Saturday, December 31, 2011

Entering 2012 with the Comprehensive Christ

As I enter a New Year I have been challenged by a verse:
Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus giving thanks to God the Father through him (Col 3:17).

None of us knows what lies ahead in 2012 but it is certain that our lives will be full of words and actions. Many will be routine and some may be large and heroic. We cannot help talking and doing. Yet, this verse wraps every part of our talking and doing, yes every part, into comprehensive recognition that nothing lies outside living for Jesus Christ. Living under the authority of his name and by the grace of the Holy Spirit touches whatever I do, in word or deed.

This takes the mundane and monotonous and lifts it up as opportunity for the comprehensive Christ to fill with significance. And it takes the knowingly important words and deeds and frames them in big-picture worship. Note, how the giving of thanks ensures a continuously bubbling positive spirit of gratitude. The power of positive thanking!

While many New Year resolutions peter out in human frailty, this extraordinary perspective on life has the potential to keep going on and on and on by God's grace. I attended a service of Lessons & Carols just before Christmas at an Elmhurst church where I preached in the summer, and a lady came rushing up to me. "You remember that open-air service when you spoke about us being ambassadors for Jesus Christ? And you said what a difference this makes every day when we wake up and realize who we are as ambassadors?" "Yes," I replied. "Well, I promised myself I'd tell you if I ever saw you again. It really is true! Ever since then my life has been different because, as a teacher, I know every day I am Christ's ambassador. It isn't always easy. I won't pretend there have not been days when I have lapsed. But, for most of the time, I now live differently as an ambassador!"

How she encouraged me! And what a challenge to take a word of Scripture seriously so that it roots down and Christ changes us. That's his fresh promise for us in 2012.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Cancer Interrupts (2)

Since sharing my news, I have been overwhelmed (in a good way) by the wishes, prayers and stories of so many friends from around the world. What an incredible comfort and support you have been. THANK YOU from us both.

I do not want to turn this blog into a plodding medical bulletin. I have always marveled at those who are able to reflect with spiritual depth and perception even as they go through dark places. Frankly, for me, it has been an utter jumble of emotions so far, with patches of 'normal life' punctured by sharp needles of the unknown. (I guess that is a biopsy metaphor!) Yet, Carol and I can testify to experiencing some peace so profound that we know it can only be God's gift - we know we are being prayed for.

I have just received the date for my operation: Friday, January 27th. at Loyola University Hospital. Apparently, it is a four hour operation that robotically removes the cancerous prostate plus lymph nodes and some surrounding nerves. Of course our prayer is that the surgeon can completely remove the cancer and that it has not spread. Only God knows what lies beyond...but we are trusting Him.

Thanks for your prayers - some of you know exactly what we are going through. We treasure your friendship and support.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Greetings!

Yes, my world has been rocked by my recent medical tests and an uncertain future. But it is the greatest comfort imaginable that my cancer news coincides with Christmas, and its best ever interruption.

God creator of everything, eternal word, clothed in transcendent glory has shown who is he in a baby born of Mary, vulnerable, wrapped in cloth within a manger. God really is there and he shows us who he is in Jesus. The Incarnation remains the world's greatest interruption which makes possible the life, death and resurrection of the Lord of Life who forever remains with us, Immanuel. There really is a good God and he is here for us, whatever we face.

Over these next couple of days I am saying a prayer written by a British friend Jamie Wallace.

Lord Jesus, we welcome you into our world, into human life, into our hearts.

Thank you for coming to teach and heal, to befriend and lead, and to die for our salvation.

Thank you for being here now as you promised you would be, and forever. Amen.

May you have a wonderful celebrations this Christmas, with a good year full of God's grace stretching ahead.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cancer interrupts!

The last couple of postings have seen me musing about 'sermony' (and I have more to write!) But in the last few days my life has abruptly shifted gear. A biopsy for prostate cancer last week found fairly aggressive cancer (Gleason level 7) throughout my prostate. Surgery for radical removal of the prostate plus lymph glands will occur as soon as I have healed from the biopsy - probably in late January 2012. Noone can say whether the cancer is contained until after surgery so our prayers are obvously focused on a removal of all the cancer at this next surgery.

How suddenly we can be catapulted from our usual lives (like grading papers and thinking about sermony) into a frightening world of the BIG C. Several of my friends have been there before me - often with positive outcomes. Honestly, I am still trying to come to terms with it. I am optimistic in outlook and was sure the biopsy would be clear. My PSA was still relatively low and the doctor said 70% of these tests prove OK. So, the bad news jolted me with a swift unwelcome lesson about my vulnerability. (Actually, Carol was much more pessimistic and expressed much less surprise. And her successful action on my behalf in pursuing subsequent medical attention would take several postings to relate!)

Since hearing the news, Carol and I have been overwhelmed by the love and care of friends, expressed in emails and calls. Many of you have promised prayers and spoken of God's promised gifts of peace and healing. Already, we are aware of powerfully tangible spiritual support reminding us that faith in Jesus Christ is for grown-up living that matures through bad as well as good news. That truly believes that God has the last word and it is a word of hope.

Throughout my ministry I have often been involved with 'old boys' and their prostate problems, but now I am one of them! This is a wake-up call about how precious life is, and how God wants us to live with daily trust in him. And I seek to live victoriously in Christ, the Lord being my healer and my helper.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sermony (3)

I wonder if there are synonyms for this word 'sermony'. Probably, 'churchy' has something of the same feel, expressing how something is exactly what you expect in church. A kind of 'insider' description of something that fits appropriately into the religious ethos of churches. Naturally this ethos will vary from high church with formal historic liturgies through to low church with its ultra informal liturgies. (Yes, they also have liturgies - the 'usual' way in which congregational worship is planned to involve the work of the people).

As an itinerant preacher I have sometimes witnessed what happens between the congregation's singing before the sermon and the beginning of the sermon. Actually, and I do not exaggerate (much) I have seen the body language of a whole people transition from active participation into a passive numbing mode as they slump into bored expressions that reveal just how little they expect to happen in a sermon. Sadly, such behavior reflects their experience that sermons are just a part of the churchy thing we do (like taking an offering), and people can only submit. Probably, they have only ever heard sermony sermons. Predictable stuff about God.

Perhaps there are other words too that convey this concern (how widespread is it I wonder?) that sermons are just part of the fittings and fixtures! I know I need to talk about non-sermony sermons shortly, but I wonder if you agree there is a problem here.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Sermony (2)

When I wrote about preachers who preach 'sermony' sermons knowing how to fill up twenty minutes with 'stuff' I did not mean this was poor grade 'stuff'! Many sermony sermons are marked by key characteristics such as:

  • Bible text(s) - sometimes multiple references throughout - making it sound like a sermon should.

  • Preacher stories - illustrations and examples that fit the sermon mold. Often they can be out of the preachers' personal lives and sound just like you would expect.

  • Competent delivery. Sermony sermons can be lively and well-presented.

I do not intend 'sermony' to mean that sermons do not have Scripture, or are poorly thought out or inadequately presented. They are not necessarily dull at all! Indeed, many regular church goers are entirely satisified by what they regularly hear and (maybe) would protest this is what preaching is always meant to be.

BUT, preaching is not about filling in twenty minutes with 'stuff'. About meeting expectations of a job well done and a sermon slot completed. Rather, preaching is about God's laser-sharp, gut-reaching, spirit-convicting word for this particular people and at his particular time. It surprises, delights, rebukes with spiritual freshness that catch hearers out because it has surprised,delighted, rebuked the preacher first. It's a spiritual happening when God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - meets us at deeper levels in spirit and in truth. People are not left saying: 'That was a good sermon' revealing their judgments about what a sermon should look like. Instead they say: "God encountered me today" and they know they can live in different ways of grace together.

Can a preacher guarantee that a sermon is a 'spiritual happening'? Of course not! It all depends on God at work, with his word through the preacher and people. But preachers can tragically smother spiritual possibilities when they settle for 'sermony stuff'. I know that I have been guilty of that! More later.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Recently I have found myself using a word that doesn't appear in the dictionary. I am not sure whether I am inventing it or (more likely) it's already in use and I have picked it up. I am finding it (too) useful. It is the word: SERMONY. Describing a sermon as 'sermony' means that it looks like a sermon, sounds like a sermon, and smells like a sermon. Indeed, everybody considers it to be a sermon and grades it as to whether they liked it or not according to their own criteria.

I believe that when average preachers have preached ten times they know how to pull stuff together to fill up twenty minutes (or so) to make something sermony. It is the package that church goers have come to expect. Perhaps, the package that seminaries train pastors with. Depending on their own traditions, some churches have cerebral sermony sermons, others have emotive sermony sermons and so on. But, whatever style and content, they fulfil expectations adequately because hearers have become used to sermony sermons and these are definitely sermony.

Maybe, you are gaining the impression that 'sermony' is not a positive word! I know I need to unpack this word some more in order to gain feedback. I'll post again, soon.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Finalist!

I learned today from the blog: that my book Preaching as Worship has been selected as a finalist in Preaching Today's shortlist of preaching books in 2011. You can imagine how elated I am (high fives all round!) It means somebody has read it and deems it of some value!

It has also been agreed by my seminary that I should speak about the book at a meeting on Friday February 10th at 7:00pm to be held at Northern Seminary for ANYONE INTERESTED. Yes, anyone! The faculty will be present and, hopefully, some students. But I am hoping others (especially my friends) may well be able to attend so that the event acts as a kind of belated "launch" and, even, celebration. I am encouraged by this flurry of activity.

