SDFP: Almost Done & Yet Not

I had mixed feelings when Sr Fran reminded us that our Spiritual Direction Formation Program (SDFP) was about to end on 30 September 2023. I felt a sense of relief that our input sessions of a year and nine months were about to be completed. I have enjoyed this learning journey together with my fellow learners of spiritual direction and will miss their company. At the same time, I had a sense of anticipation that a new vista has opened up before me, a feeling that bubbled up when I began my practicum in January. This was how I felt about the impending end of the program. 

What is left of this SDFP 2022/23 is one whole day integration session, an eight-day directed silent retreat, and finally, graduation. Sr Fran also announced that we would be given a complimentary one-year membership in Life Direction Team, which entitles us to join the team for their planned input sessions. She also encouraged us to continue our learning journey by accompanying directees regularly, continuing with supervision and with spiritual direction. They are serious about our ongoing formation. I cannot but be most thankful for the passion, care and sacrifices of the team that has driven this whole program.

There is so much more to learn. Not textbook learning. Not more lectures. More of learning through a process of practice, reflection, personal growth and ongoing supervision. I look forward to this. What I have learned will more fully equip me to accompany younger pastors in their journey of growth and serving God’s people. I believe this to be part of my God-assignment.

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The Preaching Style of Bishop Robert Solomon

Preaching style has to do with the preferred ways a preacher uses to communicate truth with his audience. This includes verbal as well as non-verbal communication; the way the talk is organised, structured and presented, and the way the preacher’s personality comes through.

Besides reading scores of books on homiletics since seminary, I find it fascinating to observe and learn from the way other preachers preach. There is much to glean, and some discoveries are useful to weave into one’s personal preaching style.

On 27th November 2022, Bishop Robert Solomon was the guest preacher in World Revival Prayer Fellowship, my home church. He is a well-known former lecturer and Principal of Trinity Theological College, and had served as the Methodist Bishop, and is a prodigious author of many books.

I have read his book, “Till Christ is Formed in Us”, a book gift from my good friend Seng Chor, who had invited him a few times to speak about spiritual formation to the men’s ministry in Holy Grace Presbyterian Church. I always wondered what kind of preacher he was. Some write well but preached ineffectively. Others preached well, but wrote poorly. By the end of the sermon, I was convinced he excels in both, a rare combination indeed!

It was the first time I heard him preach. He connected well with the church and I was so moved by his message that I went on to listen to him on YouTube. There are things I observed in his messages that the most experienced preachers need reminders of.  We preachers can constantly grow in our wholeness in Christ, and hone our craft of preaching, by imitating the good we see in other models who preach what they faithfully live out. I here offer my observations of Bishop Solomon’s preaching style. 

First, his presentations are in a conversational tone. He preaches like he would talk with anyone, but with an enhanced tone. He does not have the dramatic preaching tone of revival preachers of old, nor the booming thunder of evangelists like Billy Graham and Reinhard Bonnke. His manner of speech does not grab the attention. Rather, the conversational tone gradually draws one into a circle of trust. The listener would feel like he or she was listening comfortably to a friend, feeling relaxed and open. There is sufficient variation in the tone of his voice not to sedate you into a daydream. He does not read from the manuscript, but he refers to his notes occasionally. He is stationary most of the time, keeping guard of the word, standing behind the pulpit, a cameraman’s dream. 

Second, he takes pains to preach the real meaning of the text. Isn’t this what every preacher is supposed to do? He preaches the truth in the context of the passage and the whole book. He explains what verses his truth, insights are drawn from, clearly basing them on the scriptures as the source of authority. When required, he explains the cultural practices of that time and the historical context and draws rich insights from them. Occasionally, he dips into the original Greek text to highlight a truth. He is well-read, with theological breadth and depth and a grasp of what’s happening in the society and world events, and he constructs a bridge in “between two worlds”, to use the sub-title of John Stott’s well-written book on “Preaching”. 

Third, his sermons have a logical outline that can be followed even though he does not use power-point. He is probably one of those who does not believe in using power-point in sermons. He is orderly and disciplined and seldom veer and meander from his main outline. He shows how the different points relate to the central truth he was delivering.

