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dementia, the big five and preaching – shelley west

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As much as I love the research and reading (the conversations with other wrestlers of the Word) and discovering new revelation and bringing that before the congregation . . . I wonder if sometimes we make it too hard for ourselves.

Part of the joy of preaching I’ve recently rediscovered is this: simply reminding people of God.

I learnt this over the year from being locked (literally) in a room down in the dementia ward of a local rest home. Our church is part of a few who provide a special Sunday service for those who attend. Many of my friends there are in a particular fog – some having forgotten how to read and are at the best of times scared. Others are immobile having forgotten how to open doors and have to be strapped down for fear of wandering or wheeled in now unable to walk.

But, when the music starts, the old hymns and tunes are somewhat known and sung – no song sheets are needed. For our little homily, we purposely pick known characters: the David’s, Peter’s, and Paul’s of our Scripture, work around the theology of the old hymns or simply tell stories of Jesus. No PowerPoints or even 5 points – mostly it’s the simple stories of God’s grace and love. I hear and watch them respond to the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer and even the Apostles’ Creed. How much stays with them? That is unknown but by God’s grace we pray they are reminded of Him again.

Carrying this thought to my preparation for sermons and services at church I think of ways to cut through different fogs; of busyness, worry, shame, of whatever that hangs heavy in minds. What needs to be said of God to cut through this cloud; what can they be reminded of. It may not be new or particularly intellectual but powerful nevertheless is the work and words of God.

Not every sermon or every time of course but sometimes it’s a good idea to go back to the basic facts of our faith; those building blocks that are foundation in some of our memories or for others on first hearing become the new framework from which they remember God in their own lives. Africa has “the big five”; we have our own “big five” to bring up those moments when God’s love, grace, mercy, judgement and faithfulness have been at work. Sometimes people just need a little push to remember.

power – shelley west

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In listening to podcast on fables the other day the conversation remade the word.

In my language it means “untrue”, “made up.” For those scholars fable became “a way of speaking truth to power.” A safe way for slaves and lower classes to speak against those who oppressed them. As their conversation carried on they compared the stories Aesop to Jesus’ parables and noted the similar challenge, while another noted that Jesus in his person and word was himself a fable – one who was the challenge of truth to power. Some of us may cringe at this comparison (I did); Jesus himself is not “untrue” nor “made up” but most definitely did “speak truth to power” – so by their own definition he was correct.

Jesus challenged the ideals and idols of the time – the rich and the rulers, the religion and its rituals. Challenging the accepted and demanding the status quo be reset to represent the virtues and attributes of Heaven’s kingdom on earth.

In our own wider church history two greats stand for me, both from recent history.

Bonhoeffer – the great German theologian who stood against the Nazi government and Martin Luther King Jnr – one of the great movers of the American Civil Rights movements.

While there are many to choose from these two had the place of the pulpit to speak. These two spoke not adjusting, nor compromising the scriptures – their call to Heaven’s kingdom on earth was not a misreading or manufactured manipulation of passage.

I wonder if we, as servants of the King, are willing and unafraid to speak truth to power in our message.  An article in the LA Times (excuse the North American context, I looked hard to find something from here) shows that ministers preach on issues of social justice about 5% of the time.

The powers are more subtle among us, they are not as easy to name as the Nazi government but are blatant in their regard for self-reliance and interest, bitterness, distrust and hate. Some even are held as up as something to achieve or are just “part of our culture.”

These “powers” for me show up in the things our news continues to report on. Things that are not His kingdom but are rampant among our nation.

  • Racism
  • Abuse ( domestic and against children)
  • Abject poverty
  • False idols (wealth, housing, security, family, sport, relationship – think the Bachelor and how much that dominated the news cycles at the time)

I know I have been unwilling to speak truth to power, feeling bound by unseen ties to stick to a middling line, avoiding the offence of personal choice (i.e. political leaning).

But I know it’s time for me to find His voice, and speak His truth to the powers and I’m relying on His power to do it well.

externally processing extrovert – shelley west

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My name is Shelley West and I am an externally processing extrovert.

As an externally processing extrovert I tend to get a little excited!

It can be a little confusing for the people I know well, let alone those who listen in on Sundays. Moderating myself is one of the harder jobs I have when preparing sermons. If preaching is “communicating truth through a personality in a way that engages listeners living in today’s world” I need to be constantly balancing who am against the engagement of the listeners.

As an example:

As I get excited the quicker I think (out loud) and the quicker I talk! The sentences get longer and longer with less pauses and more comma’s!!, the gestures of arms get wilder!!!, the tone and volume find all the extreme edges of scale !!!!, AND, because there is still more  sometimes I just run out of words, when I go to express something I just can’t so it comes out as just a sound a sort of just….ah….happy wordless explosion of sound!!!!

