Vicky Beeching – Undivided: The power and danger of stories

I’ve mentioned Vicky Beeching a couple of times on this blog, most recently discussing whether it’s right to say ‘Change or Die’ about the church.

Yesterday she released her new book, ‘Undivided’, which is her story of how she’s ‘come out’ as gay and Christian, and learned to embrace her sexuality.

As I’ve started with the YouTubing now, I thought I’d do a little video about why I think we should be wary of making the jump from her story to changing what the church has always believed about marriage.

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Preaching, Rhetoric and Michael Curry

OK, OK, I know everyone is bored of talking about Michael Curry now. But I wanted to pick up on one thing which few people have really talked about – the delivery and style of his sermon, rather than the content. In my previous post I said that it was powerful, and Ian Paul has already written what preachers can learn from him. But I think, having had a week to reflect, there is more to say – which is that the sermon wasn’t a great sermon in terms of a piece of communication. Let me try to explain by reflecting on what I try to do in a sermon. These are some of the lessons I’ve picked up over the last few years of preaching – I do this in the hope it may be helpful for others preachers or public speakers.

1. What is the main message you are trying to get across?

One of the best lessons I ever learned when it comes to preaching was – before you write the sermon, you need to come up with a short – preferably single sentence – aim of the sermon. Can you boil it down to the ‘in a nutshell’ version? If you can’t – chances are, it won’t be a good sermon. This is one of the real insights I got from Haddon Robinson in his classic book ‘Expository Preaching’.

What most new preachers do is look at a passage, and try to come up with a few helpful things to say about it – but there’s often nothing to hold it together, no overarching theme.

I’ve found the most effective sermons are those with a particular aim / purpose. You have a particular truth about God, which flows from the Bible passage, that you want to communicate. I’ve found this will be enormously helpful in preaching – because then when you preach you won’t be saying random things, but rather trying to communicate a particular truth.

At theological college, in my first year preaching class we learned to ask four deceptively simple questions about our sermon: What do people need to know? And why? What do people need to do? And why? A sermon is not simply a transfer of information, it’s a call to action. In order for that to be effective you need to have a clear purpose of the sermon, a goal, an aim.

Let’s think about Michael Curry for a second: did he do this? I’m not sure that he did. He talked a lot about love – he mentioned it over 50 times – but was there a particular message? If anything, his message was “wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all tried harder to love each other” – which, leaving aside the problems I’ve already talked about – I’m not sure is a particularly coherent Christian aim.

2. The ‘So What?’ test

Another factor of a sermon, as I’ve already mentioned, is a call to action. That is – preachers don’t want people simply to understand something. They want them to do something. In every sermon I preach I try to think about ‘application’ – that is, how the particular theological truth I’m communicating connects with people’s lives – how they can put what I’m saying into practice. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes this is not so easy – but it’s really important to do.

For example, if you’re teaching on (say) Romans 8:28, rather than simply saying “God works everything for good in your life” – it would be much more effective to say “think about the toughest situation you’re facing right now. God can and will use even that situation for good.” I’d maybe give an example from my own life of how God used a tough situation.

In other words, don’t just give people the abstract truth – ground it in concrete things.

Did Michael Curry do this? Again – he talked a lot about how love can change the world, but he didn’t really talk about what we should actually do – beyond simply ‘love each other more’. I don’t think that’s really a helpful application – particularly given that we find it difficult to love. That’s the thing: the rubber hits the road in preaching when you talk to people about how to deal with genuine struggles they have. If you don’t deal with people’s sin, you haven’t really preached.

3. Talking like a normal person

Another of the really helpful things I’ve learned over the years about preaching is that God uses the whole person to preach. God doesn’t call preachers to leave behind everything when they come into the pulpit. God uses me, a sinner, to preach to other sinners, to talk about finding his grace. God has given me my personality, my life, my experiences, gifts, etc – I bring them all with me into the pulpit.

