Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cultivating a significant life

In class yesterday, we talked about how seminary life can seem at a distance from front-line ministry, and shielded from its demands. Students can easily miss the cost. We need to be jolted by the reality of “suffering for Jesus.” Aren’t some sufferings inevitably bound up with following Jesus, and expressing his kingdom courage and compassion? Isn’t this what the “sufferings of Christ overflowing into our lives” (2 Cor. 1:5) is all about? On the apostle Paul’s lists of sufferings, most of them could have been avoided by avoiding Christ!

I read to the class a section from J.H. Jowett’s sermon on the sufferings of Christ. (Jowett was a Congregational preacher at the beginning of the twentieth century in England). I think it’s worth blogging:
Now the range of our possible sufferings is determined by the largeness and nobility of our aims. It is possible to evade a multitude of sorrows by the cultivation of an insignificant life. Indeed, if it be a man’s ambition to avoid the troubles of life the receipt is perfectly simple: let him shed his ambitions in every direction. Let him cut the wings of every soaring purpose, and let him assiduously cultivate a little life…. Cultivate deafness and you are saved from the horrors of discords. Cultivate blindness, and you are saved from the assault of the ugly. Stupefy a sense and you shut out a world…that is why so many people, and even so many professedly Christian people, get through life so easily, and with a minimum acquaintance with tribulation. It is because they have reduced their souls to a minimum. Tiny souls can dodge through life; bigger souls are blocked on every side.
God calls us to cultivate significant lives and that means sharing the sufferings of Christ, but also hearing his promise of comfort that overflows (2 Cor 1:5). And this challenge is not just for my students!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A preacher's thoughts on the Writers' Strike

The Writers Guild of America is about to go into its second week of strikes. I suppose I should not have been surprised to see that within hours of the strike being announced some of the notable talk show names – Letterman, Leno, Colbert, Stewart – dried up. Because these communicators operate so wittily, creatively and freshly you would think they could manage at least a few shows on their own, without teams of writers. But the truth is – keeping creatively fresh is hugely demanding. (Actually, that is why many creative people feel real sympathy for these writers, trying to cope with the implications of changing technology and customs).

This made me think of the millions of preachers preparing sermons for tomorrow, longing for a creative fresh word from Scripture. Why don’t we need teams of writers? How come that we don’t all dry up? Well, isn’t it the greatest tribute to Scripture’s inspiration that it has sustained billions of sermons since the church’s creation? And isn’t it an amazing testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit who first breathed on Scripture and keeps on bringing it alive? And isn’t it the great responsibility of preachers to stay open to God’s Word in Scripture, and dependent on God’s Word made flesh, and empowered by the creative power of the Holy Spirit right where they are?

When you are in God’s right place, humble, open, ready to be used, then God can make the old story fresh. What God wants in sermons tomorrow is authenticity not originality. Preachers who have lived in God’s word and lived with their people, and are ready to speak the fresh word because they know it matters eternally. Let’s go to it!

Friday, November 23, 2007

An Alien gives thanks

As an alien Englishman who has lived in the US for over seven years, I still find the turkey extravaganza of Thanksgiving Day an extraordinary occasion. Families make superhuman efforts to be with each other – far more so than at Christmas. And, with great generosity they invite others. Would you believe it, four different sets of people called us in the previous week to invite us to share in their Thanksgiving meal?

Without the incentive (and turmoil) of exchanging presents, people come together gladly in order to give thanks. Thanks for the nation’s beginnings, thanks for continuing family life, thanks for friends, for great food, (with recipes handed down from generation to generation!) Thanks! Just thanks!

Of course, on the next day, so-called Black Friday, when retailers hope to go into the black, the stores are full from 5.00 am and consumer madness reignites in blazing mass-buying until Christmas.

But, like an oasis in the middle, Thanksgiving Day brings people together for the high purpose of thanksgiving. This year we enjoyed our US family, Rob, Lori and Elliot being with us, around the turkey. It’s been wonderful.

Thanks has always been the springboard to generous living, to appreciation of life and (best of all) to praise of God. Begin thanking and other good things keep happening. I call it the power of positive thanking. Even in a prison cell (Col. 3:17)! We need this oasis somewhere in the middle of each day!

Monday, November 19, 2007

A great weekend for the preacher

The launch of my blog coincided with the visit of my technologically savvy son, Rob, who persuaded me that it would be easy to construct and use. Of course, you may rightly question why I should even think of throwing yet more words at the world. I know that the jury is out on blogs and there is even some evidence that readers are logging on less.

I guess I can only justify this blog because of my relationship with long suffering students, listeners and readers and our willingness (expressed often in emails) to learn from each other. The best preachers are the best listeners – listeners to God’s word but also within God’s world.

This launch weekend has been just such a great time for a preacher. Often days will pass without me mentioning anything, but let me comment about three things that have just happened.

It began on Friday (Nov 16) by attending a lecture at Fermilab designed to educate lay people. Dr Dan Hooper spoke on: “In Search of our Universe’s Missing Mass and Energy.” He explained that what we can see – a book, a cat, or our planet – makes up only 5% of the universe. The rest, 95%, is totally invisible and comes in two categories: dark matter and dark energy. At length he explained how little we know about dark energy. At one point he commented how “lucky” we are to be in a universe where the balance with dark matter and dark energy allows human life! How much did I understand? Well not as much as I would like. But, as someone fascinated by popular science I always feel stretched and overawed when anyone talks cosmologically. Actually, I think that all preachers benefit from occasional doses of cosmological talk.

Second, my son Rob and daughter-in-law Lori are staying this Thanksgiving Week. They brought Elliot (my third grandson) who is 21 months and as delightful a child as you can imagine. Really! When he puts his hand in mind and smiles up at me, it gives me the greatest feeling in the world. How precious life is. One minute baffled by how much of the universe is invisible. The next minute holding the miracle of a grandchild. I could go on and on…..

Third, I preached for the first time at Zion, Illinois on Sunday (Nov 18) at Christ Community Church. The story of Zion’s foundation as a theocratic community is a stunning one, and its founder – John Alexander Dowie - a charismatic Scotsman was pastor of this church, which stands central to the entire community. Much has happened since those early days. You can read the story on their web site. Many positive things struck me during my visit. At the end, the Senior Pastor, Ken Langley, took me into the inner sanctum where Dowie’s original round table is, (complete with hidden button to summon bodyguards), and a striking portrait. Ken asked me and my wife Carol to guess the age of John Dowie in the portrait. His flowing white beard and deep furrowed eyes put him, in my estimate, well into his eighties. In fact he was 59, the year he died! Burned out by all his responsibilities. I have often been challenged by the “burn out rather than rust out” commitment of greats such as C.H. Spurgeon and D.L. Moody, who were so utterly consumed by living for Jesus and his kingdom. Can you actually do any great things with and for Jesus Christ without losing much? (John 12:25, 26).

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Taking the plunge!

After standing on the sidelines for too long I've decided to jump in to the world of blogging. My work and travels both sides of the Atlantic have already stimulated a lively matrix of connections and I want to provide a place where I can reflect briefly and connect with friends.

It's late on Sunday November 18th, and I shall be posting more tomorrow!