Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Facing 2009

Perhaps, like you, I am full of the things that I am definitely going to do in 2009. Yes, keep a rigorous devotional life, stay on top of my emails and correspondence (and blog), finish writing a book! Yes, exercise more, diet more, and be a better husband, father and pastor in specific ways (that I won't publish!)

I have just read a secular magazine's challenge (Experience Jan/Feb 2009) about what it calls "The dreaded Resolutions Season." It argues that what matters is the way we approach the New Year:
We love the idea of willpower, don't we? It's forceful, bold, intrepid. It reeks of individual determination, and it suggests just enough stalwart endurance to sastify our stoic sensibilities'.... Go forth! Make it so!
But the real key to creating positive change is not so much will as it is willingness.... the will tends to think it has all the answers and it doesn't relish asking for directions.
Willingness, on the other hand, is full of open-minded inquiries, like: How might
I go about getting started on this project? What would be most helpful

It's true that will-power often runs into a brick wall half way through January. Self ability leaks. But availability endures. For the Christian, genuine willingness, allied with dedicated will, keeps depending on God's strength and enables sustained effort...."for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil 2:13). May my hopes for 2009 be right in God's will, and may I stay willing. Will you join me?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Benediction

I love that benediction, especially for today:

May the wisdom of the Wonderful Counsellor guide you,
The strength of the Mighty God embolden you,
The love of the Everlasting Father enfold you,
And the peace of the Prince of Peace be upon this day and for evermore. Amen

May this be your glorious experience of God's Blessing this Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Big 7 for Christian Leaders (7)

First, love, second, prayer and then, only then, comes humble leadership. Christian leadership is unique. Yes, it shares qualities with other kinds of leadership - such as clarity of vision, ability to inspire, and courage to stand firm. But, rather than these qualities residing in personal status and natural gifting, which so easily pump up pride of position with arrogance, for Christians these qualities depend utterly on God's love and will, responded to and discerned. They depend on humility, on meekness. In Scripture, meekness requires strong personalities submitted to Christ, that are always sensitive to God (Matthew 5:5). It requires love and prayer!

So Christian leaders need first, to be people who love God and others. Love should be evident in all their words and deeds. Even the toughest decisions (and there will be many) will be made and communicated in God's love. (How obvious this ought to be, and yet how often missing!) And they need to be people of prayer who discern what God wills and listen with the heart. Then there will be leadership sui generis. Uniquely humble and effective, meek yet bold, listening yet leading, sensitive yet decisive.

At Christmas we remark again on the curious way in which the world's greatest leader, Jesus Christ, breaks all assumptions about leadership. His humble beginnings underline the absence of personal status, and his ministry is empty of pride of position and arrogance. Yet, we call him LORD. Of course we do - he reveals God's Way.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pages from a Preacher's Prayer Book (10)

The beginning Word.
In the beginning was the Word (John 1:1)

What a Christmas word for the preacher! When the fourth gospel describes Jesus' coming there are no stars, stable, shepherds, Mary and Joseph, but the shock assertion, sounding out like the first words of Genesis 1:1, that Jesus is the Word in the beginning.

To call Jesus the Word is extraordinary.
Words break silence - the baby Jesus tells us who God is, as noone else can. No more wondering, in the silence, how God sounds.
Words create relationship - other people are necessary for words to be heard and make sense.
Words create personal relationships in community.
Word reveal truth - the Word in John 1:1 is LOGOS, which describes the fundamental principles of existence. In Jesus the ultimate truth about humankind is told.

But there's more. Jesus is the Word in the beginning.
Jesus shares within the Trinity breaking silence at the beginning of creation, as God said, said, said and it was so.
Jesus is the culimination of God's word spoken by law and prophets. He embodies: "Thus says the Lord."
Jesus is the complete expression of God. "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" John 14: 9.

O Come let us adore Him.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas Mess

Since posting over two weeks ago, my straightforward plans leading upto Christmas have been entangled in a mess, as a virus wouldn't let go of me, and a mound of grading piled higher ,(evaluating each student sermon takes 2-3 hours!) Deadlines for an academic journal article suddenly loomed, and neat plans for a gentle run-up to Christmas were well and truly messed up.

But perhaps Christmas is not about neatness! BBC America News has been following the journey of Joseph and Mary, from Nazareth to Bethlehem these last few days. Plodding the 150k with a donkey has proved eventful. On Day 3, the journalist was already on donkey number 3 because of unforseen problems, and was encountering innumerable obstacles (like roadblocks) on the way. I said to Carol that these troubles actually do more justice to the first Christmas. As far as Joseph and Mary were concerned, could you have had a greater mess than needing to travel on the eve of pregnancy with no settled accommodation?

But the glorious message, out of the mess we live in, is that the Christchild is born to rescue and redeem in the profoundest ways possible. Oh yes!

So, way behind schedule, and a little harassed, I need to take a deep grateful breath. To try and post my last page from a preacher's prayer book this term, maybe work on another of the Big 7 for Christian Leaders (I hoped to finish this by now!) and anticipate authentic praise for God with us, Immanuel, for Christmas 2008.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Rejoice with us

As a proud (relieved) grandfather, I am using every communication channel to tell out the good news. Last night my first grand-daughter was born, (joining three grandsons). She is Sophie Grace Quicke, 8lbs 7ozs and 20 inches long (the US isn't into metrics), and her mother Lori , father Rob, and older bnrother Elliot are all doing well. I am sure they will post pictures and tell the story on their own blog:

Quite a troubled story led up to this exciting news, and we are so grateful for all the love and prayers that helped us on our way, and especially to our heavenly Father, the Giver of all life, from whom every family takes its name (Eph. 3:15).


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Pages from a Preacher's Prayer Book (9)

Multi-sensory Scripture
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow (Heb 4:12)
The hearing ear and the seeing eye - the Lord has made them both. (Prov. 20:12)
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth. (Ps 119:103.)

Preachers (and others) need to engage God’s word with all our senses. Scripture is living and active. It is no mere resource book to be quarried for sermon texts, a place of duty and making sermons. It is a place of rendezvous with God. It pierces our most secret parts, cutting into our inner core. The command to love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27) also applies to total personal engagement with God’s word.

Preacher don’t just know “about Scripture” grasping its contents but are to come alive “inside” its message, immersed in its life, grasped by its power, living out its story. Utterly open – heads, hearts, ears, eyes, touch and taste. “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight.” (Jer.15:16).

Scripture is a place for multi-sensory encounter. By the same Spirit who first breathed on its authors we become active participants within its inspiration - to enter, listen, immerse, taste, see, obey and above all love. Soaked in the Bible not exploiting it

A prayer: O Lord slow me down to experience your word today. Help me to be open to its life and its piercing. Let me touch, hear, see and taste. Grant that I may know some delight as I open your word today. Help me to sense the deliciousness of your promises and to bear the challenge of your commands, Through Jesus Christ, Amen

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Embarrassing preaching moments

A group of students came round to our house for a meal last week. One of them asked me if I had any embarrassing experiences in the pulpit. Eagerly they listened as I confessed I had. After I shared an early disaster, from when I was in seminary, the same student commented: "Oh, it's so good to you know that you've had such moments too." "You bet!" I answered.

And would you believe it - last Sunday at Calvary Memorial Church, Oak Park another occurred? During the third service my throat croaked half-way through the sermon. An attentive church member dashed out, returning with a cup of water. I stopped, thanked him and sipped gratefully. Turning back to face the congregation, I suddenly realized that I had no idea where I was in the sermon. No idea! My mind drew a massive blank (- no doubt confused by this being the third time of preaching the same sermon!) "Where was I?" I asked. Several people chorused back, but I was unable to interpret. For a minute (or so) I paused before God and his people. It seemed a very long minute! Eventually, my mind sharpened and I was off again.

