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.