At present I am submerged in the final grading of term papers - the next few days should see all the students' work completed and two very good classes happily concluded. It has been an excellent term with great class bonding (so vital when preaching to each other!) One of the delights has been hearing of those students who intended only taking the Fall quarter with me, but who have now decided to enrol for the Winter Quarter. One of them said: "I didn't want to travel the long distance to and from my out-of-state home late on Monday nights during the Chicago Winter. But I just cannot miss out on this next class!" That's what makes teaching such a privilege.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Simple Joys

Thanksgiving last week proved to be an utter delight. The sun shone in New Jersey with temperatures in the 60's. After a magnificent turkey lunch, I went out with Elliot (nearly 6) and Sophie (nearly 3) to rake up leaves in the large garden. Surrounded by trees on all sides, deeply layered leaves covered everything, with mounds like sand dunes rippled by the wind. Wielding rakes and heaving a large wheelbarrow we shifted leaves into large piles, compacting them in the barrow until overflowing, and then wheeled them up the hill to create a mammoth leaf mountain. Of course, Elliot climbed into the barrow for the return journey and then hopped out ready, with his sister, to fill another load. Before long the leaf mountain had gained imaginative hold over the children. It was a castle among the trees. Each load added to the ramparts. A side entrance led into the keep, and an exit wound the other way. Excitedly, they kept scraping up leaves, filling the barrow and chasing up the hill.

I guess you can imagine how contentment filled the afternoon. Sunshine, energy, laughter, togetherness, creativity. Guess what happened the next day? They wanted a repeat, and gloriously the weather allowed a whole day of blissful raking and dumping leaves as the castle grew. Elliot piloted a leaf blower clearing swathes of path, rockery and grass of the last obstinate leaves. There was sunshine, energy, laughter, togetherness, creativity. Just raking leaves in the garden.

I knew at the time that this was special. To be with my grandchildren without TV, video games, and contrived time-users. Just leaves and togetherness. The simple joys are always the best. I don't know whether Elliot will remember his hours with his grandfather. But I shall - with true thanksgiving.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

As a Brit I have really come to appreciate the great time that is Thanksgiving, which we celebrate (with the rest of the US) this Thursday. Carol and I are preparing to share with our American side of the family - Rob, Lori, Elliot and Sophie. Why do I appreciate it more? Because:

  • Thanksgiving is the gateway to deeper living. Whenever you truly give thanks it requires you to look beyond yourself, to pause, reflect, remember and smile. We love going to church on Wednesday evening this week, when the microphone roves and people sound out reasons why they are thankful to God. As the nation gives thanks for its beginnings, each of us can make sure we don't take the big gifts of life, family, and new life in Christ for granted. That why thanks play such a big role in the psalms.

  • Thanksgiving brings people together without the razzmatazz of gifts. Christmas has become so dominated by present giving and receiving - parcels and packages can overwhelm relationships. But Thanksgiving gives more space for us just being together - though I realize the food and the sport can overwhelm.

  • Thanksgiving is a community break. So many of my students have said how ready they are, after eight weeks of term, for a break. I certainly feel like that having just completed a massive load of grading! It really does come at a good time for all of us.

I wish you all, wherever you are, Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

More travel woes!

I intended staying in Harrisburg less than 24 hours because of pressing work at home. On Thursday afternoon I returned to the airport to retrace my flights, first 5:45 pm US airways to New York, then (after an hour's layover) American to Chicago. Simple? No, the 5:45 was so delayed that I would miss the only available connecting flight in New York. The clerk switched tickets for me to catch another flight straight to Chicago. The delay had worked to my advantage! Was I pleased!

Boarding the plane on time we taxied out and came to a halt. Something in the tail was malfunctioning. We sat for an hour and then returned to deplane. After another hour we were told the flight was cancelled and alternative arrangements would be made. But no more flights to Chicago were possible that day. After two hours, they gave me fresh tickets for Continental Airlines at 6:00 am the next morning, for Chicago via Cleveland, with vouchers to stay overnight at the Sheraton. After limited sleep I was back in the airport. With fresh hope, we boarded on time, taxied out and came to a halt. The stewardess' microphone was faulty. We sat for an hour and then returned to deplane. After another hour we were told the flight was cancelled. Then began a frantic time which involved me in two failed attempts to be transferred to other flights where I joined lines at other gates only to be rejected because my paper work was faulty.

Eventually, I was the last passenger left after at least a 100 others had been sorted. With weariness they booked me on United (my fifth airline) for a flight straight back. I felt weary too. Mercifully, this plane actually took off and I was back home 18 hours later than planned.

Hopefully, its rare for two successive planes to fail like this. Again, it helps me to moan ....and to offer warnings: always take your cellphone, allow for detours and never take travel for granted. I was reminded of James 4:13, 14 - 'Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city"...why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. '

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Cell Phone Fiasco

I delivered the Ritter-Moyer lectures at Evangelical Seminary, Myerstown, on Thursday as planned - as far as I could tell there was a good response! However.....getting there had a twist!

My outward flight involved traveling from Chicago to New York La Guardia, and changing airlines for a flight to Harrisburg. On paper, the hour layover at New York seemed adequate enough. We left on time (at 11:05 am) but the plane promptly stopped, and the captain announced that air traffic control had delayed our departure time by one and a half hours. A 4 year old girl with her mother and 6 month old (crying baby) sat next to me. The captain suggested we use cell phones to warn those who were planning to meet us. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my cell-phone. I asked my neighbor if I could borrow her phone though my contact John's number was somewhere in my luggage squeesed into the overhead locker. Finding it disturbed both children mightily. I left John a message saying I had no idea what the delay meant...I would contact him again. Oh, and that I had left my cell-phone at home and was borrowing this one!

We made up some time landing in La Guardia at 3:15pm, but the connecting flight was due to leave at 3:30. 'You won't make it, 'said the cheerful flight attendant. 'You have to exit this terminal, go half a mile to another terminal, find a flight, get a ticket, and go through security again.' What? Arriving breathless, I was informed the next flight was at 10:50pm arriving after midnight (with a longish drive to John's home). But another attendant found out my original flight was delayed so maybe I could still catch it. She asked the plane to wait for me. Ten minutes later, having convinced security again I was safe, I reached the gate as the attendant called for Mr Quick-ie loudly. Entering the small plane with 7 passengers I asked if someone would let me call my friend that I was on the plane, because I had no cell-phone. I was met by 7 blank stares. One businessman (reluctantly) brought out his phone - just as the captain told us to turn off all electronic devices. 'Sorry', he said, with obvious relief.

Arriving in Harrisburg I hoped that someone would remember my plight. No. But at least there would be public phones at Harrisburg International Airport. I asked a security guard where the phones were. 'Over there' he said, but the shiny booths held no phones. He was surprised, and even more shocked to learn that there were no longer any public phones anywhere in the complex. I imagined John in frustration having not heard from me for several hours. My abject look must have touched this guard's heart. 'Here,' he said, 'you can use mine.' John's relief at hearing my voice (and vice versa) was the high-point of the day. And it turned out that he was near the airport having decided to come and grade papers, waiting for me past midnight if necessary.

We both commented that cell phones are so ubiquitous now that public phones are obviously an endangered species. He refrained from telling me how absent-minded/stupid/downright badly organized I was in forgetting my cell-phone. Perhaps I shall remember in future? I think writing this will help, or at least provide some therapy. Mind you, there is a Part Two!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

New Directions in Preaching (5)

I am traveling today to deliver these lectures tomorrow. Much refining is still necessary! The last important section concerns the WHICH of preaching. Which direction and which types?

Here we go straight back to the foundational texts of Eph 4 and 1 Pet 2 that I mentioned earlier. In order for people to move from an individualistic focus into God's community life, preachers need to take responsibility for intentionally preaching a whole range of possibilities.

Of course there is evangelistic preaching that seeks faith-response. (Some suggest today that this has become leaden and predictable in too many places). Alongside gospel good news, however, there is also doctrinal preaching that encourages new believers to recognize the new language and new way of thinking that is belonging together in Christ. Further, celebratory preaching stresses the great joy of partaking in Christ's creation.

I want to add liturgical preaching, because whatever kind of worshipping community it really matters that people understand what baptism, the Lord's Supper, and every other part of gathered worship means. Salvation history preaching emphasizes how Christian communities belong within God's big story, helping us treasure the past and anticipate the future.

However, Christian communities cannot form without pastoral preaching that deals with real life issues within communities, so that they grow in responsibility to support and care not only its own members but those outside. Continuously, Leadership through preaching stresses how significant preachers are in ensuring hearers grow in God's will and purpose.

Some of this can be summed up in missional preaching which dares to take 1 Pet 2 and sound out its mandate for the church in today's culture. Indeed, this may involve prophetic preaching that confronts culture where necessary.

This is a rich range of preaching possibilities. I look forward to hearing from the conference attendees how they respond. I shall let you know!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

New Directions in Preaching (4)

The HOW of preaching raises the important question of how effective preaching occurs. In his survey of 2000 years of preaching, O.C. Edwards highlights four qualities of effective preachers: a good mind, personal holiness, rhetorical reflex and preaching without notes.

Rhetorical reflex is his term for 'a native sense of how to get one's point across when addressing a group'. I reflect on one of the giants of the past C.H. Spurgeon, and Helmut Thielicke's memorable analysis of what made Spurgeon so effective. He concluded that it was his:
CHEEFULNESS - the contagion of grace that showed through humor and his whole demeanor.
WORLDLINESS - 'a plunging with his message into the world and emerging in its climate'.
How interesting to review these two characteristics. Spurgeon was able to talk to people where they were in the realm of the ordinary about the extraordinary gospel with joy.

