Thursday, December 31, 2009

Greetings for a Bright 2010!

Moving into a New Year always presents challenges - reflection on the past and pondering the new. Leaving the so-called Noughties, and learning to write 2010 on correspondence, I am in process of replacing my 2009 calendar with my 2010 one. (Yes, I still use pen and books!) So, one battered diary is laid to rest with all its efforts, energy, successes and failures. Of course, many relationships and some initiatives of 2009 continue on through, but now so much seems dated!

But, the challenge of working with the new is equally daunting. I often think of James 4:13-17 about the way we presumptuosly make plans for the future. "Now listen you who say 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why you do not even know what will happen tomorrow....Instead you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will' we will live and do this or that."

It used to be more common that Christians would add D.V. as they made their plans. Deo Volente - if the Lord wills. As I jot down commitments and events in my 2010 calendar I must keep thinking DV, to remind myself of how little I do know about tomorrow even, and how much I need to keep trusting God for it. It is said that the way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans! I enter this new year profoundly grateful for the health and strength God has given through 2009, but aware that I need him every step of 2010. A bright trusting 2010 for you!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Joyful Christmas Greetings

Carol and I love to receive cards and messages - this annual catching up with friends (I know I'm not on facebook!) combining annual newsharing with Christmas Greetings is special. Some greetings have been particularly exhilarating.

Like the 25minute phone call from California from old friends Nick and Rose - missionaries to Russia whose hard work and influence spans decades, continuing right up til' now. I haven't actually seen Nick for over five years, since they moved from our church, but conversation began instantly as though we had been talking just 5 minutes earlier.

And what was outstanding about this call? It could have been their knowledge, love and continuing prayers for us...shown by reference to recent happenings in our family. And their own quality sharing about of ministry and life in California. Well, those were great aspects, but what struck me, overwhelmed me, was their out-and-out JOYFULNESS.

There was not one shadow in 25 minutes. Not one negative obtruded. Now I'm not in favor of enforced jollity and "putting a brave face on." But there was nothing false about this. It was one wonderful sweep of unalloyed gratitude to God in all things with transparent thankfulness, every second. He told me how wonderful it is to be used by God in old age. That God had clearly given him and Rose a verse -Joshua 13:1. "When Joshua was old and well advanced in years, the Lord said to him. "You are very old, and there are still very large areas of land to be taken over." He said: "You see I've still got work to do!

He chuckled, enthused, encouraged, listened, and wished us wonderful Christmas Greetings. I know some of us have things to be negative about, but at this time of celebrating Christ's birth there is plenty to be JOYFUL about too. I came off the 'phone uplifted, with a smile on my face.

A very Joyful Christmas to you!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Double Kindness

Something happened to me that is extraordinarily kind. When Carol and I were in Washington DC we met up with a friend who lives in the area, and promised to bring his wife and daughters to meet us if we ever visited. Well, he arranged a marvelous meal at a restaurant overlooking the floodlit Capitol Building and later took us (in heavy rain) to climb the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials.

But at the beginning of the evening meal something special happened. He presented me with a gift. A small blue box wrapped in celophane with a blue bow. It felt so light I wondered what it could be. I could never have guessed. When he visited the Guntenberg Museum in Mainz he had see the "smallest book ever published." It is minute, less than 4x4 mm. Each page contains engraved print, with hand-binding in leather and gold embossing on the front. Its tiny pages have the Lord's Prayer in seven different languages! It belongs within a tiny glass box, which opens to reveal a magnifying glass - which you really need. You can imagine - I was utterly entranced. When he visited the museum he had bought one for himself, and another to give to a friend. I couldn't believe his generosity (and it is expensive) and the sheer surprise of the gift.

As we left the restaurant, piling into his car to begin our nocturnal drive through Washington, I marveled at his kindness. After a few moments, I felt in my pocket for the little box....and found it wasn't there. With panic I checked all my pockets, the floor, the seat. With dismay I stuttered to my host and donor that I must have left the gift in the restaurant. How could I have done? I remembered it still on the table....we called the restaurant. They checked the table. No it had gone. I felt so miserable. My friend who had given it to me was obviously upset. Everyone was upset. In fact, Carol said it spoilt the whole evening. She was right.

Well, yesterday a package arrived. As a cardboard box it felt so light. Opening it, I found it was from my friend. In bubble wrap was another precious little blue box! Originally, he had purchased one more and, in spite of my carelessness, he was willing to give me a second one. How extraordinary is that? When I called him I said that the smallest book in the world was now even more precious because it reminded me of forgiveness and grace that has gone the second mile. I am truly grateful. It's a wonderful unusual gift that I shall treasure not only for itself, but for its representation of double kindness - extravagant grace.

When God breaks through into our world in the vulnerable baby Jesus, we know this is the most special and precious gift of love imaginable. Yet, too often we go on living in ways that just don't deserve the gift. We really are an undeserving lot, time and time again. Yet God goes on giving his best of love in spite of us......kindness upon kindness. That's grace!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Completing Fall Term

Last week saw the end of term during which I have listened to 21 sermons (each 20 minutes long), preached by students in the prayer chapel and filmed in DVD. Each student is given a different text (covering both OT and NT), and is expected to work with my 360degree "preaching swim" model (- now what a shock!)

Every year gives me surprises, but this term turned up some remarkable events. At least five students had never preached before! Either they came from churches where no opportunity to preach was given, or their sense of call has developed more recently. Actually, one said that he had come to seminary in order to study worship and spirituality. He is a gifted worship leader and confessed that preaching was anathema - "A complete and total waste of time" he said. Yet, after being at Northern Seminary for the last two years he has come to realize its kingdom significance.

It really surprised me that these five students who had never preached before turned out to be among those whose gifting shone most! In at least one case, the sermon class became God's "call to preach." Of course there are many practical issues of delivery to develop, and next term I want them all to preach without notes. But the heart of their preaching was inspiring!

I am encouraged for the future of the church when I hear young preachers like these. And when teaching seems something of a grind (and grading even more), it lights up my day to think God is raising a new generation of preachers. Isn't it great to think that God is still calling and gifting in our midst?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

After Washington

One of you emailed me and said that I really am tantalizing you with this story in three parts! But it goes to show what a significant event it has been for me!

It is always difficult knowing what has happened when you preach a sermon. Preachers are notoriously subjective judges - either running ourselves down too quickly, or patting ourselves on the back too enthusiastically. The truth is that only one - or rather the Three-in-One - can judge a sermon's effectiveness. It's not just what happens in the moment, but the longer term impact as the Holy Spirit goes on working in the lives of hearers (and preachers) and the community.

However, for me, the most wonderful part was how some of the preachers present went out of their way over the next three days to comment positively about the sermon. Sometimes in overview, at other times with one detail or another. Almost the first person was a very "big name" in the preaching world, who bounded across to say: "Michael you have no idea how much I needed to hear that word tonight. It really ministered to me in ways you will never know." Another took my hand and told me some of the journey they went on as the Scripture spoke to them. Of course, one or two were critical, and I know it would have been very different from how many others would have preached the same text.

One of the most interesting comments came from a third party who said: "I just have to tell you this. So-and-so (another "big name") told me that he had come in the spirit that he was "going to take you on!" But within a few sentences of your beginning, he knew how inappropriate was his attitude. All his negative presumptions melted away as he listened!"

I let you know this because I am so grateful for many of my students and friends who really supported me. You know, for good and baser reasons, I really wanted to share God's good news within this academic guild of preachers. At the end of the conference, before the Benediction, David Schlafer invited us all to share those moments that had hit us throughout the meetings. And then he began by referring to a line in my own sermon: "It's not beautiful voices or words that God can best use, but beautiful feet as his messengers go close to people and tell them good news."

It's back to reality now with all the grading at the end of term, and a picking up again of my book manuscript that has long been pushed onto the back-burner. But I praise God for the ups-and-downs of my Washington experience. Thanks for partnering me.

Monday, December 7, 2009

At Washington

Its hard not to be impressed by Washington on your first visit (and later ones too!) The convention hotel was not too far from the Mall, with Washington Memorial and White House within striking distance. But there wasn't much time to explore.

I was slated to preach at the first session of the Academy meeting. In fact many members were arriving from the airport just in time for this 6.30pm service. It was held in beautiful Mount Vernon Square United Methodist Church. Flights of white steps swept up to high main doors, framed by white columns. Inside, a magnificent sanctuary with dark elegant pews and stained glass windows focused on a central pulpit. Fairly small, with a central microphone, I tried it for size.

Others had planned the worship service with me, and we all felt the strangeness of beginning a conference in this different place. Everything seemed cold and something of an effort. Academicians began streaming in, acknowledging friends, looking at the program notes, and taking in the surroundings. After singing and praying I moved into the pulpit. The microphone popped as I spoke. In poor light I peered at the congregation. Several of my preaching friends were there.....and many others too.

What happened next? As I preached, I found myself in a place light years away from being in that preaching class on Monday. Even as I preached, I knew that many people were praying for me, and that the hard work of refocussing was proving helpful. It was one of those occasions when time just flew. I preached without notes (as I always seek to do) and led the congregation into visualizing the coming of God's messengers with beautiful feet - challenging because beautiful feet means being in God's right places. With references to C.H. Spurgeon, Jerry Springer (!), and many others...but especially focusing my preaching on the text !

