Monday, May 26, 2008

Anointing - Factor X?

One more thought, following my recent encounter with D.L. Moody. I remember reading a provocative comment about his preaching, in the light of today's technological razzmatazz! Bob Hitchings (of UK Reach and Teach) listened to some rare recordings of D.L. Moody's mission preaching and wrote:
"Both Moody and his musical accompanist, Ira Sankey, were unspectacular by modern standards. There wasn't anything distinctive about Moody's style of preaching. The key factor is that God used ordinary people to move the masses. People like Moody became powerful because God's anointing was upon them. Today you can gain prominence in the Christian world by having a good advertising agency. This is happening now more than any other time in history. This is the most sinister aspect of modern media."

Notice the word "anointing." It's rather out of fashion, like its counterpart "unction." It conveys spiritual reality and immediacy as the Holy Spirit works not only through the preacher's lips but in the hearer's lives (1 Thess.1:5). No preacher can manipulate this - it's God's gift working at the same deep level as worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:23,24). Anointed preaching bears lasting fruit.

If Hitchings judged rightly that Moody was "unspectacular" by our standards of communication, yet God's anointing was upon him, he puts his finger on what may be missing today. Factor X - Holy Spirit power! Have you ever have experienced "anointed preaching"? What are its characteristics? It can't be manipulated, yet how can it be prepared for? Should we expect to see more of it? Is such "anointing" talk dangerously subjective? Earlier I blogged about preachers' "conviction" and "eloquence" - how does anointing relate to these? I know these are too many questions. But any help out there?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Tandem verses

This week, visiting Moody Bible Institute I popped into its museum, with the life-size figure of D.L. Moody in full flow. Underneath were his two favorite Scripture verses:
2 Chron. 16:9 "For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him."
And John 3:30: "He must become greater; I must become less."

What a challenging choice! Verses in tandem - one about God and one about himself. First, a promise about the all-seeing Lord, who looks out for ways to strengthen committed followers. (Mind you, the verse's second part speaks judgment to an enraged king for doing "a foolish thing and from now on you will be at war." God really does see the whole picture - there's no fooling him).

Second, a verse for himself, affirming the preacher's need for humility. How easily a Christian leader's growing influence and status can obscure Jesus Christ Himself?

Moody continually combined this big picture of God with a small humble picture of himself. How's that for the right dual perspective? Big on God, small on me! It's made me rethink my perspective- perhaps you too?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Brief reflection on speaking to pastors today

I have just returned from speaking to 1100 or so pastors at Moody Bible Institute. It's profoundly humbling to be in front of such a crowd. Partly because, indirectly, you are influencing so many more. Stephen Olford used to say (with typical alliteration): Ministry to ministers is ministry to multitudes. But also, because of such honest stories and needs expressed so openly.

Actually, I did refer to all four comments from my blog, particularly the last piece of encouragement. Taking Jesus' promise: I will build my church (Matthew 16:18), I dared to apply it directly to pastors by stressing Jesus' own authority and responsibility for design as well as the church's specific nature. Build my ecclesia means build my "called out people." Jesus specializes in building people together by his grace and love, (of course with the Father and the Son, 2 Cor 13:14!) Pastors can take on so much more responsibility (with pride) than Jesus approves, and we can focus on building organizations rather than letting him build his people (1 Pet. 2:5).

At one point I referred to the way that pastors often seem to seize on one organizational church program after another. Last year, it seemed to be Simple Church (Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger). This is a good book with much good advice, and we need to learn from others' successes (and failures). But sometimes we behave as though Jesus is not enough. As if his grace, love and purpose with our response of obedience, praying, depending is not adequate to the task. We seem to need something more! We act as though this or that program is necessary to boost excitement and get results. What!? It's as though Jesus is not enough. I asked pastors to turn to their neighbors and tell them:
Prayer still works
Worship still works
Preaching still works
Grace still works
Jesus still builds.
The whole place shook with staccato affirmations. Said one pastor to me afterwards:"Yes that's what it is all about: Jesus is still at work and he can use me if I let him." Others spoke about their struggles and need to realize that Jesus can still build even with them.