Preaching without notes raises the issue of connecting with people without the barrier of paper - it's controversial but important for this age.

Under the HOW I shall also need to talk about collaboration in preaching and leading worship - something I have tried to do often with the blog!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

New Directions in Preaching (3)

I have decided to use three headings under which to organize material for these lectures: the WHAT we preach, the HOW we preach and the WHICH we preach. I know it sounds rather clumsy, but hopefully it will stimulate the preachers.

The WHAT relates to the content of our preaching. Sadly, in culture change, it is possible to compromise the gospel of Jesus Christ by both omission and commission. But, I shall focus on the way much 'modern' preaching tended to boil down the gospel to a personal response to Jesus Christ. Salvation was often so stressed as personal commitment so that it was in danger of becoming an entirely personal matter. Few corporate implications of salvation into Christ and his new creation were sounded out. This meant that individual believers tended to look back to Christ's work on the cross as his only work for us, without a continuing experience of him as Intercessor, with the Holy Spirit at work in our lives today. I have certainly heard sermons ending with 'to do lists' that seemed to leave it all up to me!

Another danger of this sharply individualistic gospel is its neglect of the big story of God's purpose in creation - from creation to the final triumph of Christ's reign. Too often, hearers have been left with the impression that they can fit God into their own stories, rather than the other way round!

If it is true that one main cultural trend moves 'from focusing on the individual to recognize the community of faith' (see last post), does this not give wonderful fresh opportunity to proclaim the corporate aspects of salvation in Christ? That we do belong within a new community living in different ways for different purposes! I believe preachers should seize this opportunity with both hands!

Friday, November 4, 2011

New Directions in Preaching (2)

In planning my talks I have decided to use two Scriptures which from the beginning will act as a corrective to discussion about where preaching is going - Eph. 4: 12,13 and 1 Pet 2: 4-12. (It's always good to have a Scripture base!) Many have analyzed culture change and tried to sum up implications for the church.

Stanley Grenz sums up how the gospel should move in current culture changes in his Primer on PostModernism:
From focusing on the individual - to recognize the community of faith.
From rational certainty alone - to intellectual encounter within human experience.
From emphasis on uniformity - to celebration of diversity that focuses on local stories.

Though oversimplifying, I believe that the 'modern' church of the latter twentieth century has so often focused on the individual with strong commitment to rational certainty and an emphasis on uniformity (especially denominational churches with national programs!) But, in the challenge of post-somethings culture we have fresh opportunity to move towards a profounder corporate expression of our faith - to grow in community with authenticity as we seek to live together as (dare we believe!) a maturing people - formed more like the body of Jesus Christ.

You will understand my desire to keep Eph. 4 and 1 Pet.2 in mind as I help people explore what it means to preach today. Do we now have far greater possibility of living out these truths in community than for many decades?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

New Directions in Preaching

Next week I am lecturing at Evangelical Seminary in Myerstown, Penn. I have been given the theme: New Directions in Preaching. Two lectures are titled: Preaching in a Post-Everything Culture and Preaching's Future.

It's always a challenge facing such a theme with blank sheets to be filled. Over the next few days I am sharpening some issues (which means throwing out many others!) However, certain necessary building blocks are emerging. First, I shall need to describe the complex relationship between preaching and culture (which itself needs defining as the big cluster of characteristics of an entire group of people e.g. western culture). Someone has said that this relationship has three aspects: It is inevitable, desirable and risky. It's unavoidable yet requires immense care.

Second, I shall provide a (simplified) overview of the current situation as western culture appears to be transitioning from the "modern era" to the "post Christendom era" (though the latter may be termed several other ways). At this point it becomes important to say that few preachers are actually involved in a Post-Everything Culture because most contexts share characteristics of both eras. Probably, it should be a Post-Somethings Culture! We seem to be on our way to some new ways of thinking and relating yet often within old patterns. So what are the most significant changes that matter for preaching? I'll post again in a couple of days!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Enjoying my lot!

This morning's Scriptures included Ecclesiastes 5: 19-20.

All to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil - this is the gift of God. For they will scarecly brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts.

One commentator says that this is about the average person who has a living wage. That they will not brood over the past or worry about the future but enjoy their lot (Matt. 6:25-34, Phil. 4:4-7). I was struck by the word enjoy - 'enjoy wealth and possessions'.. find 'enjoyment in toil' and know 'God's joy in our hearts.' The whole lot is a gift of God for us to enjoy today. Sadly, I know for some (especially in current economic trials) there is no toil and they long to be employed. And others have minimal wealth and possessions. Further, these verses are not a mandate to indulge in selfish luxury. But, for an average person like me, it's about realizing what my 'lot' is all about as God's gift, and making the most of it today. Enjoy!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Music Plus

This past week has been special for two music concerts. First, I shared in a Keith and Kristyn Getty concert in Elmhurst. They have given us some great hymns such as "In Christ alone", but have also made pertinent comments like: "It seems to me that if a church splits over music, that music has become more important than togetherness in itself. Music is merely a servant to the body of believers." The concert was lively with some new songs and settings. Towards the end, the whole congregation (I guess 600 or so) joined in full-hearted singing of a sequence of four recent Easter hymns - wow, I hoped that God received our praise. Wonderful!

I had taken a signed copy of my book (Preaching as Worship) in which Keith and Kristyn are quoted several times. At the end of the concert he was so surrounded that I handed my book to one of his entourage to pass on. Imagine my surprise when he shouted out "Hold that Englishman!" Making his way to me he greeted me warmly, remembering how he met me in 2005 when I gave him a copy of 360degree preaching. I couldn't believe it, and felt really humbled!

On Saturday I went to the Wheaton College Artist Series to hear the brilliant young cellist Joshua Roman. Still in his twenties, he has gained a phenomenal reputation. In his pre-concert talk he winsomely shared about the classical program ahead and also his own story. Later, he dazzled us by his virtuosity (he really did)! It was another humbling experience - listening to a musician whose gifting and personality was so readily shared. Asked how many hours he practices he said that in high school it was 5-6 hours a day, at college 7-8 hours a day and currently he likes a good 5 hours practice daily!

I know musical preferences are very personal but I felt immensely enriched by these contrasting occasions. And I guess it was the personal sharing of the musicians themselves that so greatly added to the experiences. It was Music PLUS! Whenever there is personal sharing it enriches, doesn't it?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Preaching Conference - Haddon's 80th.

Before I forget I must comment about the final evening of the preaching conference. Haddon Robinson celebrated his eightieth birthday (there was a cake later) by preaching from Judges 11. It is the story of Jepthah whose vow to God involved sacrificing his daughter. Few of us would willingly preach on this hard story. With extraordinary preaching skill he led us by a narrative sermon right into Jepthah's world, via a recent news story of a father who allowed his daughter to die by refusing medical help because he believed that God would heal her. With creative imagination always grounded in the text this old story became vivid and troubling. How could God speak through all this?

With pathos he said how Jepthah didn't need to sacrifice his daughter. Jepthath didn't know how God allows substitution for this vow. He needn't have done this. Yet, he is still in the heroes of faith in Hebs. 11:32. Quietly, as the immensity of Jepthah's deed sunk in, Haddon said: 'God overlooks ignorance but he will not overlook unbelief. But the more ignorance the greater the danger; the more ignorantly zealous you are the more dangerous you are.' This was repeated with effect as Haddon began to apply it today. "If someone says they don't know theology - don't trust them! If you don't have both a heart and a head for God you're dangerous to others."

I am remembering this from six days ago. I know I cannot possibly do justice to this sermon, but what a testimony to the power of preaching that so much still resonates with me. On his birthday card I wrote my thanks to Haddon: "Thanks for the depth and the sparkle!" We all wish him well for his next years, but how grateful we are for such inspiring, memorable preaching through the past years.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Preaching Conference (2)

I posted yesterday about a couple of replies Dr. Old gave to questions. I was also struck by his answer to the question: "What can we conclude from your seven volumes as we look at our future preaching?"

He paused thoughtfully and then replied emphatically: "The continuity of the gospel. In all my writing I have been encouraged by the stories of one preacher after another who have demonstrated in the providence of God a continuity to telling out the gospel in every age." We belong to an extraordinary succession of preachers of every kind in the past and present (he especially highlighted current preaching in Africa, China and Korea) who testify to God's grace in carrying forward the same gospel message.

That's a profoundly encouraging lesson from history. In spite of up and downs, moral failure and impatience, the gospel continues to be sounded out by God's grace. As you can tell, I am encouraged - I hope you are too!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Preaching - some mistakes and its future

I am writing from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where the Evangelical Homiletics Society is holding its annual meeting. Last year I was the speaker on: Connecting Preaching and Worship (and it has been encouraging to have some follow-up conversations twelve months later with people who seem to have remembered!) This year we have listened to Hughes Oliphant Old who has written a seven volume series entitled: Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church. It took him over 20 years with the last volume VII: "Our own Time" published just last year.

He reminisced with us about some key personal events on his own Christian journey and emphasized some prime concerns from his writing, such as the vital importance of Scriptural authority and the reading of Scripture in worship, of worship as a covenanting experience where we remember the acts of God, and the role of rhetoric and oratory in presenting the gospel. Occasionally, he would drop in gems from the seven volumes with references to Chrysostom, Savanorola, Jonathan Edwards, Aimee Semple McPherson etc. as well as to current events like contemporary political oratory.