Of course, in the long run such glitches don't matter at all, compared with the responsibility of speaking authentically for God (2 Cor. 5:20). Professional polished presentation can mask a profounder problem!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Big 7 for Christian Leaders (6)

The second quality I identify, is Secret Prayer. (This will be no surprise to anyone reading my Pages from a Preacher's Prayer Book!)

We cannot underestimate the importance of a person's private prayer relationship that joins in with the interceding Christ (Hebrews 7:25, Romans 8:34, 1 John 2:1). I call this the fifth dimension. Alongside the part of ourselves that we know and like, and therefore project to others; the part that we dislike and try to keep hidden; the part that others know and we don't see; and the part that only God knows, there is a fifth dimension. That part of our lives that is lived for God only. Just between us and Him. I am never more alive than in this private place (Matthew 6:6) when I pray to my Father, who sees what is done in secret. This secret prayer relationship grounds personal conviction, gives victory over temptation, and grants discernment of God's purposes. My integrity depends utterly upon this relationship. Leaders with a fifth dimension reveal deeper resources of the Spirit in their character and work. Leaders without, crumble under pressure.

PS. I received a good comment from one of you about 1) SACRIFICIAL LOVE that I will work into my eventual reflections on the Big 7. I welcome all such insights. I will not be surprised if I have to change my big 7, once I have listed them and heard from you!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

How to Live Successfully (2)

Continuing to "immerse' into Matthew 25:14-30, I have been struck by its strong message of accountability, as each servant has to show how they have used the master's wealth. One (popular) level of interpretation encourages accountability for our God-given talents. After all, how we use the word "talent" comes straight from this story. But a profounder level of interpretation forsees the ultimate accountability before Christ's judgment seat ( 2 Cor 5:10).

I am still working on the sermon's main impact::
By God's grace this sermon will say: living successfully means living with Christ's gifts on Christ's terms for his kingdom;
and this sermon will do: challenge us to live positively and expectantly, whether gifted by five, two or one talents.

Your collaboration will be welcome, as always.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Blog's First Birthday

On November 18th 2007, I took my first tentative blog steps. Today, I marvel at the circle of friends, the wide range and liveliness of responses and (somehow) the ongoing birth of 120 posts over twelve months.

I have rarely attracted huge numbers of hits, though daily they number tens from across all continents. I recognize that my devotional tone is unlikely to register widely! But, perhaps the most surprising statistic concerns the average lengths of time others spend on my site. Apparently, 25.6 % of hits spend at least 1 hour each. Of course, it could mean people leave it on screen while they fall asleep!

I am encouraged to stagger on into a second year. Thank you for all your encouragement.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pages from a Preacher's Prayer Book (8)

God’s call here (Part B)

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ (Rom. 10: 14,15).

Last time I said there is one truth that I have held onto from my earliest ministry. But let me complete the whole sentence: GOD HAS CALLED ME HERE FOR HIS GLORY.

It is not just that God called me to serve him, but that my journey has led me to this place and this people. Perhaps I might wish to be elsewhere. Others seem to enjoy ministry in easier places and I know tugs of envy and discontentment. But I must recollect how this place is God’s place for me. Here God calls me to bloom where I am planted. He wants my feet to be beautiful because they have gone to his right place.

Too often I am preoccupied with my own levels of satisfaction. I hunger for more success. I resent the cost and humbling, the low response and just being taken for granted. Sometimes, I even want to give up and move on. But God challenges me about taking my eyes off his glory as I seek my own. Sometimes I behave as though the call is for my sake and not for his. “ Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true” (John 7:18).

I must come back to basics. God does not call me to be successful and brilliant but to be his person where he wants me. To have beautiful feet. To recognize that these people are his people whom I have to love and serve now.

Prayer: Lord, help me remember that you called me here for your glory. Give me desire and love to serve you. Let me live for your glory. Let me overflow with love and conviction in the face of difficulties and disappointments. To labor and not to look for any reward save that of doing your will. Amen.

Friday, November 14, 2008

How to Live Successfully

I am looking forward to a one-off preaching engagement back at Calvary Memorial Church, Oak Park, on November 23rd. Because we near Advent, I am taking a powerful parable in Matthew 25:14-30. Often called the "parable of the talents", its verve still engages by themes of wealth, ability, judgment and success. These thread through twenty-first century life just as surely as in the first-century.

I've already titled the sermon: "How to Live Successfully". I guess any reader will quickly get the connection. But what did Jesus mean by living successfully? I'll keep in touch over the next few days of preparing! As always, any comments are welcome.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Pages from a Preacher's Prayer Book (7)

God’s call (Part A)
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ (Jer. 1 : 4,5)
‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people,’ (Mark 1:17)

However it happened, nothing is more significant about my ministry than my experience of God’s call. Jeremiah, young and inadequate, is called to belong to God even before birth. Abram, rich and successful, is called in later life (Gen 12:1-3); Moses is a runaway fugitive (Exod.3:1-12); Isaiah is shaken within worship (Isaiah 6:1-13); Simon, Andrew, James and John in the middle of their working day (Mark 1:16-20).

God’s spokespeople should never select themselves. Actually, Jeremiah and Moses shrink from the task. Though, in contrast, our stories of call may seem prosaic and confusing yet, by wrestling in prayer, we moved to inner conviction with peace that was then tested and affirmed as others looked at our gifting and vocation. I now look back and I know that it was so. Sometimes I can hardly believe it. God called me into ministry. Incredibly, foreknowing God chose me before I was born.

It is easy to lose heart and direction in the pressures of service - to feel useless and battered. But the foundational truth is: GOD HAS CALLED ME.

I have held onto that truth from the earliest days of ministry. On difficult days I need to recall how it really happened. Awesome and humbling there is no greater reason to be alive and to keep working. Why stoop to do anything else?

A Prayer: I marvel Lord that you chose me. At times I find it hard to understand why. But it happened by your grace. Give me a fresh experience of your love and your special choosing so that I can be my best for you today. Through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Big 7 for Christian Leaders (5)

One of you kindly wrote that, even though I write often for preachers and pastors, my ideas relate to others. That is particularly true of the Big 7 for Christian leaders. How I hope these have wide application! Over the next days I hope to fill out each claim.

1) SACRIFICIAL LOVE. For Christians, love is the greatest - no doubt about it! We can never substitute anything else for it, no matter how heavy the pressure on our lives, and how tempting are other options! 1 Corinthians 13 was written to a gifted church, tangled in strife because it had forgotten love. So too, many gifted Christians need reminding of this first principle. And it is sacrificial love because Christ first loved us and expects us to love with Christ-like love (John 13: 34, 35; 1 John 3:11). Nothing is more demanding in Christian leadership than this. Harnessed with this quality should be zeal, which burns to serve and save others for the Lord's sake. Yet, keeness to serve should never be at love's expense.
W.E. Sangster, the great preacher, used to warn about pastors "repenting of sacrifice" by which he meant that they regretted ever responding to God's call when the going got tough. But, especially when the going gets tough, love remains number one evidence of Christian leadership. Love is Jesus' gift to be exercised maturely in an immature world.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Pages from a preacher's prayer book (6)

The Positive Power of Thankfulness

In our prayers for you we always thank God (Col. 1:3)
….giving thanks to the Father (Col. 1: 12).
….abounding in thanksgiving (Col. 2:7).
And be thankful (Col 3:15).
Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving (Col 4:2).