Apparently, the sermon will soon be posted on the academy site, so you can hear it if you are interested. I'll give details when it appears. Next time I'll tell you what happened afterwards.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Before Washington

Time has raced by. I last posted my apprehension about my "big preach" at the Academy of Homiletics in Washington D.C. In the blur of the following days three things happened:
  • I preached last Monday to my class. One end session was open in the preaching lab after hearing two students. So I gave the class my sermon work on Isa 52:1-10 called News Bringers (designed to fit in with the Academy theme: Preaching and the News!). Beforehand I would have said it was about 60% OK. But as I preached, it began to unravel! Honestly! It sounded flat, disconnected and without flow. I always challenge my students to "test for sound" but this was a very public test with embarrassing results. The students proved very insightful - pointing out weaknesses and suggesting improvements. One thanked me for being willing to be vulnerable....and I was. But, of course, I really thought the sermon was already fairly well developed. I guess I now knew I had about 40% OK.
  • That night and between teaching and grading the next two days I refocused the sermon, praying that there might be life, connection and flow - put there by God. I believe sermon preparation is a spiritual task and I prayed hard that the shortness of time left would not compromise quality.
  • Getting on the plane, Wednesday, with a new sermon, I thought how very appropriate it all was. I was going to preach to a galaxy of preachers, but through openness and trust before my own students I had been led to deeper places of dependency. Preachers need the prayers and support of others, and willingness to work hard with God's Holy Spirit!

Next, I'll tell you what happened at Washington.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Nervousness about Preaching

Over these next few weeks all my students in preaching classes (21 of them) have to preach in chapel and be filmed. For some it is their first preaching experience, ever! You can imagine how several have expressed their nervousness about the whole event.

However, all this talk about nervousness has particular edge for me. On December 3rd. I will preach at the opening service of the Academy of Homiletics in Washington D.C. This is a gathering of many of the big names in the preaching field - authors whose books are standard in our class rooms, and who have exercised huge influence over decades. Without a doubt, they form the most intimidatingly knowledgable and gifted congregation I have ever faced! In the homiletics world these are household names.

One of the Academy members, David Schlafer, wrote to me: "Of course you tremble at the thought of preaching at the Academy (who wouldn't!). The comforting thing, of course, is that the One before whom trembling is truly appropriate says "Fear not!" That's right! All preachers should always feel some nervousness, no matter how experienced they are. We should never be self-confident that we will get it right for almighty God! What daring opportunities to be ambassadors for Christ. And He promises to be with us.

Shortly I hope to post a summary of my sermon work so far!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Second Anniversary

When I began posting on November 18 2007 I had little idea where my blog might go. I had a three ground rules:
1) To try and avoid narcissism - but inevitably writing about personal events and attempting personal perspectives does stroke ego.
2) To give devotional nuggets for thought on a range of issues.
3) To entice collaborators to help me work on projects, both writing and speaking.

Here we are two years later. Probably I have failed with 1) above, but the best outcome has been the range of collaborators who have been willing to give me input and feedback. I have found it invaluable.

I have been warned that my blog will never develop strongly unless I am pro-active and link up strategically in the blogosphere. I confess failure here - often it's been almost too much effort just to post something coherently on this site never mind connect with others. Anyway, I enter my third year tremendously grateful to you all for reading and caring. I found that out when my son Rob was ill (he's still making slow progress by the way!) Many thanks for journeying with me.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Encountering The King's Singers

Carol and I went to a concert at Wheaton College Artists Series last night. It featured The King's Singers who were concluding a three-and-half-week US tour with this near sell-out performance. You may know their work - high quality capella singing. Just six men (two countertenors, one tenor, two baritones and one bass) filled the auditorium with beautiful harmony, in a wide variety of music ranging from medieval madrigals through to a Beatles number! Some of it was high-brow and (towards the end) low-brow. It was all very English - after all the group began in King's College Cambridge in 1968!

But the point of this posting is that the organizer of the Artist Series, Tony Payne, invited us to go in the interval to meet and greet the famous six, together with other members of the Artist Series Guild. As soon as the intermission began, Carol and I inched through the masses to find the door to backstage was barred by two determined students in tuxedos. They doubted that we had permission to go through, but one went and checked. He returned and said we were welcome to see them.

To our immense surprise (never mind their's) Carol and I spent the entire intermission with the singers undisturbed. They were delightful, reminiscing about English life. One singer had been to the same school as our boys in Blackburn, and now living near Cambridge has one child in a school where Carol taught as substitute teacher! I revelled in recalling my university music memories. They were extremely kind and interested in us, but also shared much about themselves. It was remarkable!

You can imagine how flushed with excitement we were returning to our seats, and how personally involved with them we felt for the second half. Aren't there some surprises in life? We puzzled why others didn't come through?

It struck me that the experience had something to say to me as I continue to write about the huge subject of Christian worship and the privilege of access. On the biggest scale, how can we really get close and involved when it comes to knowing and experiencing God? Yet, precisely through Christ, by the Holy Spirit, we are welcome into fellowship with God the Father. Now that is the most remarkable happening!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Real Life (3)

I need to post deepest thanks for the prayers of so many of you for our son Rob. Several of you have emailed your concern. Carol and I are very grateful indeed to have such a strong circle of prayerful friends.

The latest news is encouraging. Hospital consultants regard the most likely cause of his troubles relates to the impact of migraines. Trying to lose weight, balance his diet, and keep work pressures manageable, he returned to teaching this week. He has had one recurrence of "stroke-like" symptoms since, but that was at the end of an extraordinarily long day of university activity (plus a minor car accident!) With prayer and care he makes progress. Thank you for partnering with us.

Meanwhile, real life pounds relentlessly on. Regretfully, my postings have been few of late but maybe (!) November will see a resurgence.

Monday, October 26, 2009


I have just returned from four days in Idaho, speaking to leaders in the Inland North Western Area of ABC churches. With five sessions, I was keen to develop some new material (always trying to gain feedback for my next book on worship!)... right up to the last minute. The flight (via Salt Lake City) took seven hours, and during much of that time I busied myself creating appropriate talks, with much writing (and crossings-out). Arriving at Spokane, the Area Executive Minister met me and took me for a tour of some spectacular countryside before depositing me in my lakeside room.

With gratitude for safe arrival I unpacked my notes on the desk to discover that I had left all my work on the plane. What! How could I have so stupidly placed all this work in the seat pocket in front of me....and then walked off? I felt so silly.

The saga of the next three hours hardly bears repeating. Yes, I prayed! SW airlines at Spokane airport claimed there was no yellow plastic folder full of notes left on my flight. I begged them to keep looking and said I would call back in an hour. Meanwhile, I was plagued by how best to fill the sessions. An hour later they said there was still no trace. I pleaded: "But if the plane was cleaned someone must have found them...surely they wouldn't have thrown the fat file away." But would they? The woman on the phone said there was one more thing she could check. 3 minutes later she announced they HAD found it! Great was my rejoicing as you can imagine! A pastor, driving past the airport to the conference, was contacted and then brought them into me.

I learned several sharp lessons in a hurry. How easy it is to do silly things...and how grateful I am for prayers answered!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Right Thing, Right Time

This last weekend offered an easy case study of doing the right thing at the right time, though I confess I wobbled in decision-making.

Many months ago I planned to attend the 2009 Evangelical Homiletics Society Meeting in Fort Worth, Texas October 15-17. Especially because its theme was :Promoting Community through Preaching, I was keen to participate. When the call for conference papers was given, I submitted a proposal on the subject of "Exploring Community Formation through Preaching." Invited to give the paper I then spent over six weeks writing it. It was hard work. Actually, I mentioned the process in a blog.....yet I was excited that I was going to be given feedback on new material. In addition to attending the meeting we were planning to spend time with old friends in Texas - everything was booked and projected to be a significant occasion.

And, then, the day before leaving we heard my son Rob was back in hospital in New Jersey. During his first emergency (a week earlier) we had kept in touch by 'phone but this time sounded worse. My first reaction was that we could honor the conference commitment while still keeping in close touch. Really, part of me was arguing that I should stay with the plan! However, the more we prayed and thought about it the more absurd that seemed. Of course, my son's need for his parents over-rode my plans. Why did I even think twice? Because, when it comes down to it, it's rarely easy to give up things we really want to do (and have worked for) even though there are more important things we really ought to do. In a word - to do what God wants.

I recognize that this was an easy decision. As soon as it was made, with flights to Newark instead of Fort Worth etc., both of us sensed such peace.....confirmed by several events. As Carol and I have reflected since, we have remembered how often in pastoral ministry the decisions between responding to church family crises and personal family needs were decidedly more complex. I am sure that I made mistakes then. However, I thank God, I didn't make a mistake this time.

Real Life Interrupts! (2)

As some readers know, my wife and I had to rush to New Jersey for these last four days because my son Rob had another attack which put him back into hospital. It seemed like another stroke because of loss of speech and movement, but after exhaustive tests (day and night) the (many) experts are still not sure about cause and prognosis. They don't think he has suffered strokes! It's been a deeply perplexing time.

