Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas is here!

The silence since my last post is explained by a frantic transition which saw us finish term at Northern Seminary in a rush (with all class final grades submitted just 12 hours before boarding the plane for the UK!)  Tying up loose ends, and packing (especially re- re-packing) for England to avoid excess baggage charges squandered too much energy leaving us near exhaustion as we returned to our Cambridge house. Within two days our grandchildren arrived and from somewhere (!) fresh energy was summonsed for this joy.

On Christmas Day most churches in the UK have a Christmas Service and I am booked to be the preacher for one at my former church in Cambridge.  Children are encouraged to bring a favourite present to show the preacher as he tours round the congregation.  But I am always thrilled that the service gives time to stop and marvel as adults too about the greatest breakthrough in the story of the world.

I shall focus on the greeting in Luke 2:11:  'Unto you is born this day....a Saviour'. (yes, English spelling!)  I have warmed to some words that were preached by Joseph Parker as he emphasized the significance of the need for a Saviour:.
This is just what the world wanted.  This is just what the world always wants.... a Saviour.  If Christ the Lord  will not do, get up some other person; but do get a Saviour.  We do not want you to be finding fault with one Saviour if you can get another.  Jesus Christ is willing to stand aside if you can supersede him by one more excellent, by one mightier, by one of larger heart.  He is willing to be displaced if you can bring forward any person who will do a deeper, truer, larger, nobler work.


At Christmas we claim there is no other.  The Saviour truly has come and everything is different because of his living, dying and rising.  May you have a glorious Christmas with the Saviour!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Changing Life (4)

I must try not to be too self-indulgent and post too much about our retirement news (!) but a number of things have already struck in the transition, in particular about my library.

Downsizing is rarely easy but I confess how hard it has been to give away books. I have always loved having books around and for years have enjoyed collecting and reading an ever-growing library. In the past, large rooms for studies and offices have positively encouraged hoarding!  Since coming to seminary I have been treated to a constant stream of publisher's donations,  sometimes for endorsements, which have jostled alongside new books purchased for particular preaching foci.  However, last year I began the painful process of thinning out books and I have since given away over a thousand books.   I will greatly exceed that target by the time I have finished. In fact, my future limited shelving space in Cambridge means that over 90% of my library will go.  Oh, it has been painful saying goodbye to so many volumes which had become friends. 

And saying goodbye sometimes comes with cruel reality checks as I realize I cannot possibly read all that I once hoped to delive into.  For example, I have collected books on particular subjects that I was going to dive into,  that I even imagined that I could write books about, but I now realize time is running out! I remember an athletic deacon in my first church saying that he had suddenly realized that certain things would never happen for him, like playing cricket for England. I remember being amused, but then realizing he was being serious.  (I appreciate US friends would not likely take this seriously anyway!)   Yes, what once seemed limitless pastures are now ring-fenced.  I am grateful that I shall still be able to graze but I can see a fence.

Enough of my ruminations. Thanks for reading - I know many of my peers feel similar downsizing strains, don't you? 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Changing Life (3)

Last night saw my last teaching class at Northern Seminary. I could hardly believe it1 14 years on - tens of students - and then, bang, finish!  Class began at 7:00 pm with the final two students scheduled to preach in the prayer chapel.  Carol brought some chocolate cake and fruit for a brief send-off after preaching was completed.  Imagine our surprise when at 6:15 pm students began arriving with armfuls of food for a secret meal they had planned.  One, an Indian pastor, prepared a large tray of vivid (and delicious) tandoori chicken.  Others brought in salad, rice, cakes, fruit and sodas.  Before long the table was groaning with goodies.

When the two students finished, (one who was preaching on 1 Cor 11. led us in a communion service),  we all walked down the hall to where the food was prepared and shared a glorious, impromptu, generous, moving time together for nearly an hour.  They had signed a card, and asked us questions, and the crowning moment was when they all gathered around us to pray for our future.  Several students prayed with such engagement and feeling.  Both Carol and I floated home on a tide of love and care.

Over the next weeks there is much grading of papers so I have somewhat come down to earth today with several hours spent at my laptop. But such spontaneous moments of kindness will remain in our thankful memories for a long time.  Thank you, dear students of Course MN383(Fall 2013)!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Changing Life (2)

The first comment made to me at the faculty meeting when I announced my retirement was made by a colleague: 'Congratulations.  It takes real courage to retire.'   Standing alongside him another staff member agreed, 'Yes, it takes courage to go when you do not really have to and when things are still working well.'

I am not sure whether courage is the right word, though I do recognize that when you are doing a job that you really enjoy and you seem to be coping well it does require an effort of will, wrapped up in intentional prayer, to take the step to say: 'Now' and then close the door.  You can imagine how Carol and I have prayed hard and reflected continuously about closing the door.  Frankly, in September 2013 I was pretty sure I would be teaching for at least another year or two.  Actually, I wanted to. Why stop doing something which is so fulfilling?  Retirement advice warns about giving up a job which you really enjoy ( and provides $!) if you have scope to continue.

But, increasingly the need to simplify our complicated lives has demanded action and we both have been given peace believing that closing this door is right.

Many of my friends have gone through this stage already and know the weirdness of moving on past full-time retirement into the unknown.  Now we are beginning to taste this weirdness for ourselves.  And, yes, weirdness is the word!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Changing life (1)

For the last two years I have been teaching preaching to all MDiv students in compressed weeks between September and December.  Compressed is the word as students have given their best on Tuesdays, Fridays and some Saturdays (plus online assignments).  They have stifled grumbles (mostly) and really given their best.  I have been so grateful to the seminary for working out a teaching plan that allowed this intensive teaching so that Carol and I could start to rebuild life in the UK (January to July) each year.

However, some good things  need to come to an end.  Some of those closest to me are not surprised they have! So, I made the announcement to my faculty colleagues this afternoon that I am retiring from my major teaching role at Northern Seminary this year and marking the end formally some time in March 2014. (I will let you know the date!)

Over the last 14 glorious years the Lord has given me yet another career shift in his service.  My 21 years  as Baptist pastor in England provided some of the best experiences imaginable as people came  to faith and were built up into church community.  I shall never forget my times in Blackburn, Lancashire and at St. Andrew's Street Baptist Church, Cambridge.   This was living on the front-line for God.   My 7 years as Principal of Spurgeon's College dramatically shifted gear and threw me into administration and a different kind of leadership (with limited teaching opportunities that nonetheless prepared me for what was going to happen next).

When Carol and I came to Lombard, Illinois in 2000 for me to take up a newly endowed preaching chair I shifted even more dramatically into full time teaching with all the possibilities for reading, writing and influence in the world of homiletics.   It has proved to be the most glorious opportunity which opened up areas that I honestly never imagined possible for me.

