Jul 23, 2011

‘How to fit hard thinking into a busy schedule’ or ’10 ways to make mental space for sermon writing’

Pastors and planters fit the profile for what Cal Newport calls ‘To-do list creatives’ perfectly which is what makes this article so helpful.

To-do list creatives are those who’s work require them at times to be managers, organisers, administrators but also have to find time for ‘high quality creative work’.

All pastors know the weekly battle between getting down to the sermon which requires a longer period(s) of concentrated time and the constant reminders of all the admin. yet to be done. Often that means that even when we sit down to get creative we find ourselves distracted.

Internal distraction comes from unprompted thoughts that pop into our heads that compete for our attention when we are trying to focus. We can’t quite mentally switch off from busy thinking and make the necessary change of gear.

External distractions come from unwelcome interruptions that we (depending on our degree of discipline) comply with. So that could be phone-calls, twitter, e-mail, personal visits,etc.

Cal writes;

I identified two justifications for the importance of long stretches of uninterrupted work:
  • Shifting Mental Modes: When the mind knows it has no interruptions looming, it can shift into the flow state required to produce high-quality output.
  • Providing Freedom to Explore: Real creative work is non-linear, often requiring long, unexpected detours to uncover the contours of the problem at hand. Long stretches of time provide the freedom needed to feel comfortable indulging in these detours.

So for me the biggest challenge and the greatest threat to the sermon is not just finding time to be creative but protecting time. Even just one interruption to the flow can be a massive set-back and getting back into the ‘zone’ may take another 15 minutes.

So how do we manage the competing priorities? Here are 10 suggests for

1. Block out sermon prep slots in your week as non-negotiable, priority A tasks. Treat these windows as as if they were a 1-2-1 meeting with someone not least because they are!

2. Don’t try to fit creative tasks in between administrative tasks.

Josh Kaufman in the Persoanl MBA writes:

I typically focus on writing for a few uninterrupted hours in the morning, then batch my calls and meetings in the afternoon. As a result, I can focus on both responsibilities with my full attention.

3. By far my most creative time is very early in the day. Early to bed means an early rise and some productive, undisturbed time.

4. In combating internal distractions I set aside particular days or sections of a day where I routinely and regularly prep. sermons. My mind begins to accept that, for example, tuesday and friday mornings are sermon prep. times and with structure as well as discipline in place I find it much easier to focus on these mornings. It also helps if others know that these are prep. times too!

5. Forewarding a draft of a sermon to one or two others in the church earlier in the week for comment and suggestions also functions as a great incentive to be disciplined and start early in the week.

6. A change of environment acts as a mental switch. Some people have two desks to work at, one for admin. the other for study. Some, like Mark Driscoll, prefer to have an office at church and a study at home.

7. Switching off the computer and preparing on paper combats both internal and external distractions,

8. A change of mood. Some people find that a change of lighting, music, etc. can be conducive to study.

9. Study days, well planned out in advance may give you 2 or 3 days of solid work on say a sermon series weeks or months in advance. Getting away from it all either mentally or even better mentally and physically get those creative juices flowing and give a good head-start.

10. And I hope it goes without saying that by far the best way of ensuring uninterrupted, undistracted work is to value the work of preaching the word of God above all things and to pray and work accordingly.

Jul 22, 2011

If the world’s population lived in one city it looks like there’s a lot of room still left

Fascinating look at the density of world cities and global population. Seems like there’s plenty of room left!



Jul 21, 2011

Why pick ‘The Life of Brian’? – The Independent questions bias at the BBC on matters of religion

A good article here by Gerald Gilbert writing in the Independent on bias at the BBC and its continual one-sided treatment of Christianity compared to other religions.

At the time when the BBC in preparing to make a drama about the controversy surrounding Monty Python’s Life of Brian he asks whether the BBC would ever make such a programme about other more serious debates surrounding religion and free speech.

Freedom of speech can be a much tougher call in the polarised 21st-century than it was in the fag-end of liberal Seventies Britain, and if BBC4 wanted to take a moment from our recent past to shed light on the present, then there are plenty of controversies of younger vintage available to them.

How about the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie in 1989 over his novel The Satanic Verses, a death sentence that remains in place today, and that led to Rushdie spending almost a decade in hiding, as well as the violent attacks against various translators and publishers (including an arson attack at a cultural festival in Turkey that left 37 people dead)? Perhaps Sanjeev Bhaskar could play Rushdie.

