The Coming by R.S. Thomas

And God held in his hand

A small globe. Look he said.

The son looked. Far off,

As through water, he saw

A scorched land of fierce

Colour. The light burned

There; crusted buildings

Cast their shadows: a bright

Serpent, A river

Uncoiled itself, radiant

With slime.


On a bare

Hill a bare tree saddened

The sky. many people

Held out their thin arms

To it, as though waiting

For a vanished April

To return to its crossed

Boughs. The son watched

Them. Let me go there, he said.

RS Thomas


Six Preaching Essentials

What is necessary in a good sermon?

Here is a checklist of five essentials.

1.  It must be interesting.  If people aren’t interested they won’t listen very long.  Interesting includes funny along with many other possibilities.  If you want to know what’s interesting, have a quick look through the main TV listings.  TV budgets are huge – they only want to show things people will be interested in!

2.  It must be Biblical.  I am assuming this is a Christian sermon.  The New Testament is our key source for Jesus’ teaching – if we ignore it then we may be simply creating a new religion from our own heads.  So what have people come to hear – the best thoughts of “me” or something from Jesus?

3.  It must be true.  Yes – it can be both “biblical” and “interesting” and “untrue”!  Gossip may be very interesting and totally untrue.  A series of assertions may be bolstered by Bible verses (proof texts) but it still may be untrue.  Is it really true in the real world or is it only true in my fantasy faith world?  Is it what I “want” to be true?  Am I missing something important by not facing what is really true?

4.  It must be relevant.  Not everything “true” or “interesting” is “relevant”.  Interesting irrelevancies are trivia.  How does what I say connect with, and affect, the actual lives of my listeners?  If I have the privilege of an audience, then I should certainly make sure my words are relevant to them.

5.  It must be motivating.  A sermon is not a news bulletin.  Nor is it merely the next installment of a teaching course.  A sermon is intended to produce change – ie the cycle of reflection, prayer, action.  Sometimes this is called “application”. Clear, specific pointers are not always necessary, but they can help as long as they are not presented in a prescriptive way.

6.  It must be Spirit-Filled.  A sermon is a message from God.  When Jesus spoke, the people pressed around him, hungry for the word of God, (Luke 5:1).  It was because he spoke in the power of the Spirit that their hunger was satisfied. The Bible promises that God will bring his word to us through his servants, and when we preach our aim is to serve him.  We should not presume that each of our words is a word from the Lord, but in preparation and delivery, we offer ourselves to be used by him.

What would your six essentials be?

And why did angels sing?

Here’s a great poem by my friend Jeannie Kendall who is minister at Carshalton Beeches Baptist Church.  You can read more about it on Jeannie’s blog, Marvellously Made

And why did angels sing

Not weep

At all the sacrifice

Of glory channelled

Into fragile flesh?

And why did angels sing

Not weep

If they but saw ahead

The tiniest glimpse

Of total darkness on a Friday

Where evil seemed to laugh?

And why did angels sing

Not weep?

Because they saw

Behind the pain

That was to come

The love

Beyond all else


Jeannie Kendall

The Missing Verses

Back in the mid-1990s a woman in our church filled in the verses missing from Robin Mark’s anthemic song: “These are the days of Elijah”.  They highlight some of the female heroes of the Bible, and also offer a chorus looking for the coming of the Holy Spirit or Breath (feminine word) of God. The effect is not only inclusive but incredibly rousing. The lyrics get to the heart of our gospel mission in a way that is both grounded and inspirational.  Highly recommended – here it is.  Try it out and let us know what you think.  (For a discussion on adding or changing the words to other people’s songs, see my previous post).

These are the days of Elijah,

Declaring the word of the Lord;

And these are the days of your servant Moses,

Righteousness being restored.

And though these are days of great trial,

Of famine and darkness and sword,

Still we are the voice in the desert crying,

‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord ‘.


Behold He comes riding on the clouds,

Shining like the sun at the trumpet call,

Lift your voice in the year of jubilee,

Out of Zion’s hill salvation comes.


These are the days of Miriam,

Dancing with praise to the Lord;

And these are the days of your servant, Esther,

Protecting the people of God.

And though these are days of endurance,

Of waiting and mystery and doubt,

Still in our hearts is the Spirit’s whisper,

Rising to victory shout.


Behold She comes, mighty rushing Wind,

Stirring Holy Breath, Spirit on the move;

Listen to her voice, it’s time to hear her speak,

Open up your ears God’s word will come.