Rob is now out of hospital and awaiting further results of tests over the next two weeks, and so we continue to wait and pray. Our presence seemed a real boost to our embattled family out there. We believe there have been answers to prayer in the fact that he has no evident sign of damage to brain or heart in spite of these attacks. Anyway we keep upholding him....

As a sidebar - the title "real life interrupts" can be really misleading, as though other parts of our lives are less real just because they are ordinary. Actually, the mundane should be just as real. But what I have learned is to try and ensure that the right responses are made at the right time when emergencies break into other plans! And by "right responses" I mean - what would God want me to do! Maybe I should blog on that!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Pages from a Preacher's Prayer Book (12)

12 In the beginning God…Gen. 1:1

Scripture’s first four words are stunning. They put everything into perspective. Theologians rightly emphasize how God in the beginning created out of nothing – ex nihilo. That before anything came to be, anything at all, God is. No matter how far back the time-line extends through billions of light years, there never was time when God was not. Mystery, wonder, awe overwhelm with these four words.

As a newly ordained pastor to a church in Blackburn, England I preached my first sermon on these four words - just these four. I don’t have a record of what I said, but I know I had to stress that the beginning of a new pastorate was just another little chapter in God’s big story, from creation to consummation. I also wanted to check any self-importance seeping into my ministry, that somehow I was initiating something important. As though, by my own energy and vision, I could do something special. It is so tempting to begin with myself, my story, my understanding and experience. But no – in the beginning God.

These four words call for awe and humility. Awe before the great God, without whom there would be nothing, and whose Word became flesh (John 1:1-14) to make us children of God. Independent of our notions of time and space, this God creates everything. And humility about our role – that everything we do and say depends on God first.

Early, while sensing a call to ministry a skeptical friend said to me: “What I don’t understand is why you need God? You don’t need him to make a success of life?” What a tragic misunderstanding of the realities of existence - that who we are and why we are alive depends on God first.

A Prayer:
Lord, we praise you in the beginning -
In the beginning of everything that is. Creator of all. Father, Son and Holy Spirit from everlasting to everlasting. Beyond my comprehension. Without you…nothing
In the beginning of the church’s story…Jesus says: I will build my church, and the Spirit breathes a new people into being. Without you….no church
In our beginnings…our being found by your grace, our gifting and calling…without you nothing.
But with you, with you in the beginning then we belong to your love and purpose which nothing else will ever be able to break. Give us praise, humility, dependence today, O Lord.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Real Life Interrupts!

Suddenly, last Thursday, in the midst of pursuing teaching, thinking about worship and living "normally" I received news that my son Rob (only 34 years old) had suffered a stroke, and was in intensive care (in a New Jersey hospital). I now write after the event with good news that he has made a strong recovery, but many of you will identify with the churning dislocation of reality that my wife and I went through these last days while waiting for test results and signs of improvement. Undoubtedly he has been given a major "wake-up call" - it could have been so very serious. We are profoundly grateful for signs of recovery, though he must take it slowly.

Prayers of family and friends have been powerful yet again. And I've been reminded how fragile we are, and how presumptuously we often behave - as though ill-health happens to other people. Real life interrupts! I share in this "wake up call" to God's daily gift of life and health that is too often taken for granted.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Christian Music Principle (6)

6. Tension is inevitable.
Music's very variety that marks its richness as God's gift, paradoxically creates inevitable tension as people express likes and dislikes.

Perhaps such tension is evident in 1 Cor. 14:15 , 16. Is there fear that “singing praises with the spirit” might preclude singing praise with the mind? Is pagan influence already infiltrating through music? Because of music’s immense emotional power and connections with culture , is the early church already encountering difficulties that some worship music is considered as being seduced by secular music styles? Certainly , church history reveals much conflict over worship ever since. However, dealing with such conflict is much more than satisfying musical tastes. It's not just about music. It goes to the heart of spiritual formation about how community finds ways to unite rather than divide.

As Keith Getty, the contemporary hymn writer, puts it:
Church music fights did not begin twelve months after The Beatles started and the church realized that there was new music. These arguments about what Christians should sing have gone on all of time , from rival monasteries to rival cathedrals. They’re not going to end. And so anybody who prescribes a musical solution is blowing smoke. There’s a reason why the Lord made the church a multigenerational , multiclass , multi-ethnic , diverse group of people. I doubt that everybody in Acts had the same musical tastes , if they were Jews and Greeks , and slaves and free.

Principle 6 gives a reality check to how worshipers belong together. Principles 1 to 5 may sound fine in theory, but in practice working through them to unify people with a diversity of musical tastes calls for immense maturity. I must turn to some of the practicalities soon.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Christian Music Principle (5)

5. Music is richly diverse
At the outset, Principle (1) affirmed: Music is God's great gift to humankind. Its string of examples from the Old and New Testaments, from creation to multitudes filling the heavens, emphasize just how varied God's gift of music is in terms of content, style and accompaniment.

And in the early church, Col 3:16 interestingly describes different kinds of music too: "..with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God. " We shall never likely know how exactly these different musical forms contrasted in the early church. How did they differentiate between "hymns" and "spiritual songs"?

I agree with the commentator who says:
No rigid distinctions should be made between "psalm," "hymns," and "spiritual songs."...if any differences are made, "psalms" may be taken to refer to the OT psalter, "hymns" and "spiritual songs" to distinctly Christian compositions. The great periods of renewal in Christendom have always been accompanied by an outbursts of hymnology. (Vaughan in Expository Bible Commentary, Vol 11. p216.

But, importantly, the commentator adds: "Paul is simply emphasizing the rich variety in Christian song." Oh yes! (Though maybe not so simply!) Already this young church demonstrates a diversity of musical expression, presuming its richness of variety is how God's gives music. Variety is good. No one can be dogmatic that there is only ONE way to express congregational praise.

However, while acknowledging that a range of musical styles may occur when a church gathers to worship, this spells tension - as in the last principle coming up soon.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Renewal in Oak Lawn

Before my memory goes soggy (!) I thought I should follow up the last posting. As Pastor Michael and church are working on a worship renewal project, they made my 360degree preaching book part of required reading for the group (of about 10 people) who help lead the project. Over the Summer they waded through much of my book, and this first public meeting, open to all in the church, was intended to start sharing a vision of worship renewal wider.

I was thrilled by the care that the group showed in dealing with issues. Their own Christian Reformed context has a very high view of Scripture and of preaching, but they emphasized how much Scripture itself endorses a variety of preaching styles. They also focused on culture change and spoke about implications of post-modernity that they were already encountering.

In the main meeting, we trod carefully while introducing the project. The last thing we wanted was heavy-footed presentation that seemed to have an imposed agenda. It really is a wide-open process. After agreeing the high place of preaching in Scripture and church history, we turned to reflect over its general state today. The whole meeting then discussed in groups around separate tables, and then shared findings with the whole group. Some of the issues which concern them about preaching today were:
*too much thin milk, not enough meat
*sometimes very didactic and dry
*often no clear challenges
*very poor follow-up - some outcome may be expected but no effort is spent
*seems irrelevant to daily life
*doesn't communicate well to the digital generation
*is too individual and doesn't address the whole community

True progress only occurs when there is realism. Facing facts honestly is vital for vision. The group will continue to work on what might happen next. I love their prayer and openness. I know they are concerned about increasing participation in sermon preparation in order to meet some of the issues above. It's going to take many weeks and months to think and pray through what this means. Perhaps I shall be able to post some progress later. I certainly hope so!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Courage in Oak Lawn

This week I witnessed real courage of Pastor Michael Kooy of Grace Community Christian Reformed Church, in Oak Lawn. I was speaking at an open meeting that he had called in order to consider worship renewal at the church- especially how preaching might be improved. This is a project funded by a grant from Calvin Institute for Christian Worship.

I commented how unusual this occasion was - for two reasons. Not only have some leaders in this church taken time out to reflect on their worshiping life - and how often does that take place? (Too often busyness drives us to the next thing with minimum reflection). But, much more daringly, the pastor has opened up one of the most personal areas for reflection and action - that of preaching.

Later Pastor Kooy said that someone in the Calvin Institute had also commented how unusual it was for a pastor to allow others to think through how preaching could be improved. "I don't think many pastors would let this happen!" they said. I reckon that's right! Many of us preachers just aren't willing to see whether renewal might begin with our preaching. (Of course, I realize that when pastors are in a difficult relationships with churches, for any number of reasons, it is impossible to have healthy reflection like this).

I was exhilarated by the quality of openness and discussion. For the record, many spoke appreciatively of Pastor Kooy's preaching. He is obviously loved and highly regarded and has a right measure of security. But I think most of us also realized what a special opportunity there might be for worship renewal here. I' ll post initial responses from the meeting shortly.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Christian Music Principle (4).

4. Music in Christian worship has two functions.
Music needs both to serve the text, expressing its truth appropriately, and also enable corporate worship.

Words on their own can be "prosody" with intonation, rhythm and emphasis conveying emotions, by gestures and movement. But when music combines with words, its rhythm, melody and harmony powerfully reinforce their impact. Earlier we noted in Col 3:16 and Eph. 5:19 how music expresses both "gratitude in your hearts to God", but also "speaking to one another."

