Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas Greetings

As I have internet access in Abingdon Public Library (which is shortly to close for the Christmas break)  I am able to chirp out a very happy Christmas to all my loyal blog readers. This is the time for marvelling at the miracle as God identified with us at the fullest - the Word made flesh.  Unbelievable!  Max Lucado summed it up:
He who was larger than the universe became an embryo...God was given eyebrows, elbows, two kidneys and a spleen.  He stretched against the walls and floated in the amniotic fluids of his mother.
All this so that God could identify with us while revealing the truth about who the Father is, and by Jesus' dying and rising make it possible for us to live truly as humans in eternal fellowship with God.  We should never get over this wonder.  Let's celebrate again and again these next few days.

On a personal note - our time in England has the old combination of bad/good news.  The bad is that shortly after arriving I contracted a vicious fever/cold/fluey bug.  The curious expression 'feeling like death warmed up' seems about appropriate.  11 days on I am still struggling and to compound misery Carol has now gone down with it.  Most of our plans have been cancelled....but there is always the New Year!

The good news is that we have benefitted from Christian fellowship in spectacular ways.  Our brief visit to Suffolk was blessed as we stayed with a Christian friend - completely new to me and yet immediately she became a sister.  Even more wonderfully, in our temporary home in Histon another new friend has exceeded all our hopes by giving such support and care making a potentially (very) frustrating time into rich fellowship.  We are truly grateful.  This is the outcome of the Christmas miracle when friends show love like this.

Wherever you are and however you feel may you know the joy of celebrating Christmas.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Advent scurry

The recent absence of postings is easily explained!  Both my sets of students in  Master of Divinity and Doctor of Divinity programs have needed grading of final papers.  It has been a spectacular single-minded task from dawn well beyond dusk, day-after-day (though I say it myself).   Some friends have supposed me to be exaggerating (one even claiming it was to be expected since I am a Baptist preacher...ouch!)  but in the last twelve days I have graded 60 sermons!  Six were preached in the preaching lab and details of 54 were sent as part of the DMin assignment.  You can imagine how much good it has done me?

Tomorrow we leave for England with all hopes that our fixer-upper new home in Cambridge would be ready, firmly dashed.  Oh, no! Instead of beginning much needed rooting and nesting we shall need to be pilgrim people for several weeks.  Hopefully, we shall be able to put on a fresh change of clothes (presently stored in a closed container somewhere in Norfolk) before returning to the US on February 15th to present the Beeson Preaching Series at Asbury Seminary, Kentucky.

So, please do not expect much blogging as we scurry on through Advent.  In the busyness, however, we shall try to keep focused on the great news that Advent prepares for in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  May you know strength and joy this season.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Day (3)

The story has often been told of how the Pilgrim Fathers, landing in Plymouth in December 1620, faced such a hostile Winter that only 55 out of 102 survived. How a native American (Tisquantum), who helpfully spoke English, helped them to plant crops, hunt and fish in the new country. And how the eventual harvest of 1621 was so glorious, so abundant, that they could invite 90 native Americans to join them for a three-day banquet.

Certainly, the Pilgrim Fathers would have been wary of all harvest excesses they left behind in England. They approved setting days of prayer and thanksgiving on occasions but seemed to have resisted celebrating !

Yet, the backdrop of such misery and hunger in those first months must have heightened their sheer wonder at that first harvest.  Surely, recollections of villages bringing in the sheaves and giving thanks to God that he had provided such abundance must have been stirred up in the Pilgrims' memories!   What they had experienced in England many times before was now happening in their new land!  They would survive.

We learn that the following harvest in 1622 was a poor one with much hunger as new colonists eked out limited supplies.  In 1623 after planting, a drought began in May that continued into July and threatened to destroy the whole corn crop.  Disaster loomed.  An entire July day was devoted to prayer and fasting.  It is recorded, that in the evening clouds appeared and rain fell.  They were on their way to a second good harvest.

I know that historians talk about several influences (and complex ones) that lie behind Thanksgiving Day, but it is hard to believe that Harvest Festival  in the old country, thanking God for all his goodness as harvest is gathered in, was not a major contributor.  I like to think so!   Let's go celebrate God's goodness this Thanksgiving Day.  There is so much to be thankful for.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Thanksgiving Day (2)

Carol and I were asked to give a British perspective to Thanksgiving Day!  Carol was able to share some wonderful stories including some about a succession of American visitors to Cambridge (where we were pastor and wife) who invited us for 13 consecutive years to share their Thanksgiving Day in the UK.  Missing their own families they included us and, on one memorable occasion, we had three Thanksgiving Day meals on ONE day because three families insisted we celebrate with them.  Actually, you can have too much of a good thing!

I also reflected on harvest festival traditions in England. As a six-year old, living in a rural village in Oxfordshire, I shall never forget the first time I saw harvesting in the cornfield at the bottom of our garden. Before the advent of combine harvesters, sycthes were swinging and others were binding sheaves together in stooks like wigwams across the field.  Around the field-edge children played as field mice scurried by.

Yet, more memorable still, was the Sunday morning in the little stone chapel (where my father was pastor). The church had turned into the harvest field. Sheaves of corn wrapped around the ends of the wooden pews and shrouded the pulpit. At the center was some huge plaited corn and a large flat bread in the shape of a corn sheaf. From every nook and cranny poked brightly colored apples, pears, plums, tomatoes and the rest. Arranged neatly were vegetables like marrows, cabbages and cauliflowers.  Bunches of carrots hung from ledges.  The smell was intoxicating. We sang hymns ever since etched in my sonic culture:  'Come ye thankful people come',  'We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land', 'All things bright and beautiful' and 'Now thank we all our God'.   Like Christmas carols freighted with seasonal memories.

How close we were to the land and how vital harvest was to our food cycle. And how important to thank God for his faithfulness in creation. "The land will yield its harvest and God, our God, will bless us" (Ps. 67:6); "Faithfulness spring forth from the earth and righteousess looks down from heaven. THe Lord indeed will give what is good and our land will yield its harvest" (Ps 85: 11,12)'.

In agricultural England harvest celebrations have long roots. Pre-Christian celebrations involved riotous feasting at "Harvest Homes" when entire villages let rip as the harvest was gathered with a Queen of the Harvest  chosen to lead the merrymaking.  We can be sure the Pilgrim Father's disapproved 100% of such behavior.  After all, they refused to allow Christmas to be celebrated as a holiday.  Yet within the Christian tradition harvest thanks became well-established.  By the sixteenth century Christians were celebrating "Lammas" - loaf mass- as the first corn was made into bread and used for communion.

Dare we let our imaginations run about the Pilgrim Fathers and how they responded to their harvests in 1621 and 1623?   Just one more post is required!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Thanksgiving Day (1)

Carol and I enjoyed an unusual event (for us) yesterday.  We were both speakers at a session called 'Revisiting Thanksgiving' at Elmhurst Christian Reformed Church. It was a very well-organized Senior Ministry event which began with prayer and singing, a video, a visit to the pre-school children as they celebrated their 'Thanksgiving Feast', some poetry, our talk about Thanksgiving from a British perspective and then a fascinating sharing (it really was!) with others seated around separate tables about their Thanksgiving Day memories.

No American needs to be told about the significance of Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.  It celebrates the Pilgrim Fathers landing in Plymouth in December 1620, and their 3-day long thanksgiving feasting after their first successful harvest in 1621.  It has become the main holiday each year, far eclipsing Christmas, as families gather together in thankfulness.  Sharing memories at our table, several friends spoke about how every family member always made a supreme effort to go to the family home where grandma would cook for them all!  49 family members at one, 22 at another, 30 at yet another, gathered round for the turkey meal. They spoke about their traditions such as each person round the table shared the one thing they were most thankful for in the past year,  of cooking the large turkey and wrestling with the wishbone, of guests invited because they had nowhere else to go. All of them spoke excitedly of the plans they have this year to celebrate on Nov. 22nd. - just a week to go. 

At one point, Carol said how she felt 'deprived' that we had no such memories because we in Britain have no equivalent Thanksgiving Day, when families (extended) come together just to be together.  Of course, the nearest equivalent is Christmas Day itself but sadly that is so often wrapped up in commercialism, pressure of present-giving, card-sending etc and too little thanksgiving for the Christ child.  Yet, Thanksgiving Day seems motivated mainly by a huge desire to be together for the sake of giving thanks.

What could we as Brits say to this?   Well, perhaps it deserves another post shortly.     

Thursday, November 8, 2012


Just to pass on two very different encouragements.

