Saturday, March 29, 2008

Personal conviction and faith

Today I came across a stimulating quote from Frederick W. Robertson ( a nineteenth century preacher):
"It is not a minister's wisdom but his conviction which imparts itself to others. Nothing gives life but life, real flame alone kindles other flame; this was the power of the apostles: 'We believe and therefore speak.' Firm faith in what they spoke, that was the basis of the apostles' strength."

The word "conviction" appears rarely in much current description of "good preaching." The apostolic certainty seems dimmed: "for we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20). Some may (rightly) suspect passion in the pulpit, but is anything more authentic than a convinced believer on fire, proclaiming God's truth? I, for one, plead for personal conviction and faith in today's preachers.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Preaching Incarnation

My next project arises out of a book being written by good friends Peter Stevenson and Stephen Wright, entitled: Preaching the Incarnation. (They have already published Preaching the Atonement - to considerable acclaim!) Ten chapters will provide theological commentary on key biblical passages, followed by a sermon on each text and homiletical reflection.

My passage is Philippians 2: 1-11 which contains what many view as an early Christian hymn in verses 6-11. Packed with dense theology, it is also applied very practically.

Because it is for publication, and set in a theologically demanding context, its tempting to write for the eye - with as much theological gravitas as I can muster! Already Tom Long, Will Willimon, Anna Carter Florence and the Archbishop of Canterbury are on board! However, I believe, with all my heart, that preaching should never done in a study but in the midst of a congregation, (though I need the study too!) So I am taking this text for my next preach at the University Church at University of Illinois. "Real" people will help shape this preached word. As always, as I blog about my sermon journey these next days, I should value input from you.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Prayer poem

Poetry may not be your thing, but this poem is special to me. Robert W.F. Archer (Bob) taught at Spurgeon's College, London when I was Principal. He was much loved. Indeed another colleague said: "He's the best Christian we've got...we have to look after him!" A gentle, thoughtful, immensely caring pastor-teacher, he also wrote poetry - some of which was published.

He claimed that one poem was inspired by a sermon he heard me preach on prayer. Because prayer has been so important in Calvary Church these past 40 days, let me repeat it:

I used to think that I must start my prayers,
Turn my thoughts undistractedly to God;
Give thanks, confess and tell him all my cares,
Get myself into the proper pious mood.

I talked too much and found the going hard,
Ran through the petitions like a shopping-list;
Felt sometimes that the door to God was barred,
Though I aimed at heaven's target, that I missed.

Then I heard it said that Jesus intercedes,
And that is what he lives and loves to do:
My prayers join his, who ever for me pleads,
Not self-starter but prayer-partner below....

Not quick to speak, but listening for a voice,
Preparing for a meeting with the Lord;
'Tis his desire to meet, if not my choice;
I pray, though I may utter not a word.

Sometimes I feel the Spirit moving in my heart
And sometimes that I'm very much alone;
But I know Christ and I will never part:
He bears my name before his Father's throne.

(From Thoughts for Today, edited Chris Walton, Peterborough: Triumph House, 1995, page 81).

Monday, March 24, 2008

Glorious Easter

Easter Day is the best day of the year, and offers the most wonderful opportunity for the preacher. Yesterday's worship at Calvary was just glorious. Jesus' promise sounded out: " I, I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in me will live, even though he dies." (John 11:25). While the traditional service had orchestra and choirs, and concluded with us all singing Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," the contemporary services linked together thoughtful worship songs that rejoiced in Christ the King, with clapping and obvious joy.

One of you sent me a quotation today, It's so appropriate for Easter people, for Resurrection Christians:
"Despite all the calumny and harassment, Christians are generally happy, well-adjusted and uniquely unconfused about the purpose of life. We are unimpressed by the pompous idea that we are born out of nothingness, to live and die, only to disappear back into nothingness. We know this kind of thinking makes no sense at all, and we recognize this dark rhetoric for what it is: the verbal flailing of disoriented and frightened people who do not have philosophic handles on themselves or the universe in which they live. As Christians, we know that, in the course of time, from the perspective of eternity, everything is reconciled, every detail attended, every wrong righted, every kindness thanked, every wound healed, every love requited, every sin atoned, every life vindicated, every loss recovered and every loved one found.” —Linda Bowles

This week I seek to live as one who is uniquely unconfused about the purpose of life because of the Risen Lord. Do you join me?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Worthy Illustrations

In my last preaching class one student preached on resurrection in 1 Cor 15. "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (verse 20). At one point, wanting to express the wonder of Jesus' resurrection and what our response should be, he threw his arms wide with face lit up: "It's like winning the lottery! You couldn't help but be excited and joyful if that happened to you!"

