Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Blogging God's Promises (9)

Next Sunday (Feb 3rd) we come to God's promise about stress and anxiety. Someone said to me last Sunday: "I can't wait for next's about worry, isn't it? Few of us have got anxiety licked." Too true. And there is so much advice out there about dealing with stress that you wonder what difference a few minutes of a sermon might make! Temperament, situation, health, imagination, and sensitivity all differ so much from person to person. How can there be a promise for all? It sounds inevitably simplistic.

I am preparing to preach on 1 Peter 5:7. Its context seems unfruitful at first, with instructions to local churches - about leaders (vs.1-4), young men (v.5) and to "all of you," to be humble. Good spiritual sense. But, then, suddenly a solid gold promise rings out: "Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you" (verse7).

I shall need to set some context to the subject of anxiety, because it may certainly be illegitimate (Matthew 6:25), and yet also legitimate (2 Cor 11:28). For God to deliver his promise in 1 Peter 5:7 there are things we need to do such as discernment and simplification. But then, let's seize what God promises to DO because of his care for us!

My sermon's main impact runs. By God's grace my sermon will say: Discern legitimate anxieties and know that God cares enough for us to throw them onto him. And what my sermon will do: encourage us to practice casting anxiety on God.

May it be realistic, practical and applicable right now. As always, I am open to your thoughts and grateful for your prayers. Please let me know if this 1 Pet. 5:7 promise has been especially important to you.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Blogging God's Promises (8)

What a morning at Calvary Memorial, seizing God's promise of peace (Romans 5:1; 12:18). At one point, I asked the congregation(s) to self-test on two areas of creativity, on a scale of 1 to 10 (-1 means no skill, 5 average skill, and 10 maximum skill).

The first test relates to "peace-wrecking." Where do we place ourselves on this scale? Here average skill is well-developed since most are naturally gifted, with so many techniques for falling out with people, taking umbrage, misunderstanding, being jealous...and otherwise creating bad chemistry. Frankly, we can do it with our eyes shut. We don't even need to say or do anything - just subtle body language can create hostility. So, if you are at a 6 or a 7 you really are proficient! I remember being asked to visit a lady and being warned: "She's not easy to get on with." Well, that was an understatement. Her very first sentence was lethally subversive, adroitly agitating my spirit and firing up hostility. She was utterly brilliant. I was dazzled by her imagination, creativity and sheer energy. I rated her at least a 9! Definitely at jedi knight proficiency. A black belt. Mensa class.

The second test concerns "peace-making." Here skill levels are far less developed. In fact the average ability is very low. So to be average is really very poor, with low amounts of imagination, creativity and sheer energy. Of course, the two belong together. The higher you are on the peace-wrecking scale, inevitably the poorer you are as peace-maker!

Well, we had some fun. But the implications are devastatingly serious. If we claim Romans 5:1 "Therefore, since we have been justified by through, we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ," then we, of all people, should know the cost of Jesus' sacrifice to reconcile us to God, and heed his command to be peace-makers. If God's people don't cope with conflict with above average peace-making skills (by His Spirit), what hope is there? Every little bit of indulgent peace-wrecking sabotages God's peace. Every moment of peace-making counts. "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Rom 12;18) I heard sober stories this morning of people who know that peace-making is a priority this week. And I want to develop more imagination, creativity and trust in God's energy for better peace-making too. What about you?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Healthy Conflict

I confess some tension as I work on peace-making. No doubt, we desperately need peace-makers who, with sacrifice (I agree with Steve's comment on my last blog) and discipline, bring healing to destructive conflict. Negative conflict is highly dangerous.

However, conflict can also be positive and healthy. What? Indeed, gospel transformation, learning to live new life together in Christ, means (much) conflict with old ways, and the world's ways. Gospel promises inevitably create tension.

That's why, in my last book, I urged biblical preachers to stir up tension.