First, I have just returned from seeing my cancer surgeon at hospital and my six month test has declared me clear of cancer.  Oh yeah!  We are praising God and so thankful for all your many continuing prayers and this wonderful answer. I have had several high points, especially when my class gathered round and laid hands on me with prayer on Tuesday evening.  My doctor told me that the largest number of 'failures' for this kind of surgery occur within two years so I have to remain vigilant (and prayerful!),  though 5 years of clear tests is necessary before he will declare the cancer removed.  As you can imagine, Carol and I are exhilarated. 

Actually, other family news has tended to take priority.  Milo, our six-month old London grandson, cracked his skull when his poor mother fell a couple of days ago.  After an overnight hospital stay with scans etc. he was released with the need for careful observation over these next days.  So, there's an urgent reason to remain vigilant and prayerful.  Thank you so much for journeying with us.

Second, and as markedly lower-order very different news, I have heard from my publisher  (Baker Publishing) two things.  One is directly commercial and they asked me to post the details.  The other is commercially motivated (!) yet thrills me with its possibilities.
  • Preaching as Worship is now on specially reduced rates as an ebook.  For the rest of November it is being sold for $6:99 - a 61% saving.  It is part of my publisher's drive to increase ebook sales. 
  • Preaching as Worship is being translated into Korean. My 360degree leadership book was translated into Korean just a couple of years ago and I am excited to think that I might have just a little more influence on leaders of this vital part of the Christian family. 
It's interesting to reflect that this second-order news would hardly have registered if my cancer news had been different, and little Milo does not continue to improve!  But if the good Lord is giving me continuing health and strength (as He seems to be) this has given my writing ministry a small boost.  Yes, there's more to do!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Take to heart

This morning a colleague of mine, Dr.Sam Hamstra, greeted me as I parked and went into my seminary office.  "I was thinking of you during my quiet time this morning" he said. "You were?," I responded, surprised by his obvious enthusiasm.  "Yes," he replied," I was reading Ezekiel 3: 10,11, and I said to myself, that's exactly what Michael Quicke teaches his preachers." "Oh, what does it say?" I asked, struggling to remember the early part of Ezekiel.

"It's about how the prophet first has to take to heart God's words to himself before he can go and speak with his people.  Isn't that exactly what you teach students?  You have to take to heart what God is saying personally before you can speak out!"

Of course, I had to look it up. "And God said to me: 'Son of man, listen carefully and take to heart all the words I speak to you.  Go now to your people in exile and speak to them. Say to them, 'This is what the Sovereign Lord says' whether they listen or fail to listen.'"

I was so glad to be reminded of this basic principle.  First listen to what God is saying to you (completely immerse in the text) before you dare speak God's word to others.  For us, as Christian preachers, this means listening to Scripture with heads and hearts for God to reveal his truth and then, and how vital this is, to check our listening with commentaries.   I have to keep stressing to my students that preaching involves both personal engagement with Scripture and then humble research of commentaries.

I shall look forward to telling my students of Sam Hamstra's insight when I teach tomorrow.  Good old Ezekiel!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Two doors

I have just finished grading 16 sermons from my intensive preaching course.  Hence my zero posts recently. One of my students said: "I am glad to be among the first students to take this experimental course but I know there are improvements you can make."  There certainly are, though I see no way to avoid the crunch grading of each preacher which has taken hours these past days!

Overall, the standard of preaching has been high but I have noticed a common tendency to focus sermon outcomes on our own limited concerns.  It reminds me of the contrast drawn between two doors in Revelation. Famously, Rev. 3:20 describes the closed door outside which Christ stands and knocks for he needs to be invited inside.  I guess this picture (aided by Holman Hunt) has been a dominant one in much evangelism because it encourages a faith response of will to Christ the Savior.  "Let him into your life as Lord and Savior".

However, Rev.4:1 describes a very different door: 'After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven' and a voice spoke like a trumpet: 'Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this'.  This is the door that is now gloriously open and which must be entered by God's grace.

Rev. 3:20 invites the Lord into our world, to become the center of our lives;  Rev 4:1 invites us to become part of God's world and his big story from creation to consummation.  The first puts Christ central to our small world of thinking and living, which is so often trapped in culture that it relegates Christ to the margins of our ethics, finances, and relationships.   This is much safer because we set the expectations and keep them comfortable.  The second, places Christ as supreme, reigning over a new reality called his kingdom which recasts our little lives into his bigger purposes, turning on their head most cultural assumptions.  This is, what one writer calls, 'the dangerous act of worship' where loving God and loving neighbor overwhelms selfish living.

I embark on the next round of intensive teaching shortly (so shall probably be incommunicado again) but I long for more dangerous worship in the sermons I hear and, much more difficult. the life I lead.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Listening to high schoolers

Yesterday's gathered worship was a youth service led by middle and high school students from First Baptist Wheaton. Shaped around Romans 5:6-8 its core involved several young people sharing with us from their personal experiences of God's work in their lives.

It was challenging and immensely refreshing.  How transparent were their stories in which they shared their struggles and joys!  A senior who spoke first asked for help coping with peer pressure, especially keeping himself pure sexually.  Another, a daughter of missionaries, spelt out powerfully her tension of living between continents, yet expressed the strength given by the youth 'family'. A range of issues tumbled out from wrestling with insecurity and loneliness to guidance about the next steps towards college. There was such honesty and vulnerability.

I loved what happened next.   We were given copies of their stories so that we could identify names clearly and colored cards on which we could write specific prayers of support and love to individuals.  I know Carol was particularly touched by one girl's needs, and I felt compelled to write to one of the boys.  But, then, the young people stood along the middle aisle and all the congregation reached towards them, some close enough to touch their shoulders, as the whole church prayed for them. To my surprise, they then turned and prayed for us, reaching out and asking for God's love and support.  It was profoundly moving.

The youth pastor, spoke about the need for continuing to build relationships between the older members of the church and the younger.  He's right, and yesterday I saw again how much we can learn from each other, especially us older folk from their transparency and honest trusting in Christ. Thank you, young people!   

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Stillness (2) Two ways

I was intrigued by the assertion that there are two ways to get through life.  People generally opt for one way or the other.

One way is to stop thinking.  To approach life with the minimum of thought, dismissing big questions about who they are, what life is about and what purpose they might have.  Some who reject Christian faith work out a pattern that gives enough satisfaction with friends, entertainment, family, interests that they can get by adequately.  Of course, pain and suffering will interrupt but they move on as quickly as they can past it to make the most of what they have.  Someone once said: 'I've heard you preachers talk about all of us having a 'God-shaped hole' in our lives.  That just isn't true for me.  I'm really satisfied with my life as it is.'  

But, interestingly, Christians can also share something of this philosophy.  With a surface level of Christian acceptance, they can actually work out a similar pattern that gives enough satisfaction with friends, entertainment, family, interests that gets by without too much serious thinking open to big questions and their significance for living in God's kingdom.

Thinking back to the last post, the classic way to stop thinking is to fill up every hour with stuff - Christian or not.  No stillness or silence possible with God.

The other way is to stop and think. To make time for the soul to be still and know God.  To take time out for thinking through big questions with God.  Listening for the still small voice (1 Kings 19:12).  In Scripture, in fellowship, in worship, by his Spirit he wants to help us live knowingly as his children, yet  within stillness we can go to very deep places with him. 

This remains a great challenge to me, a born activist. How much more does God want me to be? In this Fall term of intensive teaching at Northern Seminary,  I want to approach the days not in a constant rush but with more stillness.  I don't know what you face, but perhaps this makes sense for you too?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Stillness (1)

I shared an interesting conversation yesterday after I had spoken at a Men's Breakfast meeting.  I was given the theme of' Connecting with God and (among other things) mentioned the need for stillness.  That Moses pitched a tent a long way from the camp to be still with God (Exod. 33:7), and that Jesus often withdrew from his disciples to pray (such as Matt. 14:23). Deliberate withdrawal from people, busyness, noise, and activity in order to be still and know God (Psalm 46:8).

This man said to me: 'That word about stillness really got to me.  I realized I am never still.  All my life I am on the move, busily doing things.  Honestly, I am never still.'   His frankness really got through to me.  It's all very well talking about it. How often have I taken time out to be so quiet that I can hear the silence, and within that deep quiet hear the voice of God?  When was the last time?

I had quoted some provocative words of Pascal: 'All the evils of life have fallen upon us because men will not sit alone quietly in a room.'   What trouble we make for ourselves by hurry and noise.  But, when it comes to prayer how difficult we make it for God's relationship with us when we miss out on stillness.  How can God get through to us in deeper ways unless we are in deeper places?  Noise and activity allow only shallowness.