In the final session he was asked various questions, including what he considered to be preaching's greatest mistakes over two thousand years and his views of its future. I listened attentively:
MISTAKES - two great mistakes: 1) when preachers have lost moral integrity (though sometimes there has been 'healing' later; 2) loss of patience. "Patience and prayer are needed all the time...the North American church especially needs the discipline of daily prayer." How interesting to highlight impatience as a great mistake!
FUTURE - he commented on his own 'classical' approach with respect to bible, worship, prayer and said:" I believe that preaching will rediscover its tremendous 'classical' wealth - its biblical and theological wealth, its prayer wealth, its charitable wealth, its worship wealth and come back to the riches of God's grace."

This last comment really cheered me! I managed to speak to him at the end about my own vision of Preaching as Worship and a little about my journey of rediscovering worship wealth. Oh, Yeah! Thanks, Dr. Old.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Battered Pastors

I posted about Ken Giacoletto's farewell a few days ago. As President and CEO of Green Lake Conference Center for 18 years he deserved a good send-off. Many tributes were paid to his leadership which involved incredible building projects and extraordinary networking leading to events such as the annual International Conference on Prostitution which unites carers from across the world. A film was made showing the highlights of Ken's career over these 18 years.

When it came time for Ken to speak I wondered what he would emphasize. It is always difficult identifying what really matters - especially over 18 packed years. He singled out two issues:

  • he thanked his staff for the great team they have been over the years. I guess this was an obvious point but the warm team relationships have been very evident.

  • battered pastors. He said some of his most powerful memories were of some pastors in the CECL program (Center for Excellence in Congregational Leadership). These pastors were nearly at the end, beaten down by lay leaders who opposed and bullied them. Yet, when the lay-leaders themselves came to Green Lake for a week's training he witnessed wonderful transformations. One of the leaders came up to him and said: "Oh, I now see how I should be supporting my pastor. I go back a different person!"

It's interesting what stayed in his mind after all these years of high-profile service. Helping beaten-down pastors. How many such pastors are there? I guess some may deserve opposition! But I have been made aware twice in these last ten days of two situations where dedicated pastors are in situations of deep resistance. I know it's a big subject but I can still hear the anguish in Ken's voice. This is a concern for anguish, isn't it?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Thank You Elmhurst Christian Reformed Church

Yesterday I concluded my short interim engagement at Elmhurst CRC. Both morning services saw the installation of the new lead pastor: Rev. Peter Semeyn, by a group who represented both Peter's past pastoral work and his family, and also representatives of his new charge. It was solemn yet warm, and from the little I have seen of Peter this church has a great future ahead.

Someone commented to me that it seemed that every service I had preached at over 5 weeks was action-packed with different events. Yes! And this was another full but well conceived Sunday. In the first service I managed to restrict my sermon to 20 minutes (with over 20 powerpoint slides) so that we finished in time for all the education classes. However, during the second service, Pastor Gregg leaned over and whispered that I could take as long as I felt was right (because there was no deadline....apart from congregational fatigue!) What a difference it made. I guess it probably ran to 30 minutes but Carol commented that there seemed to be so much more space (and some humor) because of those extra minutes. I was certainly grateful to finish with such warm and encouraging follow-up from the congregation.

We both thank the members for letting us in on their journey between pastorates - it has been a really wonderful experience. Thank you all.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Re-visiting a vision

Back on July 19th I posted a blog about a meeting I had with a visionary called Dwight Moody. who founded the Academy of Preachers (, which focuses on young people aged 14-28! At various "festivals" around the country, with a national festival in January, all these young people are encouraged to preach. They are promised not only the practical (and invaluable) opportunity to preach sermons (on a selected theme), but also to receive ongoing guidance and feedback. Dwight said that if young people can be enthused and trained in other interests early in their teens, such as sport, music, and their studies, why not enthuse them about the highest way of serving Jesus Christ - being preachers?

I mentioned some of my initial questions such as: Isn't 14 too young? What about testing a call? Where's the accountability? How do you ensure biblical integrity? Aren't they likely to be mimicking others? What happens when they reach 28? Isn't this all a big risk? BUT I also said that the more I listened to Dwight the more I sensed how worthwhile this risk is.

Well, during my visit to Georgetown last week I witnessed a "festival". From 4:00 - 8:15 pm seven young preachers were given opportunity to preach at the Georgetown Baptist Church before an open audience. I arrived in time to hear the last four preachers. The youngest was 18 who suffers from deafness and the others were college students, including one currently at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Each of the preachers was introduced by their mentor who clearly had an important role in preparing these young people. Overall, they preached with considerable skill (two largely without notes!) developing themes from the Sermon on the Mount with careful attention to the text and lively application. An evaluator was responsible for providing solid feedback (given privately) - Dr Charles Bugg is a noted homiletician and I was impressed by his level of commitment and enthusiasm for the whole task.

What stood out for me:

  • their enthusiasm. They demonstrated keen desire and interest in preaching (so often missing among older folk!)

  • their authenticity. The personalities and experience of these young people shone through, especially in humor and application.

  • their Scriptural work. Each paid careful attention to their texts in Matthew 5.

  • their giftedness. There were no "poor" sermons but rather a (surprisingly) high level of skill both in content and delivery.

Later the President of Kentucky Baptist Seminary spoke to me. Three participants came from his seminary. He said: " I am so grateful for this amazing opportunity that gives these young people such a high-profile opportunity to share their gifting. Without this event, they would never have opportunities to preach." Yes, this experience definitely showed that it's a worthwhile risk working with such young people! I wonder how many of you are in contact with young people who would value such an opportunity.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Scurrying Through

After my 'Book Launch Workshop' in Georgetown, Kentucky, followed by preaching at the first chapel of a new academic year at Georgetown college, I am catching breath. We met some great new friends in a new context. Wonderful. And I need to share some of the happenings, especially about a festival of young preachers I also attended. But for now we are scurrying through. I know Americans are used to driving 7 hours before breakfast and another 3 hours before lunch (!) but we poor Brits are struggling to maintain high energy as we pause before continuing our roadtrip north to honor Ken Giacoletto, who is retiring as President/CEO of Green Lake Conference Center, Wisconsin at a banquet tonight.

I gladly report that it has been an exhilarating and encouraging time so far. As foreseen, my new book on Preaching as Worship is raising eyebrows! I can see pastors pondering: Is worship really such an important part of a preacher's responsibility? How can I possible take on board some fresh ideas in the midst of busy ministry? Oh, how I hope they will!

On Sunday I preach my final sermon at Elmhurst Christian Reformed Church, swiftly followed by new preaching classes beginning Monday and Tuesday. I told the Georgetown workshop about my sermon blogging exercise, but I realize (if they look up this blog!) it has been particularly sketchy this week. However, I know from worship planning details that are filtering through that several of you are tracking with me for Sunday. As always, I am grateful for your prayers and preparation.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Three Sermon Prep Day!

Bryan Chapell warns preachers about using autobiography: "The only one you can poke fun at is yourself, and the only one you should not pat on the back is yourself." Good advice. But, I cannot refrain from mentioning that today has been dominated by my needing to prepare three sermons. Yes, three! Not that any one is finished yet, but they are all on their way. Why today? Because this week is so full with a two-day faculty retreat and then travel to Kentucky and today was my only completely free day (actually not completely free!)

My next sermon for Elmhurst CRC (on September 25th) will conclude my short series on the Beatitudes focussing on "Blessed are the peacemakers" and "Blessed are those who are persecuted." Key Scriptures will include Romans 5:1-11, 12: 17-21 and John 15:18-25. I am focussing the main impact:
By the grace of God this sermon will SAY: Christian living means peace-making grounded in doctrine and empowered by grace. Yet persecution will inevitably follow.
This sermon will DO: challenge hearers about making peace and the reality of persecution today.

The worship planners at Elmhurst have collaborated wonderfully these last few weeks. Yesterday's services which included Communion also made space for 9/11 remembrance. Each song and prayer seemed so appropriate for the whole act of gathered worship. I have greatly valued the levels of collaboration. Of course, that is what my book Preaching as Worship pleads for. It's been exhilarating to see it in action.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

An unusual evening

Last night I visited the Risen Savior Assembly of God church in Chicago for the session on preaching (mentioned recently!) I was told that they had concerns about preaching and a group wanted to meet with me to learn more. What happened?

Well, their concerns were not about the importance of preaching to Jesus and his church. In an opening free-for-all they shared how their hestitations about preaching were to do with their feelings of unworthiness, of poor preparation, of not making sense and being irrelevant. One person spoke about the danger of manipulation and need to avoid it; another of the need for accountability. Here was a group of people (around 20 in number) who were hesitant for VERY GOOD REASONS. No one should rush into preaching as though it is not a high responsibility which needs humble gifting and hard work. I so warmed to their honesty and willingness to learn.

We then went into group work on a text I gave them: 1 Peter 2: 9-12. Of course, the one and a half hour session was always going to be too short. But immediately everyone got down to working with their neighbors which resulted in some amazing open sharing. Previously, I had been studying this passage because I want to use it at a conference shortly. Yet, I learned so much from this lively, honest, committed group. Really! I think they now plan to work in preaching teams to enrich the whole fellowship. Their pastor took an active part and encouraged this vision at the end.

