Thursday, November 06, 2008

F W Boreham: A Packet of Surprises, John Broadbanks Publishing, 2008

I've been a Boreham collector for 50 years, and have often reflected on why he's still so popular. Yes, he's an outstanding wordsmith (how often have you alluded to 'rich clusters of tawny filberts' in passing?); yes, he's widely read (at least a book a week for most of his adult life); and yes he touches issues about which 'the common man' has a deep interest.

Boreham had a prodigious memory. I have in my possession a photocopy of one of his 10cm x 15 cm cards with hand-written headings from which he preached. His biographer Howard Crago tells us each sermon was preached from memory in almost the exact words in which it was printed.

But I reckon there's another reason for his popularity: respect. Frank Boreham had such an abiding respect for his audiences, that, bower-bird-like, he assiduously collected thousands of quotes, literary allusions, stories and ideas - and indexed everything. This discipline produced some astonishing 'connections' in his sermons and essays.

This new volume of 'the best of the best' of Boreham's essays and sermons begins with Dr Geoff Pound's introduction/rationale for making his selection; then there's a profile of Boreham's life and work by Howard Crago (whom I was privileged to know, when I was his pastor for eight years). At the back there's a subject and name index.

From his first pastorate Boreham resolved 'never to condemn anything but always present a positive aspect. (As he put it) "the best way to prove a stick is crooked is to lay a straight one beside it".' His many hearers and readers obviously appreciated this softer irenic approach: in each of his three pastorates he doubled the membership. (But, if I might add a footnote to that, many drifted away from at least one of those churches - Armadale Baptist Church in Melbourne - when he left).

Each of these chapters is just long enough to develop a theme, to be read in a short sitting. (But they're never so long that you flip to see if you're near the end. People wonder about that with sermons in church too, don't they?). The longest chapter here (15 pages) is from his first major book - The Whisper of God - with its thesis: 'The truth of a whisper is as great as the truth of a shout. A whisper from God is enough to tell me that God is, it is enough to tell me that he cares for me... God never thunders if a whisper will do'.

Here are some examples of his wonderful 'turns of phrase':

* '... Our best Sunday clothes, with clean collar, brightly polished boots and finger-nails destitute of any funereal suggestion...'

* 'There are books that we bought by mistake; books that we know to be valueless; books whose room is of much more value than their company'

* 'I drew aside to collect my thoughts. But my thoughts politely, but firmly, declined to be collected'

And a rare mixed metaphor: 'No menagerie since the world began could hold a candle to it'

We meet Frank Boreham the man here: a couple of his favourite places were the Melbourne Art Gallery, and Melbourne Cricket Ground. He writes about one of his major detestations - 'ready-made clothes'; another was the telephone (he's in good company there!).

Some of his most famous sermons are here: 'He Made as Though' (on the story of the Emmaus Road); A Prophet's Pilgrimage (Jonah); The Powder Magazine (Paul and Barnabas's dispute over John Mark); and perhaps the best in the book - and maybe in all of Boreham - his great missionary sermon 'The Candle and the Bird' (with its thesis: 'a period of spiritual sterility invariably represents, not the extinguishing of a candle, but the frightening away of a bird').

He has an essay on the astonishing coincidences in his own life, and elsewhere (pp 245 ff.). I won't spoil it for you by mentioning them, but Boreham has the impertinence to suggest that any one of us will find 'a wealthy hoard' of similar coincidences stowed away in our memories. Well, most won't, sir, at least not on this scale!

The chapter on Interruptions is brilliant. I remember an experienced minister reminding me early in my pastoral career that most of Jesus' healings were the result of interruptions: 'Interruptions,' my wise friend said, 'are not disturbing your ministry-plans: they *are* your ministry!'

Finally, a few insightful and/or memorable tid-bits:

* (The cryptic utterance of a parishioner): 'When I've shut the door, I've shut the door'

* 'Doubt is a very human and a very sacred thing...'

* 'The gravest mistake made by educationalists is [to suppose] that those who know little are good enough to teach those who know less'

* 'Ritualism [is] perilous. "Now abideth"... what? Altars? vestments? crosses? creeds? catechisms? confessions? Now abideth faith, hope love - these three; and the greatest of these is love'

* 'Orthodoxy and heterodoxy stand related to truth just as those wonderful wickerwork stands and plaster busts that adorn every dressmaker's establishment stand related to the grace and beauty of the female form'

A minor complaint: Boreham would not have liked his writing being 'corrupted' by American spellings (luster, favorite, gray, molded, behavior; but interestingly 'gaol' is retained). If we're going to fiddle with spellings, why not do the same with his sexist language? Now that would be a challenge!

See also

Rowland Croucher

November 2008.

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