Christian thankfulness is not a matter of courtesy. It profoundly liberates and motivates prayer. Even from a prison cell, Paul’s epistle is peppered with thanksgiving. It’s an intentional mindset of someone who is determinedly saying “Thank you God” for each new day. Whatever dark events may occur, God’s faithfulness is unshakeable and so is the faith and love of other Christians. In his imprisonment Paul gives thanks because of others’ faith in Christ Jesus (Col 1:4).

Keep saying: “Thank You God” and you open the door to his grace and love. A thankful spirit opens hearts and minds and begets generosity. Miserable ingratitude centers on self and stifles generosity.

Preachers, in common with all humanity, can easily let one bad thing overwhelm nine good things. It is a great gift when preachers show hearers their thankfulness. Positive thanking leads to positive praying, which leads to positive living in God. The old advice “Count your blessings” breathes gratitude into relationships. There is always more to give thanks for than we first imagine. In my ministry, the heroines and heroes have been ordinary people who have radiated peace and courage. And as I think of them I light up with thankfulness. Thankfulness is the secret to freshness in prayer and ministry.

A Prayer: O Lord, help me to be thankful to you, today. To open my mind and heart to your daily goodness; to notice things that I have taken for granted and to take time to reflect on your generosity through Jesus Christ and through Christian brothers and sisters. Help me to radiate the positive power of thankfulness, Through Jesus. Amen.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Big 7 for Christian Leaders (4)

I have pondered what seven characteristics matter most for Christian leaders:

1. Sacrificial Love
2. Secret Prayer
3. Sensitive Leadership
4. Realistic Pastoring
5. Unruffled Security
6. Coping Well with Criticism
7. Joyful Generosity

Each of these marks, requires more explanation that I hope to provide in coming days.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Pages from a Preacher's Prayer Book (5)

Listening in stillness

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools…never be rash with your mouth, not let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few. (Eccles 5: 1,2).
Be still and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth. (Psalm 46: 10).

Prayer needs stillness. No relationship can develop on the run, least of all spiritual ones. That’s why the only practical instructions Jesus gave concerned going into a room and closing its door (Matthew 6:6). Of all people, preachers especially need to develop skills in being still and listening to God. We need to know that He is God.

Sometimes we have grown to occupy the center of our world. So preoccupied are we with our work for God that we fall in love with our activity at the expense of God’s glory. Busy preachers must live by the perspectives of a big God – his greatness and our littleness. “God is in heaven and you upon earth”, “Be still and know that I am God! “ He is exalted, not us.

Stillness leads to deeper places of reflection, wonder and fresh worship. It opens hearts to listen to what God is going to say by his Spirit through his word. Every moment in awed quietness deepens the messenger. Holy pauses in his presence discover who he is and who we are.

It’s too easy to be rash with your mouth. Nathan too readily agrees with David and then has to backtrack because God orders him to say “No” – that same night (2 Sam. 7: 1-17). Peter gabbles on the Mount of Transfiguration trying to find something to say. (Mark 9: 5,6). Listening to what God says should precede anything we say. Only then can we pray that a message may be given to me (Eph. 6:19).

Prayer. Dear Lord, forgive my presumption that races to speak for you. Help me to be still before you so that I may know your greatness and see my littleness. Help me mature into a deeper person with you, a person of open heart and fewer words. Through Jesus Christ. Amen

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Significant Sevens (3)

Of a rather different order, I came across '7 sure ways to drive yourself insane' from Dr. Art Kirby, (a Texas psychotherapist).

1. Deny your feelings, doubt your thoughts and never do anything that does not make everyone happy.
2. Try harder to accomplish what has not been accomplished by many efforts at trying harder.
3. Receive and dispense only the love and forgiveness that you or others earn.
4. Base your acceptance of reality on your ability to understand it.
5. Compare your unique being to other unique beings in order to assess how well you and they are doing.
6. Never admit to yourself or anyone else that you were, are, or could be wrong.
7. Believe with all your heart, mind, soul and strength that you salvation is totally up to you.

It's stimulating to consider what are the reverse of these - sure ways to be whole?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Significant Sevens (2)

Someone has just sent me the 7 Spiritual Objectives of The Gideons International.

1. Men of the Book
2. Men of Prayer
3. Men of Faith
4. Men of Separated Walk
5. Men of Compassionate Heart
6. Men who Witness
7. Men who Give

He comments that since these are objectives for lay ministry, those for a pastor ought to be at least as high. But, he adds: 'By the way I know of no one who attains to all of these, pastor or lay person!' We can easily make these inclusive in language to relate to Christian leadership in general, but do they say all that matters to being an effective pastor?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Clusters of Sevens

Seven is the number associated with fullness and completeness, beginning with the seven days of creation. Not surprisingly, it is a useful number by which many have grouped ideas into clusters. I don't know about you, but I find it stimulating (without always agreeing) to see how a big subject may be summarized in just seven statements.

One of the most famous is Steven Covey's 7 habits of highly effective people, which has sold in millions of copies. Well-written and persuasive, he lists seven key principles:
1) Be proactive - the unique human capacity to makes things happen.
2) Begin with the end in mnd.
3) Put first things first.
4) Think win/win.
5) Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
6) Synergize - create with others.
7) Sharpen the saw - the principle of self-renewal.

Recently I came across the 7 criteria for emotional maturity, compiled by Dr. William Menninger of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas.
1) The ability to deal constructively with reality.
2) The capacity to adapt to change.
3) A relative freedom from symptoms that are produced by tensions and anxieties.
4) The capacity to find more satisfaction in giving than receiving.
5) The capacity to relate to other people in a consisten manner with mutual satisfaction and helpfulness.
6) The capacity to sublimate and direct one's instinctively hostile energy into creative and constructive outlets.
7). The capacity to love.

Have you any creative lists of sevens? And this has set me thinking about what could be the seven marks of the effective pastor! If you have any ideas about what you would include on that list, please let me know. I'll work on it and post something in the future.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Pages from a Preacher's Prayerbook (4)

Holy troubling
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven…While I kept silence, my body wasted away. Then I acknowledged my sin to you….I said: ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Psalm 32:1, 3, 5
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9.

We cannot wear masks in authentic prayer. Everywhere else we can pretend - especially in pulpits. But genuinely joining in with God always leads to soul trouble. We see ourselves as we really are before God and know our need of forgiveness. Unconfessed sin damages relationship and mutes prayer. Only true sorrow allows for new starts.

God knows how easy it is for preachers to play the hypocrite. To raise the spiritual bar for others and drop it for ourselves. To make general confession and miss out specifics. To roar like lions in a pulpit and hide as mice when moral courage is needed. To seek others’ high opinions and manipulate situations to avoid pain.

Only God knows just how unholy, inadequate and dry I may be in spirit. How I find it easier to give out assurance to others in public ministry than to know God’s strength in private. About my busyness covering up my sense of spiritual inadequacy. My unwillingness to be troubled about sin. God help me to be real with you so that you can be real to me.

Prayer: Waken my heart, O Lord my God:
Trouble me with the smallness of my work.
Trouble me with the greatness of your command.
Trouble me with my unholiness and my slowness to obey.
Trouble me with time running out and every lost hour.
Trouble me with my sins and the troubles of all people.
Trouble me with the troubles of your church which are the work of people
Trouble me and make me to watch continually for your judgment.
Trouble me, O Lord, and let me keep my faith in the midst of my trouble.
Let me go forward, desiring the coming of your glory. I thank you that my work ends and your work begins. In Christ, Amen.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Pages from a preacher's prayer book (3)

Saying Abba, Father
But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your father who is in secret;…Pray then in this way: Our Father… Matt 6: 6, 9.

