T. M. Suffield

Individualism in the Machine

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Monday, March 6, 2023
Since materialism wipes out the possibility of ingrained purpose, and we require purpose to live, what we call expressive individualism naturally arises. We kill God and we will become him. When purpose and therefore meaning are self-determined, we fall into crisis. In other words, one thread of our predicament in this strange malaise we call modernity, is the natural result of our changing understanding of what the world around us is.

We live in a world that tells a story about itself: we learn the story as children in school and we imbibe it in our cups as we go about the day. It’s whispered to us by automobiles and tarmac and concrete pillars and we receive it intravenously by the tap our smartphones have placed in our souls.
The story is simple, though its implications and endless poorly written sequels spin themselves out like the very worst of web serials. It goes like this:
This is it.
The world tells us a story that the stuff that we can see is all there is, and that the stuff we can touch is just stuff. If there were a temptation to believe that perhaps that tree was not just a tree, and maybe, possibly its branches might be raised towards… just stop there. There is nothing to be raised towards. How can there be? What you can see and touch is what there is.
If we were tempted to believe that beauty has a source, that somewhere outside of the stuffy cave we find ourselves in there might be a source of the shadows we watch on the wall, the story will swiftly correct us. Because the world has a ruler, a story-teller, who would really prefer we didn’t consider his existence, or that for most of Christian history we have referred to this Prince of the ‘Air’ who twists stories like smoke around our heads as our Adversary. In Hebrew, the Satan.
But this story—which when we’re feeling philosophical we might call materialism, or naturalism—has got its grip on our world. It’s still pretty new, historically speaking, but it has solidified and deepened. We no longer believe in a Cosmos of ordered light, but instead in a Universe that we describe in mechanistic terms. It sounds like a machine.
We are catechised by our machines, so we start to think in their stories. Even for those who know that there is more, those who know that the story of the world is not that there is stuff that decays to dust but that God became dust and all things will be reconciled to him. Even if we know that the beating heart of the Universe is after death, life we still struggle to believe that what we see and touch is more than it appears. We’re steeped in stories that tell us otherwise.
If I, for example, suggested that what we refer to as the ‘laws of physics,’ our observations about the regular nature of the Cosmos’ operations, are most likely overseen by angels, I sound like I need to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
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Feeding our Longing

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Saturday, February 25, 2023
The great writer on joy and longing, C. S. Lewis, tells us in a famous passage from The Weight of Glory that we are far too easily pleased. We do not know what the Lord is offering us, what joy is available to us in God. Lewis argued, especially in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, that we find our way to joy by longing. He liked to describe it with the German word sehnsucht, a sort of yearning for a joy we don’t yet know, a nostalgia for a place we haven’t been. 

Have you ever felt like there was more to life than this? Known some sense of longing for the future?
Perhaps you’ve enjoyed a great steak done exactly how you like it, or a really well poured beer, or the absolute delight of seeing your team triumphant in your favourite sport (Curling, in the Suffield household). The memory of that enjoyment is delightful, and yet it isn’t the same as the actual pleasure you experienced. The pleasure doesn’t last, it’s fleeting. Maybe that makes you lift your head and wonder—and long—for a day when delight lasts.
Or perhaps you’ve wondered if everything should be more intense than it is? I’m profoundly colourblind. Apparently, I only see in a spectrum of grey and brown, though my experience is wonderfully vibrant. I’m told that the world is much more intense than I know, though have no way of accessing that level of reality. Maybe something one day shook you and made you wonder if there are colours that only the angels can see. I’m pretty sure there are. Maybe that makes you lift your head and wonder—and long—for a day when the browns are bright, burned, blue.
The great writer on joy and longing, C. S. Lewis, tells us in a famous passage from The Weight of Glory that we are far too easily pleased. We do not know what the Lord is offering us, what joy is available to us in God.
Lewis argued, especially in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, that we find our way to joy by longing.
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Creation Requires Division

Written by T.M. Suffield |
Wednesday, February 15, 2023
We can judge from creation, that the division that comes by saying the truth leads in time to order, which leads in time to unity. How do we know? Because Genesis 1 is eventually leading to the reconciliation of all things in God (Colossians 1). Division leads to order leads to unity.