Fourth, his sermons have substance and interesting insights. He does not squeeze, or force, or stretch scriptures to come up with fanciful angles and fresh interpretations. His words are deliberately plain, unvarnished of theological terms, but effectively conveys the truth. Solomon is no Spurgeon, whose sermons are rich, with every sentence containing a flourish: a turn of phrase, a metaphor or simile or image. These days nobody preaches like Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers. Maybe, I would make an exception of Peter Chao of Eagles Communications. I think, Obama did speak in this grand oratorical style though.

Fifth, Bishop Robert Solomon connects well with the church audience because he explains and applies the truth with examples, analogies, illustrations, stories, and practical ideas of how to practice the truth he was expounding. He has a good sense of humour and he is able to help local believers laugh at themselves and the way they behave in church and in ordinary life. He is never harsh in his critique of Singaporean church life, values and it’s witness in the marketplace. He gently reproves. He uses humour to disarm. He provokes by handing us the mirror of the word to make us think and feel more deeply. This is an art, it is not easy to do.

I have written enough. Maybe those who have heard more of his sermons and messages, his congregation members or students in seminary, can contribute their observations with their comments. I am sure many have been blessed by his preaching ministry. Please feel free to share your observations or how you have been blessed.

By the way, the sermon Bishop Robert Solomon preached in my home church can be accessed directly at the 1 hour 8 minutes mark of the video HERE.

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New Routes & New Bike

Ride to Gardens by the Bay

I wonder if it is gradually becoming a monthly affair, this cycling with other pastors? In April, we tried a new route. We met at my home in Jurong East at 8.30am and used the Ulu Pandan Park Connector to get to Ghim Moh Hawker Center, where we had a light break. Most of us had breakfast already, but we sat around with coffee and tea and chee cheong fun. Mostly talking about whats going on in life. Then we connected to the Rail Corridor starting from near the Buono Vista MRT. We cycled all the way to the old railway signal building at Tanjong Pagar, and carried our bikes across some drains, to use the road leading to the Gardens By The Bay.

The return route was new to me. We went back to Jurong East via the West Coast, passing by Harbourfront, the Marina at Keppel Bay, Labrador Park, West Coast Park and linking back to Jurong Circular Bridge and back home through the International Business Park. We reached my home at around 3.30pm, a good day of cycling, exploring and fellowship with pastors. It was a good workout, and fun to visit new places, try a new route, and to connect with one another. Must do another cycling trip, another day.

Ride to Sentosa

Pastor Richard Wong suggested Sentosa, and I never cycled there before, so why not? Others were game too. Furthermore, one of us, Rev Vincent was gifted with a new Brompton, a black beauty, by his wife, and we wanted to see him riding in it. We met early, or at least I was the earliest, at Seah Imm Hawker Center. It is always good to start with warm up with breakfast. I took a bus and was there earliest, and next was Richard. We had our roti prata before the others trickled in. We were impressed with the black beauty of Vincent’s new Brompton, and he certainly looked cool in it!

This trip proved to be eventful. Richard was our guide because he had cycled there a few times. But we were struck with disaster straightaway as Richard’s bicycle chain broke at Harbourfront Centre. He told us to go ahead. Thank God he managed to find a repair shop at Telok Blangah and took a Grab taxi there (another advantage of foldable bikes). We were blessed because Pastor Eng Hwa also knew Sentosa quite well, so we went off and later linked up with Richard at Sentosa beach.

The slopes were not easy for us seniors. Vincent was enthusiastically test his Brompton up the slopes, and frankly, with this new bike, he was faster than any of us. Thankfully our bikes had good gears and that helped. However, at one sixty degree incline I could not continue and sat down to rest with Vincent. By then, Eng Hwa had already reached the top. I have learned through hiking that when you are out of breath and your heart is pounding, its best to stop to rest – which was what I did.  You have to admire those who take part in the 23 day Tour de France! For me, I know my limits and live accordingly. We went down after I had sufficient rest.

There is a direct bus for me from Jurong East Interchange to Seah Imm bus stop. Again, I delighted in riding to the interchange, folding my bike, bringing it on the bus, and comfortably arriving to my destination. It was as easy coming home. I love the idea of riding foldable bikes! I do not have to ride all the way to any particular destination. I could take a train or a bus to a location from which I can cycle the route I wanted.

