Monday, November 30, 2009

Self-pity and God's pity

This one is from Glen Scrivener. Loved it enough to post it in its entirety here.

Self-pity is, for me, like a low-level virus, a background throb, a sapping sickness. It heavies my bones and fizzies my blood.

But the other day I gained instant relief. I was reading Psalm 103 in the King James version. Verse 13 says:
Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear Him.
Could this be true? Does the LORD Himself pity me? Yes. With fatherly affection and concern. I provoke the heart-felt pity of the living God.

You might think this would confirm my dreadful indulgence. After all, heaven seems to agree with my self-obsession. Actually no. He pities the fool who pities himself. In spite of my wallowing, the LORD’s pity is a great ‘nonetheless.’

A father whose child cries only for attention may still choose to pick up the boy, spin him round and kiss him. He is not caving into the child’s manipulation. Instead He is loving from his own free grace. And the boy is weaned from self by the love of another.

In the same way our Father in heaven reaches down in His Son to self-pitying wretches. And He lifts us up, not to confirm our self-centredness but to replace it. Now that heaven pities me, I simply have no need. What could my own self-preoccupation add to the divine pre-occupation of the LORD, who sets His affections on me?

And so this verse brought a tremendous release. Just as the LORD’s love frees us from self-love, His service frees us from self-service, so His pity frees us from self-pity.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

A pastoral question on a beatitude

I'm leading a Bible study for teenagers tomorrow on the beatitudes - general intro, and then homing in on the first 2 (v.3-4). And I was wondering if someone can help me out pastorally.

In v.4, we have Jesus saying: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." In context, it appears as if this isn't just general grief for a sad or tragic event in one's life, but more specifically, a mourning over sin. (Very briefly, I take this line because the Sermon on the Mount is about kingdom living, and the way of the kingdom is the way of repentance. I haven't consulted any commentaries as I don't have one at hand, but I'm pretty sure the standard ones take this view and back it up). However, mourning over sin specifically doesn't necessarily preclude the former, since we grieve not only over our own sin, but sin in a fallen world, which affects every part of creation: hence the existence of natural evil, tragedies and so on. We mourn at the way sin twists and distorts our lives, both in the personal corruption of each of our own selves, and in the disruption of shalom, how things are not the way they ought to be. We find comfort in the gospel, that we are saved from the penalty of sin, and that one day sin will be completely gone.

I'm mindful that at least one girl in my group lost her dad in a tragic accident a few years back, and so such a verse will no doubt be a balm. I think at least another girl is from a single parent family, and who knows what lurks in the background of others in my group. So I want to be sensitive. But I do want them to see that Jesus is talking about mourning over sin in particular. So, any idea how to approach it? Useful phrases or remarks? Stuff that is simple but not simplistic? Any help much appreciated! I've got another 24 hours to think about it...

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Monday, November 23, 2009

If I were a Christian filmmaker/scriptwriter

WN asked me today: if I was a Christian filmmaker/scriptwriter, what sort of film would I make? He caught me off-guard and I had to say I didn't know. So here's an attempt at an answer. This isn't new, but it's worth restating.

Firstly, every person and every culture has a Big Story, one in which they both shape and are shaped by. Within this Big Story there might be many sub-plots. However, the movement in each of these stories will include in some form creation-fall-redemption-restoration. Any story will seek an answer, explicitly or implicitly, to the well-known four questions posed by Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh:

1. Who am I? Or what is the nature, task, and purpose of human beings?
2. Where am I? Or What is the nature of the world and universe we live in?
3. What's wrong? Or what is the basic problem or obstacle that keeps me from obtaining fulfillment?
4. What is the remedy? How do I solve this problem or where do I find salvation?

This includes films. It could be said, in fact, that films are one of the primary ways in which people attempt to make sense of their place in the world today. Whether they ponder over a so-called weighty film or simply seek solace in a light-hearted comedy, they are still in some way engaging in the task of sense-making. Every film, in summary, offers a vision of what the world is like, and how the world ought to be.