God creates by dividing, that’s the pattern begun in Genesis 1. He continues to create that way today. I’ve written before on how the Lord makes order from chaos in the first Creation narrative, and how that work which is begun but not completed becomes our work. Adam was meant to create order in the garden by slaying or expelling the serpent, doing God’s works after himself: ruling over the dragons of chaos.
Let me show you what I mean. On the first three days of creation, God forms things: Light or Day, the Sky and the Sea, and the Land. On the next three days of creation, God fills those things:

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3

Light. Day and Night
Sky and Sea
Land and Trees

Day 4
Day 5
Day 6

Day is “filled” with the Sun, and Night with the Moon, powers to rule over them so that we can tell the right time for the festivals.
Sky and Sea are filled with animal life and dragons.
Land and Trees are filled with animal life and humans.

On the seventh day God rested.
So, where’s the division? Well, let’s look at how God creates on each day. On the first day he creates light by separating it from the Darkness, making two defined ‘times’ that did not exist before: Day and Night.
On the second day he creates the heavens and the sea by separating the waters above from the waters below. Where before there was one water, there is now water below (the sea, where chaos and evil dwell) and the water above (the sky or heavens, where order and angels dwell).
On the third day he creates the land by separating it from the water below, and then all the trees by separating them into their kinds. The phrase “according to its kind” begins to occur frequently.
On the filling days we find categories multiplying: heavenly bodies, birds, fish, dragons (have I ever mentioned that there are dragons here and we just skip over it? I have?).
Creation is an act of breaking things down into kinds. When we meet humans we then immediately find them divided into male and female. God creates by dividing.
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The Plot of the Psalms

Written by T.M. Suffield |
Tuesday, February 14, 2023
[The Psalms] end on Psalm 150 a parallel to Psalm 1. Those who love the Torah will worship. Wisdom turns to song, Word and Spirit together. As St. Gregory of Nyssa said “All creatures, after the disunion and disorder caused by sin have been removed, are harmoniously united for one choral dance.” We end in praise, because the King is coming.

