review: fresh air in the pulpit

Fresh Air in the Pulpit: Challenges and Encouragement from a Seasoned Preacher
by D. Stuart Briscoe (Baker, 1994) pb, 189pp
“When spiritual dryness attacks a preacher it may be the result of downright disobedience … but more often it is the result of busyness – well-meaning, good-hearted, earnest people who are too busy.” (p.18)
“Never put your head on the pillow at night if you haven’t had your nose in the Book during the day.” (p.19)
“Let us rejoice with one another that in a world where there are a great many good and happy things for men to do, God has given us the best and happiest, and made us preachers of His truth.” (p.27, quoting Phillips Brooks)
“What matters? The chief thing is the love of God, the love of souls, a knowledge of the Truth, and the Holy Spirit within you. These are the things that make the preacher. If he has the love of God in his heart, and if he has a love for God; if he has a love for the souls of men, and a concern about them; if he knows the truth of the Scriptures, and has the Spirit of God within him, that man will preach.” (p.40, quoting Martyn Lloyd-Jones)
“Agitators break your heart, while intimidators tie your hands, and adulators swell your head. By the time you’ve dealt with all these pressures it may just escape your mind that you were there to be faithful. And therein lies the problem.” (p.51)
“The problem for the preacher who rightly aims at relevance is that the more the preaching moves in the direction of the hearer’s interests, the greater is the danger of the preaching being irrelevant. It is the unique distinctiveness of the gospel which makes the difference in people’s lives. But if the preaching has become so ‘relevant’ that it differs little from the kind of discussion that fills the weary hours of the talk shows, questions people may legitimately ask are: ‘Why should we bother with this message called the gospel, which seems to be little more than a religious-version of talk-show babble? ” (p.57)
“… the old joke that a minister was six days invisible and one day incomprehensible …” (p.60)
“A preacher’s motives matter more than a preacher’s methods.” (p.72)
“Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to His purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.” (p.80, quoting William Temple)
“Preaching that costs nothing, accomplishes nothing. If the study is a lounge, the pulpit will be an impertinence. ” (p.98, quoting J.H. Jowett)
“Remember, if cases are made in chambers it is equally true that sermons are crafted in studies.” (p.120)
“There are three things that the preacher should try to incorporate in each God-centered, people-related sermon: (1) it must instruct people about who God is and what he has said, (2) it must identify with the human condition, (3) it must indicate an appropriate behavioral response.” (p.126)
“Preaching is like throwing a bucket of water at a row of bottles. Some of the water goes in some of the bottles. But personal application ensures that all of the bottles will be filled up.” (p.139, quoting, most likely, Charles Spurgeon)
“Some sermons are like golf balls, which have a tendency to roll on after they’ve stopped.” (p.158)
“Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.” (p.167)
This book’s greatest strengths are its accessibility, clarity, practical wisdom and balance. This book is exceedingly easy to read; arguably the easiest I’ve ever read on the subject of preaching. It’s vocabulary does not get in the way; I didn’t have to “read around” anything. Anyone can read it, read it quickly, and still “get it.” Thoughts are consistently boiled down to utter simplicity for the sake of memorability. For example:
“We would do well in all our preaching to keep these four things in mind: (1) proclamation, (2) explanation, (3) application and (4) implementation.” (pp.122-123)
Briscoe’s years of experience in ministry truly engaged with life shines through on every page. Read this book and you’ll catch yourself raising an eyebrow, giving a smile and snort on occasion, for you can identify with a passage here and there in very personal ways, ways that come only from hard-earned experienced. For example:
“There is little doubt that often the criticisms of a congregation are as ill-advised as they are ill tempered. This means that while careful consideration must be given to what congregations say, even more care should be taken to evaluate their reasons for saying it. Only in this way can the validity of their statements be assessed. … It is the task of the preacher to recognize the preoccupations and to identify the presuppositions and then to evaluate them according to the preacher’s mandate.” (p.67)
The book attempts to cover a lot of tremendous amount of real estate in a single work, but is well-organized and balanced, as is evidenced by merely a glance at the table of contents:
Introduction – ch.1
Fresh Air in the Preacher – ch.2-8
Fresh Air in the Pews – ch.9
Fresh Air in the Study – ch.10-15
Fresh Air in the Pulpit – ch.16-17
Suggestions on Additional Reading on Preaching
Briscoe’s style shines through as he reveals what an outline of a preaching series through the books of Hebrews might look like (based on Hebrews 4:16):
Where to Find Help
1. Where to Find Help Cleaning Up Your Life (Heb. 1:1-4)
2. Where to Find Help Coping With Your Fears (Heb. 2:14-18)
3. Where to Find Help Facing Up to Your Frustrations (Heb. 4:1-13)
4. Where to Find Help Dealing With Your Temptations (Heb. 4:14-16)
5. Where to Find Help Seeing Beyond Your Problems (Heb. 5:7-6:12)
6. Where to Find Help Handling Your Insecurities (Heb. 6:13-20)
7. Where to Find Help Clearing Your Conscience (Heb. 9:1-14)
8. Where to Find Help Strengthening Your Faith (Heb. 10:19-39)
9. Where to Find Help Running Your Race (Heb. 12:1-13)
10. Where to Find Help Developing Your Worship (Heb. 12:14-29)
11. Where to Find Help Improving Your Attitudes (Heb. 13:1-6)
12. Where to Find Help Following Your Leaders (Heb. 13:7-25)
Hey, I’ll likely “lift” that outline for use as a basis for a “Summer Series” on Wednesday nights or as a simple series on Sunday nights!