Or how about a drama about the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad, and the subsequent worldwide protests, or the play Behtzi, which sparked riots by Birmingham Sikhs in 2004. Or how about, for that matter, the remorseless attacks on journalists and academics in any way critical of Israel? Christians could well be forgiven for rolling their eyes in resignation at this point. The Church of England is a pretty soft target these days – albeit, to be fair, partly because of the very public wrong-headedness of Christians such as Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark over Life of Brian. To that extent, the Pythons can claim to have undermined the authority of the church. Nevertheless, and without saying that they shouldn’t show up Muggeridge and Stockwood for the holy fools that here they were, the question remains: would the BBC lampoon a pair of intolerant Iranian ayatollahs with quite the same insouciance? Would they make a drama out of a fatwa?


Jul 20, 2011

Feeling guilty you’re not doing more? Kevin DeYoung offers a solution

Imagine (horrible as it sounds) a fire breaking out in a church kids club that your children are in. You rush into the building. Who are you desperate to get out of the building? Who is it that you’re looking for? Your kids, right?

Through this illustration Kevin DeYoung raises the issue of moral proximity when it comes to our obligations as Christians to helping others.

In conversation with Matt Chandler, Trevin Wax and Jonathan Leeman during TFTG’11 DeYoung uses it to inform a discuss the issues that surround social justice and church mission.

What was most helpful for me was DeYoung’s recognition that whilst the whole world might be my neighbour I am not under exactly the same obligation to the 6 billion and more people on the planet.

In fact unless and until we recognise that Scripture does differentiate on the matter we will find ourselves under an ‘impossible burden that will beat us up’ and a sense of obligation that no-one lives up to.


According to DeYoung Moral proximity describes ‘the different moral obligation we have on us in different situations’.

Why does this matter? Well quite simply if Jesus tells us that the whole world is my neighbour and I am under an obligation to love my neighbour, indiscriminately, then what does it mean to fulfil this command? How is it possible, to love every man, woman and child equally?

What would it mean for my personal priorities and our corporate church programmes?

DeYoung argues that the notion of moral proximity is not an excuse to avoid responsibility but is clearly demonstrated in the New Testament and life of the early church. Whilst the whole world may be my neighbour I have particular responsibilities to some by virtue of their relationship to me ie their proximity to me and me to them.

Where in the Bible do we find moral proximity?

He touches on a number of examples in the Scripture (and I’ve added a few others!)

We have a particular obligation to our biological family – so much so that to fail to provide for family is to behave worse than an unbeliever and also to place an inappropriate burden on the church. c.f 1 Timothy 5:3-4, 16.

We have an obligation to our local church family – so 1 John 3:11 the call to love one another is best understood in the context of the local church.

We have an obligation to our wider church family – so Jesus in Matthew 25: 34-40. Paul, in Galatians 6v.10 differentiates a particular obligation to the people of God when he says ‘Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.’

The collection of money for the church in Jerusalem, 2 Cor. 8&9 would be a further example.

Does that mean that these statements negate the teachings of Jesus that the whole world is my neighbour and that I therefore cannot put limits on my love? Not at all.

But even Jesus’ parable suggests something more. Snodgrass in Stories with Intent writes

One cannot define one’s neighbour; one can only be a neighbour. We cannot say in advance who the neighbor is; rather nearness and need define ‘neighbor’.

I guess what that means is that as individuals and churches we are willing to respond to all in need but geographical nearness and urgency of need suggest a greater obligation.

Geographical nearness may mean choosing some social justice project in our community to join with or establish.

Urgency of need may mean collecting money to meet for example a famine in east Africa.

Snodgrass also cites Kierkegaard

‘To love one’s neighbour means, while remaining within  the earthly distinctions allotted to one, essentially to will to exist equally for every human being without exception.’


To my mind every human being without exception but not every human being without distinction serves as a helpful summary.

A few take home points for me;

1. No-one lives as if they owe the same obligation to every member of the human race. DeYoung’s argument helps liberate us from a sense of guilt or hypocrisy.

2. The Bible gives us a framework for assessing who we owe what to. It would seem to me that we are to be proactive in seeking to provide for our biological family and the local church and that we are to reactively respond to need as we discover it in the wider world on the basis of nearness and need paying particular attention to the needs of believers.

3. We need to identify some social justice projects that we think it wisest to support. Not because we dismiss all others but because of our limitations and that moral proximity will help us decide.

4. We need to watch our hearts that are quick to avoid the awesome obligations that Jesus puts us under. Am I really ready to be a neighbour to even my enemy?

Why not follow the whole conversation or listen in to Kevin’s answer at the 40 minute mark.

DeYoung’s book What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission addressing these issues will be available (in the US) from September.

Jul 19, 2011

What’s it like to debate the new atheists?

Tomorrow John Lennox debates Peter Singer at Melbourne Town Hall.

Jul 19, 2011

The best penalty kick ever scored?

