Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Filling in the blanks

I should really like to know how you feel about these. Some preachers always provide hand-outs, with blanks for the congregation to fill in. And, sometimes much effort has been expended to ensure each blank begins with the same letter!

I have been asked to provide one for an address I am giving next week (on prayer). Actually, I confess have found it demanding to give an outline which isn't trite, and allows Scripture to speak effectively. Obviously, some people find filling in the blanks very helpful, but can it encourage a su-doku mentality that delights in solving puzzles and can even lead to a measure of general self-congratulation? Well, that was an interesting talk!

If we asked people to reflect on a particular Scripture text and then write down in their own words: "What is God saying now to me (and my church) through his word, and what am I going to do about it" would be much more demanding and unlikely to happen!

Obviously I do not normally use such fill-in sheets - that's why it has been an effort! I know I listen better when I take notes, and I am sure such handouts can be positive. I hope my handout on prayer will add value. But do you see any dangers?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Preaching Abraham (2)

My last posting mentioned my forthcoming sermon on Abraham (Gen 11:27-12:9). Preaching on Old Testament characters must beware shrinking them for pulpit use. Though it is tempting to personalize, moralize, psychologize people like Abraham to draw out personal principles (and there is some room for this), the Old Testament text is there first and foremost to show us God at work. When Abraham begins THE story of the people of God, (he's first in Jesus' geneaology Matthew 1:1), large-scale matters of how God works in the world are in hand.

My sermon's main impact emerges out of the text, (that really does begin back in Gen. 11): By God's grace, my sermon will say that God chooses to speak, disturb and make stupendous promises, and Abraham obeys with amazing faith. And what my sermon will do: is challenge us to trust and obey the same God who calls us to live "beyond normal."

I continue to work on the details. I have already received an interesting comment about Abraham's age (75 years old), and am always open to further insights.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Beyond Normal

Shortly (Aug. 31st) I begin another preaching series at Calvary Memorial, Oak Park. The church hopes to call a new pastor soon, and so I shall sandwich in four or five Sundays before he begins.

What should I preach? I have been thinking and praying....I could go anywhere! However, the beginnings with Abram (Gen 11-17) resonate with me. I know the Old Testament has a high yawn factor for some. But that's largely because people haven't read it attentively. Honestly, its earthy, raw, exhilarating stuff.

These few chapters hit me. Partly, of course, because they speak of new beginnings, which resonate as the church plans with a new pastor. Mind you, this begins the whole Judaeo-Christian story! And partly because they challenge basic human living. After faith heroics of Gen 12:1-10, there is moral failure of Gen. 12:11-18, followed by conflict, and surprises yet everything undergirded by God's promises.

Because I see Abram (as he's first called) opening up the way of faith beyond normal, I call the series: "Beyond Normal." My first text will be Gen. 11:27-12:9. Perhaps you can guess why I am beginning in Chapter 11? I shall let you know how preparation develops. As always, any insights will be gratefully received.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Human trafficking

Shortly, I must get back to fresh projects, but one last memory from Prague keeps surfacing. And I guess the three women presenters at this particular session in the theologian's conference - from Nagaland, South Africa and USA - will be relieved to know that their words still haunt me. All three are deeply involved in working against human trafficking. They gave faces and stories to the appalling reality that some 27 million slaves exist in the world - a large percentage of whom are women and children. The majority work in the sex industry, driven by two overarching reasons: economic need and childhood sexual abuse.

Two things hit hard. First, the appalling prevalence of such trafficking, especially in countries such as Nagaland. It was painful listening as Asha Miqlat talked about her work among those exploited and abused. But such human trafficking is found in most countries in the world, including the USA. And it's a vast number. Second, the way that many Christians have ignored the problem. Indeed, one speaker spoke about the 'complacency' of churches she knows.

Now, I know we can be overwhelmed by big problems and our bits of compassion can feel overstretched and almost useless. (I still keep my Zimbabwe $50 billion in front of me!) But heart-rending issues like this should not be hidden or forgotten! We were encouraged as seminary educators to encourage future leaders "to show us in places where they feel inadequate, intimidated, insecure, (and) to have confidence that God's Call means that God will show up too - and it will be God who does the work of transformation and redemption." Apparently there is a movie to be released shortly called "Call and Response" about this widespread slavery which may put this onto the wider media front. I know this is an issue that needs me to do more than a blog posting.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Bryson's Shakespeare

I have just finished Bill Bryson's Shakespeare (2007)- witty (as you would expect) but also mightily informative. Three things particularly struck me. First, the absence of hard information about Shakespeare's life. As Bryson typically puts it: "he is a kind of literary equivalent of an electron - forever there and not there." I had no idea that so little detail exists. Second, Shakespeare's sheer genius. For example, his torrent of new words - he recorded the first use of 2,035 words! And his amazing gift of phrases, which total about one-tenth of all the quotations in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. But third, it was the prodigious efforts of so many later "authorities" to trash his reputation - that his work was really the work of another, or that he was too brilliant to be a single person. Deftly, Bryson undoes their "authority."

