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?