I drove home late last night so grateful to have met with another group committed to work at preaching. I had this thought - how wonderful it would be if many other churches began to think and work this way! Do you agree?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Elmhurst Sermon (4)

This morning's worship focused on beatitudes 3 and 4 with two challenges. 1) about rehabilitating the key Jesus quality of MEEKNESS. Our aggressive world considers meekness means weakness, but meekness could not be more different from weakness. Actually its about strong personality under God's control. Strong personality - yes! But personality demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22) -gentleness with the strength of steel. God blesses strong personalities submitted to him. Velvet covered bricks!

And 2) about how authentic is our desire for God to be more real - hungering and thirsting after righteousness. This gave us opportunity to marvel at Rom. 3: 21-26 and to consider the level of our own spiritual desire in our practical lives.

I had the luxury of being able to preach for around 30 minutes but next week I shall need discipline to keep it under 20 minutes! On the anniversary of 9/11 there is much to do in the two morning services. The next two beatitudes are:
Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.
Three Scriptures will frame the sermon: Mark 10:13-22 and Matthew 18:21-22 for the first of these beatitudes; Mark 7:1-8 for the second.

I need to work hard to focus this sermon appropriately. There is so much rich teaching here.
At this stage of preparation the main impact of my sermon is:
By the grace of God this sermon will SAY - Christian living means Christ-like mercy love for those in need and who hurt us, together with personal holiness.
This sermon will DO - challenge hearers about showing mercy love with purity of heart.
As always I am grateful for friends who are sharing in my journey. All insights will be welcome.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Book....oh yeah!

Today marks the official date of publication of "Preaching as Worship: An Integrative Approach to Formation in Your Church" (Baker Books). As many of you know it has taken 5 years of gestation, much energy and (mostly) admirable patience from my wife Carol! At last it's out. The back cover says: Move your church from small-picture to big-picture worship. Oh Yeah!

Anti-climax lies around the corner! After all, tens of other books have also been published today - many with more interesting titles (and content) than mine. Publishers say that lively sales in the first months are absolutely vital for the longevity of any book. Of course, far more than sales, I long for people's ministry to be revolutionized by application. So, my obvious prayer is that (numerous!) pastors will open the book and be changed by it, and their congregations with them!

However, I do have one special opportunity ahead. I am leading a Preaching Workshop in Georgetown in two weeks' time directly on this theme: Preaching as Worship. In between other commitments I am working on some powerpoint sessions which will give me the very first opportunity to fire up pastors with the big picture. Please join me in praying that this book is not a damp squib but makes a significant bang out in God's kingdom.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A very unusual request

A couple of weeks ago I heard from a student who attends a church in Chicago. He said that after 5 years his church had decided to start preaching again and that a number of people were keen to form a preaching team. Would I conduct a workshop to help train this group?

Of course, I said "Yes" (- who could refuse a request like this?) Actually, I am due to lead this workshop next week. But I am intrigued that they have gone several years without preaching. Why? As a small church with a part-time pastor I guess there may have been a loss of enthusiasm for preaching or, perhaps, they allowed other priorities to squeeze it out. Indeed, I have been asked to give an introduction to briefly emphasize how vital preaching is! I know my student is very committed to preaching and, maybe, behind this request lies his influence on other church members.

But what an unusual request! It marks a first in my experience. I look forward to reporting back to you.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Open Air Service (3)

This morning's open air servicein downtown Elmhurst was blessed with spectacular weather - clear blue skies, with pleasant warmth and a breeze. (It was hard to think to think of folk struggling with Hurricane Irene along the east coast). 1600 chairs were set out and they mostly seemed to fill up as the service began. Indeed, there seemed to be tens of people standing around the edges so there may well have been more there. But, as always, God is really interested in the deeper heart issues, beneath the surface. Not the numbers, nor the organizational efficiency, but whether we were worshippers "in spirit and in truth" (John 4: 23). Some things particularly struck me.

  • I met with the pastors of the seven churches at 9:15 for prayer. It was one of the most free, honest, humble, exciting times of prayer that I have participated in for a long time. For 25 minutes these pastors revealed not only their love for God, but for Elmhurst and (so importantly) for each other. It was palpable unity. The service was called "ONE worship" and they modeled it. I am sure these relationships expressed by such prayer give a vital foundation.

  • After the first of three songs, the sound system failed. Technicians rushed to correct the fault, the musicians looked bemused, as did the congregation which eventually sat down in the awkward silence. After four minutes or so the amplification returned and we began singing, only for it to fail again. We were left singing "How great Thou art." Yet, suddenly we could hear the unaccompanied voices of this great crowd sounding beautifully across the city center. Eventually the power came back on but, frankly, the technical hitch didn't seem to matter. Afterwards nobody commented on it to me. Isn't it great when we major on majors!

  • Communion was later served to this great crowd. All the pastors shared in leading. Each of us received a small sealed cup of juice with an extra sealed lid and a wafer inside. I had never seen such an inventive way of receiving communion. But, again, for all its novelty it proved a deep experience of connecting with the Lord as his united people. Us and Him.

I guess that all of us who were there will been struck by different issues. I would love to hear of your experiences too. I long for individuals to have been changed within this morning's worship and for the ministry of reconciliation (part of our service theme) to continue powerfully for this great group of churches.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Elmhurst Sermon (3)

Worship planners are already working on the sermon for September 4th. Of course, this is Labor Day weekend so it marks the last holiday weekend of the summer....and numbers will be drastically down (they warn!) At worship planning, we were reminded that traditionally this is a Sunday to consider work/vocation, and our God-given responsibilities. I shall need to keep this in mind.

The next two beatitudes take us to issues of personality and desire:
Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.

Though many Scripture passages are relevant I shall particularly focus on Matthew 11:28-30, Rom. 3: 21-26 and John 4:10-15. At present my sermon main impact is:
By the grace of God thise sermon will SAY - Christian living means Christ-like personalities - gentleness with the strength of steel - and deep desire for justification.
The sermon will DO - challenge hearers about their personality and motivation today.

I have still much to do for this coming Sunday, but am grateful for those already working for the following week. Any insights, personal stories relating to these next two beatitudes will be gratefully received!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Open Air Service (2)

Planning for next Sunday is advanced - I have just seen the service sheet! For seven churches to organize gathered worship requires time and patience!

As I have been working on the text for next Sunday, 2 Cor. 5: 14-20, I am focussing on a main impact:
By the grace of God what this sermon will say is: Christ's love is the greatest motivating force in the world, creating us as "new creation" and commissioning us as ambassadors of reconciliation.
And what this sermon will do is: Challenge us to believe more fully in Christ's love and to act for him by behavior and witness.

I am aware that these Elmhurst churches are already practically involved together. For example, on October 8 they are joining to pack food for "Feed My Starving Children." I am sure there are other initiatives too. Any examples of practical ways by which these churches can express Christ's love and witness together will be gratefully received.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Open Air Service

Yesterday marked the beginning of a short season for me as a preacher at Elmhurst Christian Reformed Church. Careful worship preparation emphasized the theme "Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn" in so many ways - by music, prayers and visuals. I particularly appreciated the prayers said by three members of the congregation (miked up but sitting among the hundreds gathered) which really expressed need and trust in ways with which we could all identify. This was real from the heart stuff! Also, my sermon was deliberately interrupted half way through as the congregation sang a response: "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy." Several people said how helpful it was to respond in this way. I need to be willing to do this again! At the end, anyone needing prayer ministry was invited to remain seated for prayer team members to come to them. I could see a few, in different parts of the church receiving ministry long afterwards. It is a privilege for an itinerant preacher to belong in such a congregation, even for a few weeks.

But now to the open-air service. I continue to think about this and its dynamics:

  • Its very strangeness (only the second time for Elmhurst churches) must be taken into account. I cannot just preach as though (safely) within four walls.

  • Its evangelistic opportunity is high level. Who knows how many people may "overhear" the gospel as they walk past or live in surrounding apartments.

  • Its boldness requires a clear message that can be understood by everyone and that issues in practical outcomes.

  • Its inclusion of communion means a wonderful opportunity to do something for Jesus publicly that will "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" ( 1 Cor 11: 26).

In preaching we sometimes talk about the importance of "contextualizing the message." It needs to be appropriate for its hearers. Oh, yes. That's what I need to be aware of as I work this week!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Elmhurst Sermon (2) August 28th.

I am grateful for all the preparations going on for gathered worship next Sunday (with sermon [1]). Today I received emails about the prayers of intercession, which will involve three people taking part on Sunday. Great care is evident not only about content and length, but about the necessary attitude of spirit ('poor in spirit').

But, already I am being stretched as I think ahead to sermon (2) which will preached in a large outdoor worship service in the center of downtown Elmhurst on August 28th. I mentioned in a recent posting how several evangelical churches are combining, and the organizers have given me the text: 2 Cor. 5: 14-21. What an honor to be able to preach to such a gathering that wants to show Elmhurst its unity of faith and of mission in Jesus Christ.

The text is very challenging. With a shorter time than usual, I shall need to be aware of very different dynamics. I shall let you know how the sermon is developing. But I wonder what advice you would give me about preaching in an open-air setting to such a group of people. What do you think I particularly need to keep in mind as I prepare? I really value your input.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Elmhurst Sermon (1) August 21st

Today some members of the worship team are meeting to start their planning for worship on August 21st. I promised to put early details on my blog so that I can interact with them as preparations proceed.

On Sunday August 21st. the sermon title is: "You're blessed at the end of your rope" - the Eugene Petersen paraphrase of the first beatitude (Matt. 5: 3). Actually, I shall preach on the first two beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.