And if you’re curious as to how Briscoe sees the lay of the preaching land these days (remember, this book was penned in 1994), one passage in particular gives us a clue:
“… I recognize that there are many different ways of preaching. There are all kinds of starting points and there are many valid ways of communicating the truth. But for there to be a proper balance we must insist on the centrality of God in all our preaching. … If [our preaching] … does not deal with life situations by presenting the Lord of life as the key to life, it is not adequate preaching. My concern about some of the modern trends is that the approach appears to be dangerously close to being people-centered and God related. … I fear that sometimes people get the impression that God’s prime raison d’etre is that he exists to meet our needs.” (p.125)
In sum, on a scale of 0-10, this books earns a 7.9 from me. I’m glad I read it. I gained several things from it and was either reminded of, or had reinforced within me, some things I already knew. It challenged me in some ways, too, in which I needed to be challenged. Nevertheless, at my age (50 years) and with my experience (30 years), I’ve become quite ruthless with my books; they must be either great (i.e. – not merely good) or unique (i.e. – they fill a niche nothing else does) in order for me to be persuaded to keep them. This is a good book that is not unique. Consequently, I’m dropping it in my box that is destined for Half-Price Books.

review: the preaching life

by Barbara Brown Taylor (Cowley Publications, 1993, pb, 175pp)
“God has given us good news in human form and has even given us grace to proclaim it, but part of our terrible freedom is the freedom to lose our voices, to forget where we were going and why. While that knowledge does not yet strike me as prophetic, it does keep me from taking both my own ministry and the ministry of the whole church for granted. If we do not attend to God’s presence in our midst and bring all our best gifts to serving that presence in the world, we may find ourselves selling tickets to a museum.” (p.5)
“The one true turning point in a person’s life is when he or she joins the body of Christ … It was part of God’s genius to incorporate us as one body, so that our ears have other ears, other eyes, minds, hearts, and voices to help us interpret what we have heard.” (pp.23-24)
“… many who sit … at church … hear the invitation to ministry as an invitation to do more – to lead the every member canvass, or cook supper for the homeless, or teach vacation church school. Or  [they] hear the invitation to ministry as an invitation to be more – to be more generous, more loving, more religious. … [They should be] introduced to the idea that [their] ministry might involve being just who [they are] and doing what [they] already do, with one difference: namely, that [they] understand [themselves] to be God’s people in and for the world.” (p.28)
“Faith is the enduring ability to imagine life in a certain way. … While it may seem more respectable to approach faith as an intellectual exercise or more satisfactory to approach it as an emotional one, our relationship to God is not simply a matter or what we think or how we feel. It is more comprehensive than that, and more profound. It is a full-bodied relationship in which mind and heart, spirit and flesh, are converted to a new way of experiencing and responding to the world. … It is a matter of learning to see the world, each, and ourselves as God sees us, and to live as if God’s reality were the only one that mattered.” (p.38)
“… the Bible remains a peculiarly holy book. I cannot think of any other text that has such an authority over me, interpreting me faster than I can interpret it. … This, I believe, why we call the Bible God’s ‘living’ word. When I think about consulting a medical book thousands of years old for some insight into my health, or an equally ancient physics book for some help with my cosmology, I understand what a strange and unparalleled claim the Bible has on me. Age does not diminish its power but increases it.” (p.52)
“No place that is human is too messy for God.” (p.67)