I felt rebuked.  So later that day I made time to go to the arboretum nearby, and walk off past other walkers in the Fall sunshine.  In the far distance on a slight rise, backed by trees and overlooking some prairie grass there was a park bench. I reached it and sat motionless.  All around leaves were turning into yellows and reds, rustling in the breeze.  Birdsong piped beautifully nearby and in the distance.  True, there was a rumble from the expressway a mile away but that only served to emphasize the stillness.  I stayed there for a time. I recognized two things.  Positively,  I experienced a genuine quietening of head and heart with a measure of openness to God in the beauty and quietness.  Negatively, I realized how poor I am at being still.  I really didn't stay more than a few minutes.  I know I shall have to be more intentional about making time to be still and silent.

Perhaps you are well-disciplined in the art of stillness.  Please share your experiences.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Black and White

Last week was a first for me.  I completed an exhilarating teaching week - a Doctor of Ministry intensive (well named) with a group of 11 pastors.  This was nothing new.  However, this time 10 of them were African-Americans.   Ages ranged from upper 20's to upper 60's; from Washington DC to Texas with Chicago in the middle; denominational spread covered historic mainstream - Lutheran, AME - through Baptist, to Pentecostal and a church plant.  Church sizes were similarly spread over a wide spectrum.  I guess years of preaching experience added together amounted to several hundred years!
I have yet to see their evaluations but I can share my first reflections.
  • It is sobering to be in a minority of two.  To realize that nearly everyone else has a common culture and distinctive preaching history which markedly contrasts with the white-dominated settings of my daily life. Occasionally, I made statements that were met by amused reactions that while this might be so in the white church it did not hold true in their own.  Talk about the levels of pastor's authority, or about focusing on the cross to the neglect of the resurrection (too often common in the white church) revealed how different it is for them.  Even more, when they shared their  urban stories and experiences of oppression,  I felt miles apart. Why was it sobering? - because to be in the minority is how most of these, my new friends, feel in my world, most of the time.
  • Yet, my overwhelming experience in the week was of utter acceptance by the group with the strongest expressions of affirmation and involvement.  When I opened the course with Scripture I was immediately enveloped by echoing 'Amens', 'Thank you Lord' ,'Oh, my Lord", as they leaned forward intently not missing a word.  That responsiveness never let  up. What a difference it makes when others express themselves so clearly and enthusiastically!   One set book involved a lively dialog between E.K. Bailey and Warren Wiersbe (Black and White).  Wiersbe admits how much white preachers have to learn from the holistic ministry of black pastors.  Oh yes! As the other white (Lutheran) pastor put it -'We lived that dialog this week!' 
  • The wonder of expressive faith.  Yes, the sheer contagion of unashamed witness is wonderful.  When each student preached in class the levels of engagement were off the charts.  I commented once to the famous black preacher Robert Smith (of Beeson Seminary) about how frozen and mute many white congregations are. "But I know there are feelings inside you white folks even if you don't show it", he said.   Yet, what a difference if we could show more emotion?
As you can tell, I was so grateful for my immersion into such a warm, lively, gracious group where I learned so much.  Privilege is an over-used word but it's right for this past week.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Ordination Challenge

I have just returned to the US in time to preach at a particularly interesting ordination service for the Rev (new today!) Caleb Smith, at Christ Community Church, Wheaton.  It was interesting because, as adviser to Caleb over his years at Northern Seminary, I had an especially close hands-on relationship which helped lead to his call to this small community church.  It is wonderful to see a gifted young pastor (with an equally gifted wife) so fully committed to this extraordinarily multi-cultural fellowship.

I warned him that I had been recently grabbed by a text and story in John 3:22-36  that I had never preached on before, and that I was going to prepare a new sermon.  When John the Baptist is provoked by his disciples' telling him that Jesus is now more important than him (everyone is going to Jesus!) John resists any small-minded response out of bruised pride.  Rather he states an extraordinary principle: "He must become greater and I must become less" (verse 33).

My message to Caleb was: "You are important, but not that important!" as I engaged with some of the ways in which by practical worship, robust faith and bold witness he could be sustained in a relationship, giving more glory to Christ.  Afterwards someone said to me: 'You know that challenge that "you are not that important" should really be given to all the members of the church'. Yes, sadly, too often Christians do assert self-importance and obscure Christ and his kingdom.  Actually, this summer I have heard of two local churches where members' strong personalities so asserted agendas, likes and dislikes that they destroyed fellowship unity.  Oh what damage is done when we forget the One who is really important.  Yes,  I think this theme has wider application than just at an ordination service!

At one point I mentioned some advice from E. Stanley Jones that I jotted down in my prayer journal many years ago. He listed some guidelines for Christian leadership which, I think, keep us from inflated self-importance:
- Be willing to take criticism yourself
- Be on guard that you do not become petty
- Be willing to give way in small things that do not involve principles
- Refuse to look for slight regarding yourself
- Keep the power of laughing at yourself
- Keep up the prayer life and underneath keep a surrendered heart.
It's been good to be reminded.   Do you agree?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Much huffing!

These last two weeks my postings have been absent. (You didn't notice?!)  Anyone witnessing my movements at the seminary would understand.  After major traumas (!) of moving house earlier this summer,  I have just moved my seminary office from one end of the academic office corridor to another.  There has been much huffing.  In my new role as less than full-time faculty my office space has been expectedly cut by half which has meant more decisions about what books and files are priorities, and what must go into storage.

I am immensely grateful for my new room which is pleasantly decorated with a new desk. It's always a privilege to have a study space.  But I told myself that I would take advantage of this move by winnowing down my library to essentials.  That I would put into large-scale practice my prioritizing of books by A,B,C and D (as mentioned in a recent post).  What a hope!  Instead it has been a mad scramble with massive deferral of such decisions, as unfiletered files and papers have piled in boxes haphazardly.

And now, with a false sense of having completed this task to mild satisfacton, I leave in a couple of days for two weeks' visit to the UK to see family and friends.  So, it is highly likely that my postings will remain absent as I connect with my latest grandchild and reconnect with so many others.  I am not sure when I shall next write something worthwhile (actually I am never sure quite what is worthwhile anyway).  When I return on September 13th. I am straightway into preaching at an ordination, teaching an intensive Doctor of Ministry (Sept 17-21) course and then term begins  Sept.24th.  I keep telling myself this is an exceptional summer - I hope yours has been for less hectic reasons!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Reflective practice

Last night I led a  seminar for those responsible for leading worship at my local church - First Baptist Wheaton.  I was asked to highlight some issues from my book in order to help them focus on planning Fall worship 'to the glory of God.' 

It was remarkably generous of them to give up three hours in their busy lives with a willingness to reflect.  And what a risk there is in genuine reflection!   Reflective practice involves adult learners who have already developed expertise in being open to critique their work even while they are at work.  At its best, it will allow plenty of safe space to consider afresh issues that are often taken for granted.  And there are many of those unconsidered aspects of worship planning.   Some of them are huge - like the role of the Holy Spirit or understanding of the missional church. 

Many are smaller scale.  In answer to a question last night about the offering, I was reminded of a colleague of mine who was guest preacher in a local church.  It was their habit as the offering was brought to the front for the congregation to stand and sing the doxology.  As people slowly got to their feet with little sense of joy or purpose to do their usual, the preacher abruptly stopped them: "What are you doing?" he said.   There was stunned surprise.  Wasn't it obvious that they were singing the doxology?  But, maybe, it had become so commonplace they needed reminding that returning gifts to an extraordinarily generous God is a big deal.   I am not sure whether the preacher was invited back (!) and whether this is the most productive form of reflective practice.   But, I believe, reflective practice leads to deeper people doing deeper things.   

I don't know whether reflective practice will arise from any of that wide range of issues I raised last night.  It takes time, honesty, love, and patience.  I pray that it will!     

Thursday, August 2, 2012

So, what's on your list?

After my last post I expected someone to ask specifics about my summer reading!  When I was describing my A,B,C categories I didn't mention another group that looms large in my life: publisher's manuscripts.  When reading them I try to use the same steps for seeing the big picture and framing structure, but I don't feel I can ever skim if I am to write an honest foreword or endorsement.  Perhaps they form a category D because however I might grade them ultimately as A,B or C, I want to give my best by a fairly careful read. Its nearly always an honor to write a foreword because you already have a connection with the author or the subject - they have done all the hard work and I need only add a bow and note on the front!  Only occasionally I have had to decline because I could not be positive enough!

Currently, I have two forewords requested: Brian Harris, The Tortoise Usually Wins: Biblical Reflections on Quiet Leadership (Paternoster) and Lori J Carrell, Preaching that matters (Alban Institute). I also need to give an endorsement for Richard H. Cox, Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons (IVP).  All D category.

