Preachers wearing too much make-up

What do Andrew Cuomo, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Jerry Brown and John Boehner have in common? It’s not just that they are all rising political stars; it’s that their ascent has been fueled by refusing to use the usual exaggerated vocabulary and soaring oratory of political “stars.”

In¬†The rise of the plain language leader, Joshua Freeman argues that voters have reacted against President Obama’s “grandiloquent rhetoric” and Sarah Palin’s “painful, packaged zingers,” and are demanding plain, simple, sober, and blunt talk. He says, “Austerity is not just the budgetary buzzword; it’s the new rhetorical style as well.” He goes on:

The more purple the prose with which you paint, the more suspicious the public is likely to be of the meaning behind the words. Pack in too many turns of phrase, and voters will start to look at you the way men look at women who wear too much makeup.

…Now, even members of the public who aren’t outright suspicious of flowery flourishes have quietly reached the broader conclusion that talk, no matter how stirring, just doesn’t get you very far. Metaphors are nice, poetry is pretty, but inspiration seems, well, a little bit frivolous when unemployment is at 9.5% and China is outcompeting us.

Such societal shifts impact and influence our congregations as well. For a while I’ve been persuaded that the more preachers work at impressing their hearers with their stylish phrases, multiplied adjectives, and oratorical flourishes, the less effective the sermons. It’s just too much make-up.

Let’s strip off the lipstick, the mascara, and the face-glitter and get back to plain, simple, sober, and blunt preaching. Does that mean cold, dull, and boring sermons? On the contrary; it’s such stripped down sermons that bring the saving power of the cross into sinners’ lives (1 Cor. 1:17).

Covenant Theology for Beginners

Would you like to give a 40-minute address on Covenant Theology…. to teenagers?

Didn’t think so.

But that’s what I was asked to do, and tried to do yesterday. Don’t know if I succeeded, but I did manage to keep within the time limit. The outline is below. Obviously it needs a bit of filling out, but it gives the general idea.


A covenant is a relationship, initiated and imposed by a superior, with life or death consequences

1. A covenant is a relationship: not cold/commercial, not legalistic/judicial, but a living relationship

2. Initiated and imposed by a superior: not a negotiated deal between equal partners 

3. With life or death consequences: not a “take it or leave it” but life or death hang on response


1. Covenant of works then wages: if you do this work I’ll give you these wages (Gen. 1-2)

2. Covenant of grace then gratitude: here’s a gift of grace, and here’s how to show your gratitude (Gen 3:14 to Revelation 22)


Instead of revealing His covenant of grace all at once in a blinding and overwhelming light, the Lord revealed it gradually, in six phases or steps.

1. Covenant of the defeated serpent (Genesis 3:14-15): promise of victory

2. Covenant of the disarmed bow (Genesis 9): promise of peace

3. Covenant of the double-edged knife (Genesis 15-17): promise of a son

4. Covenant of lamb then law (Exodus 19-20): promise of redemption, relationship, then rules

5. Covenant of the everlasting king (2 Samuel 7): promise of effective and eternal leadership

6. The New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34; Luke 22:20): promise of forgiveness (not a “brand new covenant” but a “renewed covenant” to make covenant of grace clearer, fuller, wider, deeper)


All six phases or revelations of the covenant of grace have these features in common (to a greater or lesser extent).

1. Sin: All the covenants initiated by God’s grace against the background of human sin

2. Sacrifice: blood-shed is associated with the covenants to emphasize the life-or-death consequences

3. Speech: God makes promises that meet the specific need of each situation

4. Sign: God accompanies all his verbal promises with visible promises

5. Sharing: God’s aim is to share his life with sinners – I will be your God and you will be my people.

6. Scope: All the covenants have non-redemptive blessings which call to faith for redemptive blessings


Imagine a sin-darkened cathedral that God cuts shaped windows in. The windows let in increasing light that benefits (but does not save) everyone inside. But only those with faith look through the windows and see what the windows symbolize to the saving of their souls.

