God speaks to me through thoughtful teaching

When not preaching away, I have enjoyed being an ordinary ‘punter’ on a Sunday at Chelmsford Cathedral, which in my retirement has become my spiritual home. I enjoy the opportunity to engage in structured worship. I enjoy too walking down to receive bread and wine. For the most part I enjoy listening to the sermons – although there are times when my critical mind does get in the way. However, I rarely gain new insights into God and his Word through the preaching. By contrast, there is almost never an occasion when I do not learn something new about God when I attend ‘Breakfast with the Bible’ on a Sunday. Almost always I have come away inspired and stimulated.

Yet Breakfast with the Bible is not about preaching, but about teaching. It begins with a presentation, normally by one of the clergy (but not always): if I am leading the ‘seminar’ I will speak for about fifteen minutes, and as is the general custom, I will circulate two sides of A5 notes to everybody. After the presentation we divided into groups and are normally given questions to work through; after ten or fifteen minutes we then report back.

There are 25 ‘regulars’. Three or four may be clergy. The rest are quite diverse. Most are ‘professional: e.g. doctors, engineers, librarians, nurses, teachers. There are also a few with limited qualifications who may well stumble over the reading of the Scriptures. Yet, the group ‘gells’ – and people happily talk to one another. Everybody seems to cope when there is a discussion of the original Hebrew or Greek! There is no effort made to dumb down. Theologically we are diverse too: although we are certainly not all evangelicals, I have never experienced such intensive Bible study as takes place in this group. Furthermore, we look at the full gamut of Scripture – our focus is not just on the easy passages.

Almost without exception I have come away excited feeling I have learnt about God – not just through the presentations by the clergy, but also by the responses of the people. I am amazed that more people do not take advantage of Breakfast with the Bible – for me it is the best-kept secret in the Cathedral.

Since the advent of Covid-19 Breakfast with the Bible has had to change and we now meet together ‘virtually’. We had a break over the summer, but our Zoom meetings began in September. The brief  given to speakers for the new session is to “choose a Bible passage or story that helps YOU reflect on what has been happening over the past months” of the pandemic. That is quite a challenge, for we are being asked to expound a passage of Scripture in the light of our own personal experience.

As the one invited to begin the new session, I chose Ecclesiastes 3.1-15, with its opening words:

For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die.

Let me give you a flavour of how I dealt with these difficult verses:

Most of these experiences are not chosen by us; they simply happen. Furthermore, in the poem (3.2-8) the list is not prescriptive of how we should live; rather it is descriptive of the way in which life pans out. We cannot determine these times nor can we control them. Rather, comments James Limburg: “It is God who determines these times”. Or in the words of William Brown, “God is the primary, albeit implicit, actor on the temporal scene. The ever-constant swings of time’s pendulum are suspended and held firmly by God.” As the Teacher goes on to say: God “has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (3.11). Or in the words of the GNB, “He has set the right time for everything. He has given us a desire to know the future, but never gives us the satisfaction of fully understanding what God has done from the beginning to the end”.

Although there is “a dynamic, divine purpose, with its ‘beginning’ and ‘end’”, wrote Derek Kidner, “the grand design escapes us, for we can never stand back far enough to view it as its Creator does, whole and entire, ‘from the beginning to the end’. This incomprehensibility is dismaying for the thoughtful secularist, but not for the believer.” For me that distinction can border on the glib: there are times when everything appears to go wrong, when careers are blighted or when tragedy strikes, when believers too struggle to discern God at work. I shall never forget preaching at a memorial service for young missionary who died of blackwater fever in the Congo leaving a pregnant wife behind; or of the funeral I had to take of a baby born prematurely to a young Christian couple I had married the previous year – the sense of devastation in both cases was appalling.