In strictly A category terms my most recent read is Craig Van Gelder & Dwight J Zscheile, The Missional Church In Perspective (Baker Academic, 2011).  This is one of those 'mapping books' which help to locate where other significant missional leaders and trends belong in the developing missional story.  Based upon an incisive reexamination of the category A missional book, Garrell Guder, Missional Church,  this not only maps out four differing developments: Discovering, Utilizing, Engaging, Extending, but opens up an extraordinarily rich conversation on the key issues to engage us all.    I have found this extremely revealing as it locates much so much of my reading (and teaching) in useful categories.  This kind of book deserves detailed attention and I've not finished yet.   Good 'mapping books' are like this! 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

On reading books

Summer time is especially good for catching up with academic reading.  I am always over-ambitious as I select the pile and nearly always end up disappointed that several books are left unread.  But much depends on taking a realistic approach.  Not all those books in the pile should be read closely!  Indeed, some need to be skimmed in order to ensure time is spent on the more significant. (My summer time reading also includes novels but these rules do not apply to them!)

Robert Webber used to advise students that they should not read an academic book word for word, page for page, chapter for chapter. Rather they should read a book like they would look at a picture, study its frame and only at the end examine its details.  Often the first look would give a clear idea how much time to spend. He suggested first reading the back cover, contents page, Introduction and Conclusion with time given over to thinking about the author's stance and books' purpose. Can you sum up in a sentence what the book's point is and how the author wants you to respond? 

To ensure you are not oversimplifying you need also to frame the book by studying the index, footnotes, and Scripture references to gain understanding of the author's sources and interpretation.  Further, the book's  structure requires its chapters to be scanned.  

All this happens to prepare you for the big question:  Is this book significant enough that you need to examine it in detail, making notes of key sections and even of vital quotations.  Some of us have good enough memories to capture the main issues for the future with few notes.  For me, note-taking has to be more extensive to keep reminding me of those distinctive ideas that now help to build up my knowledge.  Because this last stage is time-consuming the early looking and thinking is essential for setting priorities.

So, I find I have three kinds of academic books in my reading repertoire:
Grade A - I have paid critical attention to most pages because of its high caliber challenge.
Grade B - I am aware of the general issues and have given parts of the book some serious attention.
Grade C - I probably have engaged with its main issues already in other reading, or it falls outside my priority concerns.

Do you have a system for sorting out which books most deserve your attention?  Have you engaged with many Grade A books recently?  Care to share?

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Moving house means sorting out what should be kept or thrown out.  On the hoarding scale we are nowhere near the top of the scale (I think) but we have still amassed an amazing amount of material from our lives so far.  In certain moods you can argue for retaining almost all of it.  Your child's finger painting aged four, your Valentine's Day cards, your letters when leaving the UK or at any other time when they mark a significant event or friendship.  To say nothing of the talks and sermons I have been preparing for nearly fifty years (to say nothing!)  Many of you will have shared the tension of sorting out - and tension it is.

I wish we could have slowed down the sorting out process because I also had important lessons to learn. Remembering is an important spiritual art.  One of the most significant moments came from rediscovering some of my old prayer journals.  From Weds. October 7th. 1992 to January 3 1995 covered a dramatic time in my life - leaving the pastorate in Cambridge to becoming Principal at Spurgeon's College in 1993.  I was surprised by the full entries on some days, by the detailed references to the spiritual aids I was using - especially Oswald Chamber's My Utmost and E Stanley Jones' Living Victoriously, and by the painful honesty of my prayers.  At times my spiritual life really was in turmoil and page after page I pour out self-awareness and need.   

Thankfully, overall, my entries show some personal development and shining moments.  For example, on Saturday Oct 10th. I record a difficult tearful pastoral situation confronting a couple who had broken up another marriage in the church.  Then I quote Oswald Chambers: "We read tomes on the Holy Spirit when one five minues of drastic obedience would make things as clear as a sunbeam".  And as I worked on my sermon for the next day I wrote a prayer that the Holy Spirit would grant me:
Desire to love,
Humility to learn,
Courage to live,
Commitment to listen.
It was a sunbeam moment!
I need to keep remembering how God has led me through and to be reminded to keep my journaling up-to-date yet reflect on the past.  How often do you remember?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Nothing really can be said in defense

Yes, we have surfaced after our house move, travel to family in NJ, and staying with friends. Our belongings are scattered in at least five different locations and, in spite of warnings about how easy it is to lose track, certain key documents that should have remained accessible are now at mystery locations. No wonder my blog has been quiet of late!  Before I write anything else I must follow up my last (distant) post.  Michael Duduit wrote (thanks for commenting Michael) that "Nothing really can be said in defense of the annual Call Sunday."  And, oh, what negative experiences I have heard from others. 

One really troubled me.  Like a retired pastor: "I could write a few short stories about the laymen's control technique of humiliating and limiting the pastor's call from God which can too easily be trumped by the laymen's local church accountability technique under the threat of an annual 'vote of confidence'.  I personally lived through three different unpleasant and still vivid memory experiences as a sixth grader, high school youth and college student in three different churches in three different states. When I was a pastor I was confronted with the threat of such a vote in three different pastoral assignments. I negotiated a 'no contest' surrender with the promise that if I did not point fingers at 'the enemy' (I saw that done when I was a high schooler), recruit an army, or do battle - that I promised to move along as quickly as feasible.

One case it tok 13 months, another 18 months and the last one was 8 months.  I am not a fighter. I left with a clear conscience and a clear call to do just what I did - with God's grace to forgive and God's peace to reward.  I have been back or invited to come back to all the churches in question.  I have a clear conscience as I watch the rseponse of those who were responsible. I am at peace even with them.  Time has proved that Romans 8:28 applies in just such a case as that."

Grace triumphs eventually but what an incredibly sad story. I know that we pastors can really fail the Lord and our people, and sometimes mistake God's call on our lives as well as to particular places.  Yes, we can get it wrong. But what a challenge about the destructive power-structures of some of our churches.  There are Christian ways of behaving, but regularly reviewing a pastor's call as an open season for easy abuse is not one of them!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Annual Call Sunday - what?

We are in process of moving from our home by the end of June so you can imagine the chaos on every side. Multidimensional chaos as we sort out and downsize!   But just before I return to the grim removing task let me mention one surprise I heard about for the first time when teaching in Tennessee last week.

One of the pastors (with over 30 years experience) shared with the class that he was facing "Call Sunday" that first Sunday of our two week course.  A couple of other students groaned as I asked innocently what this meant.  He explained that this is the designated Sunday each year when the church meets to renew the call to their pastor (and other leaders too).  I asked him whether he had any idea what might happen, and if pastors could be rejected on that day so that they were literally out of their job by Monday.  He replied that actually he had no idea how the vote might go but he was hoping they would invite him to stay a fifth year.  However, he told us that in his first church he had been so surprised by the large negative vote on "Call Sunday" that he had no other option but to resign on the spot.

Of course, as soon as we met after the Call Sunday we were keen to know how it had gone for him. "Well," he commented rather wearily, "they've given me another year!"  Though  he longed for them to discontinue the practice they asserted this was their tradition and common in the Appalachians.

'Call Sunday' certainly makes the pastor (and others) sharply accountable.  But my immediate reaction, knowing how (some) local churches work, is that this assumes a very large measure (too large?) of community maturity.   It does raise the important issue of keeping all of us Christian leaders rightly accountable before Christ and his people.  But what can be said in defense of  an annual Call Sunday?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Four stars - how can I improve?

You can tell from recent posts that my time with Masters students at Carson-Newman College has been very stimulating.  On the last day, one of them asked me a question: ' If I am a four-star preacher and I would love to be a six or seven star preacher, how can I improve?   Should I spend more time in my bible work, or concentrate more on how to interpret with application, or focus on learning more skills in delivery (like preaching without notes), or try to integrate my preaching with the rest of my pastoring more, or something else?'  He said the background to this query came from a conference he attended with John Maxwell speaking on leadership, when the same question was made asked about leadership.  If you are below average -4 star - how can you develop to be above average?

I like the idea of seeking to improve.  I don't believe that any communicator ever ceases to need improvement!  None of us have perfected being an ambassador of Christ!  However, answering this question is complex isn't it?  For a start, preaching is a calling and gifting that depends on God's empowering and the first priority is to stay close and dependent on him and his word.  My character makes a huge difference to my effectiveness (ethos).  No amount of technique and hard work can make up for abiding in Christ and growing in Christlikeness.  Yet, all preachers need to be challenged about those areas in the preaching process where we have developed bad habits or just grown lazy.  The particular student who asked this question confessed he had been preaching for twenty years in exactly the same way each week!

The short answer to his question is that those of us who dare to speak for God and his reconciling work (2 Cor. 5:20) need to keep checking on all those aspects he raised.   Worn habits and (let's admit it, yes,) laziness can dull the flame. And, let's keep working at integrating preaching with the widest possible pastoral responsibilities which, as Leslie reminded us in the last post, include the apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic.  Sermons should not be trapped in devotional boxes but part and parcel of flesh-and-blood daily kingdom living.  Real words from God's word for real living! 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Important but not that important (3)

Thanks to Leslie, a busy Methodist pastor, who commented (to my last post), that in his best experiences,  the weekly pastoral work does feed sermon preparation.  Rather than preaching being a 'set piece' occupying hours in a separate box it belongs within the hurly-burly of pastoral life though, as I wrote last time, the preacher does need some quiet time!