While conflict can be destructive when people lose sight of common vision, it possesses life-giving possiblities when through healthy tension new understandngs emerge...we empathize with the bewildered pastor who said, "All my life, I've judged my success by how happy everyone in the church was. You are telling me that if I'm really on mission with God, one sign of my success will be the presence of conflict."...... True peace does not paper over difficulties but emerges through conflict in honest new health. (360degree leadership, page 66).

I believe that preaching Scripture "generates and sustains creative tension" because God always wants to transform us into better people together. We haven't yet arrived at spiritual maturity, (say that again), and his challenge to live as mature Christ-followers, generously sharing the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), is tough to swallow.

So, to challenge people to be peace-makers (Romans 12:18), a preacher has to stir up tension ("healthy tension") about getting on with something that most of us don't want to do!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

On not coping with conflict

Working on my peace-making sermon, I am struck by how radical peace-making is. It truly counters basic human behavior, which is often exposed at its aggressive worst by conflict. Hostility brings out the bad in us, viscerally perpetuating conflict.

Of the many lessons parents should give their children, dealing positively with conflict seems regularly omitted. Parents who run away, model evasion; others who are combative, model aggression. I recall parking a rental car outside a store and returning to find an enormous SUV had reversed, from the parking space opposite, right over its hood. Police were called, and the owners were summonsed by the store's loud speaker system. A wealthy attractive mother with her teenage daughter strode straight across, and went straight for my jugular. First the daughter, and then the mother: "How stupid I was to drive under their car!" Their rottweiler ferocity took my breath away. I tried sweet reasonableness (yes, I really did) but the hostility was palpable. Like mother, like daughter. And the police officer said there was nothing he could do!

When church conflict arises, often dangerously sudden, believers tend to react in character too. Some defensive, others aggressive and all shades of reaction in between. No matter how much we have heard about "telling the truth in love" and "love overcoming evil" and how the fruit of the Spirit includes "gentleness and self-control," all that is quickly jettisoned as we take offence.

Peace-making is God's courageous alternative. It requires learning fresh ways from Jesus Christ. This Sunday, at Calvary Memorial, I pray that some of us will heed God's challenge and commit to his counter-cultural peace-making.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Blogging God's Promises (7)

It's eyes down for my next sermon on God's promise of PEACE, (February 27th). It's going to be a little different, because it accompanies the launch of a peace-making ministry -"Solomon's Way" - at Calvary Memorial Church. A number of people have been trained as conflict coaches/mentors by Peacemaker Ministries (- see I love the idea of "peace activists" at work in the church. I also appreciate the ready application this provides the preacher! Many sermons beg the frustrated question - YBH? Yes, but how? Yes, the preacher has challenged, but how can we best respond?

After collaboration, I have chosen Romans 5:1-11; 12:17-21 as my text. It makes clear how peace and reconciliation are key words in God's vocabulary. First comes doctrine with the glorious promise that we are at peace with God.You cannot explain his work for us without these words - PEACE, RECONCILIATION. What a promise to seize by faith! Second, the verses in chapter 12 are intensely practical with their challenge to believers to be peace-makers.

You know how I like to summarize the "main impact" of the Scripture passage for the sermon (what the text says and does, the sermon should say and do!) See Blogging God's Promises (2)! For this next sermon, my "main impact" runs:
  • By God's grace what this sermon will say is that: Peace and Reconciliation are at the heart of God's work, delivered through Jesus Christ on the cross, so that we are at peace with him and with each other.
  • And what the sermon will do is ; challenge us to seize the peace promise and be peace activists in his power and for his sake.

As always I should value any help you can give me. Any stories where you have been in conflict resolution for the sake of the Prince of Peace? Please keep praying that God will use my preparation.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Psalm surprise

One of the surprises following preaching on Psalm 1 has been the number of people who have claimed it is their "special" psalm too. One shared how significant it had been to them, a mother told me her children were memorizing it. Another said it was their grandfather's favorite.