Steve Guthrie (in Worship Leader Jan/Feb 2009) comments how music can help "instruct one another" in three ways:
First, individual texts - words set to music convey much more expression. "As we sing Holy, holy, holy we express hushed reverence before God, but we also explain something about holiness....the music ends up being a kind of exegesis of the text."

Second, "music can provide the interpretive frame for an entire service - or an entire church. Music can help the congregation make sense of what the minister says. Or more tremblingly- it can make nonsense out of what the minister says - ( 'The pastor said that the church lives and values each of us, but the world band acted like the rest of us weren't even here')! Such 'felt elements' contribute to an understanding of what is said.

Third, music of congregational hymns and songs offer oppportunities not only to hear the Word but to do it. For example, in responding by congregational song to "A new comandment I give you: Love one another" (John 13:34), "we have the ....opportunity to do this truth - to enact it. As we sing, we don't just imagine one church composed of many individuals; we actually hear the many voices of the body of Christ, joined into one voice.

Of course music can also be abused. Dawn suggests many further question, such as: Does the chosen style disrupt worship in anyway? Does it prevent community singing or promote it? Is this piece of music characterized by excellence and greatness to a satisfactory extent? That last one is more difficult to define!

Always there's clear danger when music becomes self-indulgent. As David Fitch warns: "Music either presents God's revelation or leads the congregation into faithful response to it. Self-expression is not worship." This may seem overharsh, but the quality of words and music in congregational worship should be about God and his purpose with his community.

How much more could be added here! Of course, your comments are welcome

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Christian Music Principle (3)

Before I get too side-tracked by a new term's teaching, I must try and complete these basic principles (as I see them).

3. Words in Christian worship have two functions.
Two audiences mean that words in Christian music have two functions - they are to praise God but also teach and affirm one another. As New Testament scholar Gordon Fee comments - in the early church singing was two-dimensional, offering "both praise to God and once directed toward God, and didactic for the participants." Contemporary hymn writers Keith and Kristyn Getty say that they write songs with a key principle in mind: "songs should teach the faith, telling truths about God and telling God's story."

First, telling truths about God needs care with words that need to be worthy of God's worthship. As Marva Dawn puts it: "is the text theologically sound? Is it true to God's it a Christian thought? Is it carefully expressed." Some have bemoaned, for example, that contemporary hymns rarely speak of the Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When I preached on temptation last year, the worship planners had difficulty finding any recent songs on the subject. Worthy words, true to God revealed in Scripture, are essential. And when planning gathered worship, they need to confirm the testimony of the preached word.

Second, telling God's story to each other needs care with words that (again in Dawn's words): "need to be conducive to the formation of character, and inclusive for the whole community." How appropriate is the language. Does it use "we" often enough?

Keith and Kristyn Getty describe their intention:
"Take "In Christ Alone" for instance. A lot of peole are moved by the fact that through the verses, Jesus takes on flesh as a helpless babe and ends up on the cross...they've sung through half of Romans by the end of the song, but because you've taken them through a story rather than just giving them didactic truth, it really communicates to them."

Words matter enormously. Words have great responsibility to convey God's worthiness and edify others.....cue the next principle on music inself!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pages from a Preacher's Prayer Book (11)

Last Fall I began posting some devotions that I used in my preaching classes. As term begins next week I am preparing some more, and offer them more widely! This first one is interesting because I occupy a professorial "chair" named after C.W. Koller - a great preacher of the twentieth century - and this was one of his key verses!

11) Christ’s ambassadors
So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:20).

Of the many descriptions given preachers one of the boldest is ambassador. Ambassadors and embassies have a contemporary ring. They speak of dignity, courtesy, power, status and influence. But always it is delegated power and influence that is utterly dependent on the wish and authority of the sending government. Ambassadors are only powerful because they represent someone else.

Ambassadors for Christ are powerful people. Too often we belittle the task. We forget that it is world wide in scope – that God is about reconciling the world to himself (verse 19). In a mean and petty world where hate and spite threaten to destroy relationships there is a greater power - God’s healing reconciliation. When I take the human point of view (v 16) and feel like giving up because a task is beyond me, I must know the task is never beyond Christ. Authorizing me is a Big God for Big purposes. He makes his appeal through us. People may think that I am about a little organization and petty detail but my life is part of God’s world master plan.

As an ambassadors for Christ I represent the King of Kings, constrained by his love (verse 14) to overcome division by his “meekness and gentleness” (1 Cor. 10:1). This day, as I walk among others, I represent him. My lifestyle, actions and words are for him.

A Prayer Help me to grow in stature as an ambassador of Christ. Help me realize that nothing I face is beyond your scope; that hate and division do not have the last work in your kingdom. Grant me dignity and courtesy to represent your power today as Lord of Lords and King of Kings and that I may do it by the meekness and gentleness of Christ. Amen.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Christian Music - Principle 2

2) Christian Music has two audiences
It’s no surprise that God, in Three Persons, is the most important audience. Music should please God. Psalm 96:1: “Sing to the Lord a new song” commands singing that is directed “to the Lord” - an offering for God’s sake. Harold Best notes that while “a new song” speaks of a newness arising out of vital faith , it also suggests that we should sing newly. “We can sing a truly new song only once , and thereafter we repeat it….singing a song newly means that we must sing the thousandth repetition as if for the first time.”[i] Pleasing God is primary. Worship celebrates who he is and his deeds of salvation. His attributes and story alone deserve worthship.

However, perhaps it is a surprise that there is a second audience. Christian music is for one another. Eph. 5: 19 emphasizes that music in worship has another audience while addressing God. “Speak to one another with psalms , hymns and spiritual songs’ emphasizes how worshipers testify to one another. This speaking to others is a vital aspect of music’s community building. Singing together enables each person to sound out faith in God , reinforced by the group’s unity. Many of us have known affirmation of faith when sounding out praises to God. Music in worship enables community togetherness like nothing else. As someone has said: "The human voice is the only musical instrument that God has directly created with equal access to music and singing for everyone.” The Reformers preferred congregational singing in unison , without instruments , so as to emphasize both the human voices and unity of the whole.

Perhaps you can recall your first experience of singing with a larger group. I remember belonging to a small youth group that was fairly self-conscious about singing , but going away to the missionary summer school where several hundred young people enthusiastically sang. The thrill of joining in that first hymn , (actually “How Great Thou Art”), certainly focused upon God's greatness, but it was partly about finding how much I belonged with others in Christ. Have you experienced anything like that?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Music: Principle (1)

I asked last time: " What are the prime principles regarding music in worship and how we do put them into practice?" So what is the first principle?

1) Music is God's great gift to humankind
Let's state the obvious. Music is God's great gift. He built musicality into creation so that words have even more power through voices and instruments! His story with us in Scripture is full of music. "The morning stars sang together" to herald creation (Job 38:7); Jubal is "the father of who play the harp and the flute" (Gen 4:21); Moses, with Miriam, lead singing at exodus (Exodus 15). David's harp refreshes King Saul (1 Sam 16:32), and King David organizes temple worship (1 Chron 15:16). The psalms are a hymn-book, packed with lyrics from praise to lament, with choirs and instruments of every kind gloriously joining in (Ps 150:3-6). Music accompanies the beginning of Christ's story in Mary's magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), and over the Bethlehem fields (Luke 2:14,15 ), and near the end (Matthew 26:30). The early church is exhorted to make melody (Eph 5:19); Paul and Silas sing in prison (Acts 16:25), and multitudes fill the heavens (Revelation 4: 8-11).

Sadly, a few are tone-deaf (pastoral sensitivity is needed), but the great majority of us can testify that music inspires, heals and renews. Popular science suggests that music releases endorphins as pleasurable chemical brain reactions, and few doubt profound links between music and emotions. Indeed the Institute of Brain and Music Sciences (in Mass.) finds vital correlations between music and neurological conditions. Digital communication offers latest confirmation in the popularity of personal playlists. Undeniably, music is an essential part of our lives. Take away music, and life becomes immeasurably poorer.

Apparently Plato the philosopher said near the end of his life that he wished he could have written songs for people because he saw that knowledge is passed on both intellectually and emotionally, by consensus as people sing together. Music is God's powerful creation gift capable of expressing immense emotion and conviction.

All of God's gifts can be abused, and music is no exception. But let's begin with thanks for God's gift of music. Hopefully you agree? Maybe you have other Scripture choices about music? Please let me know.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Bucket and Ocean

I think I have found an apt metaphor to use about my work on my next book re preaching and worship. Lytton Strachey describes the historian's task as: "He will row out over the great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen from those far depths to be examiend with a careful curiosity." An ocean and a bucket sum up the writing project so well. Partly, about its scale because worship comprises an ocean of material with the widest of perspectives, complex theological depths and a thousand different practical expresssion. And partly, because I am aware of how little bucket my bucket really is when it comes to experience, reading and thinking. There is always so much more I could plumb!