I have dubbed this latest news: Retiring from teaching at Northern, but not retiring!  In 2014 the Craddock lectures in April and Baylor lectures in September bring me back to the US.  Several other preaching commitments already lie ahead.  I really want to be useful in the years ahead while being aware of the dangers of going on too long.  I have already begun thanking colleagues for sharing this time with me.  Carol and I know these next few weeks will be bitter/sweet but we have deep peace that we are doing the right thing.   Just to let you know.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Hallelujah! Two years on!

Yesterday I visited my cancer surgeon for my two year appointment.  When he first operated on me he commented that the first two years were especially critical for testing because this is when escaping cancer cells show up.   So, after four six-monthly tests of my PSA at levels which they call 'undetectable' (even though they give numbers) I heard him say that he was as pleased as could be about my progress. 'At this stage the news could not be any better', he said, with a big smile on his face.   He was not the only one smiling and giving thanks for prayers answered.   Of course, regular six-monthly testing continues for the next three years but what a wonderful outcome. 

The nurse who dealt with me initially (weighing, blood pressure, updating details etc) at first seemed rather grim.  I would have much preferred one of the other nurses in the department whom I had met before.  Conversation was monosyllabic until she looked at me and suddenly asked: 'Do you know God?'  When I replied I did, and that I was a pastor who was currently training preachers at a seminary, her face lit up.  'What kind of pastor?' she asked.  "A Baptist' I replied.  Her face now shone radiantly. 'So am I', she said.  She reached across and shook my hand, 'You are my brother', she exclaimed. I hadn't yet spoken to my surgeon but this was a wonderful and surprising beginning to what turned out to be a very positive hospital visit.

So, Hallelujahs all round!  Thank you to our good Lord, and to all the many friends who have prayed and supported me through the ordeal.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

501 posts so far!

Since writing about being in the teaching groove now that term had begun, I have been down deeper than I imagined (sometimes almost submerged) with particularly deep patches as in my three days away at Anderson University (S. Carolina) two weeks ago, giving the Broadus Lectures and connecting with a DMin group.  Thoughout it's been exhilarating as well as demanding, but has left little time for kicking the leaves or writing posts.

Yet, in spite of my recent blogging absence, this post marks number 501 for postings on my blog,  spanning six years. Wow, 500!  I have a couple or so reactions on reaching this milestone:
  • surprise.   I remember the tentative beginning (at the urging of my son Rob) and trying to understand the odd nature of writing publicly without a clear agenda,  wondering if I could avoid ego-trips of personal journaling and if anyone (apart from one or two loyal friends) would ever read it.  Seriously, would it contribute anything and be worth the effort?   The surprise has been the network of readers (admittedly not a very large one) that has followed me through thick-and-thin.  I think the most startling evidence was during my sudden cancer discovery and surgery when so many contacts followed through my progress, courtesy of Carol's hand on my blog.  I would expect such immediacy on Facebook but my little ol' blog provided a wonderful circle of support. 
  • collaboration.  Some of the best moments among the 500 past posts have been occasions of collaboration over preparing sermons (as at Calvary Memorial, Oak Park) or working on different preaching themes, book and journal ideas etc.  I have received some real insights as friends have participated in these ways.  I have always been convinced of the need for participatory leadership and to my joy my little ol' blog has provided a forum. 
  • guilt.  I confess that my posting have been highly erratic.  Some bloggers manage to sustain interesting posts at regular innternals.  Not me!   During collaboration projects it has been easier but too often days have passed while I dithered about whether a post was too 'devotional' or 'personal', or bluntly just downright 'trite' and ended up posting nothing at all!  Thank you for your patience.  
So, for sharing in the blogging adventure so far, thank you.  I have no idea whether the length of time between posts 500 and 501 is a sign of the slowing pace of my future (in)activity but I shall aim to post no. 502 before another month passes!


Monday, October 7, 2013

Teaching preachers

It is wonderful to be back in the groove of teaching here at Northern Seminary with all the extraordinary opportunities (and dangers) of teaching preaching (homiletics).

All teaching has immense potential to shape hearers for good or ill.  A while ago I was struck by the title of that seminal book: Teaching as a Subversive Activity” by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner (New York: Delta, 1969).  The word 'subversive' implies a dangerous, seditious activity and the authors chose it because of their belief that all educators should develop in their students attitudes and skills of social, political and cultural criticism. Teachers should help students to ask new questions and so “learn how to learn”. They trumpeted Marshall McLuhan’s 'the medium is the message': 'the critical content of any learning experience is the method or process through which the learning occurs ' (p. 17).   So, the way an effective teacher teaches skilfully encourages students to mature in their critical thinking as they learn how to learn. 

When it comes to preaching I think many of my students have much to unlearn too (which is also a vital part of being subversive) as they dare to open themselves up to God's distinctive gifting and calling for their lives - what some have called 'finding their own voices.'

Most homiletics teachers find the task difficult because learning to preach involves so many different aspects: theology, Biblical understanding, spirituality, ethics, worship, missiology, pastoral care, engagement with culture in community, listening, curiosity, oral writing, public speaking and so on and on.  And, I honestly confess there is also the difficulty of teachers trying to model effective preaching too. (Don't just tell us!).

Yet, in my classroom,  I am revelling in sharing with a new generation of students really giving of their best in this difficult process.   I think of David Buttrick's answer to the question: What is it like to teaching preaching?
Well, we preach, teach, think and study more fields at once than most human beings. But we do so with the sweet laughter of those who live in grace, leaving the outcome of our profession in God's good hands  (Simmons, Preaching on the Brink 1996), p81.

I know there's a subversive dimension to my teaching but I really pray for sweet laughter of grace and a continuing trust in our triune God using my little best.




 



 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Red Robin Welcome

Carol told me (!) I really ought to mention what happened when we visited the Red Robin family restaurant last week.  It is near where we used to live and earlier we had dropped in pastorally to see friends nearby.  Though we did not often eat in this restaurant which is large, situated near the movie theaters and always packed with children, we did occasionally visit and got to know some of the staff.  Of course it was well over a year since we were last there.

Carol normally has fish and chips but asks for the fish to be grilled without batter (to avoid any allergy complications).  She put the order in via our waiter - a delightful young man we did not know. The next moment the restaurant manager rushed across the densely crowded floor and flung his arms around Carol and me; reaching for a spare chair, he sat down at our table to catch up with all our news and share his own.  Apparently, as soon as he heard the order for fish without batter he shouted across to the server: 'Are Carol and Michael back?' before charging across to see for himself.   In the pandemonium of a full restaurant and birthday celebrations, he gave us undivided attention with phenomenal recall about my cancer, the family and seminary.  The waitress who used to serve us realized we were there too, and gave us the warmest of hugs (several times).  At least three times the manager snatched time with us (once bringing extra fish for Carol).