In developing these beatitudes I shall be spending time elsewhere in the gospels. Mark 10:35-52 vividly shows contrast of attitudes between the disciples ("rich in spirit"!) and blind Bartimaeus (poor in spirit). For the second beatitude I shall reflect on the significance of Jesus weeping (John 11: 35,36; Luke 19: 41).

Past readers of my blogs know that I seek to crystallize my sermon preparation by defining the sermon's main impact. Always, it can change as preparation continues!
By the grace of God, this sermon will SAY - Christian living begins when spiritual beggars admit their need, and those who grieve bring their tears before God.
And this sermon will DO - invite hearers to be real with God in order to receive blessing as never before.

At yesterday's planning meeting many suggestions were already being made about the shape of the service and how its outcome - "invite hearers to be real with God" might best be implemented. I am so grateful to the team for working on this and, of course, any suggestions from you will help my preparation too. If you do not want to post publicly, please use my personal email: Thanks for sharing on this new journey.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

An Exciting Day

Every so often a tingling day occurs, chock full of excitement. This morning I met with 11 worship leaders at Elmhurst Christian Reformed Church to start planning their worship services beginning August 21st. I shared details about the forthcoming Beatitude series, and listened (on the edge of my chair) as these new friends made first responses and began to hone in on details. What marvelous collaboration! One of them said that she had come to the meeting with dread because the beatitudes seemed almost too familiar and even dull. But after a few minutes she delightedly told us how she had changed her mind about their relevance. I sensed great excitement all round and left the meeting thrilled at this new worship opportunity.

A little later, I was able to join a lunch-time meeting of pastors from eight Elmburst churches who are sharing a joint outdoor worship service on August 28th. (when I shall preach). It will be held on a parking lot in downtown Elmhurst - 1500 chairs will accommodate members from these churches with a mass choir and communion. It was so refreshing to hear these pastors talk about their common vision to present the gospel as a united presence to the town of Elmhurst. I left with a powerful prayer ringing in my ears - full of conviction and faith - offered by one of those pastors. Wow!

Both these commitments mean plenty of blogging lies ahead (beginning tomorrow with the August 21st. service). But this evening, after supper with friends from Wheaton College, Carol and I returned home at dusk to find a package on the doorstep. It was the first copy of my new book: Preaching as Worship! It is weirdly wonderful holding this book after all these years. It is so long ago that I wrote some of it -turning the pages has been quite an adventure. It will be out officially on September 1st. but what a great way to end the day. Carol said that while she was watching a hospital program on TV (not my thing!) I ought to post a blog about this exciting day. And so I have, with thankgiving to the Lord who allowed me to experience all this. I hope you too have days that are worth celebrating!

Monday, August 8, 2011

N Pines (2) Memory Work

I am very grateful for the kind comments posted on my last blog. As I reflect on this past week a couple of things have happened.

While I was teaching the beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-10) I suggested that we might memorize them. Because they are so compact and comprehensive, summing up the essentials of Christian living, they serve as a continual reminder of what really matters for daily living. Several people commented they were trying to memorize them (though at least one said it was a stretch). I committed myself to memory work too. Of course, it was easier for me because I was preaching them anyway!

However, both yesterday and today I had two experiences. Totally unbidden and therefore all the more surprising, I suddenly found myself going through the beatitudes line-by-line. Slowly and carefully. Not only did this memory work jolt me (one occurred while on the gym elliptical machine!) but I found different implications from the teaching last week came flooding back. I don't know how often the beatitudes will continue to interrupt me in the future, but I must testify that it has been an important influence on these last two days. Does anyone else have similar experiences with memorized Scripture 'interrupting" life?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Northern Pines

I write this having just returned from an exhilarating family conference unlike any other I have ever experienced. Called Northern Pines it brings together families from many states with a mission statement: "A Vacation with a Purpose." But that purpose surprises you!

First, it has a stellar program that enables families to come and not only have their children in programs during the day, but enjoy dedicated support from a host of carers who look after the children in the evenings. One couple said to me, "Before we came to Northern Pines we had never had more than a very occasional snatched evening away from the kids for the previous 20 years! But here we have several free evenings when we can just be together. " So many families told me just how immense the care is. This was clear from the last evening as three generational groups were knit together all over the big hall with members telling us how Northern Pines had ministered to their families over 38 years. Wonderful and moving.

Second, was the amazingly serious serious program (serious for a vacation!) Three main speakers were responsible for a daily Bible study, a family hour teaching session and the evening hour (my task!) When I was first asked to speak, I enquired of the Director what the theme was going to be and he said they always left it to individual speakers to be guided by God in their choices. As you will know from my recent posting I focused on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-10)in my preparation. Imagine my surprise on arrival when the Bible study leader (Dr. Stephen Bramer of Dallas Theological Seminary) told me that he had chosen to teach on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) but decided early on that he would not deal with the Beatitudes at all. Every time we spoke we seemed to complement each other, due entirely to Holy Spirit organization. Dr. Dave Currie of Doing Family Right taught immensely practical sessions on family life and, again, every session provided powerful application of beatitude principles. I marvel! Several people told me that this was God's speciality for Northern Pines - making the speakers complement each other! And, memorably (really!), the dynamic musician Peder Eide, led worship through the week, encouraging highly active participation while provoking thoughtful responses. We listened to his latest CD "Rescue" on the way home. Actually, Carol says one of the songs is so 'embedded' she's singing it all the time.

Carol and I have so appreciated the genuine friendship of a great group of people this past week. And, of course, the outstanding Green Lake Conference Center (with its ice cream) added to enjoyment. We have returned with many new friends and (I was going to write) a packed notebook from the sessions. However, I left my notebook behind and am now hoping they find it in lost property. But, Carol correctly observes: My handwriting is so appalling nobody else will be able to read my notes anyway!

It is very encouraging to be able to reflect so positively. We are very grateful to God for the experience. Go to the Northern Pines web site: for more info. As you can guess, I recommend it thoroughly.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Essence of the Essence

I think most preachers will agree that their weekly sermon preparation both disciplines and nourishes their own spiritual life. The more time you spend in Scripture, seeking to hear God's word for yourself and your hearers, the deeper and more authentic a person you will be. For itinerant preachers like myself (who have a bag of 'oldie' sermons) it is vital to keep immersed in Scripture and stay spiritually fresh.

So, over the last few weeks I have been dwelling again in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10). Someone has called them 'the essence of the essence', seeing the whole Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) as the essence of Jesus' teaching and these opening eight sentences as being their essence.

These eight beatitudes are truly remarkable. Compact, paradoxical and disturbing they seem to sum up so much about Christian living. Indeed, when you unpack the doctrines that lie behind each, they seem to cover everything that matters! In fact, I ask what is missed out! They introduce key Christian words like blessing, kingdom, meekness, righteousness, heart and peace.

In the weeks ahead I have two opportunities to preach on these eight sentences. First, at a family conference at Green Lake, called Northern Pines, I am the evening speaker (July 31- August 6). In this concentrated week, I am inviting the conference to memorize the Beatitudes and help flesh out both their teaching and their application. Preaching on consecutive days to a serious audience is a rare privilege. And, yes, some hard preparation work still needs to be done this week - prayer is welcome!

Second, on five Sundays beginning August 21st. I shall preach at Elmhurst Christian Reformed Church in the last weeks of their interim before their new senior pastor begins. Having worked on the Beatitudes I asked the associate pastor whether this might be a suitable short series. To my great joy I discovered that the incoming pastor proposes beginning a series on the Sermon on the Mount(!), and is graciously happy that I introduce his own theme. How much a God-incidence is that?

I intend using my blog to collaborate with the worship planners at Elmhurst and any of the congregation who would also like to share this latest venture. So, you will catch sight of some of my outworking of these amazing eight sentences in future weeks. I have looked at several translations of these beatitudes and wonder if you have a favorite translation? And, have any of you memorized your favorite version? As always I shall be most grateful for any insights you have, as well as your prayers.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Meeting a visionary

Today I shared lunch with a preaching visionary - Dr. Dwight Moody. Three years ago he founded the Academy of Preachers ( Maybe that doesn't sound too visionary. After all there are several organizations for preachers already! But this is aimed strictly at young people aged 14-28. At various "festivals" around the country, with a national festival in January, all these young people are encouraged to preach. They are promised not only the practical (and invaluable) opportunity to preach sermons (on a selected theme), but also to receive ongoing guidance and feedback.

Dwight commented that if young people can be enthused and trained in other interests early in their teens, such as sport, music, and their studies, why not enthuse them about the highest way of serving Jesus Christ - being preachers? He has found (and I am sure he is correct) that keen young Christians often dismiss preaching as a serious option. They completely miss its prime strategic importance for telling out God's good news and building his kingdom. (Incidentally, Dwight has also recently read O. C. Edward's book on the History of Preaching and he almost 'repeated' my blog of a few weeks ago -not that he had seen it you understand - about the significance of preaching in church renewal through history!) So, with great energy and vision he is organizing and networking young people for this great task.

Of course, reading this you will likely have many questions, such as: Isn't 14 too young? What about testing a call? Where's the accountability? How do you ensure biblical integrity? Aren't they likely to be mimicking others? What happens when they reach 28? Isn't this all a big risk? You maybe will have more queries. BUT the more I listened the more I sensed how worthwhile this risk is. How it is releasng a fresh passion for preaching among the young.

