Storytelling in Preaching: a reflection on the three-day lectures by Professor Thomas Long

The original Chinese article here.

Children needs stories because of their imaginative disposition, but certainly stories are not limited to children. As I said previously, stories can also exist even in the metaphors within the “propositional” biblical text as long as the preacher can trace the story behind it. The preacher cannot get away from stories. With the richly imaginative film-making technology, storytelling is more popular than ever among popular preachers. So popular that Prof. Thomas Long said that maybe we need to get back more to the teaching style of preaching in the US. Perhaps, elsewhere in Asia, storytelling is still not so popular. Maybe for Asia, storytelling is needed. The fact is, stories should not just be told, but be told within the sound exegetical confine of the text. They also need to be told in an ethical manner. This installment will explore the importance of stories and their roles in our sermon making.

Storytelling has two dimensions, both of which need to be considered. First dimension is the way biblical narrator tells the story. The second dimension is the way the preacher tells the story. Both are artistic and both help with the communication process in some ways. We must make note of the two and see if we can (or cannot) the two when we think about the presentation style of a sermon.

There are different kinds of storytelling styles, according to Long. First, there is the half-turn storytelling. If we imagine a movie camera shooting a scene, the storytelling is not quite in the scene but is a passive participant. My example from the Bible is the “we-section” of Acts. The narrator was somehow a participant but the focus was not on him. Some scholars think that the section is fully first-person narrative which I agree, but the degree of participation is minimal. Other than showing strong historicity in using the “first person eyewitness” voice, the narrator does not do much more other than moving from place to place with Paul. The focus is on Paul, not on the narrator. Second, storytelling can take the form of fully personal story. This style is straightforwardly obvious that the storyteller is a participant in the story. In fact, more times than not, he may be the focus of the story. It may be filled with “I” such as “when I was coming to church, I notice … then I … afterwards I …” This style of storytelling has its opponents who think that personal stories put the focus at the center of the sermon. I can however argue the opposite. Personal stories take away the preacher’s unnecessarily hierarchical role and make him the practitioner of what he preaches. When it is done right, personal stories put the text “above” the preacher who gladly submits under its authority.

Besides the half-turn and fully personal story, there is yet one more style of storytelling according to Long. This is called the fiction story, a made-up story. There are many preachers out there, especially among the Chinese population, who oppose the fiction, but wait a minute. Can we really limit our Christian imagination to only real historical stories? It appears that we cannot. Jesus used made-up stories all the time just to illustrate the point. Why Christians stay away from fiction baffles my mind. Perhaps, it is due to the modern Chinese culture being highly practical. Is there any reasonable way of using a made-up story? Yes, there is. Long makes an excellent suggestion by bringing “Let us imagine” or “What if” into the introduction of the fictional story. This is a suggestion with integrity because it alerts the audience that this was not a true story. Honesty is the real key here. We do not want people to mistake the story to be true, but at the same time, we do not have any good theological reason to limit our stories to something historical. The Christian imagination ought to be harnessed with integrity and not by mere culture.

Regarding storytelling, Long talks about the need for variations. This is indeed a hard task to accomplish. Some of us men preachers often talk of sports while some women preachers talk much about family and so on (though I’m guessing the reverse could be true in many cases as well). The point is that there is a need to provide variety so that we do not get stuck in a homiletical rut. How will we break the limit? Long suggests that we live homiletically. In other words, in our daily living, think often of our sermons through our experiences and observations. This then makes a preachers’ lifestyle different from others. We do not just watch TV for entertainment purposes; we also watch it for concepts helpful to our preaching.

One last word on storytelling also is relevant to our modern situation. Long points out the importance of asking for permission to retell a story. Preachers need permission to tell stories about family members, congregational members and their friends. This ought to be common sense to every speaker, but in my experience, it is far from common. Preachers constantly expose their family members like their wives and children to unnecessary limelight just to accomplish their homiletical ambition. The integrity of the preacher ought to be guided by the need to protect those who are related to the story. In the long run, this approach is both healthy and necessary. No sermon is worth breaking up relationships.

Give Them What They Need III: form follows function in a reflection on the three-day lectures by Professor Thomas Long

This blog continues to reflect on what Prof. Long has said in a slightly different direction. I didn’t write a Chinese article for this one, but here it is.  This blog talks about the literary movement of a biblical text. This movement has to impact the sermon form. If not, then there is a dissonance no matter how “doctrinally right” (whatever that terms means to my readers) the preacher is. This installment then is about “matching” the form of the sermon with the content of the biblical text.