Afterwards, several in class commended him for this lively illustration. "It conveyed the joy!" they said. But I was left unhappy. It's not just that winning the lottery speaks of gambling, luck and grubby materialism. More importantly, it seems such a trivial, lightweight illustration of the greatest event in the cosmos. Jesus is raised from the dead. The resurrection is quite UNLIKE anything else that has ever happened. And everything is now different for all of us. Our lives, our deaths, our purpose.

We have talked about it since. The student agrees that when we preach resurrection we have to find the noblest, most powerful, ways to express the overwhelming truth - "so in Christ all will be made alive" (verse 21). What ideas do others have?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Good Friday and Easter 2008

As we race through this full week, (still much grading and preparation for next term!), I prepare for two special occasions.

On Good Friday evening, when Calvary church completes its 40 days of prayer and fasting, I shall especially focus on Mark 14:27-42. This is always a solemn service, as worshipers are encouraged to leave in silence, meditating on our Lord's sacrifice. The Gethsemane story reveals arguably the greatest sentence uttered on the way to Calvary: "Yet not what I will, but what you will (verse36)." I believe that, by God's grace, my meditation should say, that Jesus wins the battle of the cross by prayer and obedience, and what it should do, is lead us to profound gratitude that he has won the battle over sin and death for us.

Easter morning is going to be an Alleluia morning! I conclude my series on God's promises by seizing the promise in John 11:25: I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." Promised before Easter, it vividly encapsulates the wonder of the first Easter morning in John 20:1-18) and Jesus' promise about sin, death and life. May it be a great resurrection day!

As always, any Easter insights from these passages will be warmly received.

Friday, March 14, 2008

"Good" Preaching Can Harm Your Church

Wow! That comment to my last blog really set me thinking. Bill warns that leaders raised up by God can do great things but, sometimes, "somewhere along the way...are tempted by pride and secularism to convert all of this into a "look what I made" claim. It takes a humble leader with a right perspective on God and the workings of the Holy Spirit to resist the temptation. Building a church while walking the leadership tightrope over the chasm of pride has to be one of the most difficult and treacherous endeavors for any human."

A few years ago I wrote an article for Christianity Today called: Good Preaching Can Harm Your Church. It was rejected for publication! Not surprised? It dealt with the paradox that "good" preaching's popularity and success can fatally build a church in a preacher's image rather than allowing Jesus to build it his way. There is a (very difficult) balance between deploying powerful public communication skills and remaining truly humble, dependent on God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Later it was published with the same title in the British Journal: Ministry Today, 33, Spring 2005. Several preachers told me how uneasy it made them feel. All preachers and leaders - beware the tightrope over the chasm of pride.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Blogging God's Promises (16)

Concluding Winter Term's teaching this week, I commented in class that one of the hardest tasks for my preaching students is to identify what the Scripture text DOES. Its much easier to read a passage and sum up what it is saying. But what is God's word doing? Affirming? Rebuking? Directing? Worshiping? ETC? In other words, is this text primarily good news or bad news? Will it promise something good, or will it warn about something bad?

This issue has dogged me while immersing in Sunday's promise: "I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18) Surely this is good news through and through? To Simon Peter, and others who succeed him, it's a golden purpose-driven (!) promise. Jesus promises to do the building. He takes responsibility. He is in charge. In control. But, wait a minute! How do these words sound to "strong leaders" ? We know how easily Peter, a strong leader if ever there was one, contradicted Jesus and corrected him, (even in this chapter, Matthew 16: 22). How do strong leaders hear these words? Jesus says: I will build my church - not you. Is it possible to take on more responsibility, to be more in charge and control than we should? What's going on here?