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Combining Two Pleasures

To be able to combine two pleasures is a great blessing. I enjoy catching up with pastor friends and cycling, so to have these two pleasures combined is time well spent. I have had the pleasure of doing this recently in two cycling trips with pastors. One was from Khatib MRT to Labrador MRT following the Round the Island route. A second was from East Coast Park (car park D1) to Changi Point and back. 

Khatib to Labrador (RTI)

When National Parks published the partially completed Round The Island (RTI) route, it inspired me and I asked a more experienced pastor, cyclist and YouTuber, Eng Hwa if he would like to do this route. He said yes and we agreed on the date. Later I invited one pastor Paul Loh to join us. Paul was a pastor in charge of logistics in New Creation Church before he began his own regional ministry of equipping pastors and church planting. They both lived in the north, one in Sembawang and one in Yishun. I lived in Jurong East. So I folded my Brompton bike at Jurong East MRT and took the train to Khatib MRT station. It was 23 Feb at 7am when I boarded the train. The ride all the way to Changi Point was predictable with a few familiar scenic places, where we stopped at to take pictures and rest. 

At Changi Point we ate at the hawker center and we got to know each other better, lingering over cans of 100 Plus, a necessary isotonic drink for such long-distance rides of over 70km. It helps to prevent cramps. 

After lunch we continued our ride and took regular timeouts to rest, drink and chat. We were stuck for about 15 minutes at a bus-stop along the East Coast because of sudden rain. After that we kept going all the way to Marina Bay and passed the many bridges along the Singapore river. 

Fatigue began to set in along the Alexandra PCN. From then the going was tough but somehow by God’s grace, sheer perseverance and 100Plus, we finally reached our destination with great joy and a sense of satisfaction. We reached Labrador MRT station at 5.23pm. From there we took the train home with our folded bikes. What an unforgettable trip. I now have a deeper respect for those who do the full round the island route like it was a piece of cake. 

East Coast D1 to Changi Point

There were more pastors on this trip because it was organised on a Monday so a still-working Anglican pastor Vincent could join us. Another pastor Richard Wong is executive director of T-NET, a disciple-making ministry. Although he is working, he has a flexible schedule. The rest of us are retired pastors Eng Hwa and Seng Chor and myself. We enjoy doing whatever the Lord bids us to do in this new season of our lives. We have the greater flexibility.

This was not our first pastors cycling trip. We met at a free car park D1 at the East Coast Park. The day was beautiful but according to the weather report, sunny at noon and rainy in the afternoon. It was one of those days when the weather forecast was highly accurate. We had fun riding all the way to Changi Point and chatting over Tiong Bahru chicken rice, and later downed with chendol dessert at another location opposite the hawker center. The talk over the table was about the church during the pandemic, catching up with each other about what’s happening in our lives, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

On the way back, the rain hit us in the afternoon, and we had to speed up and ended in the exact same bus stop as during the February cycling trip, all wet from the rain. After a while we decided to ride in the drizzle until we reached the hawker center near the Bedok Jetty. There we loitered for quite a while over hot teh tarik, and left under a drizzle because the rain refused to stop. 

I gave a ride to pastor Vincent who lived fifteen minutes from my home. Thankfully we could put two foldable bikes in the car. Although we were drenched, it was an eventful outing, and I enjoyed the ride of 40km, and the camaraderie. This is one kind of environment that helps men to build relationships: doing things we enjoy together and tossing in some meaningful conversations. We are planning another cycling trip, this time from Jurong East to Marina Bay and back.

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Resources I Needed For Sustainable Pastoral Ministry

Anybody in the pastoral ministry will be able to testify how challenging it can be, and how equally exciting it can be because you have a front seat to the theatre of God’s activity in the church and in your life and ministry. With so many challenges, how then have I been sustained in forty years of pastoral ministry.

The Support of Loved Ones

Family support was crucial. To have a supportive family, especially a supportive spouse was without doubt an absolute necessity for long term sustainability in my experience. To go into pastoral ministry without my wife Jenny’s support would be foolhardy and risky. Thankfully, my wife knew I was called into the pastoral ministry and supported me to the hilt. In the early years, this included finances for she earned much more than me as a system analyst. Later, when led of the Lord, she gave up her job to be a full-time mum, and she united with me heart and soul to trust God for financial provision, God never failed us, not once.