Long lists one of his favorite Good Friday sermons called “Friday is here but Sunday is coming” by Tony Campolo. The brilliance of this sermon is that the repetition of the title helps sets the tone of the author’s literary movement in any of the Gospel books moves just that way. The entire book guides the movement of this single sermon, as any sermon should. Even if we stick to “one” single book with “one” single text for sermon, we would have our hands full figuring out the movement without resorting to doing concordance proof texts from other parts of the Bible, but what about smaller units like the Psalms. The answer is quite a bit less complicated actually.

Long in his discussion uses Ps. 19 which is an all-time favorite Psalm for so many believers as an example. He notes that the Psalm has several movements, mostly likely indicating the well thought out compositional strategy of David. From Ps. 19.1-6, there’s a description of a heavenly song that no one can quite make out the words. After all, the heavens “declare” and the Psalms were originally set to music. What the heaven “says” and how their voice “goes out” in Ps. 19.1, 4, no one knows. However, the revelation of what it “says” is clear; God is glorious. David got the message. Then, the tone changes at Ps. 19.7-11, as David found real words from the Torah that could instruct him. Thus, the Psalm moved from a wordless and picturesque situation to a word-centered situation. The final move is in Ps. 19.12-14 where David ends in solemn prayer. In other words, the song moves from wordless to the Torah word to finally a personal word (“word of my mouth”). The movement of the Psalm starts light at the beginning and slowly moves with more gravity with the Torah and finally moves to a reflective prayerful mood.

Now, this is a great example of preaching the mood and form of the text. If we were to use all the rhetorical tools of the last installment of my articles, what could we do? We have to talk about what the audience needs. The sermon audience needs to have four things in order to understand any sermon according to Long: repetition; framework; transitions, and illustrations.

What should be repeated in order to show the real issue of this Psalm? I’m not going to provide an answer, but my readers should determine whether this Psalm is about the glory of God as Ps. 19.1 states or perhaps the importance of the Torah or the importance of both. Let me suggest some alternatives. If the thrust is about the glory of God, then, the repetition is easy. If it is about the importance of the Torah, then the repetition about the “heaven declares” ought to be followed by “more importantly, the Torah is where God’s will is really known”. If it is about both, then the repetition should be something like “since both the heaven and the Torah declares God’s majesty …” and then we put in an application or illustration right after.

We then have to decide the framework. What kind of framework fits the text of the Psalm? The answer is once again “It depends.” The Psalm has three movements which can create a three –point sermon, except the three points are not evenly distributed. Would a jewel pattern approach be better? Well, it depends on whether we see the text as having different aspects of “one major theme” from the beginning to the end. Would the “then and now” pattern fit? I suggest that this pattern is best served through historical narratives. Would the Hegelian “conflict and synthesis” pattern work? It may not unless we see the praise of heaven being in complete conflict against the Torah (some radical conservative may). Would the guessing game “Is the answer this, that, or the other?” work? I think the passage is clear enough to say that this guessing game approach does not work. So far, we can see that certain patterns work while others definitely do not.

We now have to decide the transition. Now, this step depends on the first step in terms of what needs to be repeated. The repeated phrase can be used to bolster the clarity of the outline so that the audience can follow the sermon. Finally, we have to pick illustrations. The illustrations can be an analogy, example or metaphor. The Psalms does not directly call for some ethical action, thus negating the need for plenty of examples for listeners to follow. Yet, the Psalm is highly descriptive of many images. So, a major metaphor may be easy to formulate. For example, when preaching this Psalm, I like to use the book as a metaphor with God writing a book of different chapters with first being nature and second being the Torah in order to show Himself. Thus, we can use this metaphor all the way through and use analogical stories about reading in order to enrich this sermon. This too would be most helpful.

Give Them What They Need? II: a reflection on the three-day lectures by Professor Thomas Long

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The original Chinese article here.

The last blog talks about the possible things the audience needs in order to understand a sermon. Professor Thomas Long gives four possible answers from the last blog. Here, he proposes four different answers of his own of what the audience needs.

First, Long states that the audience needs some kind of clue which answers the question, “What is this sermon about?” The tool by which they can learn the message is repetition. I have said in my exegesis classes that each passage, if our division of it is right, probably has one major point with a range of possible meanings within it. Yet, we do not depart from that major point into other “impossible meanings.” Yet, in my preaching class, I turn my attention to whether they all generally get that point. A lot times, when people are confused, they ask, “What’s your point?” The trouble with the sermon is that the audience does not often talks back until quite a while after the event. Therefore, the preacher ought to make his point clear as day so that there is no mistake as to what he is trying to say. Since he suggests repetition as a tool, our next question to ask is “What is worth repeating?” Based on my years in the pulpit, I would say two possible things are worth repeating, either the main issue or the main question. We may pick either one, but not both at the risk of confusing the audience. It is not that many in the audience cannot grasp the repetition of two simultaneous things, but there is always a risk when we add more into the mix.