Dwight shared many interesting details. One that sticks in my mind is his observation that the younger the preacher, the more authentic they seemed to be, and the more able to speak to their own generation. That's why they begin at 14! I know all this is "out of the box" and risky, but as Dwight left to fly back to Louisville (where the academy is based) I couldn't help but feel exhilarated about vision and what God can do through this for his kingdom. Do you know any 14-28 year olds who would respond positively?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Celebrity Preachers

That startling quotation from Kierkegaard in my last post obviously assumed that pastors/preachers belong to communities where relationship are close enough for them to be known personally. Within local churches they may preach not only by word but by the quality of their lives. Such communication is sometimes called "incarnational" - the enfleshing of truth and grace that is best expressed when Jesus "the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us"(John 1:14). Though any preacher's living out good news is pock-marked by failures and disappointments, it nevertheless remains part of the high calling to preach.

I was interested to read in the latest edition of Christianity Today that some US mega churches with celebrity preachers are developing expansion plans in other states. They claim that their particular "brand" based upon a well-known preacher is well suited to reach unchurched people in far off places using satellite links etc. Now, there have always been celebrity preachers in the history of the church and undeniably they have a particular role especially in evangelistic preaching (I think of Billy Graham), or prophetic preaching (Martin Luther King).

But it remains vital that the bread-and-butter task of Jesus building comunities of local churches (with people like us) requires incarnational preachers who live close to their people. Very few will be "celebrities" but by the witness of their lives (with inevitable mistakes) and the truth of their words, the gospel is preached. This is a steep challenge - impossible without God's grace. That's why preaching is a high calling, isn't it?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Silence on Sundays

I came across this quote today from Soren Kierkegaard:
Order the pastors to be silent on Sundays. What is there left? The essential things remain: their lives, the daily life with which the pastors preach. Would you, then, get the impression by watching them, that it was Christianity they were preaching?

Alongside was a comment by Jerome: A minister of Christ should have tongue, heart and hand agree.

Presently I am busy preparing a future preaching series, but these remind me of essential things before ever a word is spoken!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

History of Preaching (3)

My reflections on vacation reading have been (inevitably) disturbed by the pace of life reasserting itself. Several other summary issues interested me but let me mention one more in particular. O.C. Edwards says that, looking back over 2000 years of preaching "one of the few sweeping generalizations I can make about preaching through the ages that, with rare exceptions, the most effective preachers have not preached from manuscripts"(page 836).

My students early in each course discover that I insist they preach without notes. They should so "live in" the Scripture passage that the delivery of their sermons "lives out" its message today. So preaching comes from within them, out of the "heart," as urgent truth that matters. Now, this is not to be confused with extempore "winging" a message. Actually, it takes more time to internalize a message that is preached without notes. And this is not suggested as some technique that guarantees effectiveness. Remember my last post - a good mind, rhetorical reflex and personal holiness are essentials. But how interesting that Edwards should say that preaching without a manuscript is one of the few sweeping generalizations his study reveals. This is ammunition for my future classes!

Though other projects now claim my attention, I know this summer reading will surface again as I prepare two new lectures in the Fall (for Evangelical Seminary, Myerstown, Penn). This week I was given the theme for my lectures - "New Directions in Preaching." Aha! What an opportunity to reflect on the present in the light of the recent past. O.C. Edwards calls these last four decades "a crisis in communication"! Closer to the event I shall post some blogs. Thanks for sharing a little in my "history project."

Saturday, July 2, 2011

History of Preaching (2)

Another generalization that O.C. Edwards makes from his overview of 2000 years of Christian preaching concerns the qualities of effective preaching. As he sums up: "all truly effective preachers have at least three qualities in common:

  • a good mind

  • a rhetorical reflex...a native sense of how to get one's point across when addressing a group

  • personal holiness."

It is clear from so many of the individual preachers cited how these three qualities are highly significant - together. No one quality should be lacking - otherwise their effectiveness is seriously impaired. And it is clear in preaching history that "a good mind" is not about elitist education (though sometimes that helped - I was intrigued to see how significant Cambridge and Oxford Universities have proved)! Rather it's an ability to work deeply with Scriptural truth for the sake of ordinary people. Plenty of unschooled preachers have turned out to possess extraordinary acuity - like the early African American preachers.

Yet good minds are only effective when constrained by personal holiness. This spiritual quality of personal devotion to God by holy living is a remarkable hallmark of effective preaching. And, of course, good minds and personal holiness can only be effective when preachers have this "rhetorical reflex" that is sensitive to culture.

I am not sure that many local churches when considering the call to a preacher would place these three qualities in top place! It's worth pondering what other qualities should displace them!

Monday, June 27, 2011

History of Preaching (1)

Well, my vacation's over (and don't I know it from being back in the office this morning)! But I did manage to complete my major reading project and have been reflecting on the amazing journey through twenty centuries of Christian preaching. It is full of color and complexity from New Testament times through to the contemporary situation.

In his conclusion, O.C. Edwards first emphasizes the importance of preaching. "Most of the significant movements in the history of the church have involved preaching in their development and expansion" (P. 828). It is extraordinary that in just 16 years after the cruficixion "Christian preaching had moved from a backwater province of the empire to its very center, and was creating enough disturbance to come to the attention of the highest reaches of government." It is thrilling to see time and time again in the missionary expansion of the church preaching is the critical activity - practiced by some of the best Christian minds with high spiritual commitment. Thrilling is the word! Greco-Roman religion was displaced as the official cult of the Roman empire by great preaching. The unchurched world of the Middle Ages was reached by new orders of preaching monks. Reformation and Counter-reformation preaching fueled far-reaching renewal. Every time preaching is at the center.

However, this raises the difficult issue of the opposite condition. That whenever preaching has lost its fire and become dull predictability the church has languished. A couple of recent posts commented on the low opinions that many (in the church) have of preaching. Today's church needs to ask some searching questions about the importance of preaching in God's story for the present age!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Vacation Reading (2)

I dared to claim that while I was away on vacation I would power my way through a massive book on The History of Preaching. This was before I arrived at Sarasota (Florida gulf coast) and experienced the hospitality of our generous friend's condo! With temperatures in the 90's every day, the swimming pool and beaches are daily 'necessities'...and what beaches! The sands at Siesta Key are delicate white powder shelving gently away under translucent ocean swell. It is easy to wax eloquently and forget serious reading, though the beauty of sea and sky actually helps praying (as in my last post). (And I hope this description doesn't stir up too much jealousy!)

So, have I engaged with the history of preaching at all? Well, yes, I have read a few hundred pages in between applying sun-lotion and swimming. And the conviction has grown that this history project really matters. It is all too easy to discount history in favor of focusing entirely on the present. A chronological snobbery (I think CS Lewis called it) that assumes knowing the current situation is all that matters. (Actually there can be chronological snobbery that exalts some past period as all-important too!)

The Reformer Philip Melancthon wrote: “Human life without knowledge of history is nothing other than a perpetual childhood, nay a permanent obscurity and darkness.” Perpetual childhood is particularly troubling for preaching which should never be disconnected from its past. Today's preachers should know that they build upon the backs of giants who have not only preached effectively but also have contributed to our understanding of the preaching task.

Already, my reading has alerted me to much new material as well as recalling past connections. I am not sure how best to process the mass of material, nor how long the project will take (!) but I shall try and share some insights along the way.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Vacation Praying

Some while ago I purchased Preces Privatae (Private Prayers) in a used book shop. Written by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes as his personal prayerbook, it was not published until after his death in 1626. On vacation I have had some space to pray some of these. Today's choice is particularly powerful.

Two things I recognize in myself, Lord:
I am made in your image;
I have defaced that likeness.
I admit to my fault,
But remember Lord,
by myself I cannot do much about it.
Take from me what I have spoiled
leave in me what you have made.
Don't allow my stupidity and wickedness
to destroy what your goodness has redeemed.
Acknowledge in me what is yours;
take from me the sin that is mine.
I come to you, the Almighty.
I come to you, the Physician.
Where I am blind, show me the way.
Where I am sick in mind, heal me.
Where I am in the strangehold of habit, release

To recognize these two aspects of ourselves goes to the core of spirituality, doesn't it?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Vacation Reading

I have just finished all my grading for this past academic year and submitted student grades for my classes to the Registrar ! A Hallelujah moment! I am glad to report some truly gifted preachers among this latest generation of students whose teachability and openness has made teaching a joy.

Now, unusually, I am preparing for two weeks' vacation. Unusually, because we are actually staying at a US holiday home with no bashing around to connect with friends and family, nor preaching commitments to fulfil. Instead, a community swimming pool and beach are not too far away. It is reported that, in general, North Americans spend too little time on annual vacation. Apparently, in a recent survey 28% took no vacation time in 2010 and 65% took off less than two weeks. I am sure this damages health and relationships, though the economic situation probably explains some of this. However, with gratitude, we are going to make the most of our time.

So, in this unusual opportunity I am planning my vacation reading. I think it will be a good idea to take some light stuff for near the pool. But I am also planning to read A History of Preaching by O.C. Edwards. Admittedly its 879 pages and accompanying CD take up luggage space (!) and it may seem an unlikely vacation companion alongside the paper backs, but I have longed to find time to engage reflectively with this massive and important book. Instead of dipping in and out (as in the past) I hope to gain a big picture. It took him 18 years to write so it deserves some hours!

