Friday, 14 June 2013


“I was too busy boning my kipper to notice what he said!”   That was the imaginative reply, given by one of my fellow Dominican students.  The prior had just asked him to comment on the sermon I’d preached.
Once a year each of us we students had to preach a sermon during the community’s supper.  That was an excruciating experience for us trainee preachers.  We had to compete with the clatter of cutlery and crockery, the squeaks and rattles from the food trolley.  Worse still, we had to imagine that we were preaching to the typical ‘person in the pew,’ not to our Dominican brethren.
Our fellow students went through a different kind of ordeal. They had to listen to the preacher, knowing full well that the prior would randomly select one of them to comment on the sermon.  While eating his supper –perhaps boning his kipper - he had to be thinking of something intelligent to say.  After his comments the prior would then ask one of the priests in the community what he thought of the sermon.  Finally the prior himself would have his say. Three critics had a peck at the poor student preacher!
These refectory sermons were an ordeal for all of us.  The preacher would never expect to have to face such a critical congregation again, which was there to criticise rather than to be inspired.  Never would we have to preach to an imaginary audience.  Hopefully, being thrown in at the deep-end so early in our Dominican life would toughen us up for what would lie ahead.  This training exercise was probably good for us.
Sometimes the lessons we learnt were very painful.  There was the student preacher who memorized his sermon, word for word.  Unfortunately when he opened his mouth his mind went blank, paralysed with fear.  All he could do was silently withdraw, followed by the sympathy of just about everybody!  That must have been a miserable for him!  That taught me never to trust my sermons to memory.  I must always think on my feet and at least have some notes to jog my memory, in case it should ever go blank.
As for the community which had to listen to our first sermons –that was quite an ordeal.  I’ve been both preacher and critic, so I know. The meal was spoilt by our not knowing whether we would be asked to comment.  Since each of us had to take his turn in giving a refectory sermon our sympathies lay with the preacher of the moment. We tended to give him encouragement.  But I do suspect that some critics were far too harsh and permanently scarred some budding preachers. I know one who would never dare to preach in front of his brethren, even though the congregation liked his sermons.  I feel sure his critic would have been horrified to learn of the devastating effects his comments had had.
 The ordeal of having to preach my practice sermons against the background noise of a community of forty eating their supper has stood me in good stead.  As a result I’ve not been fazed by a baby crying, nor, in the W. Indies, by a braying donkey, a squealing, grunting pig, a bleating goat or a crowing cock.  But I must admit I had to concede defeat when a tropical rainstorm beat down upon the tin roof of the chapel in which I was preaching. The noise was deafening! I certainly could not compete with that. I was forced to bring my sermon to an abrupt end.  The same was true when a pneumatic drill got to work outside the church.  Perhaps, the Lord, is in His wisdom, had decided to silence me.
This helped to make me realize that I must place my preaching in God’s hands.   I may have to accept that He may want lessons to be drawn from my sermon, which I had not planned.
That can be hard to take.  The poor preacher who couldn’t remember the sermon he’d carefully prepared had to accept the humiliation of having to retire without having uttered a word.   From this his listeners had to learn compassionate understanding.  That could do them more good, and be more necessary, than the message the preacher had planned to give.
And the preacher may become ill and collapse during a sermon.  That’s happened to me.   Although everyone was so good in rushing to my assistance I hated all the fuss.  But perhaps God wanted both the congregation and me to appreciate and respond in a positive way to the vulnerability of us preachers.  For all of us that lesson could have been more valuable than anything I’d planned to say.
Certainly it’s good that I never take my preaching for granted.  Because I’m prone to blackouts I can never presume that I will be able to finish a sermon.  But more general than that, preaching can be a frightening experience.
 There’s a vast difference between giving a lecture and preaching a sermon.   In a sermon the preacher urges a way of life, Christ’s way of life. If he’s honest he will have to admit that he falls short of the behaviour he’s urging upon others.  As he puts himself on the line he lays himself open to the condemnation of not practising what he preaches.  None of this is true of giving a lecture, in which the speaker does not lay his life open to judgement and condemnation.
This sense of inconsistency, if not hypocrisy, a sense of unworthiness can be terrifying, even paralyzing. I’ve known preachers who have had sleepless nights, with upset stomachs, before preaching a difficult sermon.  Another used to be physically sick in the sacristy before his sermons. But I’ve found that in spite of my stage-fright the nerves disappear once I start my sermon. People simply don’t believe me when I say I’m nervous before every sermon.  A bit of anxiety keeps me on my toes and prevents me become complacent or casual in preaching.
My way of coping with my sense of inadequacy is to remind myself that God chose the foolish of this world to confound the self-styled wise. I readily number myself among the foolish!  In fact the people Jesus chose to preach the kingdom were all flawed characters.  If the preacher  needed to wait till  he was a perfect Christian before he dared to open his mouth the Gospel would never be heard.
It’s good for all of us to recognize that we’re not fit to preach the Good News.  Not one of us practises what he preaches.  The only way I can continue is to remind myself that I’m not holding up myself as an example of Christian living.  I’m recommending Christ, His way of life, not mine.  The world needs to hear about Jesus and how to follow Him to the Kingdom of Heaven.  I need to hear the Good News as much as anybody else.
So in every sermon I’m first of all preaching to myself –telling myself how I should be following Christ.  With every sermon I hold a mirror up to my life and see how I distort the image of Christ, which I should reflect.  Hopefully I listen to what I’ve said to the congregation and heed my own words.
So, I meet God through heeding my own sermons, and trying to practice what I preach.  I place the fears, the difficulties, my limitations and failures in God’s hands.  He can turn everything to His purpose and draw goodness from it.  But most importantly, we all meet God through His word, sharing it and doing it.
I bet every teacher and parent feels the same sense of inadequacy as I do in sharing my faith. If so, let’s all remember that God has given us this task.  He is with us as we do His work.  He is Lord of the harvest and has guaranteed a bumper crop, despite all the obstacles that make it difficult for us to hear the Word of God.  That certainly includes the concentration required for boning  a kipper!
Isidore O.P.