Second, Long states that the audience needs framework. If a sermon is a nicely crafted piece of clothing, the framework is the best coat hanger on which the craftsmanship can be displayed. For those who think that if we preach using a storytelling style, we do not need an outline, Long would say, “Nonsense”. Long is a big advocate for outline. All outlines are not only exegetically based, but are in some sense, homemade. Each pastor has his own audience and pastoral situation which can inform him of the kind of outline is needed. Long lists some sample outlines that follow the following patterns. The patterned outline (e.g. three-point outline) creates a rhythm in the audience’s mind. The jewel pattern creates an impression that goes around a single point through different perspectives. The then-and-now outline (my own preferred framework for preaching biblical narratives) bridges the ancient and the modern worlds. The Hegelian pattern shows a thesis-antithesis-synthesis logic. The “guessing game” outline asks the big question “Is the answer this, that, or some others?” to which the sermon answers with an either-or solution or “a bit of both” solution. To me, these are all excellent patterns that will serve the preacher for a long time. The important thing for me is whether the passage under scrutiny fits this or that framework better. Sometimes, there is no right answer. Other times, the answer is as clear as the argument of the biblical passage.

Third, Long uses “follow-ability” to describe the hearing need the audience. This means that the sermon is not hard to follow in that the audience would not get weighed down by the large chunks of information. I think the best way to do this is to provide adequate transitions. The repetitions stated above can be good transition tools. Transition basically serves to show (but not necessarily tell) the audience what has gone on before and what is coming next. This is an important quality because by transition, we break up parts of the sermon into digestible portions much like the way we chop pieces of meat before stir frying so that we do not eat such a big chunk. Transition is the means by which the preacher keeps the audience from indigestion.

Fourth, Long talks of illustrations. He has named three different types: analogy, example, metaphor. It is natural to think about illustrations “after” our discussion on transitions. Storytelling style of preaching is attractive, except it also presents special risks to both preachers and listeners. Stories themselves are open to misunderstanding especially if the listener has an overactive imagination. The way to keep the illustrations from running away is to put a fence called transition around it so that the illustration is fenced in within its own section. That section with its own illustration should function alone by itself without contamination of other sections. Clear transition which divides up sections can protect illustrations. Now, we move on to the three illustration types. Analogy includes the word “like” in order to concretize an otherwise abstract concept into everyday life experience. Example should serve as the kind of exhortation that shows how certain principles work out in action. Metaphor, which Long considers the most dangerous of all illustrations, contains a condensed narrative which plays itself out in a singular figure. Sometimes its rich narrative world is sufficient to be used throughout the sermon starting at the beginning all the way to the end. In Proverbs, for example, a saying can have huge narrative world behind its metaphor. The preacher’s job is to trace back into the world of the story from the metaphor.

In conclusion, the suggestions above are very helpful only if the exegesis is in place. These tools can be misused when the preacher does not take the text seriously and focus on something substantial. The satisfaction of leaning on “traditional” (whatever that means) interpretation will do more harm than good when the preacher uses these rhetorical tools to express wrong ideas.

Give Them What They Need? I: a reflection on the three-day lectures by Professor Thomas Long

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The Chinese article is originally found here.

I’ve had the privilege of hosting Prof. Thomas Long (pictured having a banquet with us the night before the lecture), one of the best preachers and preaching professors of our generation in the Belote Lecture Series at HKBTS. Long taught in Columbia Theological Seminary and Princeton Seminary and is now teaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. I choose to interact with him not merely because I am the chair of this lecture series and not less because I was one respondent to one of his lectures, but because he and I are a lot alike in that we both advocate strong exegesis on the one hand and strong presentation on the other. I must say that the lectures have much food for thought, and I have learned much from this senior scholar-pastor in both my interaction with him as well as listening to his lectures. In the next series of articles, I wish to study this eminent homiletician as a springboard into issues plaguing modern preachers. For my readers, let me first summarize some of the ideas he has shared in this next series and then I’ll give my own reaction to them along the way to move the discussion to the next level. Without a doubt though, Long is a top-notch communicator who knows his Bible very well, not only in a superficial way but in a deep and theological (as well as spiritual) way. This has been my observation of his work and through personal interactions with him outside the lecture hall.

Theologically, Long is clearly Reformed, though he never shoves his theology down the audience’s collective throat. Although he brings a lot of narrative into his preaching, he does not fail to remind the audience that ultimately God owns this world and that justice belongs to God. The theological basics of “who God is” has never been too far from his paradigm. In his lecture, he talks about an important question, “What do the listeners need in order to understand the sermon?” This is a fascinating question which can be answered variously. Long attempts to answer the question in four ways.

