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?