Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Unscheduled interjection!

In Sunday's congregation we were delighted to have three regulars in wheelchairs - young people who are severely disabled but who love God and revel in participating in worship.  Russell is a loud and most frequent interrupter. His favourite question is: 'What's happening now?'  And you never quite know when he might agree or disagree with the preacher.

In Sunday's service I made the mistake of asking a question.  Preaching about Jesus as friend I commented how revolutionary is the thought that Jesus could be your friend.  'Can Jesus be your friend?', I asked.  With a loud voice Russell shouted out 'No!'  His friend in a wheelchair went into hysterics of laughter which so wracked her body that her carer had to spend considerable time  quieting her down.  Of course, the congregation rocked with laughter too.  It was extraordinary standing at the front and seeing the whole sermon begin to unravel with the wrong answer.

One advantage of preaching without notes is that when you preach out of heart and mind, having internalized sermon material, there is greater freedom to respond.  Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the famous preacher at Westminster Chapel, used to speak of the 'divine interchange' between preacher and hearers.  As laughter died down I said: 'You're right Russell.  That's exactly what most people who are going past this church right now would say! No. Jesus cannot be my friend!.   Hopefully, this may have reinforced the point.

I wanted to check the exact interjection from the church recording but it has not been posted on the church web site.  Perhaps it was too sabotaged to go public?  Oh, the joys of preaching!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Planning sermon series (2)

In my last post I mentioned C.H. Spurgeon and the difficulty he found in choosing texts and themes. It is worth quoting him further.
Much hard labour have I spent in manipulating topics, ruminating upon points of doctrine, making skeletons out of verses and then burying every bone of them in the catacombs of oblivion....I believe that almost every week I make enough outlines of sermons, if I felt at liberty to preach them, to last me for a month, but I no more dare to use them than an honest mariner would run to shore a cargo of contraband goods.
What is the right text? How do you know it?  We know it by the signs of a friend. When a verse gives your mind a hearty grip, from which you cannot release yourself, you will need no further direction as to your proper theme. Like the fish, you nibble at many baits, but when the hook has fairly pierced you, you will wander no more.
In my wrestling over the last couple of weeks or so I am glad to report that a hook has pierced me - I have been caught by a theme. The Friendship of God. I was struck in reading through John's gospel how open Jesus' gift of friendship is, and I came across the comment by Luther: 'John's theme is not the calling of the apostles into office; it is their congenial association with Christ.'  How could a sermon series help us experience Jesus Christ as friend?
So, the hearty grip of this theme thrusts me into texts such as John 1: 35-42, and other texts about Jesus' gift of conversation in prayer, his desire for loyal companions, his sharing of vulnerability,  his choice of us and his relationship of love with us.  I am so grateful for this hearty grip.  There is much hard work ahead but I had a run through of the first sermon today....with a surprising interjection.  I will report on that shortly!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Planning Sermon Series (1)

In other places I have written (at length) about the process of sermon conception - how the choice of text and theme happens.  For the majority of world preachers the choice is set by lectionary readings.  But for many of us in other traditions the choosing is open (and more complicated!)
C.H. Spurgeon wrote about the great difficulty in obtaining texts because of the embarrassing riches of Scripture: 'I confess that I frequently sit hour after hour praying and waiting for a subject and that is the main part of my study' (Lectures to my students VI).   The main part of my study?!  Could it be that demanding?   Certainly, there should be a spiritual struggle when faced by an blank page on which anything might happen and particular hungry sheep need to be fed!  And he had an awesome national presence!

These last few weeks I have been faced by an unusual blank page.  I need to plan out a mini-series of six sermons to preach in Yorkminster Church in the heart of Toronto during the first weeks of July.  The temptation to raid my sermon store and select some past sermons that seemed to 'work' is always strong.  I remember hearing one itinerant preacher who said he had preached his star sermon well over 100 times!  Actually, I heard it and can still remember its powerful message - so there can sometimes be value to repeating good stuff. That option, of course, is only open to the traveling preacher.

However, I also know how vital it is to be freshly committed to listening to new words from God if I am to be fresh on this occasion. So I have been struggling....turning all kinds of possibilities over and praying that some might come alight.  I'll share more in my next post.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

No chips!

Enjoying time with our London family has led to several adventures, especially at meal times.  Planning for seven of us to find the right equation of child friendly accommodation/food/expense requires effort.  Carol organized for everyone to come to Porlock and have meal in the pub restaurant next door but, sadly, our 4 year old was unwell and we had to cancel it.  However, the next day dawned more hopefully.  The family arrived and at the mealtime (having stoked up a good appetite at the play park) we tried to repeat the meal at the next door pub.  But a coach party was booked in and they turned us away!
So we drove to the nearby sea at Porlock Weir.  The fish and chip shop was doing good business with families eating on picnic benches overlooking the harbor.  We joined the queue and shuffled slowly forward. 'It will be half an hour', said one of the servers.  By now we had already invested too much time not to stay the course.  We got within five people from the counter when the news rang out: 'We've run out of chips!'   What?  A chip shop that runs out of chips?