To have a partner in faith, hope and love was a great strength. She was there to encourage and pray with and for me. She could tolerate my nights away from home, my long hours of sermon preparation, when I would be lost in thought and not fully present for her. She could tell when I feel down and encouraged me. Her presence meant a lot too. As much as she could, she used her gifts of encouragement and evangelism. I could work fully for the church and in peace because she devoted herself to the needs (physical, emotional, spiritual and academic) of the children. I also appreciate my children’s quiet understanding and strength. I once thought they might have suffered much from being pastor’s kids, but they said that they saw it as more of a blessing, than a burden. 

Encouraging and Complementary Co-workers

I was blessed to grow up in a church culture that practiced body-ministry. Whether in full-time vocational Christian work or not, every believer has been assigned gifts and roles to fulfill different functions needed in the body of Christ. Therefore, I had wonderfully complementary gifted “lay-leaders” that served as my co-workers in the Lord’s work: in the board (eg Abraham Sim, Paul Chan, Francis Shin), children’s church, cell groups, worship teams and many other areas. I do not have all the gifts. In fact, I have but “five loaves and two fish”. The Lord knew I needed people with gifts I lack (especially strategy and administration), and indeed they were always around and I found that their participation helped me to serve over the long haul. The pastoral staff I worked with were also supportive, co-operative, and superb team players, and I always had a Barnabas (“son of encouragement”) among them. For example at the beginning, Pastor Johney, my predecessor was a mentor and encourager. At the tail end, I had Ps Thomas. Lord, thank you.

Outside Comfort and Prayer

I needed pastor friends outside the church to serve faithfully over the long haul. My seminary classmate Raphael Samuel (now a bishop) was one. After he left for Bolivia, I joined an ecumenical group of pastors and priests led by Rev Dr Lorna Khoo who met monthly for faith-sharing and prayer accountability. Then followed a period where I was bereft of such faith sharing groups. I prayed the Lord would give me some. He did. There was Rev Dr Norman Wong, Rev Vincent Hoon (who was my random roommate in a Love Singapore Pastor’s Prayer Summit), Rev Kenny Fam, Rev Cheng Eng Hwa with whom I studied with for Masters program. Near the tail end of my pastoral ministry I had the input and wisdom of Ps Koh Seng Chor (who retired ahead of me) and Rev Dr Jimmy Wong, a Trinity Theological College lecturer. These were my peer mentors, friends and accountability groups. I needed them, and I still need such small faith communities. Since retirement, I have joined a pastors’ group in the Ministers’ Fellowship International, Singapore, and a Catholic community of friends with a passion for facilitating silent retreat and caminos.

These groups were vital for me because I needed a place where it was safe to share my hopes and joys, and my burdens and frustrations, and not be judged but get input and prayer. We met once a month, over one or two hours and sometimes more. These were the small groups that strengthened my faith, hope and love. They were reliable sources of comfort, strength and wisdom. Without them it would have been so much tougher.

Spiritual Disciplines

The Lord is the one who lives within me and sustains me. People were his instruments. Spiritual disciplines were the means that helped me connect with God and experience his grace, strength and insights. For many years, the bread and butter for me had been the practice of slow meditation on God’s word and prayer. In the second half of my pastoral ministry, journaling, reflective prayer (examen), weekly sabbaths, annual retreats, have been a great help, especially in those latter years of dryness, church conflicts and hitting the wall. I needed more time, and different prayer practices, and the guidance of a spiritual director to help me pray over and process the many emotional upheavals and regrets that surfaced and required attention and healing. These practices taught me to pay attention to my inner life, to soul-care and to spiritual discernment.  They taught me to trust God more and be freed from the “besetting sin” and burdens that weighed me down(without my knowledge) as I ran this marathon of a race.

I suppose there are many other helps that have not come to mind and given time, I could add more. I am sure other pastors reading this may have other ideas of what contributes to sustainable pastoral ministry over the long haul. Perhaps a wise philosophy of ministry…a rule of life….a way of managing your work. Please share in the comment box above.

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