The Christian filmmaker or scriptwriter is aware that his faith claims to have the True Story. We understand that we are to understand humanity in light of God and of sin, and we know where redemption is to be found. Therefore, "it follows that storytellers in our Christian community carry a major responsibility for keeping us alert to these stories and the way they work." (Eugene Peterson). This is because stories can grab us in ways mere arguments can't, and stories always reveal something about their creators. "We feel the emotions, get caught up in the drama, identify with the characters, see into nooks and crannies of life that we had overlooked, realize there is more to this business of being human tan we had yet explored. If the storyteller is good, doors and windows open." (Peterson) So if I were a Christian film-maker or scriptwriter, then I must offer a vision of how the world is like, and how it ought to be, in line with a Christian worldview.

But how I go about that is up to me and my (imagined!) creativity! The possibilities are vast. Think of some recent films. The Dark Knight, for example, might seem to be the antithesis of what a Christian film-maker should offer, but one of the things the film does so effectively is offer a very chilling vision, via the Joker, of what a world ruled by chance and randomness rather than God would look like. This is not to claim that the Dark Knight is a "Christian" movie. Nonetheless, it is extremely effective at jolting us out of our complacency and opening our eyes to the hideousness of a fallen world. Any script that can do that is worth exploring, although I would never allow it to fall into a hopeless cesspool of despair. If in Genesis 3, God himself already offers hints of hope (v.15), then surely we should do the same.

But a Christian filmmaker doesn't have to be so "arty". I think one sort of film I might like to make is a romantic comedy which doesn't envision the partner as the saviour who "makes me whole". That would be incredibly counter-cultural. If it's done well, I think that would have a bigger impact than some "weighty" film. What the viewer of such a film will encounter is the truth that even Mr. or Mrs. Right can't function as your redeemer. What would be great too is a film that celebrates marriage, as most recently Fireproof does, given the dominant image of marriage in films to be dowdy and "a trap". [Spoiler alert] I can't remember much of the film Forces of Nature, but I do remember the ending, where the main character chooses to go back to his marriage partner instead of making off with his fling. That came as a genuine shock. I don't remember the rest of the film being very good, but if it had been better executed, then I can imagine that ending carrying a real poignancy and weight about it. [end spoiler alert]

Does a Christian filmmaker need to make an explicitly "Christian" film, i.e one in which the gospel is proclaimed? Well, they could. I would love to see a film with actual characters with an evangelical faith, not cardboard stereotypes, and if I were a good film-maker, I would love to explore such a character. But I don't think a Christian film-maker necessarily needs to do so. A film should rest on the foundational biblical storyline, and perhaps show the weaknesses of an alternative storyline, but it doesn't always have to be about the climax of that storyline (the gospel event). We could show the beauty in the everyday, in the nature of true friendship, for example. I'm thinking of something like The Station Agent. Or the nature of true sacrifice in some epic. And so on.

I suppose there's plenty more to be said, but hopefully that provides the beginnings of an answer!

You can also browse some of my previous posts on films

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Wordsmiths: Psalm 25


Of David.

25:1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
2 O my God, in you I trust;
let me not be put to shame;
let not my enemies exult over me.
3 Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame;
they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

4 Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
5 Lead me in your truth and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all the day long.

6 Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
7 Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!

8 Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
9 He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
10 All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

11 For your name's sake, O Lord,
pardon my guilt, for it is great.
12 Who is the man who fears the Lord?
Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose.
13 His soul shall abide in well-being,
and his offspring shall inherit the land.
14 The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him,
and he makes known to them his covenant.
15 My eyes are ever toward the Lord,
for he will pluck my feet out of the net.

16 Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
17 The troubles of my heart are enlarged;
bring me out of my distresses.
18 Consider my affliction and my trouble,
and forgive all my sins.

19 Consider how many are my foes,
and with what violent hatred they hate me.
20 Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me!
Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.
21 May integrity and uprightness preserve me,
for I wait for you.