First, Long states that some do not even believe this would be an appropriate question to ask. Certain conservative Reformed theologians would find this question taking away from God’s uneasy message to humanity. Some may even consider asking such a question fiddling around with the gospel. Long appreciates the objection but sees it as neglecting the highly sophisticated literary characteristic of the Bible. I too agree that while God’s message can be quite demanding, not every message is equally demanding. Besides, the rhetorical nature of all communications, with the Scripture not excepted, demands that the speaker takes seriously the need of listeners/readers. The modern listeners indeed need “something” in order to understand a very ancient (but nevertheless relevant) text. The Bible is not a book dropped from heaven given by an alien without any incarnational quality. I think those who question the need of listeners are the same people with a superstitious view of both preaching and the Bible.

Second, Long states that some preachers see the human psyche processing things in terms of narrative plot which has elements of conflict, clues to resolution, resolution, more responses to resolution and finally consequences. Long comments that not everything comes in terms of such a plot shape. Not every human thinks in plot-like manner. Later, he contrasts between listening of the engineer versus the artist. If a preacher was to preach a narrative-filled sermon, the engineer might find it wanting while the artist might be touched. Yet, the stereotype is not always based on profession either. Some engineers could be quite touchy feely while other artist could be quite analytical. The point is this; a sermon hits everyone very differently. Long’s assumption once again is right on because any assumption about the human brain functioning only one way should be questioned. Sure, we may have some experience with one kind of audience, but that is different than saying that all audiences are alike simply because they’re human. In his discussion about listening, Long states that just because there is one sermon, it does not mean that the three hundred plus people listening are hearing the same thing. In fact, in a church of a thousand, one thousand variations of that sermon is heard. Trouble comes when they near one thousand “completely different” sermons which would then indicate a breakdown in the communicative skills. This and many other reasons is why I challenge my students to take a survey of various kinds of listeners in the congregation and see what the main message the audience got from the sermon. If the end result is approximately the same, then the communication of the sermon was a success. If the end result varies as much as the number of samples taken, then the sermon was a dire failure in communication.

Third, Long states that some preachers see the audience’s brain functioning like a camera which focuses, renames, and snap pictures. The listening experience would become a series of photo opportunities. Indeed this image would most certainly appeal to the visually oriented person. In fact, a descriptive sermon would fit this category nicely. What I mean by “descriptive” is not just describing the text or the event of the text, but that the sermon itself is filled with rich imageries and metaphors. The vividness of such a style of preaching will create word pictures. All this would depend on the sophistication of the speaker’s everyday vocabulary. The trick though is how we move from one image to another image without losing the argumentation of the point. To me, each section or imagery needs to be consistently self-contained. It should be apparent to the audience that the image for one section is indeed working for that section only. I suggest that we have clear transition between sections of images like, “Now, we can live our lives like …” or “now, that’s just like when Jesus died for us …” A conclusive statement acting as a transition surely helps harness an image without the image running away into the next section and causing some misunderstanding of the next section.

Fourth, Long states that some preachers focus different types of audience. Some suggest that women listen differently (in general) than men. In his general observation, women use language cooperatively while men use language instrumentally. Women then are more about being while men are more about doing. While many may fault him for gender stereotype, there is clear linguistic evidence of this fact just in the way little baby girls and boys learn language. There may be something to that observation. In other words, preaching to diverse audience is not easy at all. Many Chinese church pastors complain about the challenge of speaking to both generations with one speaking Chinese and the other English. These challenges are also quite real, but imagine if the audience is also diverse in its hearing of the “same” language. Many West Coast American churches are now filled with diverse ethnicities. They may speak the same language but their backgrounds will cause different kinds of hearing. Speaking then is as much of an art as it is science. This observation by Long certainly points to the need for the pastor-congregation connection that is much needed to make this “artistic” preaching workable. The art then is not merely about rhetoric, but it flows out of the pastoral ministry of the preacher. The above four points are the issues that homiletic scholars have paid attention in recent years. What actually does the audience need? Long gives four simple answers. We shall go through the four simple answers in the next installment.

Cultural “War”??? … Metaphors Matter

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In the best tradition of the Apostle Paul, Ephesians 6.11-12 says, “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  Apparently, for many Christians the verse reads like this. “Put on the nasty rhetoric so that you can take your stand against those who disagree with you.  For our struggle is against flesh and blood, but not against the rulers, authorities, the powers of their dark world.  In fact, we struggle against the physical forces of evil in the earthly realms.”  This blog is not the place to debate the meaning of this group of verses.  Interested readers can consult my book Right Texts Wrong Meanings where I discuss the meaning and implications.

