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.