A past sermon I ran out of words. Despite careful planning and writing it got to a point where the right words were in front of me this expression and it came out :” his love for us is just so ______!!!!! (Imagine wild hand movement and a cross between a woman’s tennis service grunt and a happy squeal of a small child on Christmas morning.)

As the hand shaking happened after the service I had a few confused people who commented along the lines of “you didn’t finish the sentence, God’s love is like?” A few others who words went “I understand, it’s like a deep feeling down here“(cue wild gesturing – this time on their behalf.)

So for some this approach works, for others not so much.

Another example:

It’s easy for me – after spending days and weeks in study behind the scenes to hold all the information in my own noggin. When it comes to writing the physical words of the sermon my mind fills in the gaps and transition’s that I KNOW are there. If I’m not careful I miss this completely and can often leave those listening lost – the jump of the transitions or thoughts just too far for them to make.

I work hard to make sure I’m communicating well with my listeners. I have a process of moderation, a few steps that I follow.

  • During the week I work to be able to explain my sermon in just one sentence. This process crystallises the ideas in my own brain and this becomes the main thrust of my sermon.
  • I am thankful for a good friend who over a coffee is willing to listen to my external processing thoughts and pulls me up when the leaps are too far.
  • A good thesaurus that sits on my bookshelf at home for when that right world disappears out of my brain.
  • Adding in some more full stops before a final print.

These things are not rocket science by any means, and there probably are a few more handy hints you all could give me as I work towards balancing the truth we know with personality of ME the preacher. What do you all do – as a loud or a quiet one, a wildly gesturing or a more sombre  hands-on-the-pulpit-speaker to make sure you are way that you are engaging “listeners living in today’s world.”

preaching to the heart – shelley west

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I remember the classes A LONG time ago now at primary school. Friday morning just before morning tea was Bible in Schools time. Bible in School time meant extra stickers for me; I knew the answers, I knew the stories, I knew the memory verses, I knew all the right things to do and say – thanks mum and dad for the head start there.

Years later as an adult I was ‘asked’ to prepare for end of year assembly at my old primary school. My mother was teaching Bible in Schools there and had volun-told me and another friend for the job.

As we sat down to think and plan it was plain to see that:

  1. a) Keeping 200 odd 5-10 year olds from rioting AND
  2. b) Making sure they hear something about the goodness of God would be quite a task.

My friend and I struggled with moving past the easier ‘being a good person-by not………’ and the “God tells us to……..” towards what we wanted to say which was something entirely different. What we wanted to say is something we adults struggle to grasp. The idea of holy-amazing, omni-everything God loving so much that he desired to know and love us, warts and all.

For a while we pondered-independent and together-keen to make it not only about knowing, but for a hearts response; in the end we went with balloon animals.

As we blew up coloured plastic we told a story of a Creator who spoke words of life-words that created beautiful things like them and the wonders of this world and looked on it adoringly. That this great Creator moved his home (literally) to make sure we knew of his love and care. It all got a bit garbled in the end as my balloon animal didn’t quite live up to the picture on the instruction sheet- but saved entirely as a smallish child desired it anyway, imperfections and all.

I hoped we had managed to say – and that little hearts and teacher ears had heard something of God and his Kingdom – in that 15 odd minutes that resonated with hearts and minds.

One who had created them exactly how he wanted, who moved from far away to reveal himself and ferociously and jealously loves them.

There are many things we can say from our lecterns and pulpits – clever observations of verses and pulling together of grand themes. Then there is all the decision of style and the practicalities of delivery. Among all this pre-work, among our praying, bible and commentary reading I believe we need to be looking for ways to framework this picture of this God. The One who in his vast amazingness reaches to us and all his creation, who is at work now to restore it – gave the gift of his own Son so its consummation may come to pass and is Christ who will one day come again.

Sermons then point away from just the transfer of knowledge, application becomes more than instructional “do’s and don’ts” and encourage reflection on all that he is, letting worship in all its forms and functions come as response to grace given so remarkably.

How we can all go about this I’m not even going to begin to tell you. I’m still new-ish to this preaching thing – and please hear me – what I’m advocating is not a reduction of faith down to “God loves you” and ignoring the rest of Scripture and their command to transformation and maturity. I’m merely suggesting holding this picture of God as a framework from which we start.

Recently I heard a well-crafted sermon that explained how God’s wrath against sin shows his loving care of us. So I know it’s possible to preach without shying away from what might be deemed the “harder” parts of our faith.

In the final part of ‘The Divine Comedy’ Dante has seen all the terror of hell, of purgatory and now reaches heaven and there he has a wonderful vision of the Triune God, and it is there as he reflects on the everythingness of God he realises that his will is now melded to the “love that moves the sun and stars.” As he realises God’s glory and all the actions that His love have made possible Dante can’t help but respond utterly with all that he has.

Let’s keep striving with our words to paint the best picture we can of the everythingness of God, the One that satisfies our deepest need who we can’t help but love and serve in return.