This week, a conference named “Overcoming the World: Bring a Christian in a Post-Christian Culture” comes to town.  The name says it all.  The World is the Enemy, and our country WAS once Christian.  Obviously, when our country becomes post-Christian (whatever that means), the world has become the enemy.  The metaphor of war has been thrown about since the ancient time.  It is often used on the pulpit to demonize the opposition.  The blog sphere is also a prime piece of cyber estate for such keyboard warriors. They would rally their troops to go on cyber space to wage their own war.  Quite often, they would completely take over people’s Facebook walls or internet forums.  Sometimes, a more subtle form of this battle comes in the inquiry of “Are you pro-___ or anti-___?” as if life is full of black and white.  Before such vitriolic language reaches fever pitch, I want us to think a bit deeper.  

Is living in this world as a Christian really ONLY about a battle? Are there not other metaphors in the Bible that describe the Christian life?  I won’t go into all the metaphors, but the simple answer is “yes.”  Even when the metaphor is about a battle, it is not a battle against human beings.  Since many love to attribute opposition only to the devil, the devil gets entirely too much credit.  It is easier to say that the devil has caused the dissenting voices to speak against us instead of trying to understand dissent.  It is easier to say that the devil is behind all that is wrong in the world instead of doing our best (in our best Christian efforts) to make the world a better place.  The devil must be happy as a lark because he’s getting credit for stuff he didn’t do.  When war metaphors are thrown around too loosely, we risk praising the devil more than he deserves.

All this comes down to worldview.  For the person who sees life as a battle, everyone looks like enemies and every tool looks like a shotgun.  I would dare say that battle metaphors are not a majority metaphor in the New Testament. The only book that is dominated by the military imagery is Revelation, and the war there is not the kind of cultural war we imagine.  I won’t elaborate on this theme.  For my Chinese readers, you can access my two books on Revelation, one of which is still in active print. If we look closely, terms related to discipleship (which implies learning) or household are much more prevalent.  At the end of the day, I’m not saying that the battle metaphor is unbiblical as much as it is inadequate.  When we make a small group of metaphors in the Bible into a major metaphor describing our lives, our lives look funny as Christian witness. So, maybe it’s time to beat swords into plowshares and let the cultural war cease.  Even if it is an uneasy truce, I hope people would see life beyond battle lines and radical opposites.  As my former professor liked to say, “Most people want things in black and white when life is just many shades of grey.”  As for color metaphor describing life, I vote grey.

Further Reflections on 518 and 64: a pro-family gospel? I think not!

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This is the anniversary of June 4, 1989, commonly know by Chinese as 64.  It’s been 25 tragic years and the Chinese government has hardly acknowledged the crime against its own people.  Instead, Google was banned in China ahead of these events.  I recall watching the events unfold in horror.  These students only wanted to be heard.  Instead, they were killed en masse near Tiananmen Square.

Twenty five years later, on the month before this anniversary, leaders of Hong Kong evangelical churches come out to march in order to protect family value (though the message is read, of course, by “pagan media” and the non-Christian society to be anti-gay).  This event is also known as 518.  Churches hired buses to ship members to this march, presumably to ensure widespread participation.  Hiring buses takes money, resources that could be funneled to help the Hong Kong poor.  Such is life!

In contrast, in tonight’s protest in Victoria Park, Hong Kong or Tsim Sha Tsui Cultural Center, Kowloon, I wonder how many churches hire buses to go commemorate the victims and to call for justice.  Probably not many … If we’re really pro-family, we should be protesting even more vigorously for the families affected by the massacre.  Do they even make it on our radar screen for pro-family causes?  I doubt it.  This is our message: so long as OUR families are not affected, we can encourage each other to exercise our own conscience to protest, but IF OUR families are perceived to be threatened, we must bus people en masse to make sure we show our great force.  Are we really pro-family when we fail to take into consideration of all sorts of families, families not just near but far?  Many Christians will object and say, “But we do attend the protest in 64.”  Sure, many individual Christians do that, but do we see churches hiring buses? Not really!  That is the witness society sees.  They see the buses and the corporate personality behind togetherness.  The medium IS the message!

There is also the sticky situation of Hong Kong expat churches.  I have in mind especially Rick Warren’s Saddleback Hong Kong.  I wonder what the expat churches are doing to stand in solidarity with the local people.  I’m sure some are getting involved with the 64 protest, but I suspect most are not.  After all, it’s a local and political problem. We all know that the gospel does not deal with problems of the locals or politics now, does it?  We only want to preach the simple gospel of Jesus. That’s all.  The fact of the matter is, the gospel of Jesus was never really that simplistic or Jesus would not be crucifixion worthy.  Our luke-warm and selective gospel has little to no place in a struggling and broken world.  That’s a fact!