1. Look through the serpent-shaped window and see a defeated devil

2. Look through the rainbow-shaped window and see the peace-making God

3. Look through the knife-window and see the Seed of Abraham that will cut off sin

4. Look through the lamb- and scroll-shaped windows to see the lamb of God and the law of God

5. Look through the crown-shaped window and see the everlasting king

6. Look through the bread, wine & fountain windows and see the body and blood of Christ that forgives and cleanses from sin.

Finally Christ will come again to demolish the Cathedral and be the light and life of His people forever.

And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God”… But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light. (Rev. 21:1-5; 22-23).


1. Changes the way you look at the Old Testament: Not a revelation of works then wages, but a revelation of grace then gratitude. Contrast between OT and NT is not black/white, but moonlight/sunlight. 

2. Changes the way you look at Old Testament saints: not primitive legalists but brothers and sisters saved by grace through faith in the coming Christ as promised and pictured in the covenants.

3. Changes the way you look at the law: not a way of being saved, but God’s ordained way of expressing our gratitude for the grace of salvation (Jn. 14:15)

4. Changes the way you look at the sacraments: The Lord’s Supper and Baptism do not save anyone. Faith in what they symbolize (a crucified and cleansing Christ) is what saves.

And if you wait a few more months, Head Heart Hand Media will be publishing a series of films entitled God’s Windows: Covenant Theology for Beginners.

Children’s Bible Reading Plan (15)

Download here. Click on “Bible Reading Plan” tag below for previous posts.

A couple of changes coming next week. We will continue with the notes in the present format, as they seem to be meeting a need. The only change is that I will keep the focus on the narrative passages of the Old Testament. We will also take some detours into the Psalms and Proverbs from time to time, but for children the most profitable Old Testament passages are the narratives. That will mean skipping chapters from time to time as we move through the Old Testament, but I would rather do that and keep the children interested rather than have them lose heart and tune out. The chapters we miss out are not less important, but they can be studied when children have matured and are better able to profit from them.

The second change is that I will start a second track of children’s Bible study notes. Parents whose kids leave the house for school in the morning, find it very difficult to squeeze morning Bible reading into kids’ routines. I sympathize; it’s tough even for home-schoolers!  So, I’m going to offer a second set of Bible study notes that have one reading per day. We will go through a book or two from the New testament, then a book from the Old Testament, then back to the New Testament, and so on. I’ll also leave some space on these notes to write down matters for prayer.

If you have any further suggestions for modifications, I’d be glad to hear them.

Download this file


God’s Technology at Ligonier

A few weeks ago, the HeadHeartHand team had a few days in Florida, and were privileged to meet up with our dear friends and brothers at Ligonier – Burk Parsons, Chris Larson, John Duncan, John Cobb, Chris Donato, and a few others too. What an encouraging and enjoyable time we had there.

One of the highlights for me was getting a chance to sit down with Chris Larson and discuss our shared interest in how Christians can use technology for God’s glory. The conversation, which centered around the God’s Technology DVD, was filmed and can be viewed on the Ligonier website. Or you can watch it below. You can buy the DVD via Ligonier’s store here.

The Shepherd Leader

OK, sorry Calum Angus, the sheep got a bit of a hard time yesterday. To make you feel better here’s one on the shepherd, and I’ve modeled it on you!

1. The shepherd is patient with his sheep

The shepherds and crofters in my congregation would sometimes encourage me to get some sheep. Even my wife, who is from the Scottish Highlands, suggested it at times. However, as a city-boy, I knew that I simply did not have the patience required.

In the Scottish Highlands there are many single track roads; they allow only one car at a time. Every hundred yards or so you can find little passing places where two cars can squeeze by. Many’s a time I ended up on one of these single track roads behind a bunch of sheep, slowly moseying along. Initially I would hoot my horn, rev my engine, shout out the window – all to no avail. I learned to simply wait until they decided to saunter off the road and back into their fields again. Nothing would rush them. 

When you are about to blow a gasket or a fuse with someone in your congregation, remind yourself, “They are only sheep…and so am I.” What’s the point of hooting your horn and revving up your engine. Be patient.