In other words, when people see you in the pulpit, they should see ‘the real you’. I think this is another mistake people who start out preaching (or public speaking) often make: they write out sermons in full, and them read them as if they’re reading the news. I’d say – God has given you a personality for a reason. Don’t become someone else in the pulpit – just talk as you would talk to a friend. In this day and age, authenticity is a big thing – people can perceive when you’re trying to put on an act. Being genuine matters a lot more than it used to.

You need to engage with people on an emotional level – and in order to do that, they need to see you as a real person – not someone you’re presenting to mask the real you. (On a practical note – I’ve found it helpful to get away from writing out a full script with sermons. We write differently to how we talk. But it’s not time to talk about that here,)

Did Michael Curry do this? This is a tricky one because I certainly think his personality shone through. At the same time, I’m not sure he came across as very authentic – he didn’t talk about himself or reveal anything. I don’t think he really connected emotionally. To me, the sermon was like listening to Blur – it may sound technically impressive but didn’t get you in the heart like Oasis. (Yes, I’m an Oasis man rather than a Blur man. I know that many people prefer Blur, so this point is of course subjective… if you don’t know what I’m talking about, look up ‘Britpop’)

4. Leave them with Jesus

The apostle Paul wrote these words in his first letter to the Corinthians:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. 1 Corinthians 2:1-4

What had prompted him to write this? It’s possible there were others coming in who the Corinthian church thought were brilliant because of their excellent preaching – they were rhetorically gifted and their sermons sounded learned and wise. But they weren’t preaching the true gospel. Paul, by contrast, says that he did not come “with eloquence or human wisdom” but rather preaching “Jesus Christ and him crucified”, “with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power”. Why? “So that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.”

I think this is the heart of the matter: true preaching leaves people with Christ. There’s a lovely line in the last verse of the hymn “May the Mind of Christ my Saviour“:

May His beauty rest upon me
As I seek the lost to win,
And may they forget the channel,
Seeing only Him.

“May they forget the channel, seeing only Him.” I think that’s a wonderful description of good preaching: people are left with the beauty and glory of Jesus, rather than the preacher. This is what I love about Spurgeon – he was extraordinarily gifted with words, but he always, always, always brought people to Christ. Spurgeon knew, as all good preachers do, that Christ is what we need. People don’t need a good sermon for its own sake – people need Jesus.

Did Michael Curry do this? I think it’s hugely telling that after the sermon people weren’t talking about Jesus – they were talking about Michael Curry. Straight after the sermon, the commentator Huw Edwards summarised the sermon by talking about love – and not at all about Jesus. And that, to my mind, is the biggest failure of the sermon.

I am not a great preacher, but in every sermon I try to commend Christ in some way. I was preaching at a wedding this afternoon, and I said to them – if you want to love, don’t look to yourselves, look to Jesus. Christ is the one we proclaim, not ourselves. Judging by what people have been talking about this last week, Michael Curry did a pretty good job at proclaiming himself… not so much a good job at proclaiming Christ.

I pray that it may never be the case for me that people talk or think about me and the sermon more than they talk or think about Christ.

Royal Wedding Sermon: Michael Curry’s Bad News

michael-curry

A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross. – H. Richard Niebuhr

One of the biggest talking points of the royal wedding yesterday between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle is – unpredictably – the sermon. Even The Guardian have got in on the act! Everyone seems to be talking about how great it was. (If you missed it, you can read a full transcript here).

Given all of this, I really hate to rain on the parade – but, I have to be honest, I didn’t like it. I mean, sure, the delivery was amazing. As an orator he did absolutely brilliantly – you have to admit it was powerful. But what about the content? After all, if he didn’t really communicate anything – at the end of the day, as a piece of communication, it didn’t do what it needed to.

If you watched it, I’d be interested to hear what message did you hear? What was the ‘take-home’ point? Something about love for sure – maybe, “we need to love each other”. Maybe something about God’s love or Jesus’ love thrown in there. It was an inspiring message, wasn’t it? We all like a bit of love!

But – this is exactly the problem, as I see it. Michael Curry avoided talking about the kind of love which really matters. Let me explain by briefly telling you about someone called Pelagius.