22 Redeem Israel, O God,
out of all his troubles.

Good reflections here.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Observations on being home

If you haven't figured it out yet, I am still in Malaysia, and have been for the last 6 weeks or so. The process of resolving whether I can get a new visa is still frustratingly slow. It's certainly nice to be back home, but once you've started getting used to having your favourite foods available again, being in limbo does wear on you. People have been very nice and have tried to be encouraging; more than one person has said to me: "You've been working too hard, so you should enjoy the holiday!" There's also no doubt that God has brought me back for good reasons, some of which I can guess at, others I might not know. But I am raring to head back. Anyway, here's a bunch of stuff I've been picking up.

Reverse culture shock #1. After being in an egalitarian society where 70 year olds expect me to call them Mike, not Mr. Jones, and to discuss things on a peer-to-peer level, I'm finding myself a little confused about what is and what isn't appropriate to talk about with those older than me. I think it doesn't help that there're degrees of differentiation too! My family would be a bit more traditional and there's more of a hierarchical mindset, whereas my church is relatively speaking, much more relaxed. I suspect I'm erring excessively on the polite side.

Reverse culture shock #2. So when an uncle (in Malaysia, anyone who is reasonably older than you is often addressed as such, not just family. No responsibility is taken if you misjudge somebody's age!) offered me coffee, I said immediately: "Yes, please!" After watching his body language thereafter, I realised then that I should have played the "No No" game, making some tentative refusals before accepting his offer. Ergh.

Reverse culture shock #3. Most of the literature dealing with this subject note that symptoms often include
  • Difficulties explaining coherently your time and experiences abroad. Those who listen don't have the frame of reference or travel background to understand.
  • Reverse 'home' sickness. Feelings of being lost and lonely.
  • The relationships at home have changed. The returnees as well as those who stayed at home have altered.
    I think I've experienced bits of this, and it's reminded me that when I finally come back home long-term, whenever that might be, I would have to deal with this.

    Theory and praxis. I think it was the veteran missionary Martin Goldsmith, who used to pastor a church in Malaysia, who said: "Asian (or was it Malaysian?) Christians are short on theology, long on ethics." By that he meant that Asians tend to dislike theoretical musings for its own sake, but want to see its connection to daily life, the "real world" if you like. Otherwise it would just be dismissed as irrelevant. This has positives and negatives. Positively, it immediately lends Christian reflection a pastoral and missional orientation. Theory and practice must not be separated. Negatively, this often leads to pragmatism, whatever works. They just want to know "what to do", and to think too deeply is "unspiritual". I bring this up because I am sensing this a little.

    Bible study. I was also thinking about how our Bible studies work. In Asian Bible studies, it is common for people to immediately think about their own experiences and contexts and to share them as they go through a passage. I was previously very critical of this, and I think there is good reason to be. There's always the danger of reading our own experiences into the text and seeing things which aren't actually there. Tangents also often lead the group to chasing red herrings and completely missing the main point.

    But I now think I've allowed myself to be over-critical. Rightly done, I see that there is a lot of value in just naturally intertwining our understanding on the passage with reflections on our lives. I've been observing my home fellowship group and though we don't always get it right (and to be fair, who does?), I thought that for the most part, whenever somebody shares or offers a reflection, it's been tied to the text and not just some random whimsy to offer a thought for the day. It's just their way in which they allow the Bible to bear on our lives. In fact, it's challenged me because I probably don't let God's word really peer as deep into my soul as it should. I suppose the cultural anthropologists might argue that this is because "Western" thinking is more linear and "Eastern" thinking is more circular. So while the principles remain the same: we need to know what the Bible says and means before we can apply it to our lives, there is a variety of models, and I know I can't lead a Bible study here exactly the same way as I would in the UK.

    Social networking. Media commentators have picked up on this (eg: here, here, and here), but seeing it for myself was quite different. I was quite stunned by the virtual connectedness of the teenagers in my youth group. The amount of photos taken and placed on Facebook was quite something. Again, social commentators have noticed that we are once more heading into a world where the boundaries between the public and private spheres are blurred, as it was in a pre-industrialised age. But it's still jarring to see photos of myself that I didn't even know were being taken suddenly appear on the Net!