Carol said to me: 'What a difference it makes when you receive a welcome like this!'  Then she paused and added, 'That's how the church should behave - to greet and accept people like you really mean it!'  Then to cap it all, on Sunday we visited the church where I was Summer interim two years ago in Elmhurst.  We heard a challenging sermon based on Romans 15:7 'Greet one another as Christ has accepted you, for the glory of God'.  Before the service even began two pastors had hugged us after a year's absence and the warmth of welcome flooded across afterwards.  Of course, Carol had to tell the senior pastor all about Red Robin!  

It's true that the quality of greeting goes far beyond a 'Hi' with a smile. Peter Semeyn in his sermon dared to take a recent survey of the church showing it is 91% white, 90% married and 79% college degree or higher and then challenge the church directly about greeting those unlike the majority.  He was prophetic in his challenge, because it is easier for a restaurant manager to greet some English folk than it is for many of us in church to get close to others.  But Carol is right.  We were taught a great lesson by Red Robin.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Australian Highlights (4)

After all the density of preaching and conference speaking at Perth, some dear friends invited us to spend a week in Sydney.  More than this, they had paid for Carol to accompany me around the world (supporting me too) and they looked after us royally when we visited them.  We were given an apartment in a retirement village where one of our friends lives, with her sister nearby. How much we owe them for all their love and care.

The very best thing of all (and there were many good things) was their insistence that I be completely free of all speaking commitments.  Usually when visiting Australia I have a number of commitments, especially on Sundays. But, for the first time ever I sat in the pews at a church service (Gordon Baptist Church, Sydney) with my only responsibility to worship alongside Carol.

I tell you, the experience of resting in a quiet place where the pace of life was delightfully slow all around did us the world of good.  The retirement village is on an escarpment overlooking a gorge with spectacular views. Down a steep drop, covered by lush vegetation with cockatoos, cookaburras, colorful parrots flying above you reach the river along which early Aboriginal tribes lived.  It is now a national park.  A couple of times I ventured down to the river (to the surprise of some of the residents who regarded me as singularly athletic) and revelled in the blue sky, green river, with white gums trees in sharp contrast all around.  Again, during these precious days, we caught up with friends we have known for many years (and pottered around at a pace that anticipates retirement years ahead).  How grateful we are for generous thoughtful Christian friends.   As we were shortly to discover , these slow days proved vital rest before the speeded-up calendar since returning to Chicago.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Australian Highlights (3)

It is possible that some readers will think we are currently lost somewhere in Australia because my highlights suddenly ceased! My silence since partly resulted from patchy internet access in Sydney (our next stop),  even less access in China (on the way home), and then tumultuous frantic re-entry in the US coinciding with the beginning of term.

Before I went to Perth I posted about the conference I was addressing: 'Beyond Three Points: Preaching at the crossroads' in which I revealed fragments of early thinking, But, by the time I gave the first lecture, I probably brought more recently digested stuff to this conference than I have ever done elsewhere. Reading books right up to the last minute, my talks had alterations scattered like a severe measles outbreak on every page.  Given an hour for each lecture I regret to say that I overan (in spite of Carol time-keeping on the back row).  It is said that if you want to understand something better you should try explaining it to someone else.  I truly think that my work on missional theology was clarified through all this experience, and though attendees were very kind I am sure I received more benefit than they.  My last session took a stab at '5 and a third commandments for missional preaching' which promises much more and really needs future work.  Yes, indeed.

As I shared in all this, with two conference panel discussions and many conversations I felt so privileged to be part of this preaching world the other side of the world and to be given space and time to think through hot issues. I have just finished a brand new DMin intensive week and I know how much Perth helped frame that.  Next month I am giving the Broadus Lectures at Anderson University, South Carolina  and for that too I sense the surf rising as I tackle the theme: The Dangerous Act of Preaching.  I am grateful to be alive wrestling with all this stuff and I really hope it will encourage a new generation of preachers.  Thank you Perth for pushing this button!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Australian Highlights (2)

I last saw Katherine when she was a student reading English at King's College.  I baptized her with others and can recall her vivid testimony, luminous personality and early intense commitment to mission.  She belonged with a group of students to the Cambridge Baptist Student Society - called The Robert Hall Society after a famous former minister of the church.  Numbering around 35 they were drawn from many university colleges as well as the teaching hospital.

Why is Katherine an Australian highlight?   Because in Perth, 22 years later I met her again. Instantly recognizable and as vivacious as ever,  she is now a significant leader for Operation Mobilization in W. Australia, having worked for OM ever since she left Cambridge - mostly based in St. Petersburg, Russia. Now with her husband Lloyd who is also a strategic leader for OM they live in Perth overseeing the sending out of missionaries from Australia.  She had just returned from Siberia with 45 stories of Christian converts which she now has to write up for a wider public. 

The thrill of meeting her was twofold.  To see her and hear about her own story was so encouraging. Her faith is still contagious, and her high octane personality seems undimmed.  Much in the passing years can blunt the gospel edge, but not for her and her husband.   Yet even more suprising was to learn that all but one of the 35 students who were with her in Cambridge are strong in Christian faith and service too.  Indeed, they are supporters of Katherine's mission work, keeping in regular contact via facebook.  Nearly all of them are exercising Christian leadership wherever they are.  A few I knew about, like Prof. Stephen Holmes of St. Andrew's University who is both Baptist minister and leading theologian.  As she rattled off the names they all triggered memories.  Wonderfully, they are all active Christians linked today in this extraordinary network.   Katherine said that looking back on those days in Cambridge she considered them the determinative influence on her Christian life.  What joy to learn about this generation of students!

There is no way that humans can organize a network of commitment like that!  How good to be reminded that when God works he gives vision, energy and love to keep enthusiastic young people, still enthusiastic 22 years on.   And, we pray, for decades to come!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Australian Highlights (1)

The last two and a half weeks have blistered past with so many extraordinary sights and memories (and very limited internet access for postings!)  Our first stop in Perth proved exhilarating, though nine sessions in four days fairly pushed me.  Our hosts were magnificent with superb accommodation looking across the Swann River to the Perth cityscape.  After preaching in two contrasting Perth churches on our first Sunday, I launched into giving plenary addresses at the Biennial Conference which (very happily) coincided with the 50th. anniversary of the Baptist seminary, now called Vose Seminary after its founding Principal Noel Vose.   

Noel has been a real friend of our family since 1981 when he undertook sabbatical study in CambridgeUK where I was minister.  Two and a half years ago he was gravely ill but he recovered well and at nearly 92 he was wonderfully evident as the conference began.  Carol and I never thought we would see him again so you can imagine the mega thrill of sharing several conversations with this marvelous man of God.  I cannot exaggerate the joy of meeting him. Later, at the 50th. Anniversary Service he spoke for 5 minutes and typically avoided saying a word about himself or his key role with the early vision, but rather commended  the value of reflecting on history for deepening spiritual life. 