Friday, 7 June 2013


“You wouldn’t dare!” That was my rash challenge as we rounded off an exhilarating week with singing round a camp-fire.   A group of teenagers had come to Spode Conference Centre for a week’s discussions.  These were meant to prepare them for what would lie ahead for them as Christians, after they’d left school and entered the adult world.

As a safety precaution we had a number of buckets of water at the ready.  I was tending the fire when a teasing, pushy, girl threatened to throw a bucket of water over me. I, secure in my priestly status, brashly I replied, “You wouldn’t dare!” Fool that I was! No way did I expect her to rise to such a challenge. Little did I realize I'd just put her reputation in the eyes of her peers on the line.  She had no choice. Here, the chance for unspeakable glory! ... to douse a priest, at his to speak!   The next thing I knew I was drenched.

At that moment the world stood still. We were all in a state of amazed shock. What if she had seized the initiative and dared me to retaliate and douse her with a bucket of water? She would have had me cornered. I could not possibly have taken her up. The consequences would have been unthinkable. At that moment I was on trial with the whole circle of young people being my jury and judge.

 God came to my rescue. From my throat He forced a massive roar of indignation and then a fit of hysterical laughter. All joined in, much relieved...and most grateful for this surprise piece of entertainment.

But it certainly provided me with food for thought.... about the danger of issuing challenges and calling people’s bluff.. “Never must I do that again -unless I’m prepared to be taken up on my challenge.” And what of Annie (not her real name)?   What did she learn?  That actions do have consequences?  That there’s no telling with least with this one?

Now, this got me wondering. Does God call our bluff?    Can we call His bluff and put Him to the test?  How often have we complained, “If God really loved me He wouldn’t let me suffer; He would cure me and my loved ones. After all, we’re good people, who keep His commandments and do more than that for Him. Surely   He owes something to His loyal subjects!" Right?  No.  No. No. Wrong.   Yet how many have abandoned God, because they think He’s deaf to their prayers and that He has deserted them?”

If that’s the way we’re thinking aren’t we testing God’s love for us in the same way that Satan tempted Jesus in the desert?  There the devil challenged Jesus to throw Himself from the pinnacle of the temple.  Was He going to trust His heavenly Father to save Him from falling to His death? To this challenge Jesus replied, ‘It is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ (Matt. 4. 7).

We cannot, we, must not, put God and His love to the test.  God doesn’t have to prove Himself; He owes us nothing; we can’t put Him in our debt.   All that He does for us is a free gift of His love, not something we deserve.  That’s why Jesus condemned the Pharisee who reminded God of all his good deeds and expected to be duly rewarded for them.  But Jesus praised the publican who threw himself on God’s mercy as He begged His forgiveness.

What about this for a way we often put God to the test?  We reason, “Since  God is all merciful He wouldn’t condemn and punish anyone, especially not a nice guy like me.” Or, “If I’m a sinner, God will always give me time to repent, so why rush to cut short the enjoyment of my sinful ways?” 

  The Book of Ecclesiasticus brings us to our senses with a bucket of cold water, “ Do not say, ‘I sinned, yet what has happened to me?’ - for the Lord is slow to anger.   Do not be so confident of forgiveness that you add sin to sin.    Do not say, ‘His mercy is great,  He will forgive the multitude of my sins’, for both mercy and wrath are with Him, and His anger will rest on sinners.  Do not delay to turn back to the Lord, and do not postpone it from day to day;  for suddenly the wrath of the Lord will come upon you,  and at the time of punishment you will perish.”  (Ecclesiasticus 5. 4-7).   In other words, it’s sheer madness to presume to call God’s bluff.

But isn’t  it a huge temptation to try to bargain with God, arguing that if I do this for God He’s obliged to do that for me? He owes me one. I have serious problems with those people who circulate emails that guarantee instant prosperity or certain salvation if we jump through a number of spiritual hoops.  Often these include a handsome donation to the pastor!  To this the Book of Ecclesiasticus replies in no uncertain terms, Do not try to bribe the Lord.  He will not accept it.”  (35. 14).

 What about God challenging us, even calling our bluff?  He does that all the time!   -as when Jesus says to each of us, “Follow me.”    Instead of promising us an easy ride He guarantees a rough journey.  He tells us to take up our crosses and follow Him.   We, His followers, must expect opposition, even persecution.   Jesus is challenging us to believe in Him, to trust He knows where He’s going, that the eternal life and happiness He promises are not empty words.   To each of us He says, “Launch out into the deep.”  He invites us to do the seemingly impossible, to walk on the water.  Jesus is calling our bluff, as He says, “Trust me.”   We are calling His bluff, as we expect Him to be faithful to His promises.   We meet God as our “yes” to Him echoes His “yes” to us.

Dare I conclude that Annie with her bucket of water has even prompted me to think of my being baptized with the waters of life? Then God most certainly expressed His “yes” to me as His son. How I rejoice in my lifelong commitment to Him as my heavenly Father!

All, the same I warn you  girls, “Don’t take liberties with me and buckets of water! I’ve aged a lot since the days of Annie and camp fires!”
Isidore O.P.
The next posting will be on 21st June