Monday, October 26, 2009


I have just returned from four days in Idaho, speaking to leaders in the Inland North Western Area of ABC churches. With five sessions, I was keen to develop some new material (always trying to gain feedback for my next book on worship!)... right up to the last minute. The flight (via Salt Lake City) took seven hours, and during much of that time I busied myself creating appropriate talks, with much writing (and crossings-out). Arriving at Spokane, the Area Executive Minister met me and took me for a tour of some spectacular countryside before depositing me in my lakeside room.

With gratitude for safe arrival I unpacked my notes on the desk to discover that I had left all my work on the plane. What! How could I have so stupidly placed all this work in the seat pocket in front of me....and then walked off? I felt so silly.

The saga of the next three hours hardly bears repeating. Yes, I prayed! SW airlines at Spokane airport claimed there was no yellow plastic folder full of notes left on my flight. I begged them to keep looking and said I would call back in an hour. Meanwhile, I was plagued by how best to fill the sessions. An hour later they said there was still no trace. I pleaded: "But if the plane was cleaned someone must have found them...surely they wouldn't have thrown the fat file away." But would they? The woman on the phone said there was one more thing she could check. 3 minutes later she announced they HAD found it! Great was my rejoicing as you can imagine! A pastor, driving past the airport to the conference, was contacted and then brought them into me.

I learned several sharp lessons in a hurry. How easy it is to do silly things...and how grateful I am for prayers answered!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Right Thing, Right Time

This last weekend offered an easy case study of doing the right thing at the right time, though I confess I wobbled in decision-making.

Many months ago I planned to attend the 2009 Evangelical Homiletics Society Meeting in Fort Worth, Texas October 15-17. Especially because its theme was :Promoting Community through Preaching, I was keen to participate. When the call for conference papers was given, I submitted a proposal on the subject of "Exploring Community Formation through Preaching." Invited to give the paper I then spent over six weeks writing it. It was hard work. Actually, I mentioned the process in a blog.....yet I was excited that I was going to be given feedback on new material. In addition to attending the meeting we were planning to spend time with old friends in Texas - everything was booked and projected to be a significant occasion.

And, then, the day before leaving we heard my son Rob was back in hospital in New Jersey. During his first emergency (a week earlier) we had kept in touch by 'phone but this time sounded worse. My first reaction was that we could honor the conference commitment while still keeping in close touch. Really, part of me was arguing that I should stay with the plan! However, the more we prayed and thought about it the more absurd that seemed. Of course, my son's need for his parents over-rode my plans. Why did I even think twice? Because, when it comes down to it, it's rarely easy to give up things we really want to do (and have worked for) even though there are more important things we really ought to do. In a word - to do what God wants.

I recognize that this was an easy decision. As soon as it was made, with flights to Newark instead of Fort Worth etc., both of us sensed such peace.....confirmed by several events. As Carol and I have reflected since, we have remembered how often in pastoral ministry the decisions between responding to church family crises and personal family needs were decidedly more complex. I am sure that I made mistakes then. However, I thank God, I didn't make a mistake this time.

Real Life Interrupts! (2)

As some readers know, my wife and I had to rush to New Jersey for these last four days because my son Rob had another attack which put him back into hospital. It seemed like another stroke because of loss of speech and movement, but after exhaustive tests (day and night) the (many) experts are still not sure about cause and prognosis. They don't think he has suffered strokes! It's been a deeply perplexing time.

Rob is now out of hospital and awaiting further results of tests over the next two weeks, and so we continue to wait and pray. Our presence seemed a real boost to our embattled family out there. We believe there have been answers to prayer in the fact that he has no evident sign of damage to brain or heart in spite of these attacks. Anyway we keep upholding him....

As a sidebar - the title "real life interrupts" can be really misleading, as though other parts of our lives are less real just because they are ordinary. Actually, the mundane should be just as real. But what I have learned is to try and ensure that the right responses are made at the right time when emergencies break into other plans! And by "right responses" I mean - what would God want me to do! Maybe I should blog on that!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Pages from a Preacher's Prayer Book (12)

12 In the beginning God…Gen. 1:1

Scripture’s first four words are stunning. They put everything into perspective. Theologians rightly emphasize how God in the beginning created out of nothing – ex nihilo. That before anything came to be, anything at all, God is. No matter how far back the time-line extends through billions of light years, there never was time when God was not. Mystery, wonder, awe overwhelm with these four words.

