Wednesday, March 29, 2023

A Spot in Toronto

It just so happens that my life has travelled more widely these last few days, courtesy of the internet.  Yorkminster Park Baptist Church in Toronto, Canada, is one of those places happily lodged in my past ministry.  I first visited in 1980 and since have been a Summer interim preacher on several occasions, with extra opportunities like the Lester Randall Annual Lectures.  Carol and I have many friends and much history there.

A little while ago the church started its own online daily devotional guide called Walking Together Weekday Devotional. (You can access it online). Following the lectionary readings, they invited a range of writers to contribute.  Considerable freedom is given in terms of length. So, my turn came on Saturday March 25. Three texts included Mark 10:32-34. 46-52. Separating these texts made me focus on how these different events relate. The second part about Bartimaeus I have often preached on, but bringing verses 32-34 alongside changes perspective.

Verses 32-34 contain Jesus' third prediction of his impending death.  It's stunning. Some scholars say that it must have been written later by the church when the full Easter story is known.  That seems the common sense explanation. Otherwise you are driven to the quite extraordinary possibility that Jesus really did know the cruel details of his death. That he was fully aware of the awfulness of his mission.  Now doesn't that open eyes of faith?....Jesus really is the unique Son of God.  In full health, he strides out at the height of his powers to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45) Willingly, with high intentionality, he goes to his death choosing to make it inevitable. What physical, moral, and spiritual courage he shows.

The second reading tells of the blind beggar who hears the crowd as Jesus leaves Jericho. People tell him that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.  He knows enough that this Jesus is a healer. When he shouts out : Jesus, Son of David' people around try to quieten him. Just who does he think he is- the lowest at the lowest end of productive society.  You can picture the story as he shouts even louder.

Bearing in mind the singlemindedness of Jesus' conviction about facing his death, what happens as Jesus calls the man to himself shows how Jesus works. Always works. His big mission is for little people. For him nobody is of little significance. Jesus works on the one-to-one principle.  He makes time on the road for just one. This last miracle in Mark's gospel speaks volumes about his compassion to humble, needy requests.  And I love the fact that Mark's account is the only gospel record that names the man Bartimaeus. As he followed Jesus did he become well known - a nobody, now a friend of Jesus?

When you spend time looking in detail as Easter draws nearer it deepens the wonder and worship, doesn't it? 

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Speaking in S. Carolina

This week I met with a group of PhD students at Anderson University, S. Carolina. That's the wonder of zoom!  The group had read and discussed my book 360degree leadership: preaching to transform congregations.  It is surprising that this book, published in 2006, is still worthy of any attention.  As one of the students commented "You wrote that some time before it was published, so it's nearly twenty years old!  How would you write it today?"  A very good question.  Much has happened, especially with the advent of missional theology.  Undeniably the book is too prescriptive and church-centric.  Actually, I did write an update in 2014 but its publication is unlikely to see daylight.  That's another story.

But, sharing in conversation I realized that in 2006, as one student suggested, this book was 'prophetic'  It dared to join together leadership with preaching in challenging ways.  Especially as it critiques thin-blooded preaching that omits leadership - that it is, among other things, individualistic, generic, avoids conflict, suffers spineless theology, is cowardly and is missionally defective

Towards the end of our session another student questioned whether I had evidence that preachers had actually benefitted from my book and its challenges had changed any ministries. What an acute sobering question.  I know from  conversations since that it has made some impact.  But who knows?  It's humbling to realize that so much ministry is offered without seeing fruit.

I really enjoyed my interactive session with a bright group engaged on the front line.  I owe much to the Dean, Dr. Michael Duduit, who aligned himself ( perhaps too strong a word) with my vision back in 2006 and who supervises these students.  He gave an old preacher an engaging time.  

Friday, March 17, 2023

Still preoccupied

The saga with my son's book accelerated this week as he returned to Cambridge, via Iceland, for another intensive week on the next chapters. Would you be surprised to learn that the project has rather lost its lustre.  Enthusiasm has dialed down considerably. 

Sadly, his enthusiasm has been sabotaged by frantic days at his University, as the demands of ten yearly accreditation, when both federal and state inspectors examine every aspect of the school, have thrust him into mountains of extra work.  When I was at Northern Seminary I remember enduring a similar process when each faculty member was given an institutional task.  Mine was to write an extensive paper which tracked all the changes in our teaching syllabi since the previous accreditation visit ten years earlier.  Boxes of stuff needed examination.  And I was trying to write a book at the same time.  So I do know how miserable things can get.

He worked in the University right up until a couple of hours before flying out, and even though it is spring break he receives daily requests from his Dean. Fortunately, he remains optimistic and we have made some progress this week.  Whether its enough as the deadline nears is still a big question.   As a student I lurched from essay crisis to crisis. Nearing the deadline, pressure squeezed effort into hours of concentration.  I was an early morning person, finishing mid-evening and setting the alarm for 5:00 am for last minute effort. Early mornings are no longer a productive time, but living with a continuous essay crisis sums up my situation well. Still, only two more months! 

Sunday, March 12, 2023

On the substitute's bench

 A first today. The week before I was asked if I would stand by with a sermon for today.  The text was fixed - Psalm 51 - but the scheduled preacher had suddenly been given a hospital appointment for a much needed procedure.  Wisely, he wanted a Plan B, if he felt unwell.

But being on the bench means being match ready.  So I plunged into Ps 51, - an extraordinary psalm when David comes clean before God.  It  is prefaced by an historical note that gives its context as the confrontation in 2 Sam. 16 between the prophet Nathan and David.  David seems to have somehow justified to himself his adultery with Bathsheba and the subsequent cynical murder of her husband, Uriah, by orchestrating his death, sending him on a front line suicide mission.  How he could delude himself and appear to live blissfully in continuing relationship with Bathsheba is one of the greatest warnings.  The most spiritual person (just look at his other psalms) can fall so deeply into sin.

It needs courageous Nathan to rebuke him in God's name  Only then does he see the horror.  Ps. 51 is his horrified response. Yes, he's sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, but it hits him how he has sinned first and foremost about God. This is deadly serious. You shall not commit adultery, commit murder...he knows he deserves death.  In fact, though he doesn't die, his son does and his kingdom will never recover.

His recognition of his sin, of his need for cleansing, of his offering of a broken and contrite heart is such a powerful preparation for