I feel humbled and grateful to remember this promise holds true: Michael, I will build my church.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

What should your pastor (or you) hear? - a follow up

I left a wide open field, when I asked for help preparing for a pastors' conference (May 8). No pastor replied, but four lay people took (great) trouble to let me know. They represent four very different needs:
1) Cultural communication - "I think pastors need to hear a Holy Spirit perspective on the massive cultural this...'post-Christian' world. How can we keep the Gospel relevant?
2) Personal refreshment - "If my pastor asked me what he should hear - (it's) about relaxing, refreshing and recharging is what I would say." Set aside one day a week. Stop over-scheduling, and spend time with the Lord.
3) Prophetic challenge - too many pastors are stuck in a role, running a church as efficiently as possible, cheerleading a dynamic organization, recruiting members, etc. "There are two prevalent philosophies in church pastors today; 1. enhancing what "I" want; 2. a commitment of myself to become what God wants." Pastors need to be brave and make the second choice ..."the focus should not be on comfort, applause, security but on the living God...,What would I tell a pastor? I want to keep company with the men and women who expand and deepen our capacity to live our true, God-created, Jesus-saved, Spirit-filled lives."
4) Encouragement - "I think many pastors look at themselves as being just average. In their minds, they're no Bill Hybels. This attitude affects their ability to preach and to lead....If I were a pastor I would love to hear that every pastor can be great in the place where God has put them. God will equip them to do his work." Why not be like a coach at half-time in a football game, when you're down two touchdowns... "but you know you can win. You just need to get your team to believe they can win."

What a choice - cultural analysis, personal lifestyle, prophetic challenge, and encouragement! I know all four have a place....maybe I shall be able to mention them all. If you want to see these full comments go back to the May 8th posting.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Miracle at Speedy Motors

Some may recognize this as the title of the latest book in Alexander McCall Smith's No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I fell in love with this gentle series when it began. Precious Ramotswe, a traditionally-built lady, runs the only ladies' detective agency in her beloved Botswana. Her (low-key) adventures are punctuated by drinking copious amounts of bush tea, and involve relationships with memorable characters - such as her mechanic husband Mr J. L. B. Matekoni and her large-spectacled assistant Mma Makutsi. And always her goodness shines through.

As you can tell, I love the pace and color of these simple tales, told simply (but what an art to write like that!) This latest book title builds suspense that one particular miracle might happen. The ending is not what I hoped for, yet it still resonates with sheer goodness.

As a preacher, of course, I yearn for such good character to be explicitly grounded in Christian experience. (I am always on the hunt for great Christian testimonies in fiction as well as in non-fiction - I guess that could really irritate a non-Christian author!) Occasionally Precious attends the Anglican church and ruminates on ethical issues with great insight. But when, for example, I see her forgiving reaction to a poison pen letter writer (page 202-3), I jump for joy at its Christian ethic. The picture the author paints seems too good to be true yet, in the light of my last posting, I believe it is possible by God's grace.

Yes, another positive read. Thank you Alexander McCall Smith.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Preaching Trinity (2)

I am grateful for your feedback so far. Students planning next Tuesday's worship service are going to show Andrei Rublev's famous fifteenth icon The Holy Trinity as a backdrop to my sermon. Based upon the three visitors to Abraham (Gen 18), its three figures represent Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The figures' colors and attitudes speak volumes. They sit on three sides of a table with a chalice between them, offered to us on the open fourth side.

Of course, as a picture of the Trinity, it wildly oversimplifies mystery and doctrine, and yet it memorably expresses the togetherness of God's three-in-one community, and the wonder of his hospitality extended to us by his three persons. It evokes imagination - how joining in with God's fellowship raises the bar, and burns off all the unworthy, petty, angry, envious thoughts and behavior we have. Have you ever known what it is to be in the presence of a truly great person of love and spirit and found yourself drawn to higher ways of thinking and behaving? Just think what it is like to experience community fellowship with God. Wow!