I am still working on it. Any help will be gratefully received.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Blogging God's Promises (15)

I am honored to be back preaching at Calvary Memorial, Oak Park, for the eight days that changed the world - Palm Sunday through Good Friday to Easter Day.

March 16 is Palm Sunday. Obviously this is a hosanna day, with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. It seems so unlikely that this solitary figure can achieve much. He knows, (and we know), that he is going to his death. So we shall need to sound out this extraordinary story again ( Matt 21:1-11).

But I must focus on another one of God's great promises in Matthew 16:18, 19. "I will buld my church." As I immerse myself into this passage, I begin to see its impact for my sermon.

By God's grace my sermon will SAY: Jesus takes full responsibility for building his "called-out people"; nothing (not even Satan and Death) can destroy them, for they belong to God's eternal plan.
and my sermon will DO: Challenge us when we take on too much responsibility, and encourage us when we lose hope and perspective.

Actually I think it is going to be both tough and encouraging to write and deliver. Please pray for the outcome.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Disagreeing with myself

I have just stumbled across something I wrote some time ago: "There should be no small sermons - all preaching should stretch heart, soul, mind, and strength." I imagine that I was spurring myself (and others) on towards bigger sermons full of God. And I would still argue such a big vision of preaching is important. As Richard Baxter famously wrote: " I preached as never sure to preach again, And as a dying man to dying men."

But I also recognize how heroically bombastic it can sound! Aiming for the horizon I can miss what's under my nose. Don't some sermons, in order to stretch hearers, need to go small? Not small in Spirit, but smaller in scale?

I was challenged by Eugene Peterson in Subversive Spirituality. Asked what he would preach about if he knew this was his last sermon, he answered:

I think I would want to talk about things that are immediate and ordinary. In the kind of world we live in, the primary way that I can get people to be aware of God is to say, "Who are you going to have breakfast with tomorrow, and how are you going to treat that person?" I don't feel like I'm part of the big vision or the catchy slogan. I just want to pay attention to what people are doing and help them do it in acts of faith and prayer. I guess I'd want to say, "Go home and be good to your wife. Treat your children with respect. And so a good job whatever you've been given to do."

That's no small sermon!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Worship Collaboration (2) - P, WL or W?

Last Saturday I led two workshops called: Reconnecting Preaching with Worship, and I asked participants three questions.

First, are you a P, WL or W? P - preacher: WL - worship leader; W - worshipper. (Yes, I know that P and WL are also worshipers!) I told them their different viewpoints were essential. W's formed the majority, with P's a substantial group though, sadly, WLs were scarce.

Second question - are preaching and worship separated in your church and in your experience? "No", said a few. Scripture, theme, hymns/song, and prayers all flow together. But, it became clear that these few belonged to smaller churches where worship planning was solo - undertaken by the preacher! One or two of these spoke about the lectionary's value in disciplining this solo responsibility.

But others, a majoirty, said "Yes". For them, worship structure seemed to have little relationship with the preaching, creativity was minimal and seemed captive to routine or personal choice. I asked why, and many reasons emerged, such as:
  • Scripture had no role in shaping the service
  • Lack of time for preparation, as choice of text and sermon (very) late in week
  • Already over-committed busy people
  • Poor team work between preacher and others involved with worship
  • Failure to pattern worship so that there is gathering, confession, word, thanksgiving and sending forth
  • Little sense of participation so that congregation is given space to respond
  • Sidelining of communion
  • Omission of pastoral prayer and place for community intercession

We admitted that so much depends on how we define worship, and understand its importance. In fact, I gave them a number of worship definitions that immediately began stretching our thinking. A big understanding of worship not only embraces preaching but ensures its primary importance for church and ministry.

Third question - in what ways can we improve or reconnect preaching with worship? Some of the bullet points above were addressed in practical ways, but we quickly ran out of time. ( Alas, its always easier to analyze problems than to envision how to put them right!) But this concern won't go away. In my last blog on worship collaboration (Feb 19th), Edward made the comment that in his pastoral experience it doesn't matter about trying to collaborate!

What do you think? How would you answer these three questions? Do they matter? Please let me know.