I remember being told many years ago that every believer has a special psalm. It was said with authority, (based on what I haven't a clue - almost as though there was some divine allocation system!) While such blanket generalizations seem untenable yet, in my own experience, it is true that one particular psalm has echoed through my life so far - Psalm 16. Continuously, at several critical moments, as well as in routine humdrum, Psalm 16 has struck home. The whole psalm, and especially verse 8: I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

Of course some psalms have already entered our mainstream, especially Psalm 23. But what else might there be for us? What a rich, honest resource in God's word the psalms are. Shouldn't we turn to them more than we do, and even expect encounters for a lifetime? Do you have a "special psalm"?

Loving the people

Often my classes begin with open discussion on the previous week's required reading. Yesterday one student exclaimed how struck they were by a comment on how preachers can love their preaching more than the people. Many others chimed in with agreement.

"We love the subject more than the people....The first act of love in preaching is an act of self-denial - to become more interested in people than in the subject. That means giving up the love of knowledge and replacing it with a love for people." (Preaching that Connects, Mark Galli and Brian Larson, Zondervan, 1994, page 16.

How does this strike you? There is just so much truth to share...but surely never at the expense of loving the hearers?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Blogging God's Promises (6)

This morning, Sermon Two focused on God's Promise of Happiness. What happened was such joy to me. Why? Because of several factors:

Collaboration - when Jane (a church member) told me her story many weeks ago about how Psalm 1 had been God's promise to her over many years, I longed for her to share it. Others suggested making a video testimony, and a gifted member of the congregation, Donny, (who is a professional film maker), wrote a script (working with Jane) and then filmed/edited a 4 minute 7 second video. Involving many different voices and scenes, developing the image of TREES, (at the heart of the psalm), it ended imaginatively with different church members on the lawn outside! I was overwhelmed when I first saw it. Oh, what can happen when people share their best to tell out God's word, and how it enriched me as preacher! To have all these friends collaborating with me. Thank You.

Realism - Jane told her story briefly but with honest highs and lows that registered directly. One person said: "That what so real. The failed marriage, the difficulties of trying to start again. That's me." So many conversations and prayers were sparked.

God's word now - her personal realism provided a vehicle through which to declare God's promise of Psalm 1 today. I preached three aspects to claiming God's promise of happiness in Psalm 1:
Discern when to say 'No" to the ungodly- verse 1
Delight to say "yes" to God and be like a tree(!) - verses 2,3
Grow together in joy - Verses 5,6,
Several commented especially on the last part - the picture of Calvary Memorial as an "arboretum" - seeing the plurals of the NRSV translation: "Happy are those who do not take the counsel of the wicked..they delight in the law of the Lord...they are like trees planted by streams of water...the congregation of the righteous." What a vision of growing together in God's promises, some silver birches, perhaps a giant redwood, helping each other to discern courageously about saying "No," and rejoicing in the "yesses" (Psalm 96:12).

This sermon (with video clip) should be posted soon on calvarytv at
Now on to sermons three (peace) and four (stress & anxiety). Please keep praying and working with me.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Devil in the White City

I have just finished Erik Larson's 2003 book (of this title) telling the truly remarkable story of Chicago World's Fair of 1893. This became one of the wonders of the world, but the real wonder is how it ever happened at all, given the almost insurmountable difficulties that the architect Daniel H. Burnham faced.

However, Larson intertwines stories of two men. One is glorious, heroic and visionary as Burnham created the 'White City" - a massive, beautiful landscape of white buildings with the first Ferris Wheel, set in an incandescent, wonderland of canals and gardens. The other is inglorious and macabre, as he tells the story of H.H. Holmes who managed to hide his terrible crimes as a serial killer of young women under the drama of the World's Fair.

Often chapters are literally intertwined - Burnham's story alternating with Holmes'. One of my friends said she couldn't bear to read about Holmes so she omitted alternate chapters! I sympathized. But I also understand the author's intent: "the juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck me as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions."

As I prepare for my next sermon on God's promises, positively though realistically, I remember what Martin Luther once wrote. "The devil makes promises too."