Inevitably, (as a preacher), I thought of Jesus about whom there is much more evidence of course. But he had both a unique impact on the world, (with unequalled spiritual grace and power), yet also many continuing detractors. While accepting Christ has something to say, many still reject his self-claims to be divine. I was interested in a review of Eckhardt Tolle's A New Earth, to see that Jesus is quoted more than any other. Yet, in The Power of Now, Tolle says: "Never personalize Christ. Don't make Christ into a form identity. Avatars, divine mothers, enlightened masters, the very few that are real, are not special as persons." (Christianity Today,August 2008 ) For real, for me, the person of Jesus Christ is central to everything!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sanctity of life.

I have been reflecting on one particular lecture given at the Prague conference. David Gushee (Prof. of Christian Ethics, Mercer University) challenged us about applying "sanctity of life" to the whole of creation. In a closely argued paper he challenged the dominant idea of humans "stewarding" creation by ruling over it, and argued instead for a servant leadership that is open to earth-keeping, creation care and protection of the integrity of creation. Sadly, in the past many evangelicals have treated such environmental matters as "liberal" non-essentials.

Ranging over biblical teachings, he invited us to re-read the creation narratives (Gen.1-2) to "see" non-human life and its value, to reassess God's ongoing covenant with all creatures (Gen 9:8ff), to mine the legal materials, creation psalms (such as Ps 104), wisdom literature and prophetic teachings which value highly the ecosystems and creatures of creation. Especially, he emphasized the theology of cosmic redemption and the reconciliation of all things in Christ. While some Christians assume that this world can be discarded, Scripture sees it as part of God's ultimate master plan. (Incidentally, in my devotion this morning Jonah 4:11 jumped out: "and also many animals"!)

This big cosmic picture particularly interests me because I am shortly beginning a sermon series on Colossians. As soon as you open Col. 1, you see Christ as "the source and glue and destiny of all creation." Christ comes to reconcile and reclaim all creation (Col 1:20). I shall seek to keep God's big picture for all creation in focus.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What influences people - two mangoes!

During one heavy conference session (last week) when reports on Baptist theological education, were given from all five continents (with plentiful statistics!), Josue from Chile shared the most significant moment from his own student experience, over thirty years previously.

As a Latin American student, studying in Vancouver, he became very ill. On his own, feeling far from home, he was surprised to hear his professor on the phone, sympathizing and asking if there was anything he could bring to him. 'I can't ask you,' said Josue, 'you are far too busy.' 'No, tell me. I really want to help you,' said the professor. 'Well, I would love to have two mangoes' he said.

When his professor arrived with two mangoes, Josue said this act of service and kindness meant more to him than anything else he would learn in preparing to be a Christian leader. It opened his eyes to the importance of relationship and character in those who would teach, and began a life-long friendship with this professor - Dr. Michael Green. (Incidentally, I enjoyed reading his 2001 autobiography: Adventure of Faith, Zondervan).

I guess you can imagine how that story impacted us as theological educators. I was not alone ( I think) in wondering whether I had given "two mangoes' worth" of grace to any of my students. Or, indeed, in whether there were such "significant" moments in my pastoral ministry? It's challenging to reflect, whoever we are - don't you agree?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Becoming a billionaire

As always at international events, some personal conversations between meetings stay with you. At one coffee break, a delegate from Zimbabwe shared with me about the dire situation in his country. Sadly, I have read (like you) the news stories and seen the horrors of economic misery through hyper-inflation and also the violence.

He showed me a brown fifty billion dollar note - the same size as a $10 bill it has 50000000000 dollars stamped on it, with an issue date of May 15th 2008 and a final date: on or before 31st. December 2008. I asked him what it would buy. He replied that when he left Zimbabwe he needed two or three of these notes to buy a single loaf of bread!

I exchanged some US dollars for this one note - he was embarrassedly grateful. Honestly, I was just embarrassed! I had become a billionaire. He said how he and his family are so often hungry and how staying at the hotel for the Baptist meetings, and enjoying the plentiful food, was going to spoil him for his imminent return home. Face-to-face encounters like this hit hard. I promised to keep this banknote in front of me to focus prayer and the need to keep giving. ( I have since learned that the country's Finance Minister has commanded that 10 zeroes be deducted from the currency).

How fortunate are we who live in the West. And how God's commands for justice and compassion should keep hitting home.... if we let them.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Surviving Prague

Sorry to have been out of touch these last hectic days. Two international Baptist leaders' conferences in Prague have filled life to the max.... and left me reeling. Over the next couple of blogs or so I want to mention one or two things that happened while I was away.

But I suffered a shock the moment I registered for the Baptist World Alliance Meetings. I was given an extra green sheet that announced that I was to give a talk entitled: Jan Hus - His Journey from Faithfulessness to Scripture and Conscience to Martydom. Jan Hus is a towering figure in Czech history - a courageous Christian reformer who was burned at the stake on July 6th 1415. Of course, it was important to learn about Jan Hus.....but I was stunned to find my name attached to this task. This was the first I knew of it. Noone had even suggested this to me beforehand.

Mercifully several historians were already prepared to speak to this subject and stepped into the breach. Throughout the rest of the conference I was taunted (by friends!) over my 'non-appearance.' The common preacher's dream is to find yourself in front of a large crowd and utterly unprepared.....this felt almost as uncomfortable.

However, my two expected set pieces - addresses on the 'preacher's integrity' and 'new wine/new wineskins' - seemed to go OK. Actually, the latter is going to be published in the theological journal Reflections so it should gain wider readership.

And as I make my way back to the US I hope to regain some blogging poise with more regular postings. Thanks for your patience.