These are the days of Deborah,

Creating God’s justice on earth;

And these are the days of your servant, Rahab,

Rebel who sides with the Lord.

And these are the days of empowerment,

Of risking and making a stand,

We are the agents of transformation,

The Kingdom of God is at hand.


Behold She comes, mighty rushing Wind,

Stirring Holy Breath, Spirit on the move;

Listen to her voice, it’s time to hear her speak,

Open up your ears God’s word will come.


These are the days of Ezekiel,

The dry bones becoming as flesh;,

And these are the days of your servant David,

Rebuilding the temple of praise.

These are the days of the harvest,

The fields are as white in the world,

And we are the labourers in your vineyard,

Declaring the word of the Lord.


Behold He comes riding on the clouds,

Shining like the sun at the trumpet call,

Lift your voice in the year of jubilee,

Out of Zion’s hill salvation comes.

Additional verses © Ruth Dormandy

Hallelujah – or is it?

What do you think about changing words to songs?

There are broadly two schools of thought:

(1) the song is out there and offered to the community; it is available to be translated into other languages; it is also therefore available to translated into other cultures; but what about changing ALL the words to a song?

(2) the song is a piece of work belonging to the writer and its integrity and intent cannot be compromised.

Read on, while you listen to this complete re-working of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.

I have a big problem with the second position – and I say that as a songwriter.  How far does this “integrity” stretch?  Logically it means there could never be, for instance, reggae, jazz, or instrumental versions of a particular song; there could never be alternative arrangements.  Yet this flies in the face of the whole way in which music evolves.

I also have a problem theologically. The Bible was not dictated, but written in collaboration with the communities God inspired. Consistent with that is the fact that it continues to be not only verbally, but also culturally translatable today.  So to make the Bible understood to new cultures fully and faithfully, words and phrases must be used that simply are not there in the original texts.

So, in our church, we often translate the words of ancient hymns to a more contemporary idiom. And we sometimes meddle with modern songs to make them more inclusive.

How about changing the meaning?

In v.3 of Reginald Heber’s great hymn “Holy Holy Holy” we have the line: “Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;”  I can see what the writer is getting at from a Deist, Old Testament point of view, but it is completely contradicted by the New Testament revelation of Christ – of whom John writes, “and we have seen his glory.”  In our church, we therefore sing, “Through your grace with sinful eye, your glory we have seen.”  It’s slightly cumbersome, but I was trying express the wonderful truth of the gospel whilst retaining a nod to the words of the original.

Reginald Heber is no longer with us to take issue with me.  But Stuart Townend, I believe, does take issue with people who change “For on that cross where Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” to “the love of God was satisfied.”  I can see why he may find this annoying because a different theological point is being made in his name.  Yet changing that one word is making the song singable in a different Christian culture.  The song has been culturally translated.  And the change is not incompatible with the original intent.

Ian Smale (Ishamel) apparently tried to stop people changing the words of one of his songs from “now I am your son” to “now I am your child”. Yet surely this kind of inclusion is all about cultural translation.

Such translations (or are they adulterations?) can be noted by citing the songwriter as “Stuart Townend – adapted”.  Whilst this doesn’t specifically highlight the portion which has been changed, it does at least alert the participant to the fact that a change has been made.

How about inserting extra lines of music?  The song, “When I was lost” by Kate and Miles Simmonds is a great blues-Gospel style song with a clap-along beat.  But it also has a bridge that in my opinion is almost unsingably vague (even though repetitive) for most congregations.  In our church we added some lines and gave it a more recognisable, singable shape.  I don’t know what the authors think as I haven’t been able to let them know.

In the case of “Fall” by Nicki Rogers, we also have our own way of singing it.  Before taking it to a conference, I did contact the author, who was happy with the variations as long as it wasn’t recorded like that (for which we would need to go through through proper legal channels)

So how about Hallelujah?

I think this “Christmas” version is very good.  There is nothing particularly striking about it, but there is nothing cringey about it either.  It is a decent hymn lyric that fits a fantastic tune.  The tune was released to the world by its writer, and it’s widely loved.  Yet the original poetic words are hard to comprehend. It’s one of those songs in which people sing the verses in a fog of mystical unknowing and then bellow the chorus – which is the one word they really connect with.  Leonard Cohen may decry the “dumbing down” of his poetry – for the Christmas version certainly lacks the literary depth of the original.  Yet it will enable thousands of people to take hold of a great tune and really own it for themselves.

