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.