Pelagius was a theologian who was born in around 354. The real interest for our purposes is in what he taught. Here’s a section of what Britannica have to say about him:

After the fall of Rome to the Visigoth chieftain Alaric in 410, Pelagius and Celestius went to Africa. There they encountered the hostile criticism of Augustine, who published several denunciatory letters concerning their doctrine, particularly Pelagius’ insistence on man’s basically good moral nature and on man’s own responsibility for voluntarily choosing Christian asceticism for his spiritual advancement.

Pelagius’ key teaching was that we human beings are basically good, and we simply need to choose what is good – an ascetic lifestyle – to grow spiritually and closer to God etc. This teaching became known as Pelagianism.

The thing is, Pelagianism is alive and well today – in fact, I think it’s the default state of many people. We can solve our own problems if we simply try harder. It’s in our own power to choose what is right.

The problem with this view is that it removes the need for Christ. If we are basically good people who have the ability to choose the good every time, then why do we even need a Saviour? Why do we need a Christ who saves his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21)? Can’t we just save ourselves?

And this is the problem with Pelagianism: it all but removes the need for a Saviour. It leads to the quote I started with – ‘a Christ without a cross…’ And the tragedy of it all is that the Bible says we cannot save ourselves. The Bible constantly reinforces our sinfulness and our need for a Saviour. I talk about this in my video about whether we are good people.

Let’s apply this to Michael Curry’s sermon. The sermon – as it seemed to me – at no point suggested that we have a problem with loving God and loving our neighbour – a problem the Bible calls sin. The sermon advocated loving each other – and imagining what the world would be if we did love each other. Of course, that would be a wonderful place to live! But we don’t live in that world. In fact, we live in a world where by nature we are selfish people, not inclined to love God or others. If we want to solve that problem, we need a solution which is bigger than ourselves – we need God to step in.

And this is the tragedy of the sermon: Curry basically said ‘try harder’. But we are incapable of achieving the love God requires by trying harder. We need new hearts, new hearts which only God can give. Instead of looking to ourselves for the solution, we need to be looking to Jesus. Someone who does try their hardest to win favour with God will ultimately despair – for evidence of that, read a biography of Martin Luther and what led him to the reformation.

This is why I said that Michael Curry’s message is ‘bad news’: it’s bad news because it bypasses the solution that God has given us in Jesus Christ. It bypasses the salvation that only to be found in him, and it leaves us with ourselves – us who are incapable of loving God and our neighbour as we should.

When I preach a sermon – at a wedding or in any service – I always try to proclaim Christ in some way. Jesus Christ is the solution to our needs, even if we do not yet realise it. Christ is the answer, the one who we must look to.

If you want to see me talk about this in a marriage context, have a look at this video on relationship issues.

 

The Emperor has no clothes

emperornewclothesWhen I was a child I learned Hans Christian Andersen’s short story, The Emperor’s New Clothes. A couple of weeks ago I was at the library with Lydia and came across a children’s version of the story, and we read it together. Lydia really enjoyed it – and I did too. And it struck me once again how wise and prescient the story is for our troubled times.

Today, for example, the BBC carried a news story: Ruth Davidson announces she is pregnant. Ruth Davidson is the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, a prominent LGBT figure, and is in a same-sex relationship with Jen Wilson.

Here’s the thing. How many of the news articles or people responding on Twitter mention the blindingly obvious thing: two women (or two men) cannot, you know, have a baby. Not without some external help. (I should add, I don’t want to pick on Ruth Davidson – it was the same when Tom Daley and Dustin Lance announced some months ago they were ‘having a baby’).

How many of the news outlets even mention the fact that this child will have a father who it doesn’t know? The baby is not even born yet, and already it is doomed to be born into a fatherless environment.

Near the end of Andersen’s story, he says:

So off went the Emperor in procession under his splendid canopy. Everyone in the streets and the windows said, “Oh, how fine are the Emperor’s new clothes! Don’t they fit him to perfection? And see his long train!” Nobody would confess that he couldn’t see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool. No costume the Emperor had worn before was ever such a complete success.