One further point arose in class discussion about preachers who so concentrate on preaching that they spend most of each week locked away in their offices.  This is a more difficult point and we were sensitive raising it.  Is it possible for average preachers to shelter behind the need to produce average sermons by spending vast numbers of hours, and then escape pastoral responsibilities of serving and loving their people?  Arguing that nothing is more important than preaching (Acts 6:2 is sometimes quoted), oodles of hours on sermon preparation are justified and...guess what.... pastoring is avoided!   Can it even be that sermon preparation is purposely elevated to escape the time-consuming difficult task of giving pastoral care? 

This opens up the whole issue of balancing pastoral priorities, doesn't it?  I really believe in preaching but it is part of a bigger package isn't it?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

It's important but not that important (2)

Following my post yesterday, let me underline that in no way do I want to diminish the significance of preaching for bringing people to faith, challenging vision and building community.  I see it as God's essential way of communicating truth for life.  We have a speaking God who uses preachers!  When you are called to be a preacher it is the highest calling. Yet, God also calls us to be pastors. Indeed 'pastor' seems to be the preferred title for Christian ministers in most churches I visit.   However, being pastor involves preaching and more!   Preaching cannot do it all! 

When the student group discussed trying to balance the pastoral tasks of loving and caring for their people with finding quiet hours in the study, a couple of vital points emerged.  First, out of that loving and caring comes the contextualizing of the preaching.  It is said that the best listeners make the best preachers - not only listeners to God's word but to his people.  Identifying in the cut-and-thrust of a congregation's life grounds preaching in the real world.  We mentioned the value of preachers who periodically spend time with their congregation at their places of work.  Nothing quite perks up illustration and application than spending a few hours with hearers in their daily lives.

Second, preaching preparation does need times of quiet, especially at the beginning when you immerse in God's word.  But the wonder of being a pastor is that preparation is a continuous drip feed as you go through the week.  The sermon Scripture should be in mind as you drive around, visit the sick, lead group meetings.  Structuring sermon ideas should be fermenting in everything we see and do, ever alert to the 'voices' of culture, congregation and worship as well as personal experience.   So, when it is a difficult week with two funeral services and a tough critic to deal with as well as several seriously ill people, the sermon at the end is spoken out of that community experience into that community experience.  It's real because the  pastor's life is real.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Important but not that important

I am currently teaching an intensive preaching course within an MA program at Carson-Newman College in Tennessee which started last Friday. It is always stimulating to be thrown into a fresh context, and working with these busy pastors and church leaders has opened my eyes to some new as well as old issues. 

One of the old issues deserves a mention.  Early on one of the pastors (with many years experience and a very demanding church situation) poured out his frustration.  'I really believe in preaching and want to give my best but I find it almost impossible to be able to fit everything in around my pastoral work and leadership.  I would like to be able to section off large parts of my week in order to prepare my two Sunday sermons.  I hear from 'big name preachers' how this is the most important thing I do and that I should spend 25 hours a week on my preaching.  But I am so bound up with my people and their needs and the work in the's so frustrating that I never have as much time as I would like.  I never get it right.'

It became clear that he was a disciplined pastor who was not running away from the hard work of preparation but was genuinely caught up in the tensions of shepherding his flock and trying to keep a balance.  How much I sympathize.   I believe that the genuine pastor of the flock who undershepherds for the sake of the Good Shepherd is focusing on a key aspect of ministry.  Loving your people is a top priority.  Indeed, out of such pastoral relationships comes the 'real-life stuff 'which gives sermons their context and bite.

As the class responded I found myself saying odd words for someone who is passionate about preaching.  I commented:  'Preaching is important but it's not that important!'  Yes, we must give our best but that is always within the context of pastoring our people.  Of course there are big names who have distinctive preaching ministries that touch the thousands.  But most of us are called to be ambassadors of Christ within the communities where we serve and love.  Sermon preparation should never be sidelined or treated casually.  Each week we should give our very best.  But it is relative to the other pastoral issues which, feed into,nurture and deepen the preaching act.   It's important but not that important.  I am not sure that I expressed this as clearly as I might but do you think there is a point here?


Monday, June 4, 2012

There's nothing in the church like a black preacher!

My hopes to have some continuity in posting about 'preaching without notes' has been sabotaged by an extraordinarily busy last couple of weeks.  Hopefully I will get back to it sometime!

But I must celebrate this past weekend which brought together two heavyweight preaching events that thrilled me to the core.  On Saturday, June 3rd. Northern Seminary held its Commencement Ceremony with one of the liveliest group of graduates and supporters ever.  The speaker was Dr. Lacey K. Curry, now in his eighties, and often referred to as the "Dean of Preaching".   He started slow and low and crescendoed to a stunning conclusion as he presented the gospel challenge of the man born blind in John 9:1-12 that was so appropriately related to graduates entering ministry.  He had us on our feet! 

The next day he was there again, but this time in the congregation at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Englewood, Chicago.  A celebration evening launched Northern's new Doctor of Ministry Degree in Preaching and Congregational Leadership.  I gave a few opening words, to be followed by Dr. Joel Gregory, and then - the main event - Dr. Ralph West.   I had never heard Ralph West before.  He had preached six times already that morning in his Texas church and flew up to Chicago to preach again.  He started slow and low and crescendoed to a stunning conclusion that had the whole church on its feet.  This time it was the story of Jesus healing the demon-possessed man in Mark 5: 1-20. We heard it as never before.

I sat next to Joel Gregory and as the service came to a thunderous close he whispered to me: "There's nothing in the church like a black preacher!"   I tell you, it was inspiring.  Both these preachers had so thoroughly immersed in these biblical stories that they re-enacted them with gospel power.  And yes, their choice of words, rhythmic delivery, brilliant illustrations, pointed applications, interaction with the congregations all represented the hallmarks of great African-American preaching.  But, I tell you, to be there was to share in a divine event in which God met us, challenged us and re-affirmed us.  

Today, Drs. Gregory and West begin teaching the first cohort in this new DMin program and I teach the second course in September.  I cannot think of a better way to have begun and I pray that it will make a kingdom difference to a new generation of preachers. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

40 years on

Carol and I have taken out a joyful hour today (over a Chinese lunch!) to reflect on what happened exactly 40 years ago at my ordination. It was Pentecost Sunday and my home church Chatsworth Baptist Church, West Norwood, London, gave over the evening service.  Actually the church did far more than that.  Around 700 people attended the service and church members put on a tea beforehand for all those who had traveled to London.  These included a gang who had driven down from Blackburn, Lancashire where I was to begin ministry in September.

Carol was pregnant with our first child (to be born on July 14th 1972).  We cannot remember how we traveled from Oxford where I was finishing my studies. I only had a motorcycle and I cannot imagine Carol as pillion passenger.  Probably we hired a car for the weekend.

I asked Carol what she remembered most.   She recalled all those friends who arrived for tea beforehand in the large hall behind the church, and the tingling excitement as so many people surprised us by their presence. 'It felt like our wedding all over again,' she said.   But that was only the beginning.  The guest preacher was Dr. Barrie White and I remember him challenging me about being a transparent Christian leader so that people could see Jesus through me!   My vows to serve Christ for the whole of my future felt heavy too, and I knelt as many hands were laid on me.  We chose all the hymns and the full-throated church let rip.

Yet, Carol says perhaps for her the most overwhelming time of all was afterwards, when guests streamed back into the hall that had been replenished with food and now a long table stood against the wall laden by baby shower gifts for our new baby.  Carol says she didn't know then what a 'baby shower' was!  Such practical love in such abundance was utterly overpowering.  We were speechless.  Since Carol's single parent mother had died when she was a student the church family had always been the greatest support.   But this surprise remains unforgettable among their kindnesses.  Friends lined up to greet us (just like a wedding again) and it took the whole night to get through.   Many days later we were still catching our breath.
Chatsworth continues to have a big book on display in which all the names of those who were sent out by the church as pastors and missionaries are honored.  Each is given a page dated in sequence.   So there I am - May 21st. 1972.   What a day!

We both say thanks to our heavenly Father for his steadfast love and mercies new every day over 40 years of ministry.   And to his faithful generous people who have stood with us on the journey ever since.   Especially over my recent time with cancer our church families in Blackburn and Cambridge have been extraordinarily supportive. We are profoundly grateful.  I think you can tell that we really are!