That this Christmas version of Hallelujah completely changes the meaning and intent of the original is in no doubt.  But I think that’s the risk you take in releasing a creation to the wider community.

What do you think?

Hello, I’m Roly, and I’m going to be your guide.

“Hello, my name’s Roly, and I’m going to be your guide through the scriptures this morning.”

With those words, our preacher today opened his sermon.

What a lovely way to begin!  What a lovely idea!

As our “guide” he was acknowledging that he had a head start on us, but he wasn’t setting himself up as MasterBlaster.  He had been over the terrain in preparation; he had given it some thought; he was going to try help us negotiate it.

His services – like that of a guide – were offered.  We might choose to hire a different guide, but these were his services.  There was a humility about the opening.

And we were going on a journey together – the introductory words were also invitational. I looked forward to the journey, to surveying various aspects of the landscape, being made aware of some of the potholes, and also being led to some great vistas.

There are of course many ways to preach a sermon, but I found this opening to be engaging full of opportunity.

What do you think?

If you are a preacher, how would you feel using it?

If you are a listener – what effect does it have on you?

Beauty Example #1

My friend, Chris Marsh shared this video on Facebook and I think it is beautiful.

The song is called “Like the Dawn” by the Oh Hellos, an independent brother & sister duo from Texas.  It is a fantastic, thoughtful matching of words, music, arrangement and production.

The film was created as part of the Photography DTS project week on videography by YWAM students in York. It is a gorgeous and evocative concept.  Find out more about the project here.

Of course, beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, but in this instance the delicacy and fragility of the photography perfectly matches innocent tenderness of the music.  What I particularly like about this piece of work is that the quality never flags – and we really need benchmarks of beauty, so that all our creativity has something to aspire to.  It lovingly captures the transience of that first moment of discovery.

Here’s a thought though – that particular moment of beauty would have been transient regardless of the on-following Temptation and Fall.  It would have given way to the next stage of the creation’s evolving journey whatever that stage had been. And so the cycle of creation – birth – development – transformation – loss – renewal – was there from the beginning.

So how does the thing we call “death” fit in – death, “the final enemy”?  To me, and I think this is a Christian view, death is not merely another word for loss, change, or renewal of a worn out body.  Death is extinguishing of life.

We normally think of it simply at the physical and to some extent relational level.  But of course it can be spiritual, emotional, moral, cultural, as well.  So in Chapter 3 of the Genesis story, the journey continued but “death” had been invited in. From now on, the moving forward would become harsh, painful, and cold, instead of the growthful journey of discovery it had been created to be.  They were no longer handling its transience in fellowship with the God of life.

If you find these thoughts a bit obscure – I hope you enjoyed the film anyway!

What are your thoughts on this?

Problematic Worship Songs #1

What – if anything – should we be careful about when we worship God in church?

Among other things, our songs should be true to our faith, true to life, and we need to consider how they affect our self-image and relationships – in other words how they seep into our consciousness. For this reason, songs have been one of the key vehicles of doctrine since the Bible was formed.

So here is Problematic Song #1:  “Our God” by Chris Tomlin et al. Listen here.

It is hugely popular, a rousing number which really rallies the troops. The imagery is simple, the words are direct, the references are from the Gospels, the tune is driving.

Then we hit the chorus.  Suddenly the song degenerates into a “my god is bigger than your god” boast.  Is this really how we want to position ourselves as Christians?   There are Biblical warrants for it for sure:  Elijah’s competition on Mount Carmel; or the repeated use of the word “better” in the Letter to the Hebrews.  In both instances, the believers were under severe pressure of extinction through lack of self-image.  But when we look at the heartland of our theological store – Jesus – do we find this kind of posturing?

Of course, Christians do believe our God is greater, stronger, higher than any other, (otherwise we wouldn’t choose to be Christians), but what effect does it have when such beliefs become like football chants?

What happens when we take this “truth” into our hearts and minds, what does it do to us?  How does it shape our relating with others?

In our world today religious extremism is both prevalent and dangerous.  Such extremism is fed by the failure to listen, the failure to relate, the failure to take time, the failure of humility.  In this context, sloganeering is unhelpful.  Football chants (the ruder the better, in my book!) deliberately cartoonise.  They are part of the ritual of the match, in which we allow the fiction that football really matters while holding in reserve the truth that it is actually only a game.  But the ritual of church is all about truth.

So my problem with this song is this: it has the effect of whipping us up into a kind of Christian jingoism that will ultimately damage our ability to reflect Christ eloquently to the rest of the world.

What do you think?