My Part 3 is proving especially difficult to write because it involves more practical application of some of the big issues. Some of these are of topical interest and I really value imput from others. For example, principles and practice regarding music, or corporate prayer need teasing out. I'm going to begin with music. I hope my bucket's worth will be amplified by your contributions. So, in the next blog I begin to ask: What are the prime principles regarding music in worship and how we do put them into practice?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Writing 13 hours a day

While in New Jersey, Rob and Lori took us to one of their favorite spots - Sunnyside - the home of Washington Irving, US's first internationally famous author. He is best remembered for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.

The house and gardens are evocative of the Romantic movement in mid-19th Century America. Set in picturesque scenery, purposely designed to accentuate the beauty of natural landscape, the house almost organically grows out of the soil. A lady, dressed in 1850's costume took us around the (surprisingly) small home. and enthusiastically loaded us with more detail than we could retain.

However, the first room on the right struck me the most. It was Washington Irving's study, with 90% original fittings and fixtures. Lining two walls were books, including copies of his own. His writing desk, complete with candles, oil lamp, coffee pot and cup with saucer was placed center. Our guide explained how extraordinarily hospitable this life-long bachelor was, and how accessible he remained to anyone who would knock at his front door. Yet, she said: " He wrote at that desk 13 hours a day, especially when he was completing the biography of George Washington."

As a (very) small time writer I was staggered. 13 hours a day! Was that right? I checked with her. She seemed a little hesitant in light of my surprise, but she firmly restated: 'Yes, 13 hours a day.'

Opening my lap top to continue work on my worship manuscript this statistic troubles me. 8 hours a day of creative work on my manuscript is a very good outcome for me! Perhaps I will be motivated to yet greater discipline. Anyway, I will open up some of the areas I am presently writing on in future blogs. Looking forward to your responses, as always.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Whatever Moment (10)

Everything is about to whir into action as seminary recommences shortly with faculty retreat, much doctoral grading and Masters teaching to prepare for. However, I must rejoice in one last positive moment from Summer 2009 (though, there were many more than ten!)

Last weekend we drove to New Jersey to see our two US grandchildren - Elliot (aged 3) and Sophie (10 months), with their parents Rob and Lori (of course!) It was another overwhelming time of family togetherness. Elliot has just begun at pre-school and on arrival we went to meet him. When we entered his classroom, he looked stunned and then ran full pelt with arms outstretched to where we were standing. As I reached down his momentum rocked me back up on my heels, as he wrapped himself around me. Oh, those spontaneous, unreserved, every-fiber-of-being hugs!

How such sharing of affection cements family togetherness! It echoed an earlier Summer experience with my London grandsons. Naturally there were other momemts in New Jersey. Elliot fell onto sharp wire and cut his finger badly. I burned my arm on the kitchen stove. We got lost on the journey (twice). But mutual love holds through everything. Quite wonderful.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Whatever Moments (9)

Back in the US, after many adventures in the UK, I now reflect over several weeks of wonderful "whatever moments." Actually I shared only a few on this blog, since I was out of email contact for many days, especially when holidaying in the North of England.

Because I was on the look-out for positives, I found them everywhere. Sometimes very small things! For example, walking on the moors in Yorkshire awoke me to the wonder of every passer-by cheerily greeting me. Actually, I experimented on one long walk - would everyone I met look me in the face and say "Hello"? Yes, they did! Every single person, of all ages, some walking dogs, others jogging, or even cycling, greeted me - often with a smile. I know it's a country tradition but how wonderful! When I got back home I commented how this continuous sense of recognition and warmth from people you didn't know would be a little like heaven! Everyone you meet in glory will belong together with you!

I was interested in Richard Wiseman's new self-help book: 59 seconds. As a "professor for the public understanding of psychology", he claims his advice is based on sound research. He warns (rightly) about self-help books in general, because people can become dependent on them. He claims that anyone doing something differently for a short period will think the advice has made a difference, but actually they will either go back to their old ways, or realize that this new thing is not as effective as they were told! Instead, he calls people to think a little, but change a lot.

For example, he writes: "Boost your health and happiness by spending a few moments at the start of each week listing five things that you are grateful for in life."

Does that remind you of anything? Now I am back to reality, with mounds of mail and duties I realize it may not be as easy to keep being positive. But I need to hold on to a great truth, by God's grace:
Whatever is true,
Whatever is noble,
Whatever is right,
Whatever is pure,
Whatever is lovely,
Whatever is admirable.....think about such things (Phil. 4:8).

Monday, August 24, 2009

Whatever Moments (8)

Last Sunday I visited Leamington Road Baptist Church, Blackburn, where I was pastor 1972-79. An interval of 30 years made for high emotions, as many former members turned up to share in the morning service. I found myself leading everything, speaking to the children, preaching, praying and ending with the Lord's Supper. (I haven't done the whole works for years!) Afterwards, 70 sat down for a hot Sunday lunch, to reminisce and give thanks.

People I had baptized, married, visited in bereavement, and at other critical times, poured out memories. What was gloriously refreshing was how positive these were. I met children who were toddlers back then, and are now strapping adults fully committed to Christ. One couple I married are now key leaders in the church, never having been away and such vital 'living stones' in the church community. So many friends, appearing nowhere near 30 years older (really), still belong and serve. So many rich conversations!

I know circumstances sometimes ensure positive memories. At funerals for example, we always try to think of the best of a person. But this was a community still solidly there. Yes, its surroundings have changed dramatically (- now predominantly Muslim). And numbers are much smaller. It faces tough issues ahead. But it's there, still seeking to be God's people doing his will - a testimony to his grace. While I've been all over the place, they have stayed devoted at this place. That commitment thrilled me more than I can say.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Whatever Moments (7)

Revisiting England means brushing up against history at every turn. One particular moment of gratitude broke in on me when we visited Wimborne Minster in Dorset. Founded in 709 A.D. the current building contains glorious architecture from the Norman building onwards. But what struck me was its Chained Library dating from 1865. It contains over 350 volumes, chained on the shelves, so that readers could take them of the shelf (for one hour at a time) and read them on an inclined desk below.

As the second most important chained library in the UK, it is therefore one of the first public libraries, (though not so many people could read), and boasts some remarkable books. One of the earliest is handwritten on vellum by four scribes - it would have taken around one year to write. No wonder that a single book was worth a small farm! And no wonder they chained these books up!

The glory of books has always been high up on my wonder list. But spending time in this old library, with an enthusiastic volunteer who told me some of its history and opened up special volumes, opened my eyes afresh. I know the digital revolution is supposedly undermining the reading of old-fashioned books. But how marvelous to hold books, unchained and so freely available. Of course, Scripture remains number one for me, but I looked at all books differently as I came away from this brush with history.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Whatever Moments (6)

Most days since we have been in the UK it has rained (and been cool)! Someone commented how difficult it must be to keep on being positive, and I must honestly declare that the wet weather has really upset plans, especially with the grandchildren. Is a positive spin possible...apart from marveling how green and pleasant England continues to be?

Carol and I were sitting in a store cafe having a coffee break. Sitting next to us was a couple of ladies well into their seventies (at least). They had struggled round the store and were having a break before venturing out. Outside, menacing clouds were brewing. Suddenly they sent down another fierce burst of rain, smashing against the cafe windows. One lady turned to her neighbor and said: "Oh, look it's raining." The other replied, matter-of-factly, "That makes such a change." At this, the first lady started chuckling irrepressibly, soon joined by her was contagious. I found myself wanting to join in. For a couple of minutes they just heaved with barely suppressed laughter.

And I was given my whatever positive moment! The glorious gift of humor. How vital humor is for making positives. Thank you God for humor (and English friends...please have a sense of humour over American spelling!)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Whatever Moments (5)

A couple of days ago I celebrated another birthday. (Some of you sent greetings - thank you!) As I nudge through my sixties I am aware of many possible whatever moments. I was talking with someone last week who is three years older than me. He shared his daily habit of reading the local newspaper. "The first thing I do, every day," he said, "is to look at the obituaries. And see those people who died in the fifties and early sixties....and it makes me so grateful for the extra time I have lived!"

Well, that's one way of gaining perspective. Of course, it all depends on what we have done with our years. I am chastened to think how someone dying in their thirties (I can think of someone, can you?) can actually achieve a lifetime's work. It's all back to how we have lived and for whom we have lived. For me, the challenge remains to live my best for Christ and his Kingdom, knowing you can gain the whole world but lose your soul.

So, thank you Lord for another year, for health and strength (more or less)...and for showing me how to live more fully.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Whatever Moments (4)

I have been greatly limited in email access these last few days (and we have been traveling widely!) However, I just wanted to mention that last week I walked up to St. Andrew's Church, found in a dip in the headland near Clevedon called Poet's Walk. The church grounds, manicured in the midst of surrounding rough terrain, sweep up to the coastal path which runs round the lip of the cliffs, as the sea pounds below.