Preaching without notes - dangers

Last week I taught in the Center for Excellence in Congregational Leadership (CECL) at Green Lake.  I greatly enjoy being with CECL pastors though one of them told me I had completely ruined his preaching (but then he thanked me for the challenge! He did smile.)  One key ingredient of my teaching (requested by the organizers)  is an issue I touched on recently in a post - preaching without notes.  As one of you responded back then - there really does seem to be a current buzz about this topic.  And controversy!

It needs to be stated bluntly that there are DANGERS attached to preaching without notes.
  • it elevates technique.  As Adrian Reynolds posted: "Authenticity in preaching does not come from the use or lack of notes, but from a preacher so engaged in the Word, so convinced of its relevance for today, so gripped by the power of the gospel that conviction is powerfully and spiritually evident - notes or no notes."  Mode of delivery should never be exalted over content.
  • it boosts ego. Because preaching without notes makes a preacher look good it can add gloss to personal performance.   Preachers shining in their own glory always diminish the Lord's glory. 
  • it capitulates to culture.  Rhetoric has consistently valued the role of memory and contemporary culture is impressed by leaders who speak well from the heart and not from paper. Impressing listeners should never be a preacher's motive.
  • it can encourage 'winging it'.  Preaching without notes may also permit habits of winging material with dangers of extempore word-wasting, dumbing down exact language and biblical doctrine.  
One CECL pastor confessed to me that he had turned to preaching without notes recently and that, while the congregation much preferred his engagement with them, he was becoming lazy in preparation and over-long with wordiness. Of course, preaching without notes properly requires more preparation than ever and works best with a carefully prepared manuscript, written for the ear, which provides disciplined structure for internalizing (not performance-based memorization) preaching without notes.

I admit at the outset that these dangers are real (and perhaps you can add some more).  YET, I strongly believe preachers should take preaching without notes seriously.  Look out for some more posts! 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What does this statistic mean?

I have just been looking at May's edition of Christianity Today. Its briefing page spotlights: Pastors' Fight and Flight and gives a list of predictors of future church conflict.  The two main predictors are predictable: recent church fights and shrinking congregations.

But then they give a list of warning signs.  Look at number 1.
1. Your sermons last between 11 and 20 minutes.  Churches with that homiletic length were about twice as likely as others to have a conflict leading to a leader leaving.  Also, conflict leading to a church meeting is less likely with longer sermons.

As someone who has always been more concerned about quality than quantity I should like to know what lies behind this statistic?  That longer sermons show greater teaching depth so that congregations are more mature?  That longer sermons show preachers have taken greater care and demonstrate more pastoral awareness?  That longer sermons show more seriousness about being community?  Just what do these longer sermons have that is so different that they halve the possibility of conflict?   Surely it's not just length!

I really am puzzled. Any insights are welcome!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Wonderful news!

It's Carol here!  Our Seminary President says that I write better blogs than Michael so that I should let the world know the results of today's long-awaited hospital visit!  So, good morning friends in Australia, good evening Britain, good afternoon America.  We are just back from the hospital and we come back full of praise and thanks that the doctor gave us news that tests show that the level of cancer is now undetectable.

Michael will be seen again in 6 months with another PSA test and this will go on for five years at the end of which, if the news stays good, he will declared cured of cancer.  The specialist warned that we shouldn't presume on the outcome but we are full of faith and optimism as we look to the future.

We thank God and we thank you for all your prayers on Michael's and my behalf. To say the two of us looked haggard this morning is an understatement.  We probably look a few years younger this afternoon. So, thank you for all your love and support through this journey. We cannot put into words what it has meant to us knowing that you have been praying for us and supporting us these past months. We so appreciate you all.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Two personal dates - et teneo et teneor

Just recently my blog has been more personal than normal - for obvious reasons perhaps!  Now this month of May brings two significant dates.
On May 3rd. I hear from my surgeon whether the cancer has spread.  It has been three months since surgery and his post-operative comments were encouraging.  But the weeks of waiting have brought vicissitudes (I like that word) of mood.  Some days way UP with a huge bounce of positive spirit, often prompted by friends and by gathered worship (especially at Easter).   Other days DOWN with dispiriting tiredness.  Of course, this comes with the territory of waiting.  It is an inevitable part of our journey, and Scripture emphasizes this by its many narratives of waiting for God's promises to mature.  Thank you for your encouragement over these months' waiting, and I shall let you know as soon as I hear. Actually, some have asked me to ensure that Carol writes the posting!

On May 21st. I celebrate the 40th anniversary of my ordination into the Baptist Ministry in West Norwood London.  I still have a copy of that service sheet with its black and white photograph of me on the front, earnestly peering through thick-rimmed Buddy Holly specs.  At anniversaries we customarily reflect on how rapidly time has passed (and doesn't it just?) and how much has happened.  Sometimes we marvel with genuine astonishment that any of it happened at all!  I really feel like that! Carol and I had absolutely no idea what ministry might mean.  When I say 'no idea' I do not exaggerate.  From the first pastorate in Blackburn which was entirely 'out of the box' in many ways, to ministry in Cambridge that taught me so much, to Principalship at Spurgeon's (how on earth did that happen?), to academic life in the USA (how bizarre)!  But, looking back, every step has been guided by our triune God.  I know (too well) my mistakes and disobedience along the way yet, in spite of that, God has held us both in his gracious plans right through.

I have a little wooden cross given me by Spurgeon's College which is designed to be held with a prayer guide.  It is based upon the college motto, chosen by C.H. Spurgeon - Et teneo et teneor - I both hold and am held.  One of Spurgeon's prayers reads:
I commit myself to you, O faithful Creator;
To your keeping, O Saviour of the pierced hand,
To your keeping, O eternal Spirit who is able to keep me from falling and to make me holy. Amen.

That's a great prayer for both these May dates!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Great seminary news!

It has just been announced that Scot McKnight will join Northern Seminary this summer as our New Testament Professor. Scot is a colossus in the world of evangelical scholarship whose prodigious output has greatly impacted the church. It is not just multiple books and journal articles (written very accessibly too), but an extraordinary blog which pumps out challenges throughout each week.  I asked him about his creativity at interview and he explained that he is up at 5:00 am every morning to start writing and, if possible, he continues right through until the evening. He is strictly disciplined and will not be distracted by anything because writing is the locus for his God-given creativity. 

What continued to thrill us as we spent time with him was his passion for the gospel, his love for students, his gifts for teaching and inspiring others, and his ability to relate so warmly and easily to us in the mission of Northern.  Frankly, the quality of a seminary depends greatly on the quality of its faculty.  With the arrival of Cherith Fee-Nordling as our Theology Professor and now Scot McKnight, the seminary is quite remarkably strengthened for God's kingdom purpose.  Scot is a big-picture believer and we shall all be impacted for good.  Thank you Lord for this move!

Scot posted about his move at  and the seminary expressed our excitement at  These are great days at Northern.  Thank you to all of you who support us.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Great Evening

Easily the best part of last night was greeting the many friends who had made the effort to attend (though the food was good too!)  Carol commented how thrilling it was to see the parking lot filling up as we neared 7:00 pm.  In the reception area I kept turning around to find newcomers jostling through the crowd.  In particular,  I was especially encouraged by friends from the churches I have served at First Baptist Wheaton, Calvary Memorial Oak Park and Elmhurst Christian Reformed Church and from the two small groups to which Carol and I belong. I think the furthest traveler was from Champagne, Illinois, and the spread of support from so many and presence of several notable leaders was incredibly positive.  On the way home Carol and I began many sentences: " Did you speak to so-and-so?  How are they?  Wasn't it marvelous they came!'  Oh, Yeah!  Seminary trustees, faculty, staff and students really added to the occasion too.

When I wrote the book: Preaching as Worship I gained a small team of six readers.  They received copies of each draft chapter as it emerged and their comments proved invaluable (though sometimes I had to steel myself to read constructive criticism).  Four of that team were present (the other two are in Canada and Washington!)  I realized afresh how much I owed other people in my journey with this book.  For me, one special moment occurred when someone who belonged to Calvary Memorial Church gave live testimony to one of the illustrations in the book.  Spontaneously, she shared her story of what it is like when the preacher opens up sermon preparation to the wider fellowship and everyone grows in discipleship.  It was a golden moment when I gave thanks that my book is not just blah!   Thanks to all of you who were able to give support for my big evening especially to the seminary staff who excelled themselves in all the practical arrangements - floral decorations, delicious food, manning the bookstall, streaming the video, and ensuring fresh Starbucks coffee!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Live-Streaming Tonight

I learned a short time ago that my evening is going to be streamed alive TONIGHT.  I know this will be too short notice for many readers and in the depths of night for others!  But it marks a first for Northern Seminary.  I have just been upstairs to the chapel where the event is being held and marvel at the equipment and preparation.  In particular I note markers on the floor which indicate the limits of my wanderings to stay on camera as well as show my power-point! 