Now, very hungry, we drove the 8 miles back into Minehead where the family is staying.  A large family restaurant (holding 350 customers) now seemed the likely target.  But, yes you've guessed, they also were so full the wait would be interminable!

Dropping with fatigue and hunger we walked down the main street to find another fish and chip shop. I said to the girl behind the counter: 'Here are 7 very hungry people" and she said: 'Have you come from Porlock Weir?  We've already had one couple here!'   We sat on the High Street munching our fare with immense gratitude.  We used paper plates but nothing edible was left!

Just to cap the experience, our friend (who owns the flat) is also Chair of Somerset County Council and she was planting a tree in the nearby park at 7:45 pm.  As soon as we had finished our fish we dashed round to meet her coming away from the ceremony.   It completed a somewhat frustrating day!  I am sure you have had days like that....but running out of chips?!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Unremitting encouragement

We are staying in the Somerset village of Porlock on its main street leading to the notoriously steep Porlock Hill. On Monday the West Country Cycle Race passed our front door as it completed its third day of racing.  Our friends (who own the holiday flat) were out early with chairs set on the pavement in order to cheer the cyclists on.  As soon as competitors came into sight they leapt up and starting applauding.  My friend shouted out: 'Good one, mate!' (that was his favourite greeting) and 'Food's just round the corner!' (which referred to refreshments at the foot of the hill).  After about one and a half hours their son came into view and to their joy stopped to greet them affectionately and share a word.  Now it became clear why they were the only couple on the high street giving applause!

I wondered if their enthusiasm would be less once their son was on his way.  Not a bit of it. They continued their encouragement right to the end.  And for a time I joined in.  I noticed how nearly every cyclist returned the greeting with a smile, sometimes a wave and even a word: 'Thanks!  Cheers!' before they pedaled just that little bit faster!

That reminded me of the great cloud of witnesses that surround us in the communion of saints (Heb. 12: 1).  Everyone deserves encouragement don't they?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Reflecting with leaders

Yesterday I led an Away-Day for the leaders of a village church near Cambridge.  They asked me to take the theme 'Leadership'.  I knew nothing about the church and when I learned it would last for six hours with only five leaders present I was rather daunted!

Obviously, we needed to start with their situation and issues so, after opening devotions, I used my preferred low tech tool - a flip chart - to note down responses.  Unsurprisingly a couple of leaders spoke about how too much of their time is spent on tasks. Without wanting to be caught in activity, they found themselves almost completely task-oriented.  Indeed they felt that the perception of them held by others in the church is that they are the people who do what's needed in order for the church to function.  Other issues included the need to develop the prayer life and teamwork of the fellowship.  I wondered how many leaders in other churches would list similar concerns!

To try and provide some meat I worked with them on a definition of Christian leadership that emerged piecemeal, giving time for reflection every couple of words or so.  It's not something I had done before but it turned out to connect with some of the earlier issues in practical ways.   It is not properly scrubbed up for public notice but it runs like this:
A Christian leader is a person with a distinctive gift mix who belongs within a sacred missionary community (set within contemporary culture) which is called by God to worship, to pray with discernment, and to collaborate contagiously in order to move people onto God's agenda.
I think this gives us plenty to work with!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Slight oversight

I am preaching in Toronto in July and woke this morning with a niggle urging me to check arrangements.  I planned the flights in February and details seemed too sketchy in my memory.  Eventually locating the itinerary I set about organizing the long-term car parking and overnight stay in London the night before.  We have developed a routine at Heathrow and I went into autopilot.

Suddenly, I noticed that we were leaving from South Terminal.  Since there is no South Terminal at Heathrow I was thrown into momentary panic.  Concentrating on the details I realized I had failed to see that it was not LHR but LGW in small letters at the top.   Yes, it's Gatwick on the other side of London rather than Heathrow.

Thankfully I had not gone ahead with further arrangements but am convinced of two things.  First, I need to check the small print carefully as my capacity for such oversights is increasing!  As Carol pointed out I could have booked us flying out from anywhere once I took my eye off the ball.  Second, I am profoundly grateful for that niggle.....often I would leave it until nearer take-off !  Those niggles are sometimes essential for sanity - I think they are part of God's gift of friendship that cares about little details as well as big.