At the end of the evening we engaged in our last conversation which included some reflections on our personal histories together.  Eventually, when the time came for us to leave (nearly everyone else had gone) he concluded with these sparkling words: 'Well, the next time I’ll see you will be in heaven'. No one has ever said that to me before with such warmth and conviction.  He made it sound such a glorious certainty! It broke through the sadness of knowing that our paths would not cross again humanly, with shafts of joyous, hope-filled faith and assurance.  We left him, profoundly grateful for his friendship to our family and all the guidance and time he shared with us, and with big smiles that we will meet again in God's future. What an positive benediction! Wowee, Noel! 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Beyond three points (3)


When I first posted blogs on the forthcoming Perth conference, the deadline seemed way off. (That's the story of life, isn't it?) Now the conference launches in less than ten days, with travel to Singapore and preaching in Perth churches to fit in beforehand. Perhaps, kind readers need to know that having raised issues of three points, cross-roads and signposts etc., I think I now have something to say (and if it works out this should be published eventually).

I have taken 'three points preaching' as a metaphor for the kind of preaching which has so packaged God's word into three points that sermons have become safe - devotional packets that are orderly and satisfying. 

You don't have to be a three-point preacher in order to opt for utterly safe devotional packaging of God's truth. Please don't think I am denigrating the hard work of preparation of many three-point preachers (good three-pointers are very hard work), or casting slights on their commitment to Christ's ministry (how wrong that would be). But I do sense in my own preaching ministry that it is very easy to be in control.  Indeed, some observers consider the particular challenge of modernity is the human desire and ability to be in total control of planning and outcomes (as witnessed in much church thinking and planning).  By majoring on informing and persuading we can offer sermons that assume much of the task is our application of reason and technique. Organizing three points might tempt us to think that we can organize God's word and outcomes.

In contrast I am going to plead for preaching that is less safe. This means thinking through implications of the missional church with its emphasis on participating with God in his mission which stretches far beyond the church in his kingdom.  Being open to God's triune empowering and to living in his big story makes preaching a very different exercise. Far from being safe, preaching is actually unsafe because God calls for preachers to be utterly open to his word and his will.

So the signpost's two directions are about two forms of control. In one direction we are in control - church life and our preaching with it. It's safe. In the other direction God is in control and it is wildly unsafe.  What a contrast!  Eventually, I may comment some more once the conference is over.  Thanks for journeying with me.





Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A House Blessing

A few days ago I led a service for The Blessing of a House for a couple of friends who have retired and moved to a new home.  Around fifty people gathered for the service (which was followed by great food in their back garden!)  I have never conducted such a thoughtfully prepared service for a house blessing, with service sheets for everyone to participate in readings and prayers.  In the past I have tended to lead a prayer or two in a new home rather informally.  But this was five star treatment that showed serious intent in this new beginning.   I loved some of the prayers, especially when everyone joined in asking God to bless different aspects of the house: the place of food, of books (oh yes!) of sleep, rooms of ease and comfort, room of guest ,concluding: 'Bless the Door to this house and be the Good Shepherd to all'.

One of the big challenges for our friends is the transition from very busy lives of full-time jobs into (semi-) retirement in their new home.  How difficult is that?  I guess some find it much easier to adjust than others.

During the service I made a few personal comments about our friends and God's promises for them.  And I also quoted from a section of Oswald Chambers' devotions that I had read the day before.  Chambers is reflecting on the Mount of Transfiguration and Peter's desire to build three tents on the mountain top for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
The test of spiritual life is the power to descend; if we have the power to rise only, there is something wrong.  There must be power to descend.  The mountain is not the place for us to live for we were built for the valleys.  This is one of the hardest things to learn because we want repeated moments on the mount.
 Yes, it is hard to descend and particularly in the ageing process we have to learn this.  It is not that God will bless us any less!  Rather, we need to know that he will bless us in the valleys in less heady days. 
 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Gloucester 50 years on

On Sunday I was at Brunswick Baptist Church in Gloucester (in the west of England) where I was baptized as a teenager in 1959.  My father was minister there 1953-1961 and this turned out to be an extraordinarily consequential period of my growing up.  The church building that I knew so well has long gone, to be replaced by much more compact premises still in the heart of the city on Southgate. Going back to preach there (in its 200th. anniversary year) proved to be exhilarating.  Why?  Partly, because of the liveliness of the current church, its vibrant fellowship and obvious love.  It's wonderful to see yet another generation's continuing witness.  Partly, because of the quality of the leadership.  One of the key leaders, Graham, was in the youth group way back in my time and he, with his wife and family, have given a lifetime's love and devotion to the church ever since.

But there's another very personal reason.  A reunion was arranged for the Saturday evening when I met a friend who also had been in the youth group of whom I had not seen or heard for over 52  years.   Tony was (slightly) older than me in his teens.  He proved a powerful Christian friend who helped to galvanize my early zeal, taking gospel tracts (by the handful) out onto the streets, into the park, and on one notable occasion on a train where together we visited every compartment thrusting out good news.  I remember one tract had the current Prime Minister's quote on the front: 'We've never had it so good!' as it spelt out the danger of missing out God.  We preached in teams in local churches, helped the elderly by gardening, and engaged in lengthy prayer meetings for revival.  It was a red hot time.  I wondered what Tony would be like now.

I was thrilled to the core to see and hear him again, just as I remember.  Just as warm, full of God's spirit.  He told me how my father taught him New Testament Greek and to play the mandolin!  How he had become a Pentecostal pastor, spending his last years in mission work in Malaysia where he met his wife.  In retirement he has now come back to the Brunswick church with his family.  On Sunday he introduced me before I preached and I could not believe how like the old times it was.  Two friends with lives in parallel over five decades had suddenly found each other. 

He had a couple of black and white photos of our era.  One showed four young men: Tony, Derrick, Gordon and myself, studying a Bible together.  Three of us became pastors, all of us continued in faith.   Carol said to me: 'Wouldn't your Dad be pleased to see what has become of his young people?'   Well, in the communion of saints he will know!   It is no surprise that the weekend was exhilarating, is it? 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Beyond three points (2)

I am grateful for the last (generous) comment and share concerns that sermon structure is 'synergistic' with content as well as 'less is more'.  In dealing with 'three point sermons' I recognize we move into the arena of rhetoric with assumptions about informing and persuading hearers. Augustine is (rightly) credited with applying Cicero’s three rhetorical purposes (appealing to mind, heart and will) to the act of preaching. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the role of persuasion was paramount with sermons dominated by rhetorical structure (with John Broadus very influential in N. America). Three points became so common, Fred Craddock (the most eminent critic) says such sermons began to collapse under the weight of their own popularity. 