The intensively practical conclusion to 2 Cor 13: 11-14 (the set text), stands no hope of working if left to human endeavor - aim for perfection, be of one mind, live in peace. Fat chance! But if our triune God shares community with us..why, yes, a people could live in new godly ways. So when 2 Cor. ends with the threefold blessing: "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit" there is a real possibility of being his people, his way. The Trinity is profound doctrine but also intensely practical. It's a great promise to live by.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

What should your pastor (or you) hear?

Among (too) many other tasks, I am preparing for a session at the Moody Pastors' Conference May 19-22. Over 1100 pastors are registered for this great annual event. The conference's tag line is: Relax. Refresh. Recharge.

To my amazement, I have been given a free hand in choosing the text and topic for my morning session. Generally, even small-scale conferences have crafted themes, set Scriptures and other constraints put on speakers. But this is gloriously open for the Holy Spirit. That of course is a problem! It's much easier to respond to a defined topic. How can I ensure I know what God wants me to share? Already, I have sensed the Spirit's editorship strike out what I thought was one good idea. My first enthusiasms were drenched in cold water. Of course, this means much more prayer and spiritual dependence ahead.

So, to readers of this blog, (pastors and others), let me ask what key things you believe pastors should be told. If you had 45 minutes before this group, how would you use it, and if you were sitting there what would best help you? Any insights?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Wednesday Recall

I received a positive email today (Wednesday) from someone who heard me preach last Sunday. What's more, they connected what I'd said with their devotional reading in Oswald Chambers (one of my favorite spiritual writers):
"The sterling test of preaching is that it brings everyone to judgement. The Spirit of God locates each one to himself. If Jesus ever gave a command He could not enable us to fulfill, He would be a liar; it means we are telling God there is something he hasn't taken in to account. Every element of self-reliance must be slain by the power of God. Complete weakness and dependence will always be the occasion for the Spirit of God to manifest His power."

Too often a Sunday sermon seems out-of-sight and out-of-mind by Monday morning (if not sooner!) Too much else happens in our lives. And, who seriously expects something heard in church to continue to register on through Wednesday?

But such a Wednesday recall means that a hearer intentionally took in the message, and it made some difference! And by recall, I don't mean a test of memory, but a test of spiritual reality. Perhaps we need more mid-week intentionality. Preachers can make such sweeping claims for God's preached word but not expect much to change. A Wednesday recall would provide a good reality check. Would this make a difference to how we listen and act in response to sermons?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Preaching Trinity (1)

My next preach is at Northern Seminary. This term we have journeyed through the Christian Year celebrating the Easter season (with Ascension), into Pentecost and Trinity. For some students following through this pattern, with lectionary readings, is an eye-opener. Not only because of its discipline, but also its scope as they realize how much of the world church simultaneously practices this pattern.

My task will be to preach on the Trinity, with the set epistle: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13. Even mention the Trinity and some may frown assuming it to be complicated doctrine, (God-in-three-persons-theology-stuff), or yawn because it's bound to be boring! And, anyway, why worry when there are so few explicit Trinity passages in Scripture? Doesn't that rather prove the point that it's really a minor theme?

Actually, the Trinity is the great assumed truth everytime we open Christian Scripture and talk about the Christian God. The triune God is everywhere. True, Jesus is absolutely central to faith, but you cannot understand Jesus without the Father's sending, and the Holy Spirit's convicting. Scripture's story depends on seeing God at work in three persons in the whole story of creation, the forming of his people, Christ's incarnation, the church's formation and the ultimate fulfilment of His world purpose. It's not just about stories of Jesus, like his baptism (Luke 3:21-22), but how salvation works through God's cosmic story. Yes, it is complicated how God lives in three "persons" co-equally, co-eternally, but it's a necessary complication. God's mystery should never be oversimplified.

Seminary worship is compressed and I only have a twelve minutes to preach. But 2 Cor 13:11-13 gives that rich benediction:
The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the Love of God,
and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
I shall let you know of my progress in preparation. As always, your insights are welcome.