I suspect that no-one is pointing out the bleedin’ obvious here because we have, as a society, collectively bought into the lie that two men or two women can have a baby.  It’s seen as a mark of being modern, intelligent and progressive – rather than those backwards, bigoted, anti-LGBT folk, who still take the common-sense view that making a baby needs a father and mother.

The reason why this matters, and the reason why I can’t simply stay silent on this issue, is best explained by reading some stories of people who were brought into the world via anonymous third-party reproduction. For example, this one:

Anyway, there is so much I want to know, and no easy way I can ever find that information out, and it’s NOT FAIR. What do you look like? Do you have medical conditions I should be worried about? Do I have biological siblings? What’s your family history? Do you have a bunch of weird allergies, like me, or did I just lose the genetic lottery? What kind of things do you like? What do you do for work? What are your passions? What are your fears? Do you struggle with mental health issues like me? Who ARE you, and how much of who I am is from you?

Dear provider-of-my-genetic- materials;
I don’t want your money, I don’t need your love, I don’t need you to raise me. I just want to know who you are, and want to ask you so many questions.

Reading the stories is heartbreaking. How many children have to be brought into the world in this way, how many of them will have stories just like this one, full of questions, even crying out for the love of a father or mother who they were separated from before they were conceived?

Andersen ends the story:

“But he hasn’t got anything on,” a little child said.

“Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?” said its father. And one person whispered to another what the child had said, “He hasn’t anything on. A child says he hasn’t anything on.”

“But he hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.

So often children are the ones who speak the obvious truth –  it’s the adults who hold back in fear.

One way or the other, I hope it won’t be too long before we as a society realise the emperor has no clothes.

Sermons available

St Paul Preaching
Raphael: St Paul Preaching in Athens (1515)

I have decided to try and record sermons I preach, and these will be available on the sermons page. I won’t make a new post each time I upload one, but I may refer to them from time to time!

I’ve just uploaded a sermon I preached this morning on Luke 17:20-37 from our Wednesday Worshippers – about the Kingdom of God.

Sex is burning the house down #MeToo

Metoo

Sex is like fire. In the fireplace it keeps us warm. Outside the fireplace it burns down the house. Ray Ortlund.

Apologies if I’ve reminded you of a song by the Kings of Leon (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, consider yourself fortunate). I came across the quote above recently and I found it immensely helpful. Sex is a powerful thing – within the confines of marriage, it is contained and we enjoy its benefits. Outside of marriage, it destroys everything. This is exactly what I believe we are beginning to see as a society.

I’ve been reading a book called Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Monogamy by sociologist Mark Regnerus. It’s a fascinating – albeit slightly terrifying – read. Then, yesterday, I read an insightful article about the #MeToo movement, entitled: “Sex was Never Safe: Why Consent is Not Enough in the Post-Weinstein Era.”

They have helped to bring home to me just how lost our society is about sexual ethics. The Regnerus book is about how sex has become ‘cheap’: in an era where fewer people are choosing to get married – and those who do get married do so later on in life – there are very few barriers to sex. One of the things which struck me most was research about how many people have sex on the first date – in fact, Regnerus theorised that having sex is often the thing which causes people to move from fairly casual dating to more formally being in a relationship.

The whole book simply worked to underscore for me the fact that so much of our society is now based on a fairly consumer attitude to sex: people ‘try out’ different sexual partners, waiting for the one who will bring them most personal satisfaction. Sex is seen as a commodity, not something sacred which is to be held within the confines of marriage. Easy access to pornography has had a big impact. And it goes on.

The upshot of all this is that our society seems to massively value sexual freedom – the search for personal sexual fulfilment, with very little in the way to channel or restrict that freedom.