Many will not like this blog, but like it or not, prove me wrong!

We will not forget!

Preparing to Preach: Working Out for Preaching

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Preaching is a physical act, as much as it’s a spiritual act. Anyone who has preached multiple services can tell you how physically exhausting the task can be. Many pastors have health problems even early in their career due to the physical demand of public speaking on top of a busy schedule. Let me suggest some workout tips for preachers. I know this sounds really strange and unspiritual, but remember, you’ll thank me later.

 

In order to understand how working out can help a preacher, we have to understand which parts of the body are involved in preaching. At the very heart of the issue is the heart. Yes, I said the heart and the lungs too. The cardio-vascular system is important because we need to breath well to preach. This situation creates two demands. First, the preacher would do well to make sure that the heart and lungs get enough exercise. Second, the preacher would do well to lose weight so that his excess weight does not tax his system.   How do we do that? It’s simple.

 

Some preachers choose to either walk or run as an exercise. In a large city like Hong Kong or New York, people do a lot of walking. Probably, the preacher would do enough walking to and from the subway station to create an adequate cardiovascular condition. In the US, this is not the case. I know some have trouble finding the time to take long walks. In such a case, I would suggest interval sprint training. The exercise only takes about 5 minutes at most. Interval training involves sprinting a certain distance followed by jogging and then repeat. An example would be to sprint 30 yards followed by a jog of 100 yards and so on. Obviously, start slow. Don’t go crazy sprinting or you may pull something. The plus side of interval training is that you also train your legs which leads to more discussions below.

 

Besides having a good cardiovascular system, the preacher should understand that his or her muscular strength in terms of the act of preaching. What muscles are involved? The entire body is involved but not to the same degree.

 

From the top, the shoulders are involved. If we have any body language at all, our shoulders will move our arms. It is important to train the shoulders. Which part of the shoulder is involved exactly? If we want to be precise, the front deltoids are most important. The front delts can be trained by pushups. If we spend a few minutes doing a few sets of pushups, the front delts (along with chest and triceps) will be strengthened. For those who are more advanced, you can do elevated pushups to challenge yourself (see photo below). In order to do that, you can either pick a chair or a wall and put your feet to various elevated positions. Your hand spacing can vary just for fun.

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If you wish to train your upper back, you can do sets of pull-ups (see below) after each set of pushups. If you can’t do pull pull-ups, try just getting on a chair and lowering yourself to start.  Upper back training is good for posture since weak upper back muscles can cause one to hunch over. Doorway pull-up bars are cheap. You can try using those.   Notice in the photos below that I do not have my legs swinging like some Crossfit practitioners or have it excessively bent.  If your posture is good, you can also train your abs in the process.

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A very important muscle group involved in preaching would be the core, including both abs and lower back. You don’t have to do the advanced L-sit like me, pictured above the article. For those with average or below average fitness, the best core exercise to enhance the core is planking. It seems easy to do until you actually do them. If you work towards one or even two minutes on the plank, your core will be stronger. A strong core will give you less feeling of fatigue when you speak.

 

 

 

A final set of muscles is your leg muscles. If your gym has a squat rack, I would strongly recommend having someone teach you how to squat properly. If I tour your city, I’d be glad to show you how to do it for free. However, not everyone owns a squat rack. One easy exercise to learn is the one-legged squat, also known as the pistol (pictured below).   In the photo, I’m doing the assisted version that most people can do. Once you advance, you can also do the unassisted version, but not many can do those. Video here.  However low you want to go is up to you. The lower you go, the better engaged the muscles are in the back of your leg. It is worth training for. I hope it is obvious by now why the leg muscles are important. You use them to stand and walk on stage. In addition to training your upper leg, be sure to stretch your calves a bit. If you stand too long, they can cramp up.

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What does a good program look like? Below is the suggested program. This beginner’s program is not vigorous. For those who are already working out, this program will probably do nothing for you. The entire exercise program should take no more than 15 minutes per day. If you can spare 15 minutes to look at Facebook, you can spare 15 minutes to exercise. If you’re really busy, you can also break it up and do some in your office for a break, especially planking and squatting.

 

Monday, Wednesday, Friday

 

–  Interval running or jogging training

 

Tuesday, Thursday (rest one minute between sets)

 

–      Pushups/pull-ups (optional) 3 sets of as many repetitions as you can

–      Plank 1 set for as long as you can

–      One-legged squat 3 sets of as many reps as you can

 

What if you get bored with the exercise program? People don’t exercise because exercising can be boring. If you keep your favorite music in your i-pod, the 15 minutes fly by pretty fast. You can also try varying grips and hand spacing on the pushups and pull-ups. So long as you work all those muscle groups, you’ll find your fitness improving.