The Psalms have a plot.
Which might seem like a revolutionary statement, or the most obvious one in the world. The Bible is a carefully crafted book. All of the elements of all of the books of scripture teach us—the Holy Spirit is a masterful editor and has written the grand story everywhere in carefully nuanced ways.
I stumbled across this when asking what I thought was an innocuous question. Why are the Psalms organised into five books?
It’s the sort of detail you might have noticed last time you read through the Psalms, but it also might have easily escaped your notice. There are five little heading that give us the book number, but nothing more than that.
These are original titles, too—though they might look like just another organising apparatus like verse or chapter numbers, these ones have the benefit of being part of the scriptures. If you crack open a few commentaries a surprising number will chalk this up to ‘Torah piety’, which amounts to saying that the editors who put the Psalms in their final collected form liked the Torah so much that as an act of devotion they collected the Psalms into five books.
Though, these books are of seemingly wildly different lengths, which ought to at least raise the question of why they grouped them as they did.
Beyond that, we should be more curious in our Bible reading. If there is a numbered feature in the Biblical text, like the five books of the Psalms, it is reasonable to ask why they have been grouped as they have. If we truly believe that the final editor of the scriptures was the Holy Spirit, then we should never assume that details are arbitrary.
So, I started to explore. Turns out a number of scholars have written in detail on the topic, and that the Psalms have a discernable plot. There is plenty of disagreement about the more intricate details, but we rest sure in this at least: each Psalm tells a story, and its placement by the editor tells another story. The first is primary, but the second is meaningful and can often shed some light on the Psalm’s text as it stands.
What are you reading?
Unfortunately, this is not a fully referenced paper interacting with the relevant Psalms in English and Hebrew—partly because I don’t currently have the capacity, mostly because I think that would stretch to a short book.
Instead, this is a short introduction to a topic well-trodden by scholars and a sketch of an idea—at some points you’ll notice I suggest a direction of thought that I won’t flesh out, that’s simply because I haven’t got that thought further than that along the track. I have not clearly referenced my sources, suffice to say that my work is mostly a harmony of the best of those scholars I’ve read: I have provided a bibliography of the most useful sources. This is where these ideas come from.  The only thoughts here which could be referenced as ‘mine’ are those in the section on the shape of the Temple and the connections to our story as modern Christians.
Why do we think the Psalms have a plot?
This might all sound a bit mad, or galaxy-brained, but there are features that make us suspect that something is going on in the editing of the Psalms into these five books. For example, we find in the first two books a series of 72 Psalms of David—especially if we understand those in between Psalms epigraphed as being from David to be by David as well—that end with a declaration that we have come to the end of David’s Psalms at the end of Psalm 72. Then there are a further 18 Psalms of David, which is surprising to say the least.
Books 1 and 2 predate 3-5 and were the original Psalter, so some of this is explained by the history, but it still leaves us with hanging questions.
Or maybe we notice the wildly different lengths of the books and wonder why a random arrangement wouldn’t have wrought even lengths.
Or perhaps we notice the parallels, the messianic Psalm paired with the law Psalm (1 & 2, 18 & 19, 118 & 119), or the way that in book 1 an acrostic Psalm is always preceded by a Psalm about creation.
I have two methodological strategies.
Firstly, I align with the method of G. K. Beale for reading the Bible generally, which is to pay attention to the ‘bookends’. We read the whole story in the light of Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21-22, but we can helpfully read each book of the Psalms in light of its first and last Psalm. I go a little further than Beale in suggesting that these are chiasms, and we should pay as much attention to the central ‘tentpole’ or hinge of the chiasm—the death, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the Spirit by Jesus in the case of the whole Biblical story—though identifying these in the books of the Psalms is typically more speculative.
Secondly, I read the Psalms as though they were all about Christ, because they are. This is the witness of the Church Fathers, but more importantly, we should take Jesus seriously in his lesson on Bible reading on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24): all of the scriptures are about him as well as all the other things they’re about.
The Plot

Introduction: 1-2

Book 1: 1-41 (3-41)

Book 2: 42-72

Book 3: 73-89

Book 4: 90-106

Book 5: 107-150 (107-145)

The Hallel (Conclusion): 146-150

I’ll now proceed through each book of the Psalms to make some brief comments on its plotting.
Introduction: Psalms 1 & 2
These two Psalms are widely considered the introduction to the Psalter as a whole—considering Psalm 1 as an introduction is an almost universal opinion and there are lots of reasons for connecting the two Psalms together. They share vocabulary enough to think they’ve been selected as an introduction—maybe even written to be one. Psalm 2 ends as Psalm 1 began, which is an indication that we should take them as a pair, and they both end in the same way.
Psalm 1 is our guide to reading the Psalter, and to some extent the Bible. It is worthy of careful study. The Psalm introduces the wisdom theme that continues through the Psalms—this is wisdom literature as well as ‘a book of songs’. There is a connection between wisdom and singing.
We have placed front and centre an individual’s relationship to God. The tree symbolism links us to the start, middle, and end of the Bible—to every significant encounter that God has with people and to the Temple. This text is a frame for the whole Bible.
Then in Psalm 2 we escalate from the wicked people of Psalm 1 to wicked nations, and we narrow the righteous everyman to the figure of the King. In other words it particularises the theology of Psalm 1, and it grounds it in the narrative of Scripture. It turns wisdom to story.
Between the two we have the first hints of God’s grand plan in history to install his son over the earth. This is a summary of the Psalms, and of the whole Bible. Tom Schreiner summarises the introduction as “Those who submit to Yhwh’s kingship keep the Torah, and they also place themselves under the reign of the Lord’s anointed king.” Greg Beale points to the theme as “eschatological kingship throughout all creation and judgement … is the heartbeat of the whole Psalter.”
If that’s our entry point, that should define how we read and sing and pray the rest of the Psalms—our twin themes are Wisdom and the King.
Book 1
The King Suffers
Book 1 is the book of David—especially his attempt to become king. These Psalms can be situated in the early part of his story as related in 1 Samuel.
It begins with the introductory Psalms of 1 and 2 as we’ve just explored, though in Psalm 2 we see the covenant David made with Yahweh. The book ends in Psalm 41, where David rests secure in those same promises. 41 is a prayer of triumph over the enemies that the King has wrestled with from Psalm 3 onwards.
The book travels through the tentpoles of 8 and 9, a messianic Psalm that is a meditation on the Adamic commission of the king and a Psalm devoted to the law, to the central pillar of Psalm 22. This sits in the middle of a poetic pyramid of Psalms (20-24, a common feature of the Psalter), and the collection turns on the King in suffering, struggling for victory. It pivots on the cross—book 1 is the book of the cross.
Most of Psalms 3-41 are laments. If we siphon off the introduction as its own thing and treat Psalms 3 and 41 as the bookends of book 1—which may not be a reasonable move, this isn’t how Psalms presents itself—then we see that despite treachery to the king (in 3 from his own son, in 41 from his closest friend), God still gives the king triumph over his enemies.
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On Joy

