the first person narrative sermon

The first person narrative sermon is one of the more difficult types of sermon to preach. In this form of preaching, the speaker takes on a character in a narrative and speaks in the first person as though he was the character, for example, Abraham or Apollos, Moses or Samson, Esther or Ruth. I have never done a first person narrative sermon before. But Christmas changed this.

Tom Cannon as Mordecai

Recently, one of my colleagues, Tom Cannon, did it and I was impressed by his sermon. He spoke as Mordecai, the uncle of Esther who was used by God to help save the people of Israel. He used an ingenious setting: the opening speech of the Purim festival where he narrated what had happened and why they are celebrating such a festival.

He had to know what he wanted to emphasize, the angle to approach the story. He had to memorize the script and rehearse it. Then he delivered the sermon with a colorful shawl around his shirt. Besides giving a creative kind of “book survey”, it ministered to people at levels beyond the main thrust of his message. This is to be expected, as the narrative sermon, like the parable, is rich and multi-layered in conveying truth.

The first person narrative sermon in the Christmas Service

At the end of the sermons, I got the pastoral team (already out of their costumes) to worship with the congregation

During the Christmas service on 23rd Dec 2017, the whole pastoral team decided to do five first person narrative sermonettes. It was called, “The Voices of Christmas”, with the tagline, five narratives, one story. The pastoral team did Mary, one of the shepherds, one of the magi, King Herod, and angel Gabriel. Each sermonette was about 7 minutes. The order of service began with three songs, followed by two sermonettes, another song, three sermonettes and a closing song. At the end, we had a quiz for the children who were within the service. We gave out gifts for correct answers. For fun, we had a quiz for the adults too. The service ended earlier than usual with O Come All Ye Faithful, and we ended with fellowship and good food.

The pastoral team enjoyed preaching the first person narrative sermons. It took a lot out of them but the sermons were well received by both adults and children. It was a good learning experience for everyone including myself as it was also a first time for me. Initially I baulked at it, and was supposed to summarize and thread together the various strands in a concluding sermonette. But it flashed on my mind that I could do that as Gabriel the archangel. It was nerve wracking and my first draft was too theoretical giving an overview of God’s eternal plan. I realized that at the full-dress rehearsal and so had to redo the whole message and bring it down to a more accessible and practical level. I cried to the Lord and he helped me. I saw that the main characteristic of angels is authority, so I had to sound confident and authoritative to convey angelic presence. I wore all white but could not find wings. It did not matter because it was a sermonette, not a drama. Just symbolic hints would do.

Interesting insights

There are many insights that arise to the fore when we enter the narrative as a character and see, hear, taste, smell, touch and feel. It’s a different kind of exegesis. One that uses the sanctified imagination. These insights are exposed that otherwise would have remained buried treasure if only exegetical analysis was used.

Have you done a first person narrative sermon before? What was your experience like?

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