Carol wonders whether I will get very far through 879 pages amid vacation distractions - we'll see! I shall keep you posted!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Soul of Leadership

At Northern's Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, Ruth Haley Barton was our speaker. A graduate of the seminary, she is the founding president of the Transforming Center ( She gave a very challenging address called: "Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership" based upon the experiences of Moses. With great freedom of delivery she stepped out from behind the podium (though she lost some sound!) and developed the story of Moses primarily in terms of his learning about solitude - about his 40 years in the wilderness seeking God in solitude and (only then) doing what God tells him to do. As she said, his leadership before this solitude was raw, unrefined and disastrous as he stands up for his people by murdering the oppressor! But in the silence and brokenness of his subsequent time with God, he learned to let go these old (dangerous) coping strategies because his soul was strengthened in new ways. Old coping strategies are replaced by qualities of soul.

I cannot do justice to her 40 minute address in this brief post but as she told the story she concluded with Exodus 33:12-23. As she challenged us that "there is no promised land worth going to unless God goes with you" she pointed out what she regards as one of the great leadership verses in Scripture, Exod 33: 21: "There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock." Of course, it needs to be set in context as Moses asks to see God's glory, but I confess this was the first time I had noticed this verse. That, coupled with the challenge to develop greater solitude with God, has really stuck with me.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Chinese Language Traditional Script Edition

I was thrilled yesterday to receive a package from Baker Books containing three copies of the just translated 360degree Preaching in Chinese. It says it is in the "traditional script" - I am not sure what this means as compared with non-traditional! But it gives me yet another bizarre experience of holding copies of a book which I wrote, yet each page is utterly intelligible.

China is an extraordinary country with powerful economics and inspiring signs of spiritual growth in the Christian church. When the Chinese editor last wrote to me she spoke of her prayers that this book will be greatly used to help a new generation of preachers in China. Of course, I echo her prayers but I have only the vaguest notions of what it might mean! Over here there are seminaries, conferences and amazon. However things may work out over there (and I guess they have all three!), I have now put China on my prayer agenda that my little effort might bear fruit along the way. What a privilege even if it influences just one preacher for good! Bizzarely wonderful! Thank you, Lord, for an unexpected sphere of influence for you.

Monday, May 23, 2011

To most people it's phooey!

Over lunch with my academic colleagues today I happened to mention the comment in my last post from that critic of preaching who claimed preaching could not be transformational. "Well, " responded one of my friends: 'He is speaking for many people in our churches. Ask them honestly what they think about preaching and they'll say it is phooey! All phooey! Because, frankly much preaching has no impact at all on the church. He has read the situation better than you Michael! "

This brought me up with a jolt. It's one thing to claim what great possibilities preaching should/might have. This is a favority ploy especially by preaching professors whose lives are (too) bound up high thoughts about preaching. But this critic does give a painful reality check. In too many places preaching has fallen into dull, generic blah! Indeed, a couple of stories followed where recent preaching experiences not only failed to be positive, nor were even neutral, but were actually negative in impact. They actually made matters worse. Help!

I felt challenged about slick claims. Sometimes critics do read the situation better. It doesn't mean dropping expectations but it explains skepticism and resistance.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Seeking Excellence (3)

Returning from the conference at Green Lake I have many thoughts. They were a great group of pastors and their graduation banquet on Thursday night was inspiring as they reflected on their two year program together. They were all grouped in sixes or sevens, each group with a coach who had kept them closely together in their studies. One of these coaches said to me: "This is all about connectedness. Ministry goes wrong when you drift off on your own - then it's difficult to stay close to Christ. But the closer you stay connected to the other pastors in the group, the more likely it is to stay close to Jesus Christ." Certainly, I have never seen such honest and joyful connections among pastors.

About my part I am still reflecting. Two contrasting comments say much.

  • At my first meal I was introduced to one of the other main speakers at the conference over breakfast. Straight off he said: "I see you are talking about "transformational preaching." Those two words don't belong together!' Taken aback I asked why. ' Because preaching is something that comes top-down and transformation only happens from bottom-up. I do not believe preaching changes anything! John Wesley didn't change Britain by his preaching but by his methods of organization." I was surprised by the suddenness and strength of his challenge. I realized yet again how disillusioned many (able & thoughtful) Christians are about whether God can use preaching to build community for mission. It was a wake-up call.

  • At the end a pastor saw me in the parking lot. "Thank you for ruining my preaching," he said. "Your teaching really pulled some of my practices apart and made me think again." However, he did smile! I had mentioned in one session that effective preachers are always keen to learn more about preaching. I did sense that he was seeking to be more effective as he returned to his church.

We rarely know the outcome of events like this. I was grateful to share my passion for preaching and leadership, but I return even more aware of the mountain of skepticism and resistance that has to be climbed.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Seeking Excellence (2)

I have been pondering which Scripture passage to use for some practical work at the upcoming conference. I plan to give each person a copy of the text from my NIV Study Bible so that they see not only the passage but some basic commentary underneath. Various choices have come to mind.

I have decided to use Ephesians 4: 1-16. Titled: Unity in the Body of Christ, I know this will be well-known (which will be an advantage). Since I shall be speaking about the task of preaching/leading, this key passage on the purpose of the church seems highly appropriate. Each pastor will be given opportunity to work on the exegesis and interpretation of this passage and I am planning to give a twist to the exercise. At the end of the morning session I shall preach a (short) sermon on part of this text. But, in the afternoon session I shall invite the conference to critique this sermon on the basis of its preaching/leading qualities.

I know this is a risk! When she heard my idea, Carol was disturbed: "Are you going to preach deliberately poorly in the morning so that there's plenty to discuss later?" No, I don 't intend doing that! That does seem perverse and artificial. But I shall leave certain things unsaid and see whether the conference identifes them. And yes, I am prepared for all sorts of critique I had not anticipated! Thanks for your prayers....and I will let you know what happens.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Seeking Excellence

I was delighted with the posting to my last question about what I should tell Senior Pastors at this upcoming conference (Center of Excellence in Congregational Leadership ). I was urged to ensure these "battle worn scar satuated pastors" receive some JOY rather than academic lectures. I resonate with that!

Another suggestion has been made to me that I include time to talk about "preaching without notes." Apparently this person had heard me speak on this subject some time ago and it transformed his subsequent preaching. I am always concerned that "preaching without notes" can be deemed merely a clever technique for improving communication skills. Certainly it is a technique and developing the primary (short term) memory is something I encourage all my students to do. But, of course, no amount of skilful presentation can compensate if there is no faithful exegesis and sound interpretation of Scripture and sheer zing of the Spirit blowing through the whole process.

However, since I have seven hours for teaching I think I will include a challenge about preaching without notes. I need to do it joyfully though! I am also deciding on a Scripture text for practical work during the day. More on that shortly.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Senior Pastors seeking Excellence

I remember asking readers a couple of years ago to help me prepare to speak at the Moody Pastors' Conference. I asked: "What should I tell these pastors?" Several really helpful suggestions came from non-preachers who spoke from the heart! I used some of them in my address.

Shortly (on May 18) I face another opportunity. The Center for Excellence in Congregational Leadership is a two year program for Senior Pastors (at Green Lake, Wisconsin). It goal is summed up: "By the winds of the Holy Spirit to help pastors increase joy in ministry and help churches reach communities for Christ through health and outward focus." I have been given a whole day for teaching about preaching.

Of course, they will be experienced preachers. Conference organizers have asked them to read my books on preaching so (perhaps) they will be aware of what I might say! I am really praying about which few vitally significant things deserve maximum attention. I want to encourage lively participation and be open to the winds of the Holy Spirit breathing fresh enthusiasm.

I should so value prayer as this develops. I shall let you know and, as always, your insights are welcome.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Truth 1 Preaching is sheer mystery

This has to be at the top, or near the top of God's list! When I say "mystery" I do not mean some obscure puzzle that leaves people scratching their heads. Paul described his calling " I became (the church's) servant according to God's commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. (Col 1:25,26). Here the word mystery (drawn from contemporary religious use) means truth that could only be discovered by God's revelation in history. It is all of God. He has now made it an "open secret" in Jesus Christ, but that doesn't mean it is straightforward and sits easily with conventional human wisdom. Actually, it is utterly unlike any other truth you have ever heard.

Nowhere is this plainer than the way the apostle describes how "God decided through the foolishness of our proclamation to save those who believe" (1 Cor 1:20). This does not mean that preaching is foolish, but that it seems foolish to rational hearers. In fact, to them it is absurd nonsense. The world has never understood the paradox of God's wisdom. That the message about Jesus' death on a cross and apparent defeat is the clearest way God expresses who He is, and what He has done for the world. Here "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son (John 3:16). "

When you preach the paradox of the cross you are on the front edge of foolishness. Yet this very act is God's wisdom and power. By ordinary people, God confronts the world's wisdom with his own. Never straight forward but gloriously powerful, this is the mystery of preaching. Anyone who preaches commits to an awesome task of telling out a different kind of wisdom.

How this truth rebukes the presumption that lies behind truism 1. Most preachers regard themselves as above average. How dare we think that we can measure how "good" our preaching is. Rather, God seeks people who are foolishlessly powerful in his service. Heralds of mystery need to be humble and overawed by the high calling.

I like how James Earl Massey sums it up:

Mystery is something whose utter strangeness and stubborness forever resist all attempt on our part to domesticate it, dominate, define it or dismiss it. Life is a mystery! Death is a mystery! The incarnation is a mystery! The resurrection of Jesus from death is a mystery! Our life on this planet involves us in mystery! The story of God's gracious dealings with us through grace involves us in mystery! We who preach are stewards of the mysteries of God. What we offer and extend through preaching can be experienced but it is more wonderful - filled with what arouses wonder and awe- than we can fully explain. (Stewards of the Story, WJK: 2006, page 4).

Oh, Yes!