    Spiritual warfare. I wasn't home for that long before I heard of a case of demon possession. Growing up, of course, it's not that rare to hear such stories, but it reminded me once again that it's certainly one area to think about for anyone wanting to do ministry in Malaysia. What you don't want is to capitulate to the latest faddish teaching on the one hand or to ignore the spiritual realm on the other.

    Wrestling in prayer. I think I identify a little more with the psalmist now. "Lord, please help me to trust you. I know you are sovereign over all, I know that you are good, and that your plans are best, so whatever the outcome is, help me to accept it. [clenches teeth] Lord, help me not to be so half-hearted in what I just said. It's going to be hard if you don't allow me to go back, but help me to grow in my trust. But God, I do believe you are a generous Father, and that Christianity ain't fatalism. My prayers do count for something, don't they? So do the prayers of others? So I pray you'd allow me to head back - I don't see how that's a bad thing. [Pause] I mean, Lord, I'm not actually presuming to tell you what's best for me, oh no, not at all. But it's a fair request? [Pause] Ummm, but I know you're more concerned about me being more like Jesus, more concerned about being more like what you've made me to be than where I am. Consider it all joy and all that. So ummm, help me trust you again no matter what. [Deep breath] But...pretty please?" It's ping-pong prayer, back and forth, back and forth.

    Sin. You'd like to think that you've grown stronger, and then you come into a stressful situation and learn that your sinful patterns are more entrenched than you realise. Thank God for his grace.

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  • Wednesday, November 11, 2009

    How to worship

    Tuesday, November 10, 2009

    Assimilation and identity

    The late missiologist Paul Hiebert, together with Young Hertig, has an interesting though dated (1993) article on Asian immigrants in urban cities, with particular reference to North America. They examine the issue of identity and assimilation, suggesting that the core question is: to which culture does the immigrant really belong? Each generation after immigration approaches and answers this in a different way.
    1. First generation - clear sense of identity. That is, their identity is very much tied to their "home" culture. They might develop survival skills to cope in the new culture, but their values, beliefs, things & events they find significant etc., are those of "home". If women come from patriarchal cultures, they are unlikely to be exposed much to the new culture, from staying at home etc., and so are often isolated.

    2. 2nd generation - deep identity crisis. They encounter schizophrenia, for at home and within the family, they absorb certain values and beliefs, but in school and public are enculturated into the new culture. So you have a clash, with this generation often having to make decisions about how much to take on board parental values, resulting either in withdrawal, rebellion, or more likely, compartmentalization. The best case scenario is if one is able to integrate the best of both worlds. Add in other factors such as the different paces at which siblings within a family might assimilate and it gets even more complicated. One critical factor in the assimilation of second generation young people is the attitude of their parents. Other factors like social mobility etc. all count for something too.

    3. 3rd and 4th generation - assimilation and appreciation. Here the identity crisis is not so acute, because they have figured out their place in society more, whether by carving out a niche for themselves or completely assimilating. But when we get to 4th/5th generation, we find that some begin to seek their roots once more, especially if their racial features are more distinct. Here we may find the problem of "hidden immigrants" - eg. looking Chinese on the outside but born and bred in America, and so actually being completely different culturally.
    Also, at a deeper level, language becomes an issue. Hiebert and Hertig quote Cheryl, a Korean teenager in LA: "I try to speak Korean when I talk with my mother, but the most important emotional stuff I say in English because I cannot express it in Korean. So my mother does not have any idea what I am trying to say. It is really frustrating. I don't understand why she does not try to learn English. She has lived here almost twenty years." I think a few of us Malaysians will share similar experiences.

    So why am I blogging about all this? There's the personal side, of course: I have often wrestled with questions such as this partly due to my upbringing, my family and educational background, the friends that I have, and of course, as someone involved in ministry with international students in a Western country. And because I just wanted to see if I could stimulate some thoughts from my readers, and the article above provides some important intercultural, and indeed, intergenerational insights which are relevant for the Malaysian context, although obviously we are very different in many ways. I think, for example, of the differences between English and Chinese-educated Chinese and the questions of trying to "preserve" a culture versus the "interaction" of cultures. Or the often frustrating family dynamics that those of us who are younger struggle to decipher - why are parents always so obtuse? (Apologies for the examples being obviously Chinese, that's my makeup). Or the wider politics of race and racial discourse - would you describe yourself as Malaysian or Malay/Indian/Chinese/Bumiputra/Iban/Kadazan/Martian first? I actually assert my "Malaysianness" more, I think, but I know others will differ from me.