Then, we have the #MeToo movement. A lot has been written about the #MeToo movement, so I’m not going to rehash all that here. In many ways I can sympathise with it. But I think Joel Looper, author of the article I linked, picks up on something significant – is there an inherent contradiction with sexual freedom and #MeToo? His argument is that if we want to solve the problem which #MeToo is highlighting, this will logically entail the end of the Sexual Revolution. He says:

The Sexual Revolution was possible because women had ready access to birth control. Not long before, only men could sleep around without the fear of becoming pregnant. By the 1960s women could too. Among heterosexuals at least, the freeing of women to enjoy sex without that pesky natural consequence of the sex act also freed men. Sex became, in economic terms, a buyer’s marker. It was easier for both men and women, but especially for men, to obtain. The average age of marriage in the United States in 1970 was twenty-three for men and twenty for women, but by 2015 it was twenty-nine for men and twenty-seven for women. Marriage was no longer even typically a precondition for sex. By the mid-1990s, having a couple partners before finding the “right one” had become normal, perhaps almost normative in most parts of the West.

This is exactly what Mark Regnerus’ research was highlighting. Sex has become cheap, and is no longer seen as needing to happen within a committed relationship. This is the fruit of the Sexual Revolution. Although things didn’t change overnight, what we see today is the logical consequence of what happened back in the 60s.

The only value we see today is consent. That is, so long as the sex is happening between two (or more) consenting adults – then no problem. One-night-stand? Fine, so long as it’s consensual. Sex on the first date? Fine, as long as it’s consensual. What the #MeToo movement is highlighting is non-consensual sexual abuse of various different stripes (some more serious, some less so). But what action is needed to change anything?

What have we learned? What is the take-home value of #MeToo? Is it that men need more education? That society must be more vigilant in punishing men who commit sexual crimes? No. It is that consent does not constitute robust enough criteria for sexual intercourse. All the education in the world will not change the male libido. It is hardwired into men. Sure, most men are trustworthy most of the time. But many men are somewhat untrustworthy some of the time, and a few men (or is it far more than a few?) are downright dangerous. Birth control and at least sixty years of open discussion of sex have not changed this.

The point is that consent is not enough. Consent will never be enough to prevent people doing things they shouldn’t sexually. It can’t be changed with education, or by a movement on social media. A few months back I questioned whether education was enough to end sexual harrassment in schools (short answer: no). So what can be done?

Reestablishing the connection between marriage and sex is only part of the solution since – after all, women are sometimes assaulted by strangers and other times by their own husbands. We must have the cultural memory to recall that until quite recently sex, again in Berry’s words, was “everybody’s business.” The wider community had an interest in what went on in people’s bedrooms, even between “two consenting adults,” because people could be harmed behind those bedroom walls. They are today more than ever. Relationships are shattered behind those walls, worlds crumble, and often enough it is the male libido that is the destroyer of worlds. Anyone who denies this, whether in theory or practice, is living a fantasy.

Reconnecting sex and marriage – not, as the article says, the whole solution – yet it is part of it. Sex is not simply about personal freedom and individual choice. It’s not about individuals pursuing happiness, or “two consenting adults”. But sex has a wider scope – it is part of society. Society has an interest in what two people do behind closed doors – sex matters to more than just the two individuals concerned. Of course, as the author states, if we accept this – then it will spell the end of the Sexual Revolution.

As a society, it seems we have a choice to make: either we carry on as we are and pursue sexual freedom – which will lead to the kind of things the #MeToo movement is protesting, as well as other side effects such as driving men and women further apart. This is the way we are heading at the moment, and, if I may return to the quote I started with, we are beginning to see how hot the fire can burn.

Or – as a society, we realise that sex matters beyond two consenting individuals, that #MeToo is a symptom of a sex-obsessed society which cannot be solved simply by education, and that marriage is the only real solution we have (or at least, a nonnegotiable part of the solution).

One of the things I’m  often struck by is how everything would be better if people simply listened to what God wanted us to do in the first place. Sex is designed as a wonderful gift from God, to be used within the context of a lifelong union of a man and a woman, but outside of that it is immensely harmful. Peter says in his first letter: “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). I think it’s possible to see how our sinful desires, in this case sexual desire, wages war against us. We desire to find fulfilment in sex, which leads many people to shopping around for the best sexual partner available to them. But the irony is, they do not find fulfilment. The only fulfilment is found in obedience to God, in line with the way that he has made us.