Clearly the manager didn’t think so. He substituted him just a minute or so later for showing disrespect to the other team. In total he was on the pitch for three minutes! Full report here.


Jul 18, 2011

4 Things I’ve Learned about God through My Baby Who Was Born Blind

Jul 15, 2011

How envy nearly destroyed me

Jul 14, 2011

‘Show me the money!’ – Is it a good idea to give your kids pocket money?

Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it – Proverbs 22:6

My 5 year old son can just about recognise a 50 pence coin and that’s about it where money is concerned. Maybe its time for an education but what approach should Christians take when it comes to an allowance or pocket money?

Here are my thoughts so far;

A. Why give your kids pocket money?

It seems to me that the point of an allowance is to train your children to handle money in godly ways.

What then are we trying to teach?

  • budgeting skills – so children realise that money only goes so far
  • the value of the things – buying one thing may mean they can’t afford something else
  • the place for delayed gratification – saving to enable a bigger purchase somewhere down the line
  • Responsibility and the need to look after things – putting the money somewhere safe


B. Should we give a ‘flat-rate’ or should an allowance be ‘reward-based’?

What are the advantages in going for a flat-rate?

It could be argued that it helps children to manage money because they know what they are going to get not just in one week but future weeks and they can begin to anticipate, plan and budget appropriately.

It teaches kids that you’re not just helpful around the home simply to get something in return. Nothing can be more irritating than a child being asked to give a helping hand around the home only to have them ask what they will be paid in return.

What are the advantages of the reward-based approach?

If pocket money has to be earned then children begin to understand it’s not a right. They learn early in life as someone has put it ‘You work, you get paid. A basic life lesson that some of us need to be reminded about’.

Pocket money functions as an appropriate reward NOT for good behaviour which should be expected not rewarded. But an allowance can be given to reward work done well.

Kids can learn the value of achieving the amount of pocket money they have earned

The hybrid approach that can teach both principles at the same time

I wonder whether a hybrid system gives the best of both worlds in which you give your child a flat-rate that can be topped up with rewards for chores etc.

The hybrid approach enables your child to recognise that being part of the family means that they have certain responsibilities but chores done on top can receive a financial reward.

C.  How should we encourage children to use the money?

Giving an allowance provides an excellent opportunity to teach our kids something of the gospel.

Saving. We can teach why it’s a good and godly principle in life to save some money.

The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty – Proverbs 21:5

To help a younger child it might work best to give then something specific to aim for ( particular toy, or treat) that can be achieved by saving a set amount over just a few weeks.

As a parent you may wish to reward saving by some form of matching system ie telling you child that if they save so much you will add to that figure on top of regular allowance.

For slightly older children it is certainly a good idea to set up a bank account for your child.


Generousity. Just as we want to instil the principle of stewardship so we want to support generousity. We should encourage children to give some money away to those in need

A generous man will prosper, he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed – Proverbs 11:25

Worship. If, and I suggest only if, our child wants to make a response as a believer to God then they should be encouraged to give back to God in the form of a gift to the church.

One article I read suggested teaching your child when she receives her allowance to divide it three ways

Spend – money to enjoy spending between allowances

Save – putting some money aside for the future

Serve – giving back to gospel work and being generous to others

D. A final few thoughts

The message of grace and taking money away

I wonder whether it is wise to take allowance away because of either bad behaviour or failure to do chores?

How do we show our children that the gospel is about getting from God what we don’t deserve? That we have received from him what we were not owed?

One piece of advice on failure to do chores that I thought a wise one was make it clear in advance that failure to do the agreed task will result not in a financial fine but the adding of a further chore. So if a child fails to make his bed or put away dirty clothes by the agreed time then they will be asked to help mum do a job in the house, etc.

“Don’t give in and give more money if they have spent it all.”

The temptation will be to bail out children who make a hash of their spending and blow the allowance! You need to judge on a case by case basis whether to compensate your child if they run out of money. As a general principle it seems to me that it is a dangerous thing to offer additional money.

Show them how their situation is highlighted in the Bible;

He who loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and oil will never be rich – Proverbs 21:17




Jul 13, 2011

New Statesman article attacks Dawkins’ intellectual reputation

A remarkable post in the New Statesman by David Allen Green is yet further demonstration of how Richard Dawkins’ star is waning even among the liberal intelligentsia in our media.

Green’s closing comments are telling;

Can Richard Dawkins still credibly pose as a champion of rational thinking and an evidence-based approach? In my opinion, he certainly cannot, at least not in the way he did before.

The principle of the “survival of the fittest” applies in respect of intellectual reputations as it can elsewhere, and what now happens to the intellectual reputation of Richard Dawkins may be an example of the principle in practice.

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