    Some might take exception to using an article on the "immigrant experience" to draw parallels to the Malaysian situation, since "immigrant" itself is a contested term in Malaysia. A big number of us will resent being labelled as pendatang, as if we were 2nd class citizens. That, of course, is to miss the point. It's simply a historical fact that many of us will have ancestors who at some point immigrated to what we now call Malaysia. I know we live in a plural society, so I wonder if we're not so much assimilating into a clearly marked majority/mainstream culture as forging a distinctively "Malaysian" culture, although again what that is is up for debate. How do you compare Sino-Kadazans in Sabah with the Nyonyas in Malacca? But maybe again the lack of flattening is a good thing. It means we're more aware that we all have particular categories and assumptions that affect how we view the world.

    Plus, these are questions, I am convinced, we need to reflect on as Malaysian Christians, especially as it impacts on things like pastoral practice, evangelism and so on. It also challenges us to consider afresh what it means to consider ourselves to be Christians first and foremost, to be sojourners in this age. As Tim Kellers notes:
    "Identity is a complex set of layers, for we are many things. Our occupation, ethnic identity, etc., are part of who we are. But we assign different values to these components and thus Christian maturing is a process in which the most fundamental layer of our identity becomes our self-understanding as a new creature in Christ along with all our privileges in him."
    OK, I've rambled with no clear direction for long enough. Comments welcome. For more on the migrant experience, I can think of no better teacher than the short stories of Jhumpa Lahiri. For an intro to cross-cultural issues, try Sarah Lanier's From Foreign to Familiar or some of Duane Elmer's books.

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    Sunday, November 08, 2009

    Litany of complaints

    I was at a dinner tonight, and as is fairly common at such occasions, conversation soon turned towards the injustice located in the structures of Malaysian society. There was the litany of complaints directed at our education system, corrupt bureaucracy and so on.

    I've been thinking about why I usually feel a little uncomfortable whenever the floodgates open. OK, so part of it is probably that by nature, I'm not a happy bunny when it comes to conflict. I like the still waters, not the grand rapids, thank you very much. Maybe I'm guilty of apathy. But I do believe that to pretend that all is well, to be tidak apa about the wrongs that the innocent suffer, the way that so many crooks seem to get away with their abuse of power, is wrong, plain and simple. It's also probably fair to say that in context, the 2008 political tsunami notwithstanding, such talk arises perhaps because there is a feeling that we need to be woken up from our general malaise. We can't maintain the status quo forever. So such conversations are full of heat and light.

    And yet. Here are a few reasons why I feel unsettled whenever such talk occurs among Christians (btw, this isn't necessarily true of tonight's conversations; they simply sparked the thought):

    1. These conversations sometimes have the whiff of self-righteousness around them. Look at how rubbish everything else is. It's as if the taint of sin has affected everything and everyone apart from the one pontificating away. We feel justified by the way we remain above the fray. The purity of our motives. Surely there must be a humbler way to express our anger and sadness at the way the current system is broken.

    2. These conversations are often tinged with cynicism. Things will always be this way. It's better to send our children away. I'm like, whatever happened to God bringing all things in heaven and earth under Christ? Whatever happened to God putting the world to rights? Maybe again, by nature, I'm an idealist, a romantic, a head-in-the-clouds kind of guy, but it seems to me that Christians have the gospel - good news - the good news that shouts "Jesus is the crucified King!" and calls on us to turn from sin to the living God. And that should shape our responses to injustice.

    3. These conversations lose sight of God. My immediate point above suggests that sometimes we act more like fatalists than theists. We forget God is on the throne. He does care about what goes on in his world, not just churchy things. He can effect change, and he loves to use his people to do it. And although contemporary Christianity sometimes shun the image of God as judge, it's actually good news, because it reveals our God is just; the bad guys aren't gonna get away with it. But our God is a merciful God as well. And this is great news, because to our horror, we discover that actually, we are more like those we condemn than we care to admit. We too are in need of mercy, and in view of God's mercy, we offer our bodies as living sacrifices, not the other way around.