I went to see my grandparents' grave, marked by a small stone which is now so weatherbeaten I could only just make out their names: Muriel Davies and Charles Eustace Davies. The day was gloomy, but as I stood there the sun came out. I noticed a bench seat was placed nearby, looking out to sea. It could have been a moment of sadness and nostalgia - I guess I felt a little of that. But what hit me most was overwhelming gratitude for them as loving grandparents, whose love is embedded in countless memories - so many fragments of past good times It's said that we only properly know our own story in the present when we honor our past story. Today I was so glad to be reminded of those who belong to my story. Whatever is true, right, pure lovely....I wonder what memories my grandchildren will have of me?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Whatever Moments (3)

I have often thought that how someone treats a predecessor is a good measure of character. When a successor finds it difficult to be generous in heart and spirit to the person who preceded them in the job or position they now hold, doesn't it reveal much truth about personality traits? Whenever you follow someone in a job, its often easy to diminish all their hard work and gifting, or to enlarge their mistakes, by subtle unfriendly ways.

My third whatever moment - whatever is noble - hit me in the extraordinarily gracious way that Nigel Wright, my successor at Spurgeon's, has again given us welcome and hospitality over these last days. Staying in our 'old' home with full access to everything, has reinforced wonder at the thoughtfulness and acceptance of their predecessors by Nigel, and very importantly his wife Judy. I am humbled by their radiant friendship. It says volumes about them!

Whatever is noble.....think about such things (Phil. 4:8).

Friday, July 10, 2009

Whatever Moments (2)

This week Carol and I celebrated our 41st. Wedding Anniversary (by sharing a Chinese take-away with our kids!) Being based near where we were married in West Norwood, London, helped us reflect happily on THE DAY 41 years ago (- as far as memories would allow, that is!) We also marveled at our marriage journey together since.

In preparing couples for marriage I used to warn them how the vows they were going to say to each other demanded enduring love that was tough (like Christ's for us). Saying 'for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health' needs to recognize that these contrasts rarely balance out 50/50. There have been times when Carol has had to invest 100% of her enduring love to cope with the worst, and with sickness, because I could return very little. It's that generous self-giving that has welded love 'that is the greatest' into our marriage core.

Thinking again about the need for such intentional commitment, makes me realize just how appropriate these words are for partners who desire strong marriage -
Whatever is true,
Whatever is noble,
Whatever is right,
Whatever is pure,
Whatever is lovely,
Whatever is admirable.....think about such things (Phil. 4:8). For a long-lasting marriage, don't dwell on the negatives - think about the true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable. Oh Yeah!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Whatever Moments (1)

After an eventful journey to the UK, (with a roadway accident on the runway behind the plane delaying flight), we arrived back at Spurgeon's College where I was once Principal. Staying in student rooms for three days to catch breath, I went to see my successor - Dr. Nigel Wright - in my 'old' room. It is a magnificent large second storey room, lined with bookshelves from floor to 12foot ceiling. Its wide picture windows were open onto a stone balcony, overlooking lawns, flower beds and trees in nine acres of grounds below. A gorgeous view on a beautiful summer day. And then it happened....down the corridor outside I heard the noise of my grandchildren coming along the corridor. Luca (aged 7) and Anton (aged 4). They reached the open door, I turned and seeing me, they both charged into my open arms. As I knelt on the floor they gave me monumental hugs and kisses. It's hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer unreserved love of grandchildren. Lovely moment ONE.

Whatever is lovely.....think about such things (Phil. 4:8).

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Enjoying Life

I saw one of those painted signs which read: "Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take..... but by the moments that take our breath away. "

There's an interesting article in the latest edition of Christianity Today called: "When to Be Naive." Edith Humphrey argues that there's a balance between on one hand being shrewd, thoughtful (Matt. 10:16) and discerning(2 Cor 2:11) yet, on the other hand, being open with child-like wonder:

"To be Christian is to allow the Holy Spirit to foster those elements of our nature that are unshakable and that are meant to grow: awe, wonder, dependence on God and, in appropriate measure, on each other and thankfulness....It is to "read' the world with both welcome and care."

That's how I want to be, as I prepare to see my grandchildren (since a year ago) and meet old and new friends. You probably won't see too many postings from me in the next few weeks...I shall be trying not to miss moments that take my breath away.

Whatever is true,
Whatever is noble,
Whatever is right,
Whatever is pure,
Whatever is lovely,
Whatever is admirable.....think about such things (Phil. 4:8).

Monday, June 29, 2009


My journalist son Simon says he enjoys deadlines because they let you know exactly what you are up against! Well, I have just completed two writing projects before deadline (and I didn't enjoy the pressure!) My article on "Preaching in the Baptist Tradition" has gone to The Preacher - a journal of The College of Preachers in the UK. At the end of my article I asked readers to post comments on my when the article is eventually published maybe there will be some fresh views. Perhaps not.

My major 7000 word project "Exploring the Architecture of Community Formation" has also been sent off to the Evangelical Homiletics Society for their Annual Fall Meeting in Fort Worth, Texas. It will go online early August. I originally intended blogging much more about this as I was writing, but time raced by. Again, I am hoping that once it is online there will be healthy feedback.

And now, I face prosaic deadlines of preparing for travel commitments ahead. I know what my son means about know exactly what you are up against. But there's plenty of pressure. Many of you will know exactly what I mean.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Which church do you belong to?

At the end of one of yesterday's services one man came up to me. He told me that he is often asked by people what church he belongs to. "Oh, they expect me to say, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist...something like that. But I always tell them: I belong to the church of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven (Hebrews 12:23). That really changes the emphasis! I belong with the saints in heaven." His face lit up as he pointed out the verse in his Bible.

That is a pretty good reply isn't it, when people want labels!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Pain in the head

I was preaching this morning (among other things) on Matthew 16:16 when Simon Peter answers Jesus: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." I mentioned that I was at a supper party this week when a Christian leader lamented how often Christians seem to describe Jesus beginning with their feelings:"I feel close to Jesus" or "I don't feel close to Jesus" etc. with touchy-feely language. When Peter gives his inspired answer (and it really is inspired) he begins with who Jesus is and dares to make a doctrinal statement. Believing that there is one God, he claims Jesus is His Son. One God, yet both Father and Son, (and Holy Spirit). Now Peter is at beginnings of bewildering possibilities we call The Trinity!
I recalled what Studdert Kennedy is supposed to have said: Christianity brings peace to the heart and pain in the mind." What we declare about Jesus Christ is always going to take us deeper. As someone else commented: If God were small enough to be understood, he would not be big enough to be worshiped." Of course touchy-feely is OK, but how important it is to say deeper truths, doctrinal truths about who Jesus is. That really sets him uniquely apart.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Baptist Preaching (6)

This posting identifies four more characteristics of preaching in the Baptist tradition:

4) Preaching has social impact. This emphasis is a major part within the black Baptist tradition, but also emerges elsewhere (as seen in Rick Warren’s ministry). However, in general, white Baptist preaching has tended to stress evangelism rather than social action.[i]

5) Preaching is community forming. All the above characteristics belong within Baptist convictions about the local church – communities comprising those who have been baptized or who are on the way to baptism. Preaching has a pivotal role in creating this community. Indeed, “preaching and community are reciprocal realities.” [ii] Baptist churches will vary in how they practice the “priesthood of all believers” (1 Pet. 2:9). Some will exercise non-authoritarian congregational polity, while others have developed more hierarchical structures. But, at its best, Baptist preaching builds relationships as the body of Christ and, especially in contexts like the black church, may have huge impact on surrounding community. And recently, Baptist leaders have challenged congregations to express how “depth in worship comes more readily when we determine to be thoroughly Trinitarian in our approach to preaching.”[iii]

6) Preaching reveals spiritual qualities. Spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible study remain important for Baptist preachers, and help explain an emphasis on ethos as a vital component to leadership. While a quality such as “warmth” sounds vague, it can often be applied to Baptist preachers because their role and relationships within community need devotional transparency.

7) Preaching involves pragmatics. While this word can be used negatively, Baptist preaching is always concerned about outcomes, of making church “work” better to Christ’s glory. Whether using the latest technical opportunities for evangelism, or seeking new forms of attracting people to worship services, Baptist preaching often operates on an entrepreneurial edge. Of course, great dangers lurk of accommodating to society’s consumerism and individualism, but intentional preaching that “makes a difference” often marks Baptist preaching.

To each of these statements there are many exceptions and, as hinted, there are many potential negatives. However, together they represent something of preaching in the Baptist tradition. I know others will have different views and perhaps they will share agreements and disagreements!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Giving thanks for difficult people

I was intrigued today to read a comment about how God can use all kinds of people to mature my character. The Jews of Jeremiah's day were told "Serve the king of Baylon, and you will live"( Jer. 27:17). Instead of their own (good) king Hezekiah curing the people of idolatry, the people were placed under pagan king Nebuchadnezzar to be taught a lesson! And W. Glyn Evans comments:

The lesson for me is, my touchy neighbor may do me more good than my godly pastor. My atheistic foreman at the factory may purge me from my impatience faster and better than my Bible class teacher.......that means I must change my attitude toward the "unspiritual" and "worldly minded" people who make up my environment. Without them I can never become what God intends for me to be. So I am going to start praising God for them!

Easier said than done - but quite a challenge!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Baptist Preaching (5)

You will see from comments to my last posting how controversial defining "true Baptists" may be! But I must hasten on from these sketches, and ask whether certain characteristics emerge that speak of preaching in the Baptist tradition? Recognizing that many of these are distinctive of other Protestant groups, perhaps their combination reveals something that is distinctly Baptist? Let me list seven, beginning with these three:

1) Scripture is authoritative. Baptist preaching has a high view of Scripture’s authority. Throughout its history, including “seeker sensitive” preaching, the Scripture text remains foundational for Baptists. Early Baptist emphases on learning and theology remain important in the many Baptist seminaries, with homiletical concern for solid exegesis and faithful application.