2. The shepherd knows his sheep
I have to be honest, despite years of looking at sheep, they still all look the same to me. Yet, I could walk through a field with a shepherd and he would know the names and even the characters of each one. He would know their ewe, their ram, and their lambs. He knew the scrapes they had been in and the number of times he had to rescue them.

While the pastor should study and know the nature of sheep in general, he should study and know his own sheep in particular. The first priority in going to a new congregation should be to get to know everyone’s names – from oldest to youngest – as quickly as possible. Then work at knowing their characters, personalities, gifts, struggles, etc.

3. The shepherd values his sheep
I’ve often been amazed at the misty and dreamy expressions that come across shepherds’ faces as they talk about their sheep or point them out. They seem to say, “They may be only sheep, but they are my sheep.” They care for them and think about them constantly. One shepherd who moved to the city for a while told me that he once woke up in the night with a dream about one of his sheep. He phoned his mother to check up on it, and sure enough, the sheep was in need of medical attention. Explain that!

The pastor should value each and every sheep as highly as possible – whatever their physical, spiritual or financial health! Statistics mean little to the pastor. 99 may be doing well, but if one is missing, he will move heaven and earth to find it. When I first moved to the Scottish Highlands, in the course of pastoral visitation, I used to innocently ask, “So how many sheep do you have?” I could never figure out why the answers were so vague until my Scottish Highland wife told me, “David! That’s like asking how much money do you have in the bank!” I stopped asking. So why do we always ask pastors, “How many are in your congregation?” Like the shepherd, the pastor values each sheep as of infinite worth. So whether he has 10 or 1000, the value is the same – infinite!

4. The shepherd loves his sheep
The shepherd does not just value his sheep as if they were units of economic production (in fact most Scottish shepherds I know made a financial loss on most of their sheep). He loves them; and not just as a collective, but as individuals. He does not just have loving feelings but takes loving actions.

The pastor will find it easy to love some of his sheep. But there are others… Pray over the particularly unloveable ones. Ask God to help you find something to love in them, or to help you love them even if there is nothing loveable about them  – after all that’s what the Great and Good Shepherd does daily for you

5. The shepherd observes his sheep

No matter what day I looked out at the sheep they all looked the same and all did the same. However a shepherd can detect the smallest difference. He can sense problems long before they fully develop. He sees a sheep in an unusual spot in the field. He sees a change in its posture or eating habits. And he takes action.

The good pastor will develop these powers of acute and careful observation as well. He will develop an instinct for problems in his sheep’s lives. He senses a different expression on the face, a different posture in worship, a change in vocal tone, and he may not be able to put his finger upon it, but he sense something is wrong. And often a few wise questions reveal well-founded fears.

6. The shepherd feeds his sheep
Hungry sheep are unhappy sheep…and noisy sheep. The shepherd knows the best fields to take his sheep at different times of the year. He knows when they need particular kinds of grass. He knows when water is needed to refresh and reinvigorate his flock.

The Apostle Peter had a passion for feeding the flock of God, and we know where he got that from (John 21:15-22; 1 Pet. 5:2). When I started out in the ministry, one senior minister told me, “If you keep their bellies full, you won’t hear any bleating.” It takes a wise Shepherd to know what kind and amounts of food each sheep needs. May God help us to feed the right kinds of food, in the right amounts, at the right times. And may he help us not to starve or over-feed our sheep, nor give them indigestion!

7. The shepherd leads his sheep
In Western cultures, the shepherd follows behind the sheep, and directs the sheep with dogs. But in the East it was the custom for shepherds to go before the sheep, to break up the way, to clear paths of danger, to take the safest path. He leads them beside the still waters, in straight paths, through the darkest valley.

Too many Western pastors have embraced the Western model of Shepherding when it comes to leadership. They follow the sheep rather than lead them. The pastor should be out in front of his sheep in his theological knowledge, in his spiritual experience, in his awareness of danger, in his plotting of the course, etc.