    O Lord, the next time we are tempted to recite from the Book of Common Complaints, help us to remember instead the Lord's Prayer. For there we find nourishment in remembering who our Father is, strength as we ask for his kingdom to come, and humility as we acknowledge our need for forgiveness. Then maybe we can go out into the world and shine like stars in the universe, as we hold out the word of life.

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    Friday, November 06, 2009


    [Warning: potentially explosive]

    "...And so the light of candle three
    Today, is meant to help us see,
    That waiting is a holy work
    Of faith in God. Nor does there lurk
    Beneath the timing of his ways
    Some secret malice that displays
    Itself in holding back the flow
    Of future grace. God does not go
    From here to there by shortest routes;
    He makes a place for faith and doubts.
    Nor does he hasten on his way,
    But comes when it is best, today,
    Or maybe twenty years from now,
    Or more."
    - John Piper

    The Law is for the proud and the Gospel is for the brokenhearted.
    - Martin Luther

    Lord cut, Lord carve, Lord wound, Lord do anything that may perfect Thy Father's image in us...
    - Samuel Rutherford, from a letter written in 1638

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    Tuesday, November 03, 2009

    Reaching the next generation

    I was going to flag this up, but forgot. Better late than never. It's Kevin DeYoung's excellent series of posts on reaching the next generation. Worth reading in its entirety.

    1. Grab them with passion.
    2. Win them with love.
    3. Hold them with holiness.
    4. Challenge them with truth.
    5. Amaze them with God.

    As Kevin says in his introduction, the secret is that there is no secret. Love God, love people, as Jesus so succintly put it. Uncomplicated but uncompromising. To steal a line from Gregory the Great, such a strategy is shallow enough for a lamb to wade in but deep enough for an elephant to swim.

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    Sunday, November 01, 2009

    On making your preaching debut in your home church

    So I've just read this a few minutes ago... (HT: JT)

    Your first few sermons are always terrible, no matter who you are.

    If you think your first few sermons are great, you’re probably self-deceived. If the folks in your home church think your first few sermons are great, it’s probably because they love you and they’re proud of you. If it’s a good, supportive church there’s as much objectivity there as a grandparent evaluating the “I Love You Grandma” artwork handed to them by the five year-old in their family...

    So what?

    The great thing about Christian ministry is that Jesus doesn’t start all over again with his church every generation. He gives older men in ministry who shape, disciple, and direct younger men in ministry. This includes (although it’s not limited to) critiquing your sermons...

    ...Your bad sermon says nothing about your future. If you’ve got folks in your life saying, “Hey, that was a really bad sermon,” that does indicate something about your future, so praise God for it. It’s probaby a sign that God has something for you to say, for the rest of your life.

    :D Absolutely right. Well, no one told me it was bad this morning. Although I'm very glad no one said outright: "That was a good talk." That's one of the worse things to hear, because you're never quite sure what the definition of "good" is. Are you just being polite? Did you like the sound of my voice? (Doubtful). I remember the first evangelistic talk I gave and a non-Christian came up afterwards to thank me for a "good" talk. I winced internally, because to me it was clear the challenge of Jesus' claims had completely passed him by. It's more gratifying when someone says, as happened this morning: "That's the word we all needed to hear." And even more specific adjectives, like "clear", are preferable, I think.

    I suppose the one disappointing, though not entirely surprising, thing for me is that my parents, who heard me speak for the first time today, just didn't really quite know what to make of it; both the point of the talk, and the fact that it was their son who was giving it. They discussed some of the other items which were shared this morning, but they pointedly avoided any discussion of mine. One rule I sometimes use in writing talks is: would my mum get the main point? And maybe I failed.

    The other thing that's really difficult, of course, is for the preacher to consciously point away from oneself. The lines from Kate Wilkinson's hymn is one I will constantly need to repeat to myself: "And may they forget the channel / Seeing only him".

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