The Teacher seems to suggest that instead of searching for meaning, men and women should do their best in the midst of their “toil” (3.9) to “to be happy and enjoy themselves” (3.12) and focus on what Tremper Longman calls “the little, sensual pleasures of life”. According to Longman, “the context and the language of the verse indicate that this conclusion is a statement of resignation, not enthusiasm”. On the other hand, William Brown is more positive and focusses on the Teacher’s description of these pleasures as “God’s gift” (3.13): “Such pleasures must not be taken lightly, either by denying them their rightful place in the rhythms of life or by taking them for granted, overlooked in the pursuit of the future”.

The Teacher concludes: “I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him” (3.15). What the NIV describes as “fear” is not terror or outrage before the deity, but rather “awe” (NRSV; REB; Revised New Jerusalem Bible) of God. In the words of William Brown, “Awe is the appropriate response to the ‘mysterium tremendum’”. Of this year of Pandemic, in spite of all the questions we may have of God, ultimately – as Job too discovered (see Job 42.1-6)– ‘awe’, not outrage, is the only appropriate response.

So what am I trying to say? Essentially this: I believe that in every church there is a place for thoughtful teaching. In my past ministry much of my teaching was done through the medium of preaching – and yet there are limits to the amount of teaching that can be done through a sermon. What is more, I have come to appreciate the amount of learning that can take as people interact with the teaching that they have received.

One comment

  1. Hello Paul,
    Forgive me if I have already shared some of these thoughts elsewhere (I’m at that age and stage where I find it hard to keep track!)

    A couple of matters:

    First, regarding teaching. It’s delightful to hear of the enthusiasm that’s generated in the Breakfast with the Bible group! Part of the genius of the group is the name. Unlike many small groups (that tend to wander all over the place), the name puts the purpose of gathering right up front. My experience within the NZ Baptist context is that weekly home groups, when run with clear purpose, tend to fill the space that B with B does. Sadly they often do not reach this goal, instead descending into a mere “how’s your week been going?” time – or just as sad, a discussion on a Bible passage where individual opinion is confused with fact. Well done on your offerings for B with B!

    Second, about the preaching in Anglican churches. After spending a couple of decades as a Baptist minister I have spent the last eight years worshipping within an Anglican context. While hugely appreciating the sacramental theology within Anglicanism, it does amuse me that while a priest is necessary to administer the sacraments, any Tom, Dick or Harriet can preach! The fact that preaching is not considered a sacrament is too often reflected in the quality of homiletic education and practice of preaching. You diplomatically say, “For the most part” you enjoy listening to the sermons, but I can be a little more blunt. Too often the sermon feels as it’s a few thoughts dashed out over Sunday breakfast. I recently heard a message from John’s Gospel where the preacher spent his full ten minutes rolling his eyes toward the ceiling while “suggesting” that the author of the Gospel wasn’t the disciple. As one of my lecturers once said, “People don’t come to church to hear about Proto, Deutro and Trito Isaiah! (At least not a whole sermon on it).

    In contrast to this, I’ve come to see that Baptists do have a sacrament, and it’s preaching. By and large they believe that when the Bible is preached, God does something. I was delighted to hear this articulated in a book I read recently, Getting Religion, by ex Newsweek Religious Editor Kenneth Woodward.

    Interviewing Billy Graham at the end of his ministry he asks him which church he now felt most comfortable in. Graham’s answer: “Actually, Ken, I feel most at home in the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church”. Woodward (a practicing Catholic) then goes on to suggest that is largely due to Graham’s admiration for Stott. Commenting on hearing Graham preach, Woodward then makes this astonishing statement: “At that moment I began to understand what makes Evangelical preaching more than just a hortatory exercise. Through his voice Graham was exercising a priestly function. It wasn’t just the Bible preached as the word of God that mattered. It was the orchestrated collective experience – the speaking and the hearing… that made Christ present to the crowd. I was witnessing a verbal sacrament… in which Christ, “the Word made flesh” became Christ, the flesh made words.”

    I think that’s a good note to end on. Thanks for letting me get all this off my chest! Blessings.

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