Craddock went on to claim that in the last part of the twentieth century this structure could not cope adequately with a changing church and world. Questions about the preacher’s authority and right to persuade; questions about the use of text – was it always right to squeeze all text into three points; and, for him, the most important question about the listeners. Did they not deserve the right to be more active participants? “Does the priesthood of believers not apply to preaching? After all the message belongs as much to them as to the preacher"(i).

Mentioning Craddock immediately gives a green light to moving into debate about three point propositional preaching – so-called 'old homiletic'- and narrative inductive preaching (new homiletic) that moves like a story. This debate has sometimes been hostile with expository preaching associated with the former. Sound, biblical expository preachers are assumed to be deductive drawing out truths clearly to inform and persuade.  Only old homiletic can be trusted!  I could stay specifically on this issue, which has occupied much recent homiletics literature. It does raise important questions about persuasion and authority in our preaching.   

However, the full conference theme runs: Beyond three points: Preaching at the Crossroads.  Indeed, conference organizers have asked participants to offer papers answering: 'Where is the challenge at boundaries and intersection of biblical text, contemporary life, faith, culture, worship, in a pluralist, egalitarian culture?'

Crossroads are sometimes marked by a signpost.  I have been thinking how to express wording on a signpost.  What different directions do you see facing the western church?   Perhaps there are more than two?  And how would you name them?  That's what I am wrestling with at the moment.  There are so many challenges in contemporary change how can we sum them up?  Perhaps we can't.

In the light of this much bigger crossroads issue dealing with whether a preacher uses three points or not seems to be a minor mechanical side-line.  Surely much more is at stake than how sermons are designed!  This is what I am working on. Any thoughts on the crossroads and names on the signpost are very welcome!

[i] Craddock Fred in Martha Simmons ed., Preaching on the Brink  p 69.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Beyond three points (1)

One of my major projects ahead is a conference at Vose Seminary in Perth with the intriguing theme: Beyond Three Points: Preaching at the Crossroads.  Unsurprisingly, I  have spent some time reflecting on this theme.

At first sight it seems to open up the big debate about sermon design and delivery of content.  Three points is a particular classic sermon structure that identifies points as headings for an outline, which then often has sub-headings.  Sometimes dubbed '3 heads and 9 tails' or '3 points and a poem' it has much to be said in its favor.  It communicates clearly and sometimes memorably (depending on the points!)  Some cultures use it powerfully.  Cleo LaRue says that black preaching especially enjoys using it.  I have known some preachers employ three point structures all their lives almost without deviation, and to the benefit of their congregations too.  Recently, at a retirement service one of the dominant themes, heard from all three churches represented that this minister had served, was of his powerful three point preaching.  A little fun was made (!) but mostly there was very healthy respect for the clear, thoughtful preaching over 39 years.   3 points especially suits the teacher-preacher who opens up Scripture and applies it with clarity and repetition.

Beyond three points sounds like something of a slap on the wrists for such preachers as though their style of design and delivery needs to be replaced.  As though three point preaching should be left behind as less relevant.  Past its sell-by date, contemporary preachers now need fresh structures.  This, of course, is part of a massive discussion about the role of the so-called 'new homiletic' which regards three-point outline preaching as deductive linear left-brained teaching ('old homiletic') as compared with inductive preaching inviting hearers on a journey of discovery with narrative movement.

I could easily fill a few lectures examining this debate.  However, I fear it would be too domestic. Just talking homiletics to preachers.   In spite of much literature on preaching styles I don't see glorious revival in the western church, do you?   However, I think this theme opens up a much wider concern about where the church is going and preaching needs to go with it. 

I am working on it, as you will see. All comments are appreciated!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

GACFIC

Following my last posting about the unhappiness of power struggles in local churches, I have had a (slightly provocative) suggestion that a group be formed of concerned people called Group Against Control-Freaks in Churches (or Gacfic).   I realize in other church structures the bishop or superintending minister may be given this responsibility and discharge their authority effectively.  But in Baptist church life the strength of gathered believers having mutual responsibility with a high degree of autonomy can also be a weakness.  Hence, GACFIC! 

In spite of the immediate appeal of a such a group trying to sort out power struggles, I see some immediate difficulties.  I am sure you do too!  Who would be its members?  How would they operate?  Would they publish case studies?   Speaking the truth in love not only requires spiritual resources of moral courage, discernment, patience, oodles of prayer and, of course, love.  It is best done in relationship for few of us are prepared to hear hard truth from 'outsiders' who we guess have probably already drawn their conclusions before entering the situation.  Indeed, at worst GACFIC might be considered the ultimate group of control freaks sorting out others' problems.   Possibly, the thought of being referred to a special meeting of GACFIC might make a control-freak think twice.  However, I have heard of situations where he or she is so dominant the small gathered community is terrified of upsetting him or her, and any advice from 'outside' has no chance of acceptance. No chance.

I guess we do not need to add another structure but to keep marveling that in the wheat and tares growth of the kingdom God keeps trusting us wherever we are to recognize the immense dangers of asserting self-control and, instead, to grow up more mature in Christ.  Spiritual renewal with openness to God's will and purpose, found in Scripture and discerned in corporate prayer remains the main hope for more mature togetherness!  

Friday, May 31, 2013

The worst job in the world?


I must round off my experience back at my first church.  We shared in a casserole lunch after the service – the church has always been top notch at providing hospitality – and over the meal I had several conversations, stirring joyful memories.  ‘You did our wedding’, said two.  ‘You baptized me,’ said another.   ‘You will know my Dad.  He often spoke about you,’  said a more recent member. 'You remember when my son was born, rushing over to congratulate me?  And I was in the middle of playing cricket!'  said another.  Yes, all kinds of memories in a rich community with roots going way back. 
 
 But then a couple asked me whether I knew another younger Baptist minister. They wondered if I had any recent information about him. 
'No', I said.  'Why, what’s happened'. 
 ‘Well, he’s a wonderful minister.  When he left theological college we were with him when he started in his first church.   He seemed to have outstanding gifts and were so thrilled for him and the church.   It looked as though he had really good ministry ahead.  Then we heard that he had a breakdown, and had to leave the church and is now is a very poor state.’ 
‘He had a breakdown?  What happened? ‘ 
'Well, it seems this particular couple in the church destroyed him. They just made his life so terrible he was completely broken down and have to leave.’  
 
In the last three months  or so I have heard of two other Baptist ministers who have suffered breakdowns and are currently out of ministry. Someone said to me, ’It’s getting more and more difficult to be a minister. It’s partly because churches are in decline with increasing tension and tragic power struggles.   Sometimes it seems that ministers themselves seem to be different from a previous generation'. 
 
This sadness opens up a big subject.  In my own genuine appreciation for church congregational life, I am not blind to destructive power lurking within certain local church cultures.   The very positives of a people openly seeking the mind of Christ together allows negative potential too.  And then, I fear, Baptist ministry might be the worst job in the world.