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Sunday, February 5, 2023
Joy is not happiness. We think it is, but it’s not. How do we know? Because Peter makes it clear that it co-exists with grief (look up chapter 1 and read from verse 3, see what I mean?). Happiness changes with emotion, joy co-exists with emotions. Which of course should lead us to a conclusion: joy isn’t an emotion.

I’ve written before on how longing is the ground of joy, but a friend pointed out that I didn’t actually define joy in that piece. A fair criticism, that if I’m honest was because I was still trying to find a neat way of saying what I wanted to and feared that an around the subject rumination would take the length of four usual posts and perhaps not leave you wiser at the end.
So, foolishly, I’m going to attempt that now. As my jumping off point I want to start with 1 Peter 1.8-9.
Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Is your life characterised by a joy inexpressible that is filled with glory? Hearts around the world sink as they read the question. It probably isn’t because what you’re picturing is effervescent extroverts who act like they’re modelling for a Coke advert all the time.
Your life may not be characterised by a joy inexpressible that is filled with glory, but I do wonder if part the problem is our expectations. I pulled that quote out of 1 Peter without the context. He’s just told them that they’re going to suffer, they should expect to know grief, and they live in a time that is dying while (he hints) belonging to a time that has yet to be birthed. He is not writing to a bunch of happy clappy charismatics (though joy is for them too) who are so heavenly minded they’re no earthly use—he’s writing to people who know challenge, ostracism, difficulty, and the mind-numbingly cold embrace of grief.
The grammar of the Greek tells us that this is not a command, but a description. Thank goodness.
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God and Healing

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Sunday, January 22, 2023
It is important to wrestle with these questions in an attempt for answers. Why is God’s will so, seemingly, horrible to some people who love him? Here’s my answer: I don’t know. But I continue to believe that he is the sovereign King of the Universe, that he is Goodness itself, and that he loves me more dearly than I can imagine.

I’m a charismatic, I believe that God heals today and that this happens frequently. I’ve watched someone’s leg grow while someone else prayed for them. I’ve felt the muscles in someone’s back untwist while I prayed for them. I’ve known a friend’s brain cancer to disappear. God heals. We can, in a general sense, suggest that God wills that everyone be healed, not least on the basis that sickness has no place in his inbreaking kingdom (Revelation 21).
I’ve also prayed for numerous people who have not been healed, including a dear friend who is going blind, I’ve known a friend die from a brain tumour despite our prayers.
Which at the very least raises a theological question for us. It raises a range of pastoral ones too. Why was it that these people aren’t healed? Is it their fault? Is it mine for not praying correctly?
Some of the big American charismatic churches that are popular in my circles would probably suggest that the problem was with our faith. One particular church suggests in their popular teaching that there is no ‘deficiency’ on God’s end (sure, no one disagrees), so when someone isn’t healed all the ‘lack’ is on our end.
Thankfully they don’t always blame the person being prayed for their lack of faith, though this sadly does happen, more often they would situate the lack of faith in those praying. Which raises some important pastoral questions. And it’s nonsense.
Let’s go back to the Bible. Sometimes, we’re told that Jesus ‘healed everyone he met’ so therefore we would too if we could, indicating that the problem is ‘on our end.’ Except clearly he doesn’t heal everyone he meets: think of Mark 6, which raises its own questions, or of characters healed by the apostles who Jesus presumably knew (e.g. Acts 3).
In the pages of the Scriptures, we find a God who heals, marvellously, time and time again. We also find a God who wounds (2 Corinthians 12). Our theology needs to be big enough for both. We know that the revealed will of God is to heal and to bless. And we know that God sends calamity (Isaiah 45).
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God in the Manger