Arguably the two most important words in the Lord’s Prayer are the first two. Nothing reveals the secret of Jesus' prayer life more than his relationship with his Father. To his first hearers it seemed blasphemy. An Aramaic child’s first word: Abba – Dada. To contemporary hearers it probably seems absurd. Who could dare to call the Creator of the universe by personal intimate name? To imagine that in the best of parenting we might catch glimpses of God qualities – both father and mother (“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13, Matthew 23:37).

One of the biggest problems in ministry is a lack of personal security. Preachers are sometimes driven by the need for affirmation and shattered by its absence. Too often there is little sense of knowing whom we have believed. Yet Jesus opens up the amazing possibility - “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” (John 1.12,13).

This belonging is a spiritual fact of life. However emotionally disengaged we might feel, however much under stress we are, however disobedient we’ve been- it remains true, every day. I am a child of God, born of God. I belong to God who is my heavenly Father. No wonder Jesus commands us to find a quiet space and trust with childlikeness, saying “Our Father”. To affirm this relationship changes the way I respond to everything else this day.

Prayer. Our Father, help me to say those two words slowly and deliciously, with a fresh openness to your love and a willingness to trust you with my life and my ministry. Forgive me my lack of trust that finds security in other people’s opinions and help me rest in your opinion of me, Father. Fill me with childlike belonging and trust. Amen.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Golden calves (2)

I gave this meditation at the AEF Conference today.
Exodus 32:1-9 tells a troubling story – a cataclysmic idolatry meltdown with a golden calf. But I wonder what should trouble us most?

It’s troubling how people could forget that God hates idolatry. Don’t they remember the first two commandments: you are to have no other gods before the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt; you shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or earth beneath ? How could they ignore such direct commands?

And it’s troubling that a spiritual leader compromises so crassly with culture. Of course, there are two spiritual leaders in the story. One - Moses -is up the mountain communing with God, while Aaron is at the foot of the mountain communitng with the people, close to culture. And most of us are at the foot of the mountain close to culture. So probably we understand how Aaron could bow to pressure when the people are impatient with an absent Moses, and the invisible holy God who is leading them into his story. They want something now,visible, immediate, and pleasurable. Surrounding cultures worshiped gold bulls - why not here? And like a really terrible unsubtle B movie, the people take off the gold earrings and throw them into a fire. Aaron later excuses himself: 'I just threw them into the fire and out came this calf'"(verse 24). Philips Brooks called this 'a curious and ingenuous lie.' The text makes it clear that Aaron fashioned it with a tool. How troubling that a spiritual leader can so quickly accede to culture.

And it’s disturbing how, when the people see the idol, they start chorusing: 'These are your gods who brought you up out of Egypt', blasphemously echoing the first commandment, and arrogantly replacing God’s story with their own. This manufactured thing is now credited with making their story happen. How troubling when people invent their own religious story.

But, perhaps, most troubling of all - when Aaron hears this chorus, he seems to remember the true God and pulls back. ‘When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced: Tomorrow there will be a festival to Yahweh, to the Lord.’ Alongside, this travesty of a false god, he wants to bring the true god. Note, not instead of, but in addition to. So that the next day they can bring their burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the holy invisible God on the altar, but really enjoy themselves (with undertones of sexual licentiousness) before a visible false idol. To glory in a finite god instead of giving all glory to the infinite God.

That’s terrifying. That God is not enough on his own. That the people gain a worship buzz out of something else, given pride of place alongside the true God. And it is possible isn't it....
for preachers to glory in their preaching
for worship leaders to glory in their skills and beautiful offerings
for leaders to glory in their acumen
for whole churches to glory in their reputation, their buildings, their programs?
For us to glory in a finite god, instead of giving all glory to the infinite God.

It’s a troubling text. Sometimes we need to be troubled.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Pages from a preacher's prayer book (2)

The value of weakness
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God who searches the heart knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. Rom 8: 26,27

So often books on prayer seem to focus on the human aspect – all the things we must do in order to make prayer work. But the best part of prayer is what God is doing. At the same time as Jesus Christ intercedes, seated in glory, the Holy Spirit encounters us at places of weakness.

People expect us to be continually positive, fresh and assured in our public spirituality. After all we are Christ’s ambassadors (2 Cor 5:11). We may conclude that any signs of spiritual weakness deny God’s power in our lives. Wrong! Spiritual weakness actually opens the way for God’s power in our lives. Spiritual weakness opens the door to deeper prayer. Weakness is valuable. It makes prayer real.

Preachers who claim to have all the answers and are never at loss in prayer betray shallow prayer lives. But preachers, who know their unholiness and weakness, are realists with God who reads their hearts, knows their desires and interprets them in prayers too deep for words.

It’s true - out of weakness there is strength, (2 Cor. 12:10). Treasure comes in jars of clay “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). In God’s kingdom everything is reversed - greatness is service and weakness is strength.

Preachers should never be surprised that when they feel their efforts are least effective, God may use them mightily. It’s as though, precisely when we despair for our own glory, He takes it for His! As we hobble along in spiritual weakness God promises strength.

Prayer: O triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, over everything and in everything, help me to be real with you. You read my heart and know my mixed motives and spiritual weakness, yet also my desire to be deeper with you. Grant me, when I cannot find words, to keep trusting and to know how much I belong to you in your strength. Amen.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Golden Calves in church

Next week I am preaching (briefly) for the Ancient Evangelical Future Conference on the Church ( This is Bob Webber's (a colleague of mine at Northern Seminary) legacy of challenge to the evangelical church in North America. That (among other issues) it turn away from individualism that makes the Church a mere addendum to God's redemptive plan, and instead sees it as key to God's mission in the world.

My given text is Exodus 32:1-14 - Aaron and the golden calf. This is cataclysmic idolatry meldown when Moses up the mountain communes with God, and Aaron dares to lead people (and be led by the crowd) at the foot of the mountain. What jumps out at me are verses 4 and 5. First, the people worship the calf and say: 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.' When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf. Does he try to combine calf worship with God worship? Does he want a both/and God? And can you have other sorts of (false) worship combined with worship of God in church today? Such as worshipping church success, especially its growth, its pastor and its programs even while we try to worship God?
We have much to think about. I shall keep you posted.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pages from a preacher's prayer book (1)

Each time I teach my students, I begin class with a brief meditation. As classes begin again this week, I thought I would post the first few to see if they help anyone else.

The prayer secret - joining in
Trying to keep up daily prayer used to make me feel guilty and tired. After all, Christian leaders are supposed to be good at disciplined praying and I knew I wasn’t. But, I had to learn that prayer isn’t about what I am good at. It’s all about what Jesus is good at. My prayer relationship with God does not depend on how much effort I put in, but on how willingly I join in with what Jesus is already doing.

This prayer secret breakthrough came when I realized that Jesus is not only risen and ascended in glory, but that he continues to pray for believers. He always intercedes with his Father for me and you. When I say at the end of a prayer –‘through Jesus Christ’ – it is because he has taken my prayers into his own and guarantees that they will be heard. This is an extraordinary claim – that Jesus keeps a prayer ministry going night and day for us.
Jesus holds his priesthood permanently because he continues for ever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. Hebs 7:24,25.
It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Rom 8:34.