8. The shepherd speaks well of his sheep
In Scotland I eventually learned not to criticize or mock sheep in front of their shepherd; it was a rather sensitive topic! And I also learned to listen to wonderful long descriptions about individual sheep, as the shepherd brought out the strengths of each member of his flock.

The pastor should make it a policy to speak well of his congregation as a whole and of its individual members. If someone criticizes one of his sheep, he leaps to his/her defense and brings out the good. When he travels to other places and is asked about his sheep, he replies with words of affection and appreciation. And not just because words of criticism will almost always get back to the sheep.

9. The shepherd pursues his sheep
When a sheep is missing or straying, the shepherd does not say, “O well, I’ve got 99 left.” No, he seeks until he finds it (Lk. 15:3ff). No matter how far away, no matter how foolish the sheep has been, no matter how frequent his straying, the shepherd goes after it.

When a person is missing from public worship, the pastor inquires after him or her. When a person is missing a few weeks in a row, the pastor is getting ready to leave the 99 and go after the straying soul. When the pastor hears that a member has been involved in a heated public argument, or has started dating a non-Christian, or has been saying inappropriate things on Facebook, etc, his cloak is on, his staff is on his hand, and he’s on his way to recover the stray. My brother-in-law once so spent himself hunting for three lost sheep (the woolly kind) that he just about died with exhaustion! He would not give up, and neither should the pastor. 

10. The shepherd rests his sheep
In Scotland, just before the winter started, the shepherds would go out into the moors and mountains to gather their flocks that had been enjoying the summer pastures. Sometimes it would take a few days to drive them to their winter shelter. But he never chased them or pushed them beyond their limits. He knew when they needed a rest and a breather.

There are times in congregational life when the pastor must pressure the sheep to move on. Maybe, there is a building program to be undertaken, or an outreach campaign that needs all hands on deck. However, the wise shepherd knows when he has driven the sheep far enough and long enough. He knows there are seasons of rest and refreshment needed as well.

11. The shepherd perseveres with his sheep
There are days when the shepherd feels exhausted, discouraged, frustrated and unappreciated. He is tempted to give up. “Why do I get up every day and give myself to such ungrateful creatures?” However, the good shepherd patiently perseveres.

This is not to say that the spiritual shepherd never leaves a flock and moves on to take care of another. It is simply to say that he does not do so when the first problems appear. And when he does sense the Great Shepherd’s call to move on, he may leave the sheep, but the sheep never leave his heart.

O that the Lord would make us and give us such shepherds today, according to His promise: “Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding” (Jer. 3:15).

If you don’t want to cry, don’t watch this

I don’t know if I should say this or not, but in the past few years I’ve learned more about God’s love for sinners like me through the lives of disabled children, and their parents and carers, than from all the books I’ve read, sermons I’ve preached, and lectures I’ve delivered in that period.

Through ministries like Peacehaven and The Elisha Foundation, and through various families (like these dear friends, the Dederts, and also Greg Lucas’s blog and book), I’ve re-discovered with humble awe the infinite dimensions of God’s incarnate love to broken sinners like me.

Then, this morning, Margaret Heemskerk of Peacehaven sent me a link to this deeply moving video about Carly Fleishman, an autistic child who spent the first 11 years or so of her life unable to speak or communicate to the world. Then everything changed, when she typed on a computer screen: “I am autistic, but that is not who I am.”

Watch this video to learn more about autism, more about the valuable work of psychologists and therapists, and, above all, more about God’s incarnate love. The most moving exchange for me was at 8.26:

Carly: Dear Dad, I love when you read to me, and I love that you believe in me. I know I’m not the easiest kid in the world. However you are always there for me, holding my hand and picking me up. I love you.

Father: I’ll go through many sleepless nights to hear that. I’ll spend every penny we have to hear that.

Interviewer: Was there one writing in particular that left a lump in your throat?

Father: In this writing where she says, “You’ve never been in my body, I wish for one day you could be in my body…….”

At that point I was just longing for someone to step into the film and read Hebrews 2:14-18.

More on the Carly Fleishman story here.