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Saturday, December 24, 2022
He came to be with the world despite our hatred of him, he came to dwell in you before you loved him. We love him because he first loved us (1 John 4). God arriving in a manger teaches us his character and his disposition. He is a God of gift. He gives. That’s what he does. The greatest gift he gives is himself.

It’s approaching Christmas time. We’re beginning, perhaps, to hear Christmas sermons, depending on how your tradition structures these things.
In the Evangelical world someone somewhere is advising us to remember to include the cross in our preaching—don’t give them the cute and sentimentalised baby Jesus, remind them that the meaning of Christmas is found at Easter!
I can get on board as far as it goes, Christ came to Planet Earth as human flesh to die in the place of sinners. That is true. But I part ways slightly, because its not everything that’s true. What I mean by that is that the gospel cannot be narrowed down to “Christ died for sinners” as though that were everything there is to say. The good news is far too big to get all of it out in one sitting, anyway, so we always present an aspect—a flavour if you will—of the grand story of the cosmos.
If someone preaches God in the Manger rather than God on the Cross, they have still preached the gospel. God in the manger is the gospel.
Why? Because the scandalous, outright ludicrous, suggestion that the almighty maker of heaven and earth, the unmoved mover, the first word and speaker of the first word, the alpha and omega, the grand storyteller, the author of life, Goodness himself, Love himself, the simple and incomprehensible God who is pure act, the Sovereign Lord Yahweh—him—that he would chose to become a creature—
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Deus Absconditus

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Friday, December 23, 2022
How do we face up to the silence of God? Alain Emerson says we do so in prayer, as we learn to sit with God in the midst of pain. We learn this in Gethsemane, where Jesus asked for the cup to go from him and was answered, as best we know, with silence. This heavenly silence was the very centre of the purposes of the entire cosmos. Silence does not mean absence. Nor does it mean that we have been side-lined.

“Silence is violence,” we are told—to not speak on a particular issue is to perpetrate violence against those affected by it.
If that is true, how then do we cope with the silence of God? In the midst of our pain and our struggle, is his silence an act of violence against his people?
Perhaps you want to rush to say that God is not silent. We have his word in the Bible. He speaks through others and sometimes directly. You’re right, of course. Yet, for many, and so often for those suffering unspeakable tragedy, this is their experience. In the face of horror, in the face of despair, in the fact of death, we experience God as silent.
But silence is not violence. As Andy Crouch wrote in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, “there is no contradiction between silence and presence.” Silence can be presence. What did Job’s friends do well at? They sat with him in the ash heap for a week (Job 2) and were silent. It started to go wrong when they started to speak—not that speech is wrong, but they spoke wrongly. They were not absent, but they were silent. That was the right response to Job’s anguish.
Perhaps in God’s silence we can encounter his presence. At Advent we face up to the silence of God. If we live the season rather than the end of the story from the beginning, then we do not know when God’s silence will end. Instead, we have a rumour, a hope, of his return. Then he comes in the surprising ‘silence’ of a newly born baby. Silence is part of learning to hope.
In our Advent days, as we live in the Between, what Auden called ‘The Time Being,’ we have a rumour of hope for the future. The Christ who was born and died and rose, the Christ who conquered Death—Jesus of Nazareth, King forever—is coming back. His rule will break in and the world will be burned with fire, before being reborn.
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Longing, Lament, and Joy

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Sunday, November 20, 2022
We can cultivate joy. We can learn joy. We can choose joy—in fact you have to, it won’t come naturally. But there is no shortcut to joy. There are no five steps that will get you there. We simply have to realise that nothing we have is worth anything all that much when viewed eternally, that the Kingdom is glorious beyond all wonder, that we have no right to be there, but that we are loved and wanted and known by the God who has committed to getting us there.