When Jesus tells us to go into a quiet place (Matt 6:6), close the door and pray to our Father who sees what is done in secret, we do not go on our own. It’s not a chore that needs gritted teeth. As we enter that place we discover that Jesus is already filling it with love, purpose and strength. He has been praying through the night before we begin. He greets us before we can get a word out. And when we leave to work and play no part of our lives is lived outside his prayer.

This is not to trivialize our holy God as though all that matters to him is my little life. How narcissistic! Never forget, he is awesome – a consuming fire (Heb: 12:20)- whom we can only approach “with a true heart in full assurance of faith”(Heb 10:22) because of Jesus’ sacrifice. But through Jesus we can join in and my little life does have significance. Our great God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - and little me – together!

I now have a smile when I go into the quiet place. I open Scripture, write my prayer journal, offer prayers with joy because I know that he is Lord and he is good at prayer, when I am not, and he loves me, and he wants me to join in with him. I tell you, this secret has revolutionized my prayer life from being all my effort, to trusting into his.

Prayer: O Lord, I find it incredible that with all you have to do, Lord of Creation, that you are praying for me today, and inviting me to join in my prayers with you. I wonder again at your grace for me - Lord of heaven and earth, yet my Lord and my friend. Truly I do. I praise you and love you. Gladden my heart and lift my spirit that I shall know that nothing matters more than belonging to you, and help me to walk into the challenges of this day knowing that I can never walk outside your love and care. Through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Abraham Concluded, with Thanks (9)

Sunday saw the last of my Abraham series, with a quiverful of realities from God's Covenant in Genesis 17:
I value you (verse 1)
I command you (verses 1,9)
I promise you (verses 2-8)
I brand you (verses 10,11)
and overarching all of these, from Mark 14: 24, I love you.
Several commented especially on 'I brand you', with the connection between Old Testament circumcision and New Testament baptism (Col. 2:11,12). Truly Christ does call for a branded distinctive people living in the challenges of the twenty-first century!

How I shall miss the ready responses of this great congregation as my journey, over two and a half years of preaching at Calvary Memorial (alongside others) is now over. And for the best of reasons as the new senior pastor, Dr. Todd Wilson, begins his preaching ministry. Certainly, since I began my blog last year the most consistent respondents have come from this church.....and I hope they keep on reading. Thank you for the difference you have made to my preaching.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Preaching Abraham (8)

The last text for this brief series is Genesis 17:1-22 -though actually it should begin Gen 16:16 - do you see why? Yesterday's sermon focused on Worship -be open to God's surprises; Ethics - beware loving this world (with some words on Wall Street!); Faith - keep trusting. These big three belong together as foundational for believers.

Turning to Gen 17 there is another vital word. I call it God's amazing 8 letter word. It's already emerged with Noah (Gen 6:18; 9:8-11), but now it's reinforced with Abraham, and resounds on through the story (Exodus 24:5-8, Jeremiah 31:33) and especially with Jesus (Mark 14:24). Yes, the word is COVENANT.

Maybe this word sounds rather dry to you, but it's action-packed about the way that God intends that we belong together.
The main impact of the sermon will be:
By God's grace my sermon will say: God amazingly covenants with believers, effecting our relationships, future, distinctives and our togetherness
And my sermon will do: God's covenant in Christ makes us different people today.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Preaching Abraham (7)

I have been really stretched by the "God possibilities" in Gen 14:17- 15:6, and (regretfully) I am late posting this. As I've said before in this series, it's not so much Abraham's story, as the story of Abraham's God that really matters.

The main impact of the sermon will be:
By God's grace
my sermon will say: God surprises us in worship, though the world tests our worship, yet we must keep trusting.
And my sermon will do: God can surprise us in worship, and call us to faith TODAY.

Please pray and prepare along with me!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Preaching Abraham (6)

Today's sermon emphasized how Abraham is made "in the image of God" (Gen 1:27) - an image spoiled in Genesis 3, yet still promising God possibilities in spite of sin. God designed humans to reflect his best. Though Abraham can fail lamentably (Gen 12:10-20), he can demonstrate powerful God possibilities - (1) in worship (Gen 13:4,18,); (2) in avoiding wrong battles (Gen 13:5-13); (3) in fighting right battles (Gen. 8-16). We too, made in God's image, defaced by sin, yet renewed by Christ (Col. 3:10), face similar choices. Much immediate feedback focused on (3) - the need for Christians to be proactive, in the face of injustices of every kind.

Next Sunday we see Abraham keeps growing in stature. Gen 14:17- 15:6, the aftermath of rescuing Lot, brings an extraordinary encounter with Melchizedek (see Heb 7), with bread, wine, blessing, giving many features of worship as we know it. What? So early in the story? He rejects the king of Sodom's offer. And then God speaks again with 15:6 trumpeting a theme that reverberates through the NT that "faith is credited as righteousness."

This week I am on faculty retreat in Wisconsin on Tuesday and Wednesday, but I'll keep working on the next sermon and shall keep you posted. I always value your insights - keep in touch.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Preachers aren't usually interested in worship

Today, at lunchtime, I spoke to a ACT3 forum (a mission for advancing the Christian tradition in the third millennium). I sounded out my latest passion - that too many preachers are marginalizing worship.

That quote: "Preachers aren't usually interested in worship" came from a worship conference I attended. It shocked me. Do you think it's true? But, perhaps, preachers do see worship as:
less important,
an extra burden in a busy life,
a specialism they are not trained for,
too controversial and best left alone,
an enthusiasm best left to those who are keen
a personal pain because of poor relationships between pastors and worship leaders.

Whatever the reason (can you think of more?), I fear that preachers who belittle worship end up as tuneless preachers - preachers who "just don't get worship." I identified ten characteristics of such tuneless preachers. In rapid fire:
1. A faulty definition of worship, such as music only, or pragmatics only....
2. A thin theology of worship, that is often "practical unitarianism" rather than trinitarian.
3. Scripture fails to direct the whole of worship.
4. Patchy liturgy has little appreciation of the past - no interest in the Christian year, or patterns of worship.
5. No awareness of worship's community formation - the sermon is all that matters!
6. Sacraments or ordinances - just add-ons.
7. Culture - all too easy compromise, going after "what people want" rather than "what God desires to develop his mature people in Christ."
8. Narrative - living God's big story of creation, incarnation, and new creation is lost in bits and pieces of sermons.
9. Teaching on worship - neglected.
10. Preparation of sermons and worship - solo, with preachers isolated from worship leaders.

There were several immediate responses - John Armstrong, President and Founder of Act 3, remembered asking a mega church leader what his theology of worship was. His reply: "I didn't know there was a theology of worship!" What? An Orthodox pastor said he was writing a book in his liturgical tradition about the role of preaching - the opposite problem, he said! Another pastor said he thought that non-liturgical churches were in a good position to deepen worship experience, provided there is good teaching and collaboration. Others commented on the gap between preachers and worship leaders in churches they know.

I look forward to further comments. Please, let's keep dialogue going.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Preaching Abraham (5)

This short series on Abraham has already challenged us by big ideas about God and his world. Old Testament stories are not primarily about individuals, but God's work with and through individuals. The next sermon looks at Gen 13:1-18, & Gen 14:8-16 where Abraham is back on track after his deceit in Egypt. But see what happens when conflict emerges and choices have to be made.

My sermon's main impact:
By God's grace my sermon will say: in conflict God gives choices, with some battles to avoid and other battles to fight.
And my sermon will do: challenge us to avoid wrong battles and fight right ones today.