 

PS: I thank both my sons Calvin and Ian for taking the photos

Representative Pontification: the similarities between leaders of 518 and NPP agitators

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Two church news in Asia has caught my eye this week.  First, the joint declaration of three denominations (i.e. Hong Kong Christian and Missionary Alliance; Hong Kong Baptist Convention; Hong Kong Evangelical Free) have decided to march for the cause of “Pro-Family” on May 18th.  The march will feature the three denominations that had traditionally been involved in the homosexual debate (or I should say “anti-homosexual but let’s all love gays” debate).  Although the organizers were saying that this march would not feature the homosexual/anti-homosexual agenda, most people I have talked to and most mummer I’ve seen on social media still interpret this march with a focal point on the homosexual issue.  I guess whatever the intention is, the impact remains different from what the marchers claim.

The second bit of news is a bit more personal.  Since D. A. Carson had given the Timothy Lin Memorial Lecture in Taiwan, a new wave attacking New Perspective Paul washed ashore, with fallouts both locally here in the US (i.e. among diaspora Chinese) and in Asia.  The debate typically features issues with the framework of the Gospel Coalition (the John Piper, Mark Driscoll and D. A. Carson people).  The complainer started with a discussion about how Taiwan’s Campus Publishing (think “Zondervan of Asia”) has been promoting NPP exclusively without allowing for diverse voices to emerge.  She further pointed out that orthodoxy would be in danger pretty soon if new voices about Paul were allowed to publish and speak in different venues all over Asia.  In short, orthodoxy is on its way down in Asia.  I guess certain people have been saying that for years here in the US, and somehow Asia is now catching up.

How are these two related?  I’m putting aside ethical issue (whether homosexuality or homosexuals should be accepted by Christians) and theological issue (whether NT Wright is right) to ask a incisive question.  Who gives these people the right to speak?  Let me state clearly that I’m not saying that people of opposing opinions should not speak, and the question is not meant to shut off these voices with whom I have disagreement.  I however question the framework of their rhetoric.  THAT framework certainly matters when it comes to preaching or speaking on any public issue as a Christian leader.

Relating to the first issue of the May 18th march, I know at least two out of the three denominations represented are in violation of denominational policy.  The heads and leaders of these denominations have created videos and promotion for this march.  I still want to ask the question. Who gives you the right?  According to my understanding of the Evangelical Free polity, each local congregation is autonomous in its stance on ideological issues that are not related to historical/doctrinal orthodoxy (e.g. Trinity, Christology, etc.).  That’s what the word “FREE” means in the Evangelical Free Church, to be free from a centralized authority that dictates the conviction or operation of the church.  In free churches like the Evangelical Free and Baptists, no one leader can represent everyone in the denomination.  The biggest ethical principle Baptists value is the autonomy of the conscience as the Spirit guides the believer.  No one human voice can represent all the believers or even the denomination.  Whether these leaders like it or not, they themselves are using the denominational name to march and they are de facto representative for their denomination, not only to outsiders but also to insiders.  They want to centralize authority again and put us back into the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.  In short, what they’re doing is essentially illegal within their own denominational tradition and structure.  Their representation looks more like the great Pontiff of the Roman Catholic church when he makes ex cathedra statements or the Anglican bishops who make statements about this or that than true free churches with congregational polity.

Now, the second issue which I talked about (the anti-NPP group of talking heads) shares a similar feature as the first.  They too represent “orthodoxy.”  As a Protestant, I feel greatly concerned that these people who speak for orthodoxy (indeed, for God) are neither empowered with authority nor equipped with adequate academic training (though some might be).  Yet, the worst part is the authority with which they make their pronouncement.  Who gives them the authority to speak for orthodoxy (and for God)?  I’m guessing these very same people who denounce the Roman Catholic church are in effect closet Catholics because they function more like the pope as the gatekeeper to Protestant orthodoxy.