We live in the Between, this now and not yet time stretched by our waiting for the Kingdom to come on the one hand and by its grand arrival in the ascension of Christ on the other. Our eschatology is firmed realised, present and not yet present. The Kingdom is here, the Kingdom is not yet here. We live in the Twixt, the time between the times.
That’s who we are, a Holy Saturday people.
To live in the Between is to grieve. To be a Christian is to carry great grief about the world. Every Sunday we grieve. To live in the Between is to be surprised by joy as it appears, fleeting and fulsome, casting forwards to a day after this day, to a living land. Our longing for another land is the ground of our joy, that’s where it starts. Every Sunday we delight in God.
We are constantly looking at what is ahead of us with anticipatory joy, and we are constantly grieving that while the Enemy has been cast from the heavens he has yet to be hurled into the lake of fire. We are always longing for the feast to come and grieving the state of our lives as we wait for the clock to strike dinnertime.
This is the Christian life. It is a naïve escape from reality to think otherwise. We are pulled between the poles of longing and lament. As we sit in the tension—and it is like being pulled taught between two poles—we learn that thanksgiving is what keeps the proverbial elastic band from either snapping or slackening from the strain.
It’s ok to feel the tension. It’s ok to notice that we’ve let one of our ‘ropes’ grow slack, our next step is to consciously lament or consciously rejoice as we embrace the life of the Between.
You’ll find some disagree. Even back in the apostolic period we find some strange ideas floating about. The Shepherd of Hermas, one of the books belovéd by the early church that they didn’t add to the canon of Scripture (because, if there’s doubt here, it was demonstrably not the word of God) suggests that cheerful people do good things, and grieving people “always do evil.”
Hermas also asserts that “the intercession of grieving people never has the power to ascend to … God.” This is the sort of argument that we should honestly laugh at: it’s such a saddeningly small view of the human life and it misses the contours of the story of scripture.
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Ministry with an Extraordinary God

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Sunday, November 13, 2022
He is extraordinary, we are not. It’s good to work to do what we do for God—in every arena of life—better than we have done it previously. The true moments where the veil is lifted and we see reality, where we meet with God in his heavenly temple, where we enjoy sacrament are gifted by the grace of God. We cannot create them, but he won’t meet us if we do not engage in the ordinary first.

I wrote a few months back about our preoccupation with the need to be extraordinary. It’s, particularly for my generation, a problem in ministry. It can play havoc with leadership, undermine the ordinary means of grace, and mean that we miss what we’re aiming for.
To take preaching as an example, I am convinced that I haven’t ever preached an ‘excellent’ sermon, if there is such a thing. I’ve preached a few good ones and a bunch of average ones—I preach about once a month these days and have been preaching for fifteen years though not at that frequency the whole time. I know what I’m good at and have a good sense of some of what I’d like to improve on. I haven’t hit ‘excellence.’ Which, since we’re not going to be extraordinary, is just fine.
Except, I think it’s worth aiming for. I reckon most preachers manage a message that’s truly great once or twice in their lives. I’m not talking about the sort of preaching that goes viral, though that does occasionally happen and isn’t a bad thing if it’s happened for the right reasons; rather, I mean the sermon where the preacher knows that they are speaking words as if from God, and doing it well instead of ham-fistedly like normal. The kind of sermon where the congregation knows it too, and their lives are impacted even if they don’t remember a word of it afterwards.
We manage that for one person in the congregation more often than you would think, in the kindness of God’s economy. But I strive for that day where everyone is aware of it. I think that’s important because I know I do not do well at speaking God’s words after himself, which is the core of preaching. I aspire to doing it once or maybe twice in my life.
I think that’s a worthy goal. Of course, that means most times I preach it will be fairly ordinary. Which I’m quite happy with. Or, learning to be at least. The difference between the two is partly my effort—if I put no work in then the elevated preaching won’t ever happen—but it’s primarily God’s gift.
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