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Idols in a black garbage bag

Yesterday one of my former students, Ryan, came to tell me about his ministry since leaving Northern two years ago. It was exhilarating news. Going to Vancouver, for his wife to complete a degree at Regent College, he was appointed as Pastor for Spiritual Formation in a Baptist Church. However, after a few months of interim, he was invited to become Senior Pastor.

What thrilled me most? Well, three things. First, his evident love for Christ and, second, his desire to win people. His church is situated in LIttle India, (apparently well named). Recently he went to the home of a Hindu couple, (in their sixties), who wanted him him to remove the idols from their home, because of their love for Christ. "What did you do?" I asked him. "I read some psalms about false idols, and warned of the danger of leaving the house unoccupied (Matt. 12:43-45) rather than letting their lives be filled with Jesus Christ." "And what did you do with the idols?" "Well, I would have liked to burn them, but they were made of brass, so I put them in a black plastic bag and disposed of them on the way home!"

And the third thing? His radiant commitment to preaching. "Now I am doing it every week I see how vitally important it is for everything," he said. Oh, how encouraged I am as I prepare my teaching notes for the next class! He shared good news about some of his peers too.

Any former students out there? Please let me know how things are going!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Blogging God's Promises (5)

Genevieve commented on my last blog, about the difference between covenant and promise, and expressed some surprise that I didn't start my sermon with the great bible promises/covenant with Noah and Moses.

Good question and query! God's covenants always involve God's promises, as he initiates amazing relationships (out of the goodness of his grace) with us. Just look at God's covenant with Abram (Genesis 12:2,3,7) promising to make him into a great nation, and by him, blessing all peoples on earth. There seems absolutely no shred of evidence that this could be remotely true...yet Abram steps out in trust BECAUSE GOD HAS PROMISED. Carpe promissum. And God does it!

Covenant talk is powerful, taking us to Jesus Christ's use of the word (Mark 14:22-5, 1 Cor 11:23-25). Covenant talk thrills me with God's claims of a new covenant in Christ's death.
But in this series I am focussing on a wide range of His promises, and that's why I began where I did.

Promises are serious stuff. They reveal God's heart as He deals with us. God could have given Abram instant action, instead of promises to be worked out over the long haul. But it seems God always works by promise, giving us space and room to respond. It's the same for Christmas. God could have provided instant success for Jesus and his mission, but he works by promise and fulfilment over the long-term.

I am working hard on the next sermon - God promises happiness (Psalm 1). Any help you can give me?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Blogging God’s Promises (4)

Breathless since returning to the USA on Thursday, I launched my first sermon on God’s promises this morning at Calvary Memorial Church, Oak Park. My reactions over the past three days include:

  • Gratitude on Friday for another meeting with church friends, in a snow-bound scout hut, which really helped root me back into fellowship. Not the snow-bound part (!) but the hour of sharing about promises and our dreams for the church in 2008.
  • Panic on Saturday as careful sermon preparations made in London over Christmas unraveled. Many preachers know the dread of hard work falling so short of the glory….and the need for a fresh word with new dependence. I completely re-worked the sermon.
  • Wonder on Sunday, entering under the banner over the main doors, into such prayerful expectation, with a packed church (especially in the second service). There was extraordinary attentiveness and many spoke to me afterwards about how God’s promises, and some of the stories I told, had impacted them. Some said they would email me.
  • Thanksgiving at the words God gave me. From Acts 2:14-21, I showed how God’s Promises are Spiritual, Personal and Communal. At one point I mentioned how the movie Dead Poets Society made the Latin tag famous: Carpe Diem – Seize the Day. But for Christian believers, the challenge is CARPE PROMISSUM – Seize the Promise! (Shortly, the sermon will be posted on Calvary TV at

    I know I need to remain sensitive and open in order for God to use these next sermons aright. Next Sunday we tackle God’s promises about happiness, focusing on Psalm 1. A video testimony is being filmed. Keep praying and Carpe Promissum!