2) Preaching is dominant within worship services and leadership. The dominance of the Baptist pulpit has its roots in New Testament understanding of the church as gathered believers under the word. Often, the prime place given to preaching relegates the rest of the liturgy – singing, prayer, the Lord’s Supper and even baptism – to a less prominent place. A person’s preaching call and gift is also the main consideration when appointing a minister. “Preaching with a view” remains the normal approach to settling a Baptist pastorate –gifting in the pulpit is seen as essential.

3) Preaching is often evangelistic. Preaching for faith-response remains a powerful Baptist emphasis, though other forms of evangelism are also encouraged. Because the church comprises believers, their initial faith response is all-important for the local church’s very existence. For some Baptists this is a weekly emphasis.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Baptist Preaching (4)

As Baptists have grown and diversified it makes defining common characteristics more difficult. Perhaps, three well-known Baptists in current memory will help to demonstrate something of this preaching diversity, yet point to some continuing characteristics of Baptist preaching. Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rick Warren each represent important aspects of Baptist life and witness.

Undeniably, Billy Graham represents “evangelistic preaching” in remarkable ways. In his History of Preaching O.C. Edwards repeats the claim that “Billy Graham has probably preached to more people than any spokesman for the faith in all Christian history” – around twenty million people of whom one million have made “decisions for Christ.”[i] Graham’s emphasis on preaching personal salvation, literally holding up the Bible to demonstrate its authority, has challenged with clarity and passion. Further, his willingness to use developing technology testifies to resourceful pragmatism that sought to take advantage of every evangelistic means. Edward concludes that the most important reason explaining the power of his attraction lies in Graham’s trust in the authority of the Bible: “he has transparent conviction of his message’s utter truth. His most persuasive argument is ethos, the trustworthiness of the speaker, rather than the logos, reason, or pathos, the capacity to stir emotion.”[ii]

Graham’s evangelistic emphasis is particularly evident in the Southern Baptist denomination which forms the largest part of the Baptist world family (and has impacted many others through its missionary programmes). A survey of Southern Baptist preaching identified fifty preachers "with content as varied as the preachers themselves"[iii] but commonly, whatever the biblical message, an appeal to “walk the aisle” concludes the act of preaching. Evangelistic intentionality remains strong. However, Southern Baptists have also developed a broader homiletic tradition, bringing together informed interpretation of Scripture with concern for sermon structure, particularly through the influence of John Broadus (1827-1895) whose textbook on preaching became standard through the early part of the twentieth century. Interestingly, Broadus was not only concerned with content but with the role of imagination. When asked to sum up the key qualities of preaching he said: “Sympathy, sympathy, and sympathy” – a typical Baptist insight.

In contrast, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed a dimension of preaching with strong political emphasis that also greatly impacted society. Educated in a white, more liberal intellectual tradition (with influential white preachers!), he also studied examples of great African American preachers like Gardner Taylor (another Baptist). In his call to lead the civil rights movement, “his principle was to combine militancy with nonviolence, and his method was to use oratory that combined intellectual content with the power of classical African American preaching.”[iv] His expressive voice and tone deployed rhetorical devices such as repetition and assonance, achieving rhythm and musicality to his powerful preaching within the call-and-response interactions of black congregations. He demonstrated classic homiletic of the African American church by preaching in churches, masse meetings and other public gatherings that brought black preaching to the attention of the world.

His impact on black preaching, and especially black Baptist preaching continues to be hugely significant today, emphasizing God’s provision for his people, with prophetic challenge to systemic issues and holistic engagement with community. Because the majority perspective on preaching practice has been dominated by white males, only recently has the rich history of black preaching and its inextricable connection with culture been published. So, for example, paralleling C.H. Spurgeon (1836-1897), we now learn of Charles T. Walker who was called “the black Spurgeon,” born into slavery yet a prominent New York preacher.[v]

Rick Warren is probably the best known Baptist preacher today, through his ministry in Saddleback Church, California, and books such as “The Purpose Driven Church.” Regarded as a new breed of Baptist leader, savvy about communicating to a changing culture, his preaching is aimed at the “unchurched.” Aware of high levels of biblical illiteracy, his preaching begins with “needs” in the congregation and then connects with teaching in Scripture. Together with other mega church leaders, his “seeker sensitive” preaching has been widely influential though not without critics. However, Warren has also been heavily engaged with the gospel’s social repercussions, involving many in programmes to relieve poverty and disease. With intentionality and practical skills he represents preaching that builds local communities in order to serve others.

[i] O.C. Edwards, 775.
[ii] Ibid, 778.
[iii] R Earl Allen and Joel Gregory, Southern Baptist Preaching Today Nashville: Broadman, 1987, 3.
[iv] Edwards,
[v] Ibid, 532-535.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Miracle Mountain

Today I finished teaching a Doctor of Ministry intensive week (which is well-named!) Doctoral students (all pastors) travel in for a week-long seminar, working each day and some evenings. This week's course has been on "Leadership Through Preaching." It's been a great time of mutual learning and koinonia, including a dinner for students and families at our home last night, and a concluding communion service today.

Perhaps the biggest thrill was listening to these pastors preach and relate to their own contexts. Some are from white churches, others from African American churches, and one from Ethiopia. What differences!

The Ethiopian pastor shared about a mountain in one part of Ethiopia that was regarded as so sacred that, with its rocks and trees, it was itself worshiped by the people. Powerful witchdoctors ruled over its rituals. The Christians prayed and witnessed to their faith but this pagan mountain loomed even larger. Then, through their witness, one of the chief witchdoctors met Christ and was utterly transformed by radical new faith. Amazingly, he led the way, turning the mountain into a place for worshiping the Christian God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Every year over 100,000 people gather for a special prayer and praise day, and every day of the year there are always Christians praying 24/7.

He told us many other stories too from his own experience of amazing God breakthroughs. They really woke us up to the reality of God at work in the world church. And challenged our western (often white) world view that seems to have almost given up expecting God to interrupt with radical transformation.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Baptist Preaching (3)

In the ferment of early persecution some outstanding and courageous preachers emerged. But, more generally, it was the role of preaching in developing Baptist congregations that ensured its subsequent importance within the Baptist tradition. Because Baptists understand the church to be gathered believers under the word of God, preaching is essential for two reasons. First, individuals need to come to faith by hearing the gospel preached to them (Rom 10:14-15); second, church community is formed by believers responding to the preached word together. Take away preaching and a Baptist people cannot be gathered into church!

So, from the beginnings the pulpit was central, both literally in Baptist architecture, but also metaphorically in its prime place within gathered worship. Further, because Baptist churches are necessarily local - formed from the "bottom up" - gathered believers with different racial, social, political and economic characteristics represent great diversity in emphasis and style, and their preachers with them. Because the pulpit is central, much therefore depends on preachers' own qualities of learning and piety, (or their absence), that can have large influence on gathered communities - for better or worse!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Baptist Preaching (2)

Before jumping out of the seventeenth century I should mention another Baptist preacher who was far less formally educated, yet was so grounded in Scriptural piety that he impacted England (and far beyond). John Bunyan (1628-1688) is better known for his writing of Pilgrim’s Progress but was a widely influential preacher , imprisoned for twelve years because of Baptist convictions. Inspirational and forceful, he famously declared: “I have not fished in other men’s waters; my Bible and concordance are my only library.”[ii] So, to other qualities, strong Biblical authority must be added. Of course, it should be noted, that this was true of most other Protestant preaching in the wake of the Reformation. Further, early Baptists contained both Arminian and Calvinistic theology among different groupings.

In its rapid expansion since these beginnings, Baptist life and witness now exhibits rich (and confusing?) diversity, especially in North America. Do some of the early characteristics, born out of persecution, still remain? Have other characteristics emerged? One certainty is that the authority of Scripture is held high by most Baptist preachers, but what else?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Baptist Preaching (1)

To my shock, (in the midst of much grading and intensive doctoral teaching), I realize I face an approaching deadline for an article on "Preaching in the Baptist tradition," for the British journal called: The Preacher. Sorry, but this means taking a brief detour from other blog themes. Please excuse me all non-Baptist readers.

Initially, I wonder whether there is such a thing as a Baptist tradition - can't almost anything and everything can be found in Baptist pulpits? Actually this year celebrates 400 years since the first Baptists in Holland and England. It's interesting to pause and look at their beginnings. The first Baptists were people of conviction. They needed to be, for they were challenging the state church and majority assumption about the nature of the church! Convinced that the Bible reveals God’s supreme authority, they believed it teaches that the church comprises communities of believers gathered together in each locality. Founded on believers’ faith and formed by covenant fellowship, the first Baptists claimed believers’ baptism as the way into the church. Though nicknamed “baptists” it was ecclesiology (church doctrine) that primarily distinguished them.

