Saturday, April 30, 2011

Reflecting on Truisms

So far I have listed some details about preaching that may be held to be generally true. But several comments I have received (on-line and from elsewhere) have made it clear that this exercise has been rather shallow. The list reveals all too a human point-of-view! #1 is about how preachers think of themselves, and #2 says they find critique difficult; #3 & 4 stress how we tend to stick to preferences and comfort zones; #5 asserts how preaching always has needy hearers. I am sure we could go on adding other self-evident truths about the act of preaching in our experience but it is all too much about our experience.

This little list has forced me to address "truths" about preaching from God's point of view. Identifying some big picture facts about preaching from Scripture should set these truisms in perspective. It's easy to start with preaching as we practice it and create a list for discussion. But what about seeing what God intends preaching to be! What is the divine list?

I am not quite sure where this will take us but let's see what happens. As always, your insights are welcome.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter

I greet you on this most wonderful day with the best news. Jesus Christ is risen! Alleluia. This morning I asked the congregation to shout out their Alleluias because the tomb was empty that first Easter morning. What the women worried about: "Who will roll away the stone from the entrance of the tomb?"...for it was a very large stone (Mark 16: 3,4) is gloriously answered by the gaping hole of resurrection life. What they thought of as an impossible barrier is gone...gone.

I was able to preach about barriers that may seem to make it impossible for some to say Alleluia, like Doubt, Grief and Fear, and Effort. But, when the women find the stone rolled back they discover that God has acted. It is true: Jesus is the Resurrectin and the Life"(John 11:25)

Someone sent me a link to the Youtube video of the Easter Resurrection Dance from Budapest, Hungary which took place last year. 1300 young people are choreographed in extravagant wonder and praise in one of the main squares in Budapest. It's inspirational, catching the joy and boldness of this day, which changes the future of the world. I have been so grateful to help lead worship these last three days but the best part is continuing to know Jesus' resurrection power (Phil. 3:10)for the days ahead. Let's go, Easter people.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Holy Week 2011

I think most itinerant preachers rejoice when they are invited to preach on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. These are the BEST DAYS in the story of the cosmos. Just three days – but transformative of everything! It is the greatest annual privilege - to remember the day of crucifixion that we subsequently dare to call Good Friday, and then to celebrate Easter Day with the resurrection of Jesus as the glorious fact on which all worship and life is founded.

I am preaching these services at Water’s Edge Bible Church in West Chicago. The music director wrote to me describing their usual pattern. “Our Good Friday service is reverent, but not morbid. Jesus died once and for all and though we want to remember his sacrifice on that night we also want to acknowledge that the work has been finished since the one and only death and resurrection occurred.”

As I prepare I am working with John 19: 16-30 for Good Friday. And I see that claim of Jesus: ‘It is finished’ is such a powerful focus. On Easter Day we need to hear not only Mark 16:1-8, but 1 Cor. 15:12-20. It has struck me again how Mark, in a gospel of only sparse details, emphasizes that the stone was very large. How could it be rolled away? What a metaphor for Easter glory and our response.

This week we tread through the sorrow to the glory of Easter and celebrate how Easter faith is for daily living in which we die, only to live again. Let’s offer our best this Holy Week.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Preaching Truism (5)

I am not sure how many more of my ideas about preaching justify being called truisms: “self-evident truths”! I have a few other suggestions but sense they may be straying into needlessly provocative territory. For example, a gifted preacher commented that it is a self-evident truth that most pastors do not welcome other effective preachers into their pulpits. He is an itinerant preacher and says his main opportunities only happen during interim periods!

However, I am sure that at least one more deserves mention: 5) Preaching always has needy hearers. By needy, I mean that preachers should first recognize that some listeners need to hear the good news of the gospel (some perhaps for the first time). Richard Baxter’s plea sounds out urgently: “Preach as dying man to dying men.” Preachers should beware of trivial pursuits.

But also some listeners come with deep troubles needing comfort. Wrote William Barclay: “Whoever else will be at the service, there will be someone with a broken heart.” He goes on to remind us that the Greek word for comfort also means encourage and he commends the Moffatt translation of John 4:4 when Eliphaz says to Job: “Your words have kept men on their feet.” As he says: “In any service there should be that word of comfort which will keep men and women on their feet!”

Preaching always has needy hearers.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Webcam Funeral

Yesterday morning I shared in a first - an online funeral service from Cambridge UK for a dear friend of mine, John Whitmore. John was slightly younger than me, and had suffered (uncomplainingly) for five years with prostrate cancer. He and his wife Sally have been part of our circle of friends for over a quarter of a century.

At 8:15 Carol and I were sitting in front of the computer monitor, looking over the shoulders of the first five rows of family and friends in the crematorium chapel. As we heard the pastor welcome us, read Scripture and pray it was as though we were present. Really! It was extraordinary. We joined in the hymns (John loved to sing!) Carol and I had sent a testimony of thanks for John’s life, hard work, friendship and (what made everything else sense about him) his faith in Jesus Christ. Five friends (most of whom we knew) went to the front to make their own tributes and the pastor read out our words. In his concluding comments and the prayers that followed we were there, one with them.

At the end of the service, the camera allowed us to see the congregation streaming out and as we recognized other friends we exclaimed excitedly “Oh look, there’s Rachael, etc!” Later, Carol talked with Sally about the service and the impact it had made on us.

In all our concerns about how the internet can complicate life and have negative influence, occasions like this show its positive gift. If I had been in England, I would have been present in person. But this was the next best thing and we shall always be grateful.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Preaching Truism (4)

I was struck by the comment to my last posting:
Tragically, some audiences have arrived at the mistaken conclusion that the spiritual depth of the message is determined by the pattern. Thus, a sermon in a more exegetical format is deemed to be filled with spiritual depth and insight; whereas ...a sermon filled with narrative is often deemed to be shallow, empty. If we are going to stretch ourselves as preachers, we must find creative ways to educate the church.
This led me to another truism: (4) Many congregations fall into one preferred pattern of listening. Again "fall into" does not mean laziness (though it can be!) but rather the habit formed over time often influenced by previous preachers or a church tradition that has developed. As an itinerant preacher I am always grateful for descriptions about the kind of church I am visiting and its expectations. Sensitivity is a must for visiting preachers! Yet, sometimes the details are rigorous. For example, "The sermon lasts between 40 and 45 minutes and you need to supply a fill-out form for the congregation to use." I have actually been corrected by one church because I did not follow the rules accurately enough! Is there a danger that a congregation can become too prescriptive of style and even a little bit self-righteous that their sermons are more biblical than that other church down the road? That spiritual depth is assumed because of the package? That biblical preaching is only acceptable in one mode? Can congregations become so comfortable with one pattern that they miss the newness of God's word? Yesterday, in class, one of my students said that he belonged within the preaching style of his sending church. He has to follow the "teaching verse-by-verse style" otherwise he is unacceptable at home. This led to discussion about how congregations sometimes put preachers in straight-jackets. I think some of us preachers are happy to oblige! But how best do we respond to the rich variety of God's communication in Scripture? I agree with the opening comment: "We must find ways creative ways to educate the church about different ways of doing biblical preaching!" How would your congregation respond?