Of course, unfortunately, it will make no difference to the quality of the content tonight but at least it means a wider range of friends can participate!  I am really grateful to all my friends on staff here who have rallied to set it all up so beautifully with flowers, eats and displays.

So, you can go on our website: and click on the streaming link.  Or, go directly to  Exciting isn't it?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Taking the long view

Recently I was talking to a friend about my future hopes to be fulfilled by completing some projects. Rather sharply he responded: "Be careful about saying that you want to be fulfilled. That's not the way you should view things!" He then told me about the statement by Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador in El Salvador in 1980. "I'll give you a copy" he promised. Well, some time has passed by and I have just received it. And am I grateful?!

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit beings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.We are prophets of a future not our own.

Doesn't this really demands serious attention? I tell you, I keep returning to this words with gratitude for their perspective. Perhaps they are helpful to you, too? Much to ponder over.

Surprised by butterflies!

Last night we drove into Chicago to celebrate a friend's 50th. birthday. His party was held in the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, located in parkland north of the city center. As you would expect there was much happiness with good food, great friends and lively music. But what hit me most of all was an experience early on.

Since the party was held in the nature museum we were allowed to enter the butterfly haven. I had never been in one before and had little idea what to expect. Going through double sets of doors, we entered a tropical garden, with trees, pools of water and exotic plants. It was approaching dusk and the lighting was low. Entering we passed beneath low branches of an overhanging tree. Acclimatizing to the heat and light suddenly I saw them. Tens of extraordinarily colored butterflies, hanging down just above our heads. All different shapes and sizes. Then I realized that as you looked they were everywhere. Yes, everywhere! Actually around a 1000 butterflies of some 75 species! Some as large as small birds swooping high above us. Others opening their gorgeous wings on luxuriant leaves, or fluttering from plant to plant. It was just stunning. If you were still they landed gently on you. One friend's bald head attracted particular attention!

Isn't it marvelous that there are so many ways that you can be awe-struck at the extravagant beauty of God's creation. I confess that I had never stopped for more than a minute to marvel at butterflies before! Butterflies are one of our 50 year old friends special interests (and why his wife had chosen this as a surprise venue for him!) And I was thrilled to be surprised too, and to marvel afresh.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Two Northern Happenings

I know my readers are scattered far and wide, but I need to publicize a couple of activities for those closer to Northern Seminary.

First, on April 20th, 2012, my evening event is open to all at 7:00 pm. It is called: Michael Quicke - the journey of the book Preaching as Worship! It will be the first time I can celebrate and reflect on the outcome to these last five years of wrestling with issues of worship. And 'wrestling' is the word. I am thrilled that some friends have already told me they are planning to make the effort to attend. It will be held in the chapel room in Kern Hall, round the back of the seminary buildings at 660 E. Butterfield Rd. Lombard.

Second, I am excited to announce my involvement in Northern Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry in Preaching and Congregational Leadership. I will join Dr. Joel Gregory and Dr. Ralph West as the featured professors for this program. Dr. Joel Gregory and Dr. West will team-teach the first course which begins on June 4, 2012. I will teach the second course in September 2012. You will never guess (!) that this second course will be Preaching as Worship and is built on my book Preaching as Worship.

I believe that this course is a great opportunity for anyone seeking to develop their skills for preaching and congregational leadership. There is limited space so I encourage interested students to apply now. More information is available at

There is much to look forward to. Of course, I shall let you know how April 20th. went!

Saturday, April 7, 2012


What a wonderful day! We often say 'Happy Easter' to each other but that fails to do justice to the ground-breaking mirth of greeting one another today, here, in the presence of the only person who has ever died and risen from the dead, and who therefore changes everything we know about life and death. Everything! Not just what we know but what we can experience too. God's grace has overcome my sin and won victory over spiritual death so that I can enjoy eternal life.

I love the words in Terry Falla's 'Be our Freedom Lord"
Universe, and every universe beyond,
spin and blaze,
whirl and dance,
leap and laugh
as never before.

It's happened. It's here! The new creation.

Christ has smashed death!
Christ has liberated the world!
Christ has freed the universe!

You and I and everything are free again,
new again, alive again.

This has been my first Easter as a cancer patient (still wondering what the outcome of my surgery is). Undoubtedly my darker walk has deepened my worship this Easter. The Tenebrae service on Friday was profound in its gradual darkening of the sanctuary as the appalling cost of Christ's sacrifice sounded out inexorably step by step. And the Easter celebration today lifted my heart as we shared in the centuries-old tradition of 'flowering of the cross' and sang out: 'He is risen, Alleluia'. Yes, everything changes for the better today. A glorious mirth-filled, joy-crammed Easter to you.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Holy Week

This is such a spiritually significant week. Yesterday the children processed down the main aisle in our church waving their palm branches, and vividly connected us with THE story that changes the world. Yes, it really happened - Jesus Christ entered the city of death and new life for us. And every step of the way we can share with him this week. Even though I do not come from a strongly liturgical tradition I always try and relive each day this week with Scriptures, prayers and (of course) gathered worship on the great days: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and (hallelujah) Easter Sunday. At no other time in the year can we walk so closely with our Savior. It really is the most important week ever!

Yesterday we sang a hymn that I had not heard for some time. As it tells something of the story of this week it makes it personal, and I shall use it each day. May this be a spiritually deepening week for you too.

My song is love unknown,
My Savior's love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I,
That for my sake
My Lord should take
Frail flesh, and die?

He came from His blest throne
Salvation to bestow;
But men made strange, and none
The longed-for Christ would know:
But oh, my Friend,
My Friend indeed,
Who at my need
His life did spend.

Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then "Crucify!"
Is all their breath,
And for His death
They thirst and cry.

They rise and needs will have
My dear Lord made away;
A murderer they save,
The Prince of life they slay.
Yet cheerful He
To suffering goes,
That He His foes
From thence might free.

In life, no house, no home
My Lord on earth might have;
In death, no friendly tomb,
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say?
Heav'n was His home;
But mine the tomb
Wherein He lay.

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King,
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend,
In whose sweet praise
I all my days
Could gladly spend.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Parental Advice

I'll get back to 'preaching without notes' in the next post but I must comment about a fun morning we shared at the seminary today. We celebrated a baby shower with one of our popular members of staff and her husband. After food, games and gifts, Carol and I were asked to give final words of parenting advice to the couple expecting their baby in May. We had so much enjoyment reflecting on what we might say (or not)!

Among other things, I recollected my mother earnestly entreating me: 'No matter how much I try and explain the difference this child will make to everything in your lives you will never believe me until it happens! As someone said: 'Parents are not put on earth to make adults of children; children are put on earth to make adults of parents!' And what differences lie ahead for them! Carol warned them how children imitate their parents and how careful they will need to be. She told the story about driving with our toddler son strapped in a rear child seat. When exasperated by other drivers (nothing has changed) her stock expression was: "What's that twit doing?" One day, out of the blue, to her immense surprise the very first sentence out of our son's mouth was: "Wotsthattwidoing?' Yes, we have to be careful.

I also added that the three most important words they can say are: 'We love you'. The four most important words are: 'We can't afford it'. At the end we gave thanks for the gift they are about to receive. I quoted (is it Charles Dickens?): 'It is no small thing that those who are so soon from God should love us'. To be a parent is an immense privilege - it changes everything for ever.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Preaching without notes

Last week some of my students reflected on what they had learned during their two terms of preaching courses with me. I always hope for something positive! This time there was surprisingly strong affirmation of 'preaching without notes'. I say surprising because this element of the course often provokes the most fear and resistance. Yet, several students said that this was the most valuable thing they had learned.

One very experienced preacher (with over two decades' experience) commented: ' By making me preach without notes you have totally transformed my preaching. Now the sermon comes from "inside me" and I connect with my people in completely different ways. I can never go back to where I was'.

Last term another student preached their first sermon refusing to depart from reading a full manuscript. Sadly, the sermon was delivered head-down, hesitantly and with maximum dullness. This term, the contrast was as striking as any I have ever witnessed. With radiance the same student held us captive with a thoroughly prepared biblical sermon that danced with life (and ended with singing). Instead of multiple (really multiple!) Scripture quotes and dense written material that kept tripping the student up, the sermon was prepared 'for the ear' and delivered with passion. How the whole class rejoiced!

As I was considering these comments I received a draft chapter from an academic friend that he is submitting for publication called: Preaching without notes. It's a good chapter and it has made me think some more about this subject. I shall need a couple more posts I think.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Set an extra plate

Yesterday our local church held a 'Set an extra plate' Sunday when we were encouraged to invite students into our homes for lunch. We were given two students to host. I know they enjoyed the food, not just because of their words of appreciation ('Oh to have home cooking' said one) but the rate and amount of consumption! However, it was the conversation that truly shone out most. As we listened to these two students, aged 20 and 19, we heard such high levels of thought and engagement.