In this context, the first Baptist theologians were preachers, (and vice versa), who led by their preaching – “theologically radical, politically dangerous, ecclesiastically Nonconformist, they preached sermons that spoke so clearly to their age that they often found themselves in prison.”[i] Thomas McKibbens’ history of Baptist preaching emphasizes the intellectual rigour of these first preachers, many of them Cambridge University graduates (like John Smythe, Thomas Helwys, and Henry Jessey), whose passion in declaring personal salvation was matched by commitment to serious biblical and theological study. He identifies two distinctive marks: “learning and piety.” Serious biblical study and theological reflection, especially concerning the church as gathered believers, was combined with evident personal spirituality and evangelistic zeal.

To learning and piety I would add evangelism and courage. That's not a bad place to start, is it?

[i] Thomas R. McKibbens, The Forgotten Heritage, Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1986, 4

Sunday, May 31, 2009

What is the "high-point of your week?"

At Calvary Memorial Church this morning the preacher, Dr. Todd Wilson, asked a question. I was visiting because friends were dedicating their baby. He began a series on Titus called: Becoming Zealous for Good Works, emphasizing in Titus 1:1-4 how preaching is God's primary means by which he creates a people who are zealous for good works. Following the text closely he said about preaching:
Its REASON lies in God's revelation. By his preached word God re-reveals himself;
Its CONTENT concerns Scripture with Christ central to its exposition;
Its PURPOSE - is to increase knowledge of the truth and faith that leads to godliness.

But at one point he asked us: "What is the high point of your week?" He suggested different Saturday activities with friends and family that we might choose as high points. But, in sharp contrast (and as you might expect) he said: "My prayer is that your high point is to come together and listen to God's word in preaching." Sermons = high point.

That deserves a reality check! I think for preachers themselves it's often true, because they are working towards that high point - it fills the horizon. But when preachers sit in the congregation I wonder whether they make matching spiritual investment to hear others? And what about average sermon listeners? Is there high expectation? I know it ought to be true. Yet, often I suspect it's not. Sometimes it's because they have never thought of it as a possible high point, or they have been disappointed by past experiences. Or they just don't think about the need to prepare themselves for something potentially so special. (If you have low expectations it's likely to fulfill them!) Or, there isn't any awareness of how properly to respond anyway. Or...or.... Anyway, the question made me think. What about you?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Window onto Wonder

A friend of mine is into astronomy. Occasionally he breaks into my pedestrian reading/writing/teaching world with the most amazing pictures he took the previous night. A couple of days ago he sent me two images of Messier objects ,(I don't understand what that means!), numbered M51 and M3. One is a galaxy called the whirlpool galaxy and the other a globular cluster. They contrast remarkably with each other by shape, amazing colors and depth. They are extraordinary, viewed from his own telescope.

It's a great reminder when you have your nose down in work to remember how we belong within a wonderful creation to a glorious Creator. Just seeing those pictures throws open a window onto wonder. The cosmic scale blows your mind, and so does God's coming close to us in Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Community Formation (3)

After posting (I ) the church as God's "building", I wanted to bring alongside the challenge of (II)the MISSIONAL CHURCH. With inevitable oversimplification, Craig Van Gelder usefully contrasts the corporate church with the missional church – the doing church or the being church.[i] He bases his distinction on the ways that these two churches view their own purpose. On one hand , the corporate church, embedded in the European version of Constantinian Christendom, understands itself to exist “as an organization to accomplish something , normally on behalf of God in the world.” On the face of it , a doing church sounds attractive. Wouldn’t we prefer to belong to a doing church rather than a non-doing church!

However , on the other hand , because of convergence in missiological circles around a mission theology related to the Missio Dei and the Kingdom of God , the missional church’s self understanding is: “that it is created by the Spirit as a called and sent community to participate fully in God’s mission in the world.”[ii] Instead of the doing church (a corporate model) that focuses on projects and programs emphasizing human vision and energy, the being church (a missional model) sees the world as the horizon. Its parameters depend less on themselves and more on God’s redemptive reign in Christ and empowering by the Holy Spirit. A new people is being formed who join in God’s triune mission. Worshippers belong together, as a city on a hill (Matt. 5:14), as light centripetally gathered into public worship, though with characteristics that when centrifugally distributed impact the world like salt (Matt 5:13).

The missional church seeks to emphasize the formation of a missionary community that lives in contrast with the world. It takes 1 Pet. 2: 9-12 seriously that a holy nation will live differently in the eyes of those around “conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles so that…they may see your honorable deeds.” Of course, modernity’s individualistic creed mocks such a possibility. Rather, it sponsors the corporate church , encouraging pious consumerism – as members choose which church to “attend” according to how it meets personal needs. Rampant individualism allows attendees in self-satisfaction to walk away from responsibility to brothers, sisters and neighbors. Its leaders are more concerned about adding numbers rather than building community - “more impressed by a church of 4000 people who have no clue about God’s character and expectations than by a church of 100 deeply committed saints.” [iii]

I see this missional model resonating with the biblical picture of God building his people, and it stresses the need for developing missional practices that enable people to be formed together. Do you see connections?

[i] Craig Van Gelder , “From Corporate Church to Missional Church: The Challenge Facing Congregations Today.” Review and Expositor Vol 101 , 3 , 425-449
[ii] Ibid. , 426.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Community Formation (2)

I need (urgently) to bring together a number of issues: I A biblical picture of building; II missional theology; III worship; IV the role of preachers. Maybe there will be more, but my next posts will tackle each of these.

I A biblical picture
Probably the most popular New Testament church metaphor is “body” (Rom..12; 1 Cor. 12, Eph 4.) Its picture of organic life, integrating every part into the whole, speaks volumes of how every member, each with their own gifts, belongs within one body. Further, it resonates with theological truth that the church is “the body of Christ”, growing up into Christ its head (Eph. 4:15). Warm, personal and visual, its imagery immediately connects. However, for all its great strengths, it inevitably identifies contrasts between believers with their gifts. This emphasis is understandable, for example in the divided Corinthian church. The body’s stress on unity in diversity, on mutual health or disease depending on how each part belongs together, powerfully addresses spiritual superiority in the Corinthian church. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you’…On the contrary those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:21, 22). Believers must not allow their different gifts to separate them.

Another metaphor identifies other aspects of the need for unity in Christ. The picture of the church as God’s building has especial significance for community formation, and the work of worshipful preachers. Found in Eph. 2:19-22, 4:12-19, 1 Peter 2:9-12, the idea of believers being built up together is evocative in several ways.

First, it emphasizes the likeness of believers – like “living stones” (1 Pet. 2:9). Some may contrast in size and color, but no big deal is made out of differences. Rather than emphasize different functions, this building metaphor expresses how they all have the same function. To be built up on top of each other in God’s construction work. Here the vision of the church envisages a solid structure in which each believer belongs with others to make a coherent design possible.

Second, it gives prominence to God the Designer in a graphic way. Great architects have powerful sway. Palladio’s 500th anniversary was widely celebrated in 2008 celebrating the Italian architect because he is credited with having had the greatest single influence on Western architecture since his birth. Jesus’ promise to Peter: “and on this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18) grounds God’s building of church community as integral to Christ’s ministry, with cosmic repercussions. It is designed to reveal the “manifold wisdom of God…to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms (Eph. 3:10).

Third, it stresses structural unity. Jesus is described as the “chief cornerstone” – “in him the whole building is joined together” (Eph 2:20). Most commentators see this stone as foundational. Interestingly, a technical building term is used for “joined together”- synarmologoumene is found only in Eph. 2:20 and 4.16. Its meaning “embraces the complicated process of masonry by which stones are fitted together.” Here is no haphazard arrangement but a skilful, complex building work around the cornerstone in order for the whole to have solid structure and do justice to the architect’s design.

Fourth, it emphasizes God as Builder. He is at work in every part, for this building is ‘in him” and “becomes a dwelling in which he lives by his Spirit (Eph 2:22) Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all involved in the building. Excellence of construction matters to the triune God.

Fifth, this building is a work in progress – “the whole building rises” (present tense Eph 2:21). As a massive project it continues to develop with contemporary ‘living stones”

Sixth, it calls for obedience and willingness by members of the church to be those “living stones” in his buildings plans. Committed to God’s design, dependent on his direction and strength for continued usefulness, the must be tightly fitted together, upholding each other, bearing structural stress. This need for togetherness is emphasized twice on Eph. 2:19, 20. For building work it is foundational and echoes with God’s passion evident throughout the New Testament for unity and peace among God’s people.

Seventh, it needs intentional leadership. Though Eph. 4: 12 describes the “body of Christ” its use of building language is important as the role of preacher/leaders is emphasized. Elsewhere I have urged the role of preacher as leader because of the transformational nature of the preached word (in 360degree Leadership). Proclaiming God's vision and will for hispeople necessarily involves them in leading. And for God's building project this means enabling intentional community formation. The list of early leaders: apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers are all communicators of God's word. The outcome is "to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (verse 12). Later in verse 16 the technical word for joining masonry blocks re-emerges - "held together"(synarmologoumene). Not only must they be encouragers of living stones fitted together, keeping the community vision alive, but they must fight every present dangers of disunity and conflict with diligence and prayer.

This metaphor raises many evocative aspects of community formation, doesn't it?