The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

Wicher Hendrik Bredenhof (1922-2010)

Christians are word people — we’re such because God has given us a book of written revelation.  Christians ought to be those who see the power of the written word, both in terms of reading and writing.  On both fronts, consumption and production, I sometimes wonder whether we’re heading into a dark era.  Where are the readers?  Where are the writers?  There are some, to be sure, but I wonder:  why not more?

I love to read and write.  I especially want to reflect for a moment on the latter love — also in the interests of stirring up the same affection in others.  How did I come to love writing?

Curiously, it was the same way through which I came to love reading.  It wasn’t because of a teacher.  It wasn’t because of my parents.  It was my late grandfather, my Opa Bredenhof.  I was 7 years old.  We were living in the Canadian Arctic, but went down south for the summer to visit Opa and Oma and the rest of the Bredenhof clan.  While I was there, Opa took me to a sort of book store being run out of someone’s house.  I’m thinking it was Albert VanderHeide, but I could be wrong.  From this store, Opa bought me several books, including this one:

It was Scout: The Secret of the Swamp by Piet Prins.  This pile of books got me into a lifetime of reading.

Opa loved to read and he wanted to pass that on to me.  Opa also loved to write.  Even though English wasn’t his first language, he tried valiantly.  As a member of the Mission Aid Committee, he wrote articles for the Mission News.  Later, he wrote not just one book, but two — including The Gospel Under the Southern Cross, the first book about mission in the Canadian Reformed Churches.  His writing needed the help of a native English editor, but that never stymied him from the effort.

And Opa loved to write letters.  I know because I received scads of them.

Sometimes I struggled to read them and I think you can see why!  Despite his penmanship, Opa was bound and determined to write to his far-off grandson and I almost always wrote him back.

Opa also encouraged me to see the power and value of writing.  One adage he’d often repeat:  “The pen is mightier than the sword.”  Imagine that being said in a heavy Dutch accent and you can hear how it still echoes in my ears.  Opa didn’t come up with it — it apparently originates with English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton.  But Opa repeated it often to his young grandson and it stuck.  I sometimes wonder if it resonated with Opa because of his work as a courier in the Dutch underground during the Nazi occupation.  That work sometimes involved circulating illegal newspapers.  The Nazis hated the written word because of its power to change minds.

When I was in high school, I had zero aspirations to be a pastor.  I had no intentions of making any career of working with words.  My only dream was to turn and burn in a CF-18.  I wanted to be a fighter pilot.  I still enjoyed reading — especially about aviation.  When I had to write for school, I enjoyed it and had some proficiency at it.  But my goal was to “slip the surly bonds of earth.”

God put that goal out of reach by giving me a near-sighted right eye.  That realization sent me into a period of spiritual and existential crisis.  It was just as well — I saw the Air Force as the ticket out of my churchly upbringing.  Instead, through a series of providential circumstances, God graciously brought me to a firm commitment to Christ and living for him.  I really became enthralled with the gospel and with Reformed theology.  How could I share my excitement with others?

Around that time, there was a Canadian Reformed magazine for young people called In Holy Array.

In the May 1991 issue, Rev. Eric Kampen issued a challenge for young people to get off their duff and start writing.  He was realistic about what it would involve:

How do you know if something is being read?  By readers’ response!  That might come orally, in the form of compliment.  That is always encouraging.  But, more often the way one finds out if what has been written is indeed read by someone else is in the form of reactions.  That is one of the “hazards” of writing: someone might disagree with you!  If you never say anything, then you never will get any reactions.  Sometimes people react and strongly disagree, and will let it be known personally, but do not dare to go public.  Others feel compelled to write a letter to the editor.  Others yet will take the time to write an article in response…

…You shouldn’t be afraid to express your sentiments.  It is often surprising how many thoughts and problems you have are shared by others, but no one ever puts them on paper.  We mentioned the “hazards” of writing.  You can’t get around that!  But perhaps, you might help someone else, or you might be helped yourself, in that you find answers to your questions, even if you have to be corrected in some parts of your thinking.  We should also be open to correction, from Scripture of course.

Those words hit the target with me.  Combined with my Opa’s adage, I was ready to start writing.

So I did.  My first article was published in the January 1992 issue of In Holy Array.  It was entitled, “Women in Office: Is It Possible?”  I wrote many more articles for In Holy Array, and then eventually branched out to other magazines such as Clarion and Reformed Perspective.  In the early 2000s, I became aware of this phenomenon known as a “blog” and by 2007 most of my writing was happening via this medium.

I’ve seen that Opa was right about writing:  it is a powerful tool.  It can be harnessed for good purposes, including both edification and entertainment.  Eric Kampen was right too:  sometimes writing can be “hazardous” — but that does keep it interesting!  At least you know people are reading and thinking about what you’ve said.

I want to encourage readers to become writers.  You start by starting.  You learn by doing.  You learn the craft of writing by doing, but also learn heaps more about your subject matter.  I often think of Augustine’s words, quoted by Calvin in his preface to the Institutes:  “I count myself one of the number of those who write as they learn and learn as they write.”  I look forward to reading what you’re writing and learning!


New Dutch Resource Added

With thanks to Een in waarheid, I have another blog post that’s been translated into Dutch:

Hoe COVID mijn preken veranderde

Sixteen other articles appear on my Dutch page here.

 


What’s the Point of Prayer?


How COVID Changed My Preaching

The last few months have brought my preaching to a turning point.  COVID-19 opened my eyes to some problems I needed to address.  While I was saddened with not being able to gather for public worship, some good seems to have come from it.