It's a busy week -please pray as I continue to prepare.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Filling in the blanks (3)

To my joy, around 300 men gathered for Saturday's Prayer Breakfast - actually, one group arrived at 5.30 am to set up tables. Each table had copies of my sheets with six blanks (all beginning with S), with pens provided. As soon as I started to speak, I noticed how many (it seemed the great majority) reached for pens and followed closely. I know filling in blanks keenly doesn't indicate keen changes in behavior, but it certainly showed commitment to listen.

So what were the missing words? One of two of you have said you tried to identify them but gave up. The first three come from Moses' personal prayer life (Exodus 33: 7-23) , and the last three from his public prayer (Exodus 17:8-15).
1. Separate yourself
2. Speak intimately
3. Specify promises and needs
4. Stand up
5. Share together
6. Succeed for God's glory.

I wonder how these might have translated into specific action following Saturday? Any differences? Of course, that's always the question for preachers themselves, as well as their hearers.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Filling in the blanks (2)

I appreciated the comments on my earlier posting on this subject (Aug 27 2008). One asked about the value of note-taking, and I want to endorse strongly this very helpful method of engaging. Another wrote with "brutal honesty" that, when a preacher offers an outline sheet, at least it shows some serious preparation (!) Both raised other interesting issues that need further pondering.

Tomorrow I am addressing around 250 men at a Prayer Breakfast, and have provided an outline with 6 blanks - all beginning with S. Each S principle emerges out of Moses' prayer life - in private (Exodus 33: 7-23) , and in public (Exodus 17:8-15). Just to show you my serious preparation here they are:
1. S_________ yourself
2. S_________ intimately
3. S_________ promises and needs
4. S_________ up
5. S_________ together
6. S_________ for God's glory.

I'll fill in the blanks next week. I wonder if you can guess them?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Preaching Abraham (4)

Genesis 12:10-20 provides such vital contrast with last week's upbeat message.
My sermon's main impact will be:
By God's grace my sermon will say that God keeps working when bad things happen to good people, and good people do bad things. And my sermon will do: bring trusting realism for the Christian walk, right where we are.

I continue to value feedback.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

How can preachers hear loving critique?

I must mention a troubling conversation I shared recently with a group of church goers from different churches. One said: "You teach preaching. How can we get through to our preacher? We love him, and rate his Bible knowledge and giftedness very highly. But, everytime he preaches he speaks too fast and goes on for nearly an hour. He's too fast and gives us too much to take in! I've emailed him and asked him gently to slow down and cut down. BUT HE TAKES NO NOTICE."

Others in the group asked why it is that preachers can become so protective that they reject even loving feedback. I believe this is an important issue.

As a preacher I know receiving critique is difficult, because sometimes it may not be kindly given or fair. But how am I to learn about basic communication flaws if I don't listen to others? If I preach too fast, for example, this can be/should be corrected. But imagine preaching for years and never knowing! Is there some way that we preachers could hear loving critique without feeling crushed?

I couldn't answer the opening question. Do you have any suggestions as preachers and listeners?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Preaching Abraham (3)

It was great being back preaching at Calvary Memorial yesterday. With a new Senior Pastor - Dr. Todd Wilson - there is rejoicing all the way! (He starts preaching on October 4th).

So, I launched into Abraham's story in Genesis 11 & 12, emphasizing how God speaks, disturbs and promises. The fact that Abram is the first to respond seriously to God marks him at the very beginning of Jesus' genealogy and our story. Major steps forward for humankind!

Next Sunday, however, the mood changes. Extraordinarily, Genesis 12:10-20 spells out all too human failure. Abram pretends Sarai is not his wife to save his own skin and is caught out in deception. Weird! After such steps forward of faith of Gen 12:1-9, here are pathetic steps backward. How does this help our own understanding of God and our journey of faith? Why is this story in Scripture anyway? As always I shall value insights and your prayers as I prepare.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Filling in the blanks

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Preaching Abraham (2)

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Beyond Normal

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Human trafficking

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

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

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

Friday, August 15, 2008

Bryson's Shakespeare

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

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

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sanctity of life.

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What influences people - two mangoes!

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 4, 2008

Becoming a billionaire

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Surviving Prague

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

10 leading questions for preachers

Wsuriano' asked about new wine/new wineskins (2) - yes, I hope to post the paper eventually- and also about the questions I posed. So far, I have used these questions with Doctor of Ministry students and at pastors' conferences, and have relied on anecdotal responses (mostly positive) rather than conducting a more formal survey. For the record let me list all ten. They flow out of my book 360degree leadership.

How thin-blooded is my preaching?
Consider carefully the language and tone used, as well as the sermon content.
1. Individualistic. Look at the language. Is "you" always about the personal individual lives of hearers, and how often is "you" (plural) and "we" related to the community? Does the "kingdom of God feature in your language? Can a hearer walk away thinking that Christ's challenge in only about "my life, my purpose, my future"?
2. Aimed at head or heart but rarely at both. Note how much the preacher
a. Taught with textual references
b. Or told a story.
Identify where head and heart were balanced, to call the community to be holistically engaged?
3. Spineless theology. Was there a theology of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, either explicit or implicit. Where else do you share theological truth to undergird continuing Christian experience.
4. Generic application. Consider the illustrations and applications - did they seem to connect specifically with the context? In what ways did the personal relationship of preacher with church community and surrounding context make the sermon particular rather than general?
5. Avoids conflict. Were there issues of tension within the congregation that were addressed directly? Were there assumptions that everything in church is bound to be happy?
6. Low compliance. How much expectation of response came through this sermon? Did you perceive particular outcomes were prayed over and planned for?
7. Absence of process issues. Was there any connection with larger visions and strategic changes that involve the whole church congregation? Were there applications that earthed the message in God's bigger plan for the church community?
8. Solo role. Were other people involved in the sermon preparation and its delivery? Was there deliberate involvement of other organizational aspects of church life?
9. Cowardice. Were there points at which "punches seemed to be pulled" so that specific Scripture challenges were softened and missed?
10. Missionally defective. In what ways did the sermon challenge the church to live as missional people, expressing Christ's life and love in its witness before the world?
As I confessed earlier, these questions have tested me! Others have commented about failure, especially at points 1, 3, 5, 9 and 10. I know the questions themselves could be improved and I should value further feedback of any kind.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Seeing WALL-E with the grandkids

I have just seen Pixar's well-reviewed movie WALL-E, with Luca (aged 6) and Anton (aged 3). The film deserves praise for creating such a powerful story with such unlikely material. Set on a deeply depressing toxic wasteland of Earth, and an equally dismal spaceship with obese human beings, the hero is a rusty garbage disposal unit whose only friend appears to be a cockroach, until Eve (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) drops into his loneliness.
There's enough science-fiction echoes, clever allusions and deft humor to keep adults engaged, but I was amazed by how much emotion was invested in these central characters, Wall-e and Eve, so that even our three-year old stayed connected to the end. How extraordinary that digital technology can convey such a convincing world, with almost wordless machines making the story line!
I was reminded of a list I use in class, which places the significant parts of effective communication in order of priority. Susan Page (Away with Words) offers this mnemonic, INLAWS, representing:
I think preachers (and other communicators) need to recognize that words come lower in order than we might imagine, and that silence matters too.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

New Wine/New Wineskins (2)