As a newly ordained pastor to a church in Blackburn, England I preached my first sermon on these four words - just these four. I don’t have a record of what I said, but I know I had to stress that the beginning of a new pastorate was just another little chapter in God’s big story, from creation to consummation. I also wanted to check any self-importance seeping into my ministry, that somehow I was initiating something important. As though, by my own energy and vision, I could do something special. It is so tempting to begin with myself, my story, my understanding and experience. But no – in the beginning God.

These four words call for awe and humility. Awe before the great God, without whom there would be nothing, and whose Word became flesh (John 1:1-14) to make us children of God. Independent of our notions of time and space, this God creates everything. And humility about our role – that everything we do and say depends on God first.

Early, while sensing a call to ministry a skeptical friend said to me: “What I don’t understand is why you need God? You don’t need him to make a success of life?” What a tragic misunderstanding of the realities of existence - that who we are and why we are alive depends on God first.

A Prayer:
Lord, we praise you in the beginning -
In the beginning of everything that is. Creator of all. Father, Son and Holy Spirit from everlasting to everlasting. Beyond my comprehension. Without you…nothing
In the beginning of the church’s story…Jesus says: I will build my church, and the Spirit breathes a new people into being. Without you….no church
In our beginnings…our being found by your grace, our gifting and calling…without you nothing.
But with you, with you in the beginning then we belong to your love and purpose which nothing else will ever be able to break. Give us praise, humility, dependence today, O Lord.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Real Life Interrupts!

Suddenly, last Thursday, in the midst of pursuing teaching, thinking about worship and living "normally" I received news that my son Rob (only 34 years old) had suffered a stroke, and was in intensive care (in a New Jersey hospital). I now write after the event with good news that he has made a strong recovery, but many of you will identify with the churning dislocation of reality that my wife and I went through these last days while waiting for test results and signs of improvement. Undoubtedly he has been given a major "wake-up call" - it could have been so very serious. We are profoundly grateful for signs of recovery, though he must take it slowly.

Prayers of family and friends have been powerful yet again. And I've been reminded how fragile we are, and how presumptuously we often behave - as though ill-health happens to other people. Real life interrupts! I share in this "wake up call" to God's daily gift of life and health that is too often taken for granted.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Christian Music Principle (6)

6. Tension is inevitable.
Music's very variety that marks its richness as God's gift, paradoxically creates inevitable tension as people express likes and dislikes.

Perhaps such tension is evident in 1 Cor. 14:15 , 16. Is there fear that “singing praises with the spirit” might preclude singing praise with the mind? Is pagan influence already infiltrating through music? Because of music’s immense emotional power and connections with culture , is the early church already encountering difficulties that some worship music is considered as being seduced by secular music styles? Certainly , church history reveals much conflict over worship ever since. However, dealing with such conflict is much more than satisfying musical tastes. It's not just about music. It goes to the heart of spiritual formation about how community finds ways to unite rather than divide.

As Keith Getty, the contemporary hymn writer, puts it:
Church music fights did not begin twelve months after The Beatles started and the church realized that there was new music. These arguments about what Christians should sing have gone on all of time , from rival monasteries to rival cathedrals. They’re not going to end. And so anybody who prescribes a musical solution is blowing smoke. There’s a reason why the Lord made the church a multigenerational , multiclass , multi-ethnic , diverse group of people. I doubt that everybody in Acts had the same musical tastes , if they were Jews and Greeks , and slaves and free.

Principle 6 gives a reality check to how worshipers belong together. Principles 1 to 5 may sound fine in theory, but in practice working through them to unify people with a diversity of musical tastes calls for immense maturity. I must turn to some of the practicalities soon.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Christian Music Principle (5)

5. Music is richly diverse
At the outset, Principle (1) affirmed: Music is God's great gift to humankind. Its string of examples from the Old and New Testaments, from creation to multitudes filling the heavens, emphasize just how varied God's gift of music is in terms of content, style and accompaniment.