 

 

Monday, May 27, 2013

The best job in the world (2)

At the Blackburn church I was greeted by friends from my very beginnings in ministry. One lady reminded me of her gravely disabled child, a teenager able only to lie in a large pram. How, when her child died, she had first felt she needed a quiet family service, but the conviction had grown that we needed to come together to make a witness that God is love, and in this child her parents had amazingly experienced this even through the pain and the questions. It was one of those remarkable services that only believers can enter. With tears in her eyes she said: “I expect that was your first service like that”. Oh, yes! Someone else said; “This was the church where you did everything for the first time.’

I was there seven years and such was the pace of life that it almost felt that I faced everything a minister can do. The only Baptist church in a town of over 100,000 people I was thrown into so many diverse situations that demanded a response. Often I was a first-responder meaning it was my first opportunity to respond to an issue I had never met before. Murder, suicide, a rapist who was in the headlines, deaths at every age from a few hours to ripe old age. Divorce, infidelity, marriage, disputes and breakdowns. Racial tension. And always, ongoing responsibility for two sermons every Sunday, mid-week Bible study and prayer meetings, pastoral visitation, denominational networking, collaboration with others in this cathedral town. And, especially, new believers coming to faith and by baptism into membership.

Here I was 40 years on with men and women who had become my friends back then, through thick and thin, through my failures and inadequacies. Anyone sharing in a reunion knows the rush of memory, and the general goodwill that thrusts the best of memories forward, often giving them an affectionate polish. But as we worshipped together and sang some of the great hymns of the church I knew (and my wife with me) that we have a privilege that few other jobs give. Of belonging with a family made up of otherwise unlike people united in this strange community in Christ, called a Baptist church.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The best job in the world (1)


I have just celebrated 41 years on being ordained a Baptist minister.  I say celebrated because on many days,  and today especially, it seems like the best job in the world.   It would be better to say calling rather than job for it has definitely been a vocation over the years. 

I spent last weekend at my first church in Blackburn, Lancashire.  I went there straight from theological college with a beautiful wife, a tiny baby, a Beatle haircut and an unreliable motorcycle.   The church secretary commented that the baby looked as though it had been in Belsen.   Rapidly, she changed the regimen, put my son on baby milk and masterminded a gradual recovery of health for my wife.  She didn’t like the motorcycle either.  We did look a needy family, my wife and I.  They showed the photographs from that date in1972 and we look very hopeful and willing but, to be frank, very young and na├»ve.   Yes, there was some training behind me but a huge task ahead of me.   I looked at my photo with my heavy dark-framed glasses and unruly hair and realize how little I knew about anything.

Reflecting back on the four decades of ministry since I can only smile at my dreams, hopes and naivety. I guess many of us start new opportunities like that.  Yet I can still claim that this has been the best job in the world.

Why?  Because I have experienced the wonder of being in a Christian community that believes it has been gathered together by Jesus Christ,  in the power of the triune God,  with the extraordinary daring possibility of living, serving, giving, just being together as people who together ‘discern the mind of Christ.’  The genius of congregational living is that believers are giving the opportunity to grow together with mutual responsibility under Christ for the direction of their church.  Rather than have a hierarchical form of church government with decisions taken beyond the local congregation,  Baptist churches live with the risks of learning to obey the Head of the Church right where they are.  I say risks, because with this freedom to be the people God in any particular place, there comes the need for spiritual maturity and discernment.   For power-sharing unlike that seen anywhere else.  For leaders to belong with people who belong with the recognition that as they worship together the Lord seeks to do something specific with them.   However, sometimes spiritual maturity and discernment is missing.  Power-sharing is a joke.  With the bright side of community living with mutual love there is a dark side of power abuse.
But when you have tasted as a minister what it means to be with a people who are willing to listen together, to grow together, to submit to each other, then you know why it is an amazing vocation.  
Critics of congregational living may likely laugh out loud at my claims.   For many the model of congregational living has been tried and failed utterly and often bitterly.   I must continue.
 
 



 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Pentecost 2013

I am looking forward to Sunday and the Family Church Anniversary service (which means young children remain in the service - always a challenge!) at Leamington Road Baptist Church, Blackburn, Lancs.  I began ministry at this church (41 years ago - what?)) and have only rarely returned to preach over the intervening years.   However,this occasion may prove to be the last anniversary in the current buildings, as they have deteriorated and the congregation has to sell the site.  As you can imagine this brings immense sadness as well as challenge.

I have prayed and worked on an appropriate message for this particular context.  Of course, all my recent reading (as mentioned in my last posting) also filters my thinking.  How vital it will be for this dear people, now much smaller in number, without a pastor and facing momentous changes to hear again that we belong to God's mission which is kingdom-sized where each of us is given his power to live and love together.

I am working on what I call the Church's Birth Charter - Luke 24: 46-49 and Acts 2:1-4. The Lukan passage has some parallels with John 20: 19-23, with a trinitarian emphasis as Jesus promises to send the disciples what the Father has promised - the power of the Holy Spirit.  One image has grabbed me as I pondered this text and considered what happens next in Acts 2:1-4.  It's the waiting room. The essential mysterious need for the disciples to WAIT.  It's all too human to organize and manage the church and its mission. Ever since we confess sometimes specializing in church-centric micro-managment.  But Christ's command to stay in the city followed by fifty days of waiting on God in praising and prayer stresses the vital truth that when it comes to kingdom matters we must learn that we are not in control but God is.  Spectacularly, in sound like the wind, what looks like tongues of fire, and myriad languages to foreigners gathered in Jerusalem, God shows us how differently he works.  He is the one who gives vision, empowers conviction, stirs the nations as waiting disciples open themselves to his control.  Ever since, this is the vital truth about his world mission. It's all his idea. He has the timing, sets the seasons,  and empowers breakthroughs.

As I go on preparing I see an especial relevance for this dear Blackburn church, but maybe this resonates with you too? 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Living in EasterJoy (3)

My latest reading has focused on Missional God, Missional Church (IVPAcademic 2012) by Ross Hastings. Living in Easter Joy, you say?

Well, yes. In this demanding but exciting read he claims the "Greatest Commission" (as compared with the Great Commission  of Matthew 28: 19,29)  is found in John 20:19-23.  It's the greatest, he claims because its contrast of before/after shows just how powerfully Jesus empowers disciples to participate in God's mission.  His twofold repetition of "Peace be with you, Peace to you" emphasizes the wonder of the shalom which Jesus imparts to make a community of shalom.  There is commission (v21) and it is linked with the Spirit (v.22) and the task of forgiveness (v.23).

He unpacks this wonderful Easter story theologically to show how this event sets the scene for the church (Acts 2 and ever since) with a missional gospel that has the risen Jesus not only sending out, but also bringing in as we participate in God's trinitarian mission.