My other paper for Prague is ready, having benefited from your comments to earlier postings. I have enjoyed reading others, such as Van Gelder (in Review & Expositor Vol 101:2). He summarizes old and new wineskins by contrasting the corporate church with the missional church. Claiming that the majority of Christian congregations share one characteristic in common, he describes the corporate church (embedded in the European version of Constantinian Christendom) as marked by a self-understanding that it exists 'as an organization to accomplish something, normally on behalf of God in the world.' However, the missional church's self understanding is 'a called and sent community created by Spirit to participate in God's mission in the world.' There is a world of difference between the DOING corporate church and the BEING missional church.
Now this contrast is inevitably oversimplified, yet the missional model, undergirded by a lively Trinitarian theology (inviting us to share with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit), does speak powerfully of new wineskins.
I shall be interested, within the conference's international context, to see how many identify with the missional church rather than the corporate. And what difference should this make to our seminary teaching?
At the end of my paper I decided (cheekily) to give an example from my teaching of preachers. I refer to a worksheet with ten questions that I use with preachers, who need to select a number of recent sermons for analysis: 'How thin-blooded is my preaching?' Question 1 asks how individualistic the sermons are. 'Look at the language. Is "you" always about the personal individual lives of hearers, and how often is "you" (plural) and "we" related to the community? Does the "kingdom of God feature in your language? Can a hearer walk away thinking that Christ's challenge in only about "my life, my purpose, my future"?
Question 3 asks about 'spineless theology'. Underline where there is a theology of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, either explicit or implicit. Where else do you share theological truth to undergird continuing Christian experience. Question 10 asks whether sermons are 'missionally defective': In what ways did the sermon challenge the church to live as missional people, expressing Christ's life and love in its witness before the world?
Having used the full ten questions many times over the last two years I can tell you most preachers fall short somewhere. I certainly do. I shall let you know what happens at the conference!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Alarm Bells

This past week I needed to use a public library in order to go on-line. After a few days I felt adjusted to the process, signing ahead for computer allocation, reading my personal messages in public, and even getting used to the library layout. Reaching the computer room was not obvious from the main entrance, but round corners and up some stairs. However, with confidence, on my last day I signed off, waltzed down the stairs, turned right, past shelves of books, and threw open the discover that they were alarmed (loudly), and intended for emergency use only. Two library staff came rushing to find who was to blame. All library users turned to witness my embarrassment. My explanation that I forgot where the main entrance was seemed very feeble.
The immediate impact, (apart from needing to apologize and use the main doors to exit), involved shock of being so publicly exposed for a mistake. But, on reflection, I thought of those times when my sins of commission and omission have passed without anyone appearing to notice. And the false sense of self-worth this brings.
Actually, God does know everything I do (Psalm 139:1). In his mercy He rarely rings alarm bells publicly, but He expects me to be constantly aware of His knowledge and strength:
Examine me O God and know my mind
test me, and discover my thoughts.
Find out if there is any evil in me
and guide me in the everlasting way (Psalm 139: 23, 24).

(Not to be outdone, arriving at the London house where we are staying in Spurgeon's College, Carol set off the alarm - again, extremely loudly and embarrassingly!)

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Integrity Issues (5)

My paper for the Prague conference is coming together, with thanks for input from your comments. Called: Issues of Integrity facing proclaimers of the gospel, it will comprise three parts:

1) Integrity of the preacher - the obvious starting point concerns the preacher's personal moral character and ethical practice. A checklist for such integrity, (I have drawn on some recent articles), includes: sexuality, finances, accountability, exegesis, plagiarism and manipulation of hearers. Interestingly, a book published in 1966 called The Preacher's Integrity has no mention of the first three on the list! Is it a sign of the times that sexuality, finances and accountability have become such hot issues today?

2) Integrity of the preaching task - while faithful exegesis and plagiarism are important issues, there is a need to tackle how preaching itself enables hearers to think and behave with moral discernment. Shouldn't preaching enable congregations to practice moral discernment in the way they live Sundays to Saturdays? I have been struck by a book Preaching What We Practice - Proclamation and Moral Discernment (David J. Schlafer and Timothy F. Sedgwick, 2007) that challenges preachers to engage their hearers in corporate accountability and moral response by the way they live. Preaching can fail in its biblical ethical task, can't it?

3) Integrity of the Congregation's role as proclaimers of the gospel. It is also important to realize that preaching is not just the responsibility of a person at the front, but of the whole people to live out the gospel in community. Congregations and preachers can collude to harm this integrity. Sometimes this is deliberate. Ed Young Jr. has just caused a stir by his video : Church Pirates Beware condemning those who join church staffs only to siphon off resources and build their own following down the street. But there is also unwitting collusion such as pursuing idolatries of efficiency and success. Preachers can please congregations by communication fireworks, business expertise and comfortable platitudes all contributing to self-serving goals that miss Christ's gospel call of witness and service.

I look forward to blogging what happens when I share some of this in a couple of weeks' time. Can you see glaring omissions in my summary?

Marriage - 40 years on!

On Sunday, July 6th, Carol and I celebrated 40 years of marriage (called Ruby Wedding in England!) It was a strangely wonderful time.

Partly, because I was preaching in Abingdon Baptist Church, Oxfordshire. (Carol said it was typical of our whole marriage that the church still took priority!) None of our family could be present, though Carol's chief bridesmaid and her husband attended the service, and treated us to lunch afterwards. We reflected how forty years earlier, at Chatsworth Baptist Church, West Norwood in South London, it was the church family who made our wedding so memorable. They laid on the entire reception. Since Carol had no parents alive, the church stepped in to create a magnificent wedding banquet in the church hall. Sometimes we talk about church 'family' in abstract terms, but this was real. And the church has continued to be vital to our lives. So, it was highly appropriate for me to preach on my wedding anniversary.

But also, it was strange because of the compression of memories that such an anniversary brings. All my ministry I have heard people say that 'they can't believe where the time has gone', ' they don't feel any older', ' it only seems like yesterday.' But we echo these comments ,with profound gratitude to each other for God's love that really has triumphed through our own story. Actually, I preached on God's gospel goodness and that sums up our story best of all.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

G.K. Chesterton

The latest Trinity Forum Reading, (always stimulating stuff), featured G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), and a short Father Brown story: The Oracle of the Dog. In a foreword P. Douglas Wilson writes about Chesterton's literary and Christian influence. Perhaps you know the story of when The Times newspaper invited him (with other authors) to submit essays on the theme "What's Wrong with the World?" he replied;
Dear Sirs, I am, Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton.

But then the foreword comments:
"Tellingly this deep confidence in his own faith was expressed in regular and robust engagement with people of all stripes and worldviews. His ongoing debates and conversations with the likes of Clarence Darrow, H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell...George Bernard Shaw, illustrate the ease with which he was able to navigate, challenge, and unsettle the intellectual and literary world of his day.
Like William Wilberforce (seventy-five years earlier)....both men were willing to engage cheerfully and confidently, without pre-conditions, with others of differing and opposing views. Both believed that one must engage with a person to influence them - and further, that such engagement does not entail surrendering core principles.
Our day, by contrast, is characterized by the reverse: too many of us refuse to engage anyone who does not already share our worldview. And we suspect those who do engage in dialogue with their ideological opponents of capitulation or compromise."