Three things conspired to bring about a change in the way I approach the delivery of my sermons.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was doing live-streamed messages from the church building.  My family was at home watching those along with everyone else in the congregation.  Eventually, those live-streamed messages moved to my living room.  My family watched me live in person, while the rest of the church watched through YouTube.  However, we soon found that there were issues with the live-stream coming from our home.  The stream was inconsistent and so a lot of viewers had stuttering and buffering problems.  To address that, I moved to pre-recording the messages.  Now I was recording the messages on Saturday mornings and then uploading them to YouTube.  Then they’d “premiere” at 9:30 and 3:30 on Sunday.  Now, along with my family, I had to watch myself preach.

That was painful.  Many preachers, I think, can relate to the agony of watching yourself preach.  It’s awkward and embarrassing.  You see all the flaws, not only in the message itself, but also in the delivery.  I tried to disassociate myself as I was watching, pretending I was watching someone else, but that didn’t really work.

To further drive the point home, I got to a point where I needed a break.  I’d been going hard since the beginning of the pandemic and I needed a week off.  My elders graciously arranged to find a recording of another pastor and upload that for the congregation’s edification in my absence.  So, that Sunday morning and afternoon, I watched another colleague preach.  It was a colleague I highly respect, whose delivery is spot on every time.  They say you shouldn’t compare yourself to others, but whoever “they” are, they’re not realistic.  I did compare.

The second thing that conspired to change my delivery was Zoom.  I went into the pandemic with an intense antipathy towards video chats and conference calls.  I still don’t like them.  But here we were forced to use Zoom not only for consistory meetings, but also for catechism classes.  At the moment, we’re still using Zoom for catechism, though I hope that’ll change in the next month or so.

But it was especially the catechism classes that got me thinking.  I ran it like this:  my students were all muted when they signed on.  Using my lesson plan, I would teach.  I give them opportunities for questions periodically but, unlike being in a physical classroom setting, they seldom ask anything.  So it ends up being me talking for 30 minutes straight.  When you have to talk for 30 minutes straight just talking off of notes, there needs to be some ability for public speaking.  I could do it.

Finally, this year I’ve been doing a lot of reading about preaching.  Some of the authors I’ve read have addressed the point of delivery and how to do that most effectively.  They suggested concrete ways I could improve.

For the last 20 years, I’ve almost always taken a full manuscript into the pulpit with me.  I did that partly because I believed in preaching with the most precise words possible.  I also didn’t want to go around in circles, I didn’t want needless repetition, and I wanted the sermon to flow smoothly from one thought to the next.  A full manuscript definitely helps rigidly control those things.  The downside to having a manuscript on the pulpit is that your attention can be more fixed on it than on the people to whom you’re preaching.  Eye contact can suffer; presentation can be artificial or stale.  The impression could be that you’re just reading from your manuscript.  Is that really preaching?

So recently, I’ve begun preaching from a two-page outline instead.  After I’m done my exegesis, I prepare a draft of the outline.  From that draft, I then prepare a manuscript.  I review the manuscript a couple of times and then make adjustments to the outline.  Through the whole process I pray that the Holy Spirit will give me the right words I need to say on the pulpit, gleaned from my preparations.

As I walk away from preaching from an outline, I feel that the preaching is rougher, more imprecise.  Transitions from one thought to the next don’t always go as smoothly as I’d like.  But I’m told that the outline slows me down (which is good — I often tend to speak too fast from a manuscript) and it improves the eye-contact and connection with the congregation.  I’ve watched part of one of these sermons and it’s still painful to watch, but better than what I was doing before.

It’s still early days in this new approach for me.  Hopefully with time and practice I’ll become more proficient at speaking from an outline.  It’s true that God can strike straight blows with a crooked stick — I’m sure he’s used my preaching from a manuscript in the past, just as he might with any colleague who’s doing that too.  However, I think of 2 Timothy 2:15, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”  A pastor always has to do his best, always has to seek to improve.  The glorious gospel we preach deserves nothing less.  God used a tiny virus to teach me that big lesson.


“Go to sleep” Says the Sermon

In his Lectures to My Students, Spurgeon has this little ditty which has always amused me:

It is an ill case when the preacher

“Leaves his hearers perplex’d —

Twixt the two to determine:

‘Watch and pray,’ says the text,

‘Go to sleep,’ says the sermon.

I couldn’t help but think of that as I was re-reading Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ great classic, Preaching & Preachers.  He notes that a preacher who appears untouched by the truth he’s preaching is not really a preacher at all.  He goes on:

I came across a notable example of what I am condemning recently when I was convalescing after an illness.  I was staying in a village in a certain part of England and went to the local church just across the road from where I was staying.  I found that the preacher was preaching that evening on the prophet Jeremiah.  He told us that he was starting a series of sermons on the prophet.  So he was starting with that great text where Jeremiah said he could not refrain any longer, but that the Word of God was like a fire in his bones.  That was the text he took.  What happened?  I left the service feeling that I had witnessed something quite extraordinary, for the one big thing that was entirely missing in that service was ‘fire.’  The good man was talking about fire as if he were sitting on an iceberg.  He was actually dealing with the theme of fire in a detached and cold manner; he was a living denial of the very thing that he was saying, or perhaps I should say a dead denial.  It was a good sermon from the standpoint of construction and preparation.  He had obviously taken considerable care over this, and had obviously written out every word, because he was reading it; but that one thing that was absent was fire.  There was no zeal, no enthusiasm, no apparent concern for us as members of the congregation.  His whole attitude seemed to be detached and academic and formal.  (p.88)

Sad, no?  It reminds me of a time I visited a Presbyterian church somewhere.  This church had a seminary and their homiletics professor was on the pulpit that Sunday morning.  The poor man had just flown in the day before and was dealing with a bad case of jet lag.  He yawned his way through the whole sermon.  Maybe it was just a bad day for that brother…