“Watching a preacher climb into the pulpit is a lot like watching a tightrope walker climb onto the platform as the drum roll begins. … They both step out into the air, trusting everything they have done to prepare for this moment as they surrender themselves to it, counting now on something beyond themselves to help them do what they love and fear and most want to do. … [but] the sermon proves to be a communal act, not the creation of one person, but the creation of a body of people for whom and to whom one of them speaks. A congregation can make or break a sermon by the quality of their response to it. An inspired sermon can wind up skewered somewhere near the second pew by a congregation of people who sit with their arms crossed and their eyes narrowed, coughing, and scuffing their feet as the preacher struggles to be heard. Similarly, a weak sermon can grow strong in the presence of people who attend carefully to it, leaning forward in their pews and opening their faces to a preacher for whom they clearly expect a receive good news.” (pp.76-77)
This book is composed of two parts. The first half describes Taylor’s walk as a preacher; some of her perspectives and experiences, discoveries and surprises. The seventh chapter (and final chapter in this section) – Preaching – is simply one of the finest things I’ve ever heard or read on the subject. The latter half is a collection of thirteen of her sermons, five-to-seven pages in length, all but one based on some account in the Gospels. The sermons and their texts are:
One Step at a Time (Mark 5:38-39) “It takes a lot of courage to be a human being.”
The Fourth Watch (Mark 6:48-50) “He was not supposed to be there at all, and so they did not see him. They saw a ghost instead …”
I Am Who I Am (John 8:25) “We cannot nail him down. We tried once, but he got loose …”
The Tenth Leper (Luke 17:12-17) “‘Where are the nine?’ We are here, right here. But where, for the love of God, is the tenth?”
Do Love (Luke 10:36-37) “This is not a sermon about doing more. It is instead a sermon about not confusing the knowing, understanding, feeling, thinking, or saying of love with the doing of love.”
The Opposite of Rich (Mark 10:22-23) “There are days when threading a camel seems easier than following Jesus.”
The One to Watch (Mark 12:41-42) “… that is why he noticed the poor widow in the first place. She reminded him of someone. It was the end for her; it was the end for him, too. She gave her living to a corrupt church; he was about to give his life for a corrupt world. … It took one to know one.”
Knowing Glances (Matthew 25:37-38) “We can do this because we are one flock, tended and well fed by the Good Shepherd, who is also, I suspect, the Good Goatherd.”
The Voice of the Shepherd (John 10:25-27) “… the way true believers believe is the way most of us believe: valiantly on some days and pitifully on others, with faith enough to move mountains on some occasions and not enough to get out of bed on others.”
The Lost and Found Department (Luke 15:4-5) “I think of God ignoring those good folks in favor of the one sinner who says, ‘I’m sorry,’ and I want to sue God for mercy.”
None of Us is Home Yet (Matthew 6:26) “What that means for the church is that homelessness is not an ‘issue’ for us that we attend to merely out of social conscience; it is our primary identity, and when we forget that we forget who we are and whom we follow.”
The Prodigal Father (Luke 15:11-12) “Here is where the loving father earns his title.”
Surviving Eden (Genesis 3:6) “Paradise is lost and what was, or what could have been, is gone forever. How do you survive something like that?”
Each of these sermons affords abundant evidence of Scripture well pondered and applied. Imagination and immersion are two words that leap to my mind when I consider the construction of her words.
As to Taylor’s writing overall, an observant eye, a creative flair, a pondering mind and an honest, transparent way are her trademarks. Fred Craddock says it best in the book’s foreword:
“She has the rare capacity to sit on her own shoulder and report what she sees and hears herself doing and saying. She talks about what she does and then does what she talks about. … one is reminded of oneself, of what it is like to trust and to doubt at the same time, to be inside and outside at the same time, to love an activity more than anything and at the same time welcome the chance to be free of it.”
In short, read this book in private, for you will laugh aloud and perhaps even choke up more than once. Read it at your peril for it will cost you time and money. Time, in that you will find yourself returning to it again and again for the encouragement and inspiration of a friend who understands and speaks openly from their heart. Money, in that if you lend it out, you will likely not get it back. So read it and buy an extra copy or two to give away. To someone considering preaching. To someone ready to bail out of preaching. To all who are engaged with preaching or who simply love the life of the church and ponder the dynamics of things.
Yes, it’s that good. On a scale of 0-10, I give it a perfect 10.