Do you think there is less robust engagement, cheerfully and confidently engaging with others today ? And how might we do it?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Integrity Issues (4)

I have just read a paper delivered by a Ukrainian Christian leader (in Faith,Life and Witness, 1990), who told this story of Dr Bedecker, a preacher in the nineteenth century who traveled to Petrograd by horse and coach. At the end of a service one man came up to him, having committed his life to God, and said: "You saw perhaps that during the sermon I went out? I came to the coachman and asked: 'You brought this preacher?' 'Yes,' he replied. I asked a second question: 'Does he live as he preaches?' And I was surprised to hear what he said. 'No. Dr. Bedecker cannot preach so well as he lives. He lives better than he preaches.' "

Wow! What a testimony! To live better than we preach? I know it's so much more difficult. Too often performance expectations focus on "excellence in preaching." But, excellence in living is the higher goal. Do you agree?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Integrity Issues (3) Jesus in China

Yesterday's Chicago Tribune front page headline was Jesus in China. Two reporters have spent weeks on the road, researching how Christianity's rapid rise is reshaping this officially atheist nation. Peppered by striking conversion stories, they show how Christianity is spreading fast "by evangelical citizens at home."

And why is the government allowing this? They suggest it's partly because China's huge economic growth has weakened the country's "sense of ethics." One business man who became a Christian five years ago, "has launched a campaign to raise ethical awareness and revive a 'system of trust.''" He says: "We are not only doing business for man, we are doing business for heaven." Other influential figures advocate Christianity because it offers China a "common moral foundation capable of reducing corruption, narrowing the gap between rich and poor, promoting philathropy and even preventing pollution."

Now there are likely to be many reasons why the gospel is flourishing in China. And, of course, gospel is much more than ethics (- and clearly the new Chinese churches know that!) But what an interesting comment on the perceptions of a once hostile communist system. It reminds me of the early church "praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people (Acts 2:47).

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Integrity Issues (2) - Video sermons

Commenting on Integrity Issues (1), Scott Cheatham alerted me to recent discussion on his blog, in which he questioned about preachers using complete video sermons from others to substitute for their own preaching. While sympathetic to an occasional series, say at vacation time, taking the place of the local preacher, he rightly urged caution. Several different aspects of this issue have emerged in ensuing discussion.

At one point he quoted me from 360degree Leadership: "Preaching is leadership." (That made me sit up and take notice!) What does that claim have to say about preachers substituting other's words, ideas, videos etc for their own? I think A GREAT DEAL! Scott hits the nail on the head.

No matter how small or large a local church, when a preacher is called to deliver God's Word, share God's vision, and challenge about God's will for them as God's community - no one else and nothing else should substitute. Preaching is not just about excellence of presentation, and five star gifting. It's about witnessing to this group of people by this called preacher God's authentic word to them. Noone else can see it and say it in this unique situation like the preacher who lives with and loves the people. Yes, it may look average, but it's authentic. That's how preachers lead.

Use of video is a large subject and I agree with Scott that there is a difference between video linking a preacher to several church sites (which has some integrity of vision and community), the occasional use of video series as celebrated by , and the widescale substitution of local preachers by a few "excellent" video preachers. I think that "preaching as leadership" remains a core issue, and I am grateful to Scott for raising it.

Where are my postings?

In church this morning, I was chided (kindly) by a couple of readers that my blogs have diminished in frequency. Well, I was grateful to know someone had noticed (- really I was!) I guess the combination of preparing two lectures for Prague, while continuing to finish off term grading, has sabotaged my blogging. I need your patience.

Actually your responses to new wine/new wineskins and integrity have stimulated me in my writing project, and I shall give a bird's eye view of both papers as they take final shape shortly. And one fellow blogger (Scott Cheatham), whose longevity and skill on-line greatly impresses me, opened up the issue of preachers using others' video sermons as a matter of integrity. In fact, I need to comment on that right now!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Integrity Issues

The second paper (see yesterday!) that I have to prepare addresses a joint meeting of the Ethics Commission and the Worship & Spirituality Commission of the Baptist World Alliance (- the annual Baptist world get-together!) It's called: "Issues of Integrity facing proclaimers of the gospel."

I wonder what particular issues register most urgently with preachers - personal integrity (sex, money, accountability), truthfulness, quality of relationships with God and others? What areas of integrity are the toughest, and what can be done to help? And do congregations perceive issues that might be painful for preachers to hear?

And, besides all this, does "proclaimers of the gospel" only mean preachers? Don't congregations themselves have responsibility to proclaim the gospel with integrity? What does this mean about us matching gospel claims with gospel practice? Do we show moral discernment with the "mind of Christ"? (1 Cor. 2:16).

There's so much to go at. As always any insights from you will be invaluable.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

New Wine/New Wineskins

Alas, grading has smothered all my creativity these last 10 days! However, I have emerged to two new writing projects. The first is a paper for an international conference of Baptist theological educators in Prague (- sounds exotic!) I present a paper on "Promoting a Subversive Spirituality: New Wineskins and New Wine in Mission and Evangelism."

I am just getting wound up about it! The title refers to an amazing text in Mark 2:22. Jesus is criticised that his disciples fail to fast like serious spiritual people. But he counters that they are like guests with the bridegroom. Fasting is inappropriate and absurd. Jesus is creating new relationships, forming a new community with new spirituality. And trying to fit this into old methods, old formulae, old forms of spirituality is as ridiculous as pouring new wine into ancient wineskins:
And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins. (Mark 2:22).

The more I ponder this, the more challenging it becomes. New wine, bubbling, fermenting, calls for new forms. Jesus invites participation with him, the Father, and the Spirit in community, in kingdom, in new living. But every generation who understands and experiences the gospel afresh runs the danger of trying to fit it into old forms that cannot do justice to its freshness! Can you identify old wineskins in the way we do and think church that owe more to human entropy than to divine energy?

Its a huge topic, especially when you focus on mission and evangelism! As always, I welcome your prayers and input on my journey. What do you think?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Vulnerable preaching

This morning we took an English friend to Willow Creek -. a popular pilgrimage for many of our overseas visitors. I was intrigued because Christianity Today (June 2008) ran a piece -Willow Creek's "Huge Shift" about this church's new plan to gear weekend services towards mature believers helping them grow in faith. The article said that Senior Pastor Bill Hybels was unavailable for comment.

However he preached this morning on 'Have you died yet?" Based on John 12:24, where one seed must die to bring forth a harvest, his (impressive) visual aid was 45 bushels (baskets) of wheat - the amount just 2 bushels of seeds can produce when they "die." While Jesus was obviously talking about his own life's mission, verses 25-25 challenge "everyone who bears Christ's name is going to do some dying themselves." Seekers need to die to foolishness (Ps 14:1a), to lying (Rom 1:20-23) and to self-atoning (Tit 3:5). Beginning and growing Christians need to die to sin (Rom 6:11), to the allurements of value systems of this world (1 John 2:15-17). Mature Christians need to know they can regress (1 Cor 15:31)...I die every day. As you can tell, I made notes (- my normal really helps me listen and reflect)!

But what made most impact was the way that Bill Hybels spoke from the heart. When he said: "You cannot produce full yield until you are fully yielded" you knew he himself was on the front line. When a preacher speaks from the heart about yielding, dying every day, and about depending utterly on the goodness of God.....with openness, vulnerability, just raw honesty about their current experience....that connects! Yes, there was emotion - one of the church young people had been tragically killed the previous night. Yes, he is a skilled and practiced preacher with amazing resources. But he preached Scripture out of personal conviction that rang true for me. I have no idea what the Lord has in store for Willow and him. But I think not making comments to the press, while preaching his heart out for God to form a yielded community is the way ahead.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Anointing - Factor X?

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

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

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

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Tandem verses

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Brief reflection on speaking to pastors today

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 15, 2008

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

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

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