To summarize the first problem above, I think we need to look at the church’s role in society.  The Bible hardly presents any evidence for a prophetic voice AGAINST society.  The modern church may choose to stand with public interest on some issues, but doesn’t have the right to force the society to accept exclusively Christian opinions agreed upon by a small group of Christians.  The biblical God has hardly given the church authority to polemicize against society at all.  Almost all the prophetic voices in the Bible spoke to the faith community.  That ought to teach us something about our role and our sphere.  Who gives us the right to shout at society?  I suppose as citizens of a society, the government could grant us the right, but not God!  Let’s be practical.  When we make such pronouncements, we risk pushing our agenda on society. Furthermore, even if we are granted such prophetic voice, that voice is often drowned out by shameless “Christian” politicians (e.g. Leung Mei Fun) who would hijack the movement for their own causes.  Why indeed force the world to accept our “Christian” value (whatever that means still deserve vigorous debates)?  To summarize the second problem, I think we need to look at the the church leaders’ role (e.g. biblical scholar, theologian, or minister).  No biblical scholar, theologian or minister possesses the whole truth (in fact, no human possesses all truth).  A very important function of the church AND academy is to create space for reexamination of tradition so that both the truth can surface more sharply and the context can be clearly defined.  When voices attempt to drown out other voices, the process becomes a power struggle and church political game rather than dialogue.  As such, these voices whether debating the family value issue or NPP issue are playing a dangerous secularized power game.  No part of this game is in line with Christian principles because “playing God” is dangerous.

How is all this related to preaching?  Certainly, how we speak matters.  The rhetoric of representing denominational authority has to change.  The preacher has to be able to distinguish where the limitation of his authority lies.  Furthermore, the rhetoric of “I’m orthodox but no one else is” is very dangerous.  Many preachers presume to speak for God and they’re quite confident that they’re indeed speaking for Him.  Well, I’m not so sure at all.  A lot preaching I hear is merely personal opinion of the preacher with some very bad exegesis to boot.  I think a great many of them should adjust their rhetoric to reflect the fact that truth may be still “out there” instead of “in here.”  We’re just in dialogue about the truth. That is all.

 

PS. Just a note for anyone who wishes to quote any of the Prophets to me…You’re mistaking CONTENT for INTENT. The CONTENT is written in the form of prophecy against pagan nations. All these passages were INTENDED for Judah/Israel (mostly exiles) to bring comfort and warnings to the readers. There’s no evidence that such prophecies were ever HEARD by gentile nations. They were a dramatic reenactment of prophecy against nations to Israel. The ones who received the prophecies were either Israel’s enemies (e.g. Babylon, Moab) or potential allies (e.g. Egypt). While Judah mustn’t fear Babylon and other enemies, its exiles should also not align with potential ales. In fact, you may find that the exiles continued to disobey the Lord because there was plenty of evidence of Jewish settlement in Egypt instead of returning to Jerusalem. If you study the audience background, you would see that I’m right. And you’re welcome for yet one more lesson on biblical literacy brought to you by my blog (sarcasm mode).

Preparing to Preach: Insomnia the Night Before

Insomnia the night before the sermon event is more common than preachers like to admit.  Here’re some suggestions to help those who have trouble sleeping the night before the sermon event.  Now, if insomnia is a serious problem throughout the week, then you need to check with a sleep clinic or seek some other medical help. I don’t claim any medical expertise.  I’m just sharing my own experience and experience of others.

1) Tune your body clock.

The idea of a body clock is most easily explained through jet lag.  Those who fly across time zone, as I often do, experience the body clock routine that was back in the previous time zone.  The body has been tuned to meals and rest and other activities.  When someone is used to sleeping very late throughout the week, it is hard to sleep early the night before the sermon event.  As ministers, many of us have unpredictably hard weeks.  Sometimes we have midnight calls about deaths or near-death visits.  If possible, we should try to get into the habit of sleeping early and rising early.  At the very least, try to start sleeping a little earlier as the weekend approaches so that by Saturday night, we would be able to fall asleep earlier.

2) Prepare your sermon early.

I know this is easier said than done.  I have already said previously that if you had long-term plans every few months, you would not have to struggle through which texts to preach, what texts really says, and how to find illustrations.  By sermon week, we should be looking several weeks ahead.  Any review of sermon material should occur throughout the week.  By Saturday night, do NOT touch your final outline or manuscript.  Wait till Sunday morning when you wake up early to do that.  The last thing you want is for your mind to be occupied with sermon material.  An overly active mind will put an end to restful sleep, when restful sleep may be exactly what you need for Sunday-morning clarity.

3) Control your diet

I know most of us can stand to lose a few pounds, but I don’t think most think about the minute issue of diet relating to preaching.  On the day before preaching, I suggest staying away from caffeine.  Caffeine can wreak havoc in some people.  Do not go to bed having too full or too empty stomachs.  Do not drink too much water before you sleep either or you may risk a midnight run to the bathroom.  The worst part of waking up in the middle of the night is failure to go back to sleep.  Sometimes, crazy sermon ideas would pop into your head because of nerves.  All this can be avoided if we are careful about our food and drink intake.  I know some preachers take melatonin for both jet lag and pre-sermon insomnia as well.

I’m sure preachers who are more experienced than I am can add to this list.  Feel free to come up with your own check list and remember to go through the list once in a while just to remind yourself.  Good habits are hard to form, as much as bad habits are hard to break.

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