His analysis of much current thought and church life engages a wide literature which makes it an appropriate book to include in my forthcoming DMin Preaching class.  But what thrilled me was to see again the familiar story of that Easter evening when the doors were shut out of fear treated with depth and such hope for the church in its task today.

I confess that sometimes my reading does not light up my soul.  But this has really added to Easter Joy.   

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Living in Easter Joy (2)

I guess that being back in England for a little while may give me some more jolts of joy like the one I received last Sunday.  We went back to the Arbury Road Baptist Church, Cambridge, where my father became minister way back in the early 1960's.  I have only been back a handful of times, including my mother's funeral in 1979.  During my father's ministry a new church was built and my youthful memory is packed with positive memories of friends, activity and worship.

What was the jolt of joy at Easter 2013, over 50 years later?  It wasn't just being greeted as people remembered my father, amd sometimes me.  Stories came tumbling out. One of the first was from a man for whom I was best man in 1966, and several others reminded me of great times past. I was amazed at the saints still going strong, including a fellow bass who kept me company in the choir (and is now 102 years old).  Now, of course, it is wonderful hearing affirming stories about our past, isn't it? 

But what really thrilled me to the core was how still committed heart and soul to their Lord and to this fellowship these friends remain.  Through some tough times they have never given up.  When I commented to one of the women who was in the youth group with me, that it was extraordinary to see how many of them had stayed together, she said: 'This is where we belong.  This is our community.  Your father would be so proud'. Actually I think the Easter Lord is pleased too! When you have traveled around like me, it is humbling to be reminded of those who have labored in the same spot together for a lifetime, united in faith and service as a community of Easter people.

This really gave me an Easter buzz.  I hope you have enjoyed some Easter experiences where you are, and that you continue to live in Easter joy. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Another viewpoint

Enthusiastically I posted about my grandchildren (and me) coloring those sculptures.  Well, yesterday we met some friends who live in the next village.  In conversation I mentioned the event with my grandchildren and the chalks.

'Oh, no!' said my friend. 'When I drove past those sculptures I said - what a tragedy!  Those animal figures have been vandalized.  Look at the mess they have made! I was really shocked that such a thing could happen'.

Frankly, my story and further insistence that the sculptor himself had invited us to chalk our names and make our colors seemed to make no difference.  For them it's now an eyesore (at least until it rains later this week and washes it all off!)  And, if I'm really honest, it does look as though children have just had a good time with chalk.

Isn't that a corrective?  Just when I thought something good had happened which even spoke of bigger Easter issues, adding to life, someone else saw it as a meaningless act.  Is there a further lesson here?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Living in Easter Joy (1)

I always love Easter and its glorious after-glow with life changed for ever by a risen, living Christ. For the first time our UK grandchildren celebrated Easter with us.  The Sunday service was inspiring, but the whole bitterly cold weekend sabotaged other family plans. Easter Monday was another day on which to shiver!

Wearing full Winter gear I took the older boys, Luca and Anton,  out to a village near us. While walking in Histon a few weeks ago I had spotted an unusual front garden where the householder had sculpted a considerable number of animals and human figures.  Using sheet steel, shaped in fantastical and whimsical ways, the bungalow's front garden has turned into a children's wonderland.  Actually, not only the front garden but animals are on the roof, with a gigantic spider climbing the chimney stack.

I parked the car round the corner and the boys could not believe their eyes as the garden came in sight.  A welcome notice encourages children to climb the horse, pig and dog sculptures.  In biting wind they clambered on and then ran excitedly from figure to figure, pointing out creative extras that gave each piece such humor and interest. But, inevitably, the metal figures were brown with rust and seemed so drab in the Winter weather.

I guess the sculptor must have heard the boys.  He shuffled out with a kindly smile and a big carton of chalks. 'Oh, it's too cold!' he said. 'Here, write your names on this board as big as you can, and then start coloring the figures. There's no color.  We need color.'  Quickly he returned indoors. The chalks were immediately opened.  Luca and Anton not only wrote their names on the big board but on the giraffe, horse, penny-farthing, cockerel and pig.  Then began a busy time of giving the pig blue ears, the turkey multi-colored feathers, marking the faces of figures with smiles and highlighting their eyes.  The task of transforming the garden was hopelessly beyond us (yes, I joined in!)  but as we rushed from piece to piece we enjoyed great happiness together.  You can imagine the surprise that the creator of these pieces had given us such a task.  I thought of his comments that there was no color, and how that applies to life before Easter; and how multicolored and rich life truly is when we are joined with the indestructible Jesus and his community. 

May you continue to live in colorful Easter joy!  (For my UK readers, please note my US laptop insists on spelling color this way!)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Sermonic social networking

I have just been emailed by an Australian who is researching around issues in my Preaching as Worship book.  He wanted to know whether my experience of blogging about sermons, involving hearers before and after the preaching event, could be extended to Facebook.   My answer is: 'Of course!  Any way in which people are willing to share in sermon preparation and collaboration work is to be welcomed.'

I am sure that some preachers already use Facebook and Twitter so that others can engage with them.  I would love to hear any stories from any preachers who have opened up the preparation and feedback processes in this, or other ways.

Our use of social media shows where our priorities lie.  Those who spend hours on their 'likes' demonstrate just where they really want to invest time and interest.  For some, listening to sermons may already be part of their internet experience. ( I know someone who listens to sermons while in the gym!) But how much more 'living in the kingdom' it would be if we could participate in next Sunday's worship preparation knowing that our prayers, Bible study, stories and insights make a contribution.  I know this is huge extra work for worship leaders but I remain convinced that nothing is more important than offering our best as we gather together for worship, in order then to scatter with continuing worship that startles the world.

Any stories from you are really welcome.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Reflection on Asbury

Looking back on last week (and how important it is to make time to reflect) gives me much joy. I have visited many seminaries over the years but this rates as one of the most welcoming communities ever!  An administrator commented how the faculty was responsible for engendering the warm supportive ethos which Carol and I experienced at every turn. I know this should be true in any seminary, but the friendship offered on several different occasions when we were hosted by faculty members was of a very high order.  As you can tell, we enjoyed every minute.

The full chapel services (attendance is voluntary) demonstrated a spiritual liveliness with much responsiveness in the main preaching events.  For me, the highpoint was the final morning when I spoke about the restoring love of Jesus Christ who asks us about our love for him (not about our thinking, our achievements, our theology).  This 'heart question' held us still and in the final hymn the chapel leader interrupted after two verses with an invitation for hearers to come to the front and kneel at the altar rail. As people came forward I knew that God was at work for real.  That's a deeply humbling experience for any preacher.