One is shortly to leave for 6 months in Indonesia for an internship in his studies on world development. He spoke about his commitment to the poor and desire to work in the development field responding to physical and spiritual needs. In particular, he has passion to serve one of the neediest countries in the world - Yemen. That is where he wants to go after graduating from Wheaton College.

The other spoke about his passion for astronomy and his desire to pursue this at an advanced level as a Christian scientist using his academic gifting with Christian integrity.

How much these young men demonstrated the 'Christian mind' - looking at their lives and futures with one prime concern - to do what God seems to be calling and gifting them to do. As you can tell, I loved the hours we spent together. And listening wasn't just one way either. They wanted to know about our lives and decisions too. This was the intense stuff of 'offering bodies as living sacrifices' (Rom. 12:1).

I mention in Preaching as Worship that when we gather to worship we should be prepared for scattering as worshippers. That everything that happens after we have been in a church building is an opportunity for responding as worshippers, living sacrifices. Yes, they referred back to the church worship service but the whole conversation was continuing the big-picture theme of living for God.

Once I was in their shoes aged 19 and 20 and I remember the exhilaration (and apprehension) of thinking through what God wanted me to do next. But, a few years on (!) I know I still need to keep asking. We are never finished responding as worshippers.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Week 20

This week marks the end of two terms' teaching as students preach their final sermons. In my last session I try to make room for personal reflection on the issues they have learned the previous twenty weeks and, of course, they have to make their evaluations of me as professor! But as a valediction I like to picture some key qualities that I yearn for them to possess after having passed through these preaching classes.

Naturally there are specifics that I hope they will remember. Like the curse of being 'sermony' and its antidote of pursuing the meaning and purpose of the text - what God is saying and doing through this particular Scripture passage. I shall hope that what they learned about structure and delivery will continue to bear fruit. Oh, and that they will always be interesting good news tellers for God's sake, building up people by God's grace not pulling them down by graceless to-do lists. No teacher wants to think they are responsible for others inflicting more boredom on (often long-suffering) people of God!

If I might sum up my prayer about students coming out of my class it is that these are preachers who:
· Love God with heart, soul, mind and strength and really love their hearers too.
· Love God’s Word with transparent affection, serious study and razor-sharp application.
· Remain humbly open to the Holy Spirit’s direction and creativity.
· Prepare well and give their best within the sermon with not a word wasted.
· Live out the consequences as worshippers alive to God's big-picture purposes.

May they be people of love, of the Word, spiritually alive, wonderfully prepared and willing to live out the startling, counter-cultural claims of the Kingdom of God, assured of Jesus Christ's eternally significant promises and power for their ministries and their people.

I am sure some aspects could be better expressed and I may have missed out things you see as important. I'd love your comments. But I really value your prayer for this next generation of preachers out of Northern Seminary.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

2011 Preaching Book of the Year

Wow! I learned just a few minutes ago from the comment on my last posting that my book: Preaching as Worship has been chosen as the Preaching Book of the Year 2011. To say I am surprised is an understatement. Surprised by the honor and surprised at discovering it by way of a kindly comment on my blog. (I have, of course, thanked Michael Duduit, the Editor of Preaching, for his effort to let me know in this unusual way).

For me this is no lightweight honor. It not only means that others have read the book and deem it worthy of note (and every author is grateful to be noticed); I am one of those who always wants to see what Preaching selects out of the tens of volumes produced each year. But it also means that the whole subject of integrating preaching and worship will be put on the map (at least for a brief time as readers of the March/April issue have a chance to see why my book was chosen!)

In recent weeks I have heard some enthusiastic stories from readers who say the book has revolutionized their thinking about worship. One or two have generously blogged about its impact on their ministries. But I also know the book asks a great deal (one or two preachers have bluntly said 'too much') and I hope this honor will give preachers pause to wonder whether they should take a second look.

Thank you Preaching for choosing me and elevating the subject of Preaching as Worship! Now that I am making progress in health we hope to celebrate the book with an open evening at the seminary - perhaps on Friday April 20th. I shall keep you posted about the date because everyone in the area will be most welcome to attend. Thanks for reading. You can understand my excitement!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Chugging Along

I fear that this blog has become too enmeshed in my medical exploits and post-operative weakness. Forgive me. I am definitely on an upward path but each day continues to focus rather narrowly on (sometimes) very small achievements. This one-day-at-a-time-keep-resting-intensively state of mind has inevitably caused tensions.

Just last week an email came in inviting me to teach an intensive week down in Tennessee in June. Frankly, as I read the details (which normally would have excited me) I found it extraordinarily difficult imagining how I could actually say 'yes'. I try to think and pray carefully before making future commitments, but it was surprisingly difficult thinking beyond my one-day focus into a few months ahead. Probably it is necessary for the recuperating soul not to rush forward too quickly. But when you are chugging along it is not easy envisaging full health and energy back in force. Yes, I have faith this will happen but it is not straight forward putting a big commitment in the calendar!

Interestingly, the same morning as the email my Scripture readings included Psalm 131 (which neatly follows the anguish of Ps. 130). It struck me forcibly how careful I have to be about the whole business of 'thinking big'!

My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quietened my soul; like a weaned child with its

It's not that I should ever lose the wonder about God's great purposes but that I should know the importance of small matters and ordinary things when I am chugging along. Too often pride rushes ahead when humility before God keeps a quieter focus. This is a word to me. And maybe to some of my readers!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

In praise of the local church

These last two Sundays I have been back to our local church to share in morning worship and our bible class. Last Sunday I was utterly stunned by the volume of love that pressed on us from every side. It seemed as though every person we met had been praying for me and was now rejoicing with me. It felt a little like being placed on an Oscar red carpet by the sheer goodness of God's answer to prayer and being cheered on every side. Apparently the pastor had announced the good news about my surgery outcome the previous Sunday and there had been applause! We both feel humble and deliciously warmed. At its best, belonging to church means belonging to real community with love and prayers in action. We have tasted that again.

Today, was less extravagant in its emotion (!) but one event particularly spoke to me. When we met in class, the leader began with a question: "What helps you stay close to Jesus Christ in discipleship?" I suppose there were about 40 in the room. Immediately answers began tumbling out: reading Scripture, seeing answers to prayer we do not deserve, asking the Holy Spirit to empower us, doing service for Christ, marveling about God's perfect timing, being encouraged by other Christians. So many spoke and some even told short stories. I wish I had written down a list - it was rich.

What struck me as I listened was the authenticity and quality of ordinary disciples sharing their stories. Too often we talk from the front and fail to let others' speak. (I am guilty!) In a smaller group such sharing is a delight. You can imagine how affirming it was to be part of this chorus. One person described how it was like each person was striking a tuning fork and finding a harmonious hum as more and more people joined in.

I didn't speak but I would have echoed many of the others and added my up-to-date experience of what it means to belong to such a community of love in action during these past few weeks. Yes, I know it is easy to critique the local church and point out its failings. But how I rejoice in my good story that really helps me stay close to Jesus Christ. Again, thank you for your care and prayers.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Rest Intensively

I remember reading about President Franklin Roosevelt back in 1940 who was taken to his room in a condition of extreme exhaustion looking very old and tired. Yet, in an hour's time he came out again a new man, looking twenty years younger. His daughter remarked: "Father is like that; since his illness (he suffered from polio) he has trained himself to rest intensively; that is how he goes on."

That's such an interesting concept: to rest intensively. To allow rest to be the dominant mode for body, mind and spirit. I know how attempting to rest the body without resting the mind can leave us as tired as before. You know, hours of tossing and turning in bed when the mind will not close off! But, resting intensively means making a conscious effort to give your mind with the rest of yourself over to peace. It reminds me of Scripture promises like: "You will keep in perfect peace whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts you" (Isa 26:3). Older versions had: "Thou will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee." And this peace is not some suspended fluffy feel-good animation. It is living in maximum harmony with God and his creation by his power.

I have been trying to learn this steadfast, staying peace principle over the last few days. Keeping trust in God's big promises and big picture for me and living wisely by his power. Was my return to teaching on Monday and Tuesday a good idea? Well, perhaps it was a little too soon because I felt old and tired the next couple of days! But, I know it was such a boost to be back with my students and to feel useful again. In fact, sometimes doing something like that addresses the staleness that tiredness brings.

I shall keep getting it wrong. Not keeping the balance between doing, thinking and resting, not resting intensively. Several of you have warned me about rushing back before I should. But I give thanks for encouragements as I enter my fourth week after the operation that resting is working. Thanks for all your caring. I'm on the way.