And in the early church, Col 3:16 interestingly describes different kinds of music too: "..with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God. " We shall never likely know how exactly these different musical forms contrasted in the early church. How did they differentiate between "hymns" and "spiritual songs"?

I agree with the commentator who says:
No rigid distinctions should be made between "psalm," "hymns," and "spiritual songs."...if any differences are made, "psalms" may be taken to refer to the OT psalter, "hymns" and "spiritual songs" to distinctly Christian compositions. The great periods of renewal in Christendom have always been accompanied by an outbursts of hymnology. (Vaughan in Expository Bible Commentary, Vol 11. p216.

But, importantly, the commentator adds: "Paul is simply emphasizing the rich variety in Christian song." Oh yes! (Though maybe not so simply!) Already this young church demonstrates a diversity of musical expression, presuming its richness of variety is how God's gives music. Variety is good. No one can be dogmatic that there is only ONE way to express congregational praise.

However, while acknowledging that a range of musical styles may occur when a church gathers to worship, this spells tension - as in the last principle coming up soon.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Renewal in Oak Lawn

Before my memory goes soggy (!) I thought I should follow up the last posting. As Pastor Michael and church are working on a worship renewal project, they made my 360degree preaching book part of required reading for the group (of about 10 people) who help lead the project. Over the Summer they waded through much of my book, and this first public meeting, open to all in the church, was intended to start sharing a vision of worship renewal wider.

I was thrilled by the care that the group showed in dealing with issues. Their own Christian Reformed context has a very high view of Scripture and of preaching, but they emphasized how much Scripture itself endorses a variety of preaching styles. They also focused on culture change and spoke about implications of post-modernity that they were already encountering.

In the main meeting, we trod carefully while introducing the project. The last thing we wanted was heavy-footed presentation that seemed to have an imposed agenda. It really is a wide-open process. After agreeing the high place of preaching in Scripture and church history, we turned to reflect over its general state today. The whole meeting then discussed in groups around separate tables, and then shared findings with the whole group. Some of the issues which concern them about preaching today were:
*too much thin milk, not enough meat
*sometimes very didactic and dry
*often no clear challenges
*very poor follow-up - some outcome may be expected but no effort is spent
*seems irrelevant to daily life
*doesn't communicate well to the digital generation
*is too individual and doesn't address the whole community

True progress only occurs when there is realism. Facing facts honestly is vital for vision. The group will continue to work on what might happen next. I love their prayer and openness. I know they are concerned about increasing participation in sermon preparation in order to meet some of the issues above. It's going to take many weeks and months to think and pray through what this means. Perhaps I shall be able to post some progress later. I certainly hope so!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Courage in Oak Lawn

This week I witnessed real courage of Pastor Michael Kooy of Grace Community Christian Reformed Church, in Oak Lawn. I was speaking at an open meeting that he had called in order to consider worship renewal at the church- especially how preaching might be improved. This is a project funded by a grant from Calvin Institute for Christian Worship.

I commented how unusual this occasion was - for two reasons. Not only have some leaders in this church taken time out to reflect on their worshiping life - and how often does that take place? (Too often busyness drives us to the next thing with minimum reflection). But, much more daringly, the pastor has opened up one of the most personal areas for reflection and action - that of preaching.

Later Pastor Kooy said that someone in the Calvin Institute had also commented how unusual it was for a pastor to allow others to think through how preaching could be improved. "I don't think many pastors would let this happen!" they said. I reckon that's right! Many of us preachers just aren't willing to see whether renewal might begin with our preaching. (Of course, I realize that when pastors are in a difficult relationships with churches, for any number of reasons, it is impossible to have healthy reflection like this).

I was exhilarated by the quality of openness and discussion. For the record, many spoke appreciatively of Pastor Kooy's preaching. He is obviously loved and highly regarded and has a right measure of security. But I think most of us also realized what a special opportunity there might be for worship renewal here. I' ll post initial responses from the meeting shortly.