Afterwards the chapel leader told me that he felt constrained by the Spirit to make the appeal. 'Actually, you should have felt the liberty to conclude with an appeal yourself,' he challenged.  It left me wondering how often I have missed opportunities like this because I was a visitor in a pulpit and I felt constrained in cowardly ways.  I am so thankful he responded promptly this time.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Troubling issues for Christian leaders.

Next week I am presenting the Beeson Preaching Series at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky.  It's my first visit and I look forward to this new opportunity.  This series takes the form of three successive seminary chapel services as well as seminar sessions.  It's a special privilege to have three teaching times clustered like this, addressing future Christian leaders.

Given a blank sheet,  I have been thinking of some of the issues that trouble me about Christian ministry - things that we can sometimes overlook or trivialize.  Where are the greatest dangers for Christian leaders?  My preparation has focused on three issues, each of which will be unpacked in narrative texts (all found in John's gospel). 

First, SELF-IMPORTANCE. In the light of John 3: 22-36 I shall develop the ministry perspective which sees the totality of my gifts, vocation, faith and even boldness as utterly dependent on Jesus Christ.  Second, SELF-SERVICE with the radical perspective that Jesus Christ gives in the upper room in John 13: 1-17 by washing feet and asking disciples:'Do you understand what I have done for you?'   Third, SELF-LOVE as that epic story of Peter's restoration, John 21: 15-19 takes us to the fundamental role of intentional love for Christ and others.

The overall theme is: Disturbing Perspectives on Ministry.  My prayer is that I may be used by God to challenge all of us about fresh possibilities to be lived by his grace. There's nothing more damaging to Christian leadership than self-importance, self-service and self-love, and nothing more radical than the contrasting kingdom way Jesus makes possible by his Spirit.  I will let you know how preparation comes to fruition!  And, special thanks to those who will be praying for the event, February 19-21st.

One year on - and thankful!

Just over one year ago I went through prostate cancer surgery and in my journal I recorded the process step-by-step (including enough gruesome details).  On February 2nd. my surgeon came into the consulting room where Carol and I anxiously awaited the outcome. All kinds of black thoughts crowded in.  Many of you will know how bleak such a situation can be.

'Good news', he beamed, 'we believe we have removed all the cancer.'  Carol recorded the surge of gratitude we felt in one of her memorable posts, and the way that the surgeon agreed with her that prayer is powerful.  The black thoughts dispersed,  the bleakness lifted with a glorious burst of sunshine warmth.

Now, 12 months on I have had two further encouraging tests (though the surgeon warns me I need five years' of similar test results).  Today, I need to post something about the profound sense of gratitude that we both continue to experience.  Continuing thankfulness is the secret to positive Christian living.  It is the obvious launch pad for praising God and his big picture.  It was a rotten time, but one year on we are more aware of the gift of life, and thankful for the miracle of healing and for being alive.   We really thank the Lord and all of you who shared in the journey.  Really!    

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

I wanted to say

I have just come across a poem by a British poet, Gordon Bailey, titled: I wanted to say.

When you talk to me, you don't hear me!
When you talk at me, I don't hear you!
So we do not communicate.

I wanted to say
"Please help me."

I wanted to say
"I need you."

I wanted to say
"I'm sorry."

I wanted to say
"Forgive me."

But,
Preacher,
You were suffering from never-open ears,
A condition resulting from
An ever-open mouth.

It was a considerable shock to realize at its conclusion that this poem is aimed at preachers.  The first lines relate to all human relationships, but he directs his specific challenge about 'never-open ears and ever-open mouth' at one particular target.   I didn't expect this - it really makes me wonder about the poet's back story.   But, I know its purpose is to humble all of us preachers. Because it is so easy to close our ears and open our mouths.  We need to be challenged.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

'Do you love me?'

Last Sunday's covenant service proved a challenging time.  Indeed, Leslie Newton the Methodist minister said that some members do not attend this annual service just because the covenant prayer is so demanding and they believe it is hypocritical to say it.  He commented: 'You know I almost prefer people who withdraw because they are at least honest in facing the covenant's high demands, to those who just turn up and thoughtlessly and casually repeat them!'

In sermon preparation I thoroughly immersed in John 21: 15-19.  Throughout my ministry I have often been drawn to this story because Simon Peter seems to have wrecked his relationship with Jesus because of his three denials (preceded by his arrogant denial that he would never deny).   It is a terrible thing to fail pathetically.  To do something wrong and be unable to correct it, or to fail to do the right thing and have to live with the consequences.   I have deep empathy with Simon Peter because I know the wretchedness of failure.  I think many of us have been/ are there.

Yet, the dramatic nature of his failure makes this conversation all the more mind-blowing as Jesus initiates a new beginning with Simon,  addressing him directly and focusing on his love-relationship.  Whatever Simon Peter has done, what matters now is his heart response to Jesus Christ.  He may not have as much love as he should, but Jesus is asking him to be real about his feelings towards Christ.  This is a vivid illustration of 1 John 4:10 that love is not that we love God but that he first loved us.   Only Jesus could speak to Simon about love and open up afresh the relationship that perhaps Simon thought was ruined for ever.   The Lord of second, third, fourth...nth chances who will not give up with me.

That encouraged me to enter the covenant relationship that out of answering love could say those words in the extraordinary relationship that our Lord wants us to deepen with Him through 2013.  I shall not forget sharing worship with my Methodist friends.  Actually, next month I have to give the annual Beeson Preaching Lectures at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, which is a Methodist seminary.  I guess I may refer to my covenant experience!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

No longer my own

My Christmas greeting anticipated (fervently hoped) that the feverish cold/flu bug would have departed by January 1st! But, in company with many others, illness has continued to dog us accompanied by interminable rain (until the last couple of mercifully dry days).  What a beginning to 2013.  However, we know in God's good time (and it is good) these things will come to pass.

Lying ahead of us this week is a trip up to Cheshire to celebrate a dear friend's 80th. birthday and to preach at Bramhall Methodist Church (Jan 13th).  The pastor has invited me to preach in the church's Covenant Service which many Methodist churches practice near the beginning of each New Year.

Based upon a prayer by John Wesley this covenant expresses powerfully words of Christian recommitment:
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it. And the covenant now made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

I have used the words of this covenant before, but in preparation I been struck again by the high degree of submission in this covenant relationship, that expects us to be totally (yes, totally) open to God's will. 'Put me to what you will..' is equally open to the best and the worst possibilities.  It is both extraordinarily realistic about options, yet gloriously positive about outcomes.

I have been sent a full copy of the Methodist liturgy that accompanies the covenant.  Among the prayers just beforehand the congregation says these words with a vital line:
'Lord God, holy Father, since you have called us through Christ to share in this gracious covenant...for love of you, (we) engage ourselves to seek and do your perfect will.'   We can only say these words because of two-way love - God's love for us and our answering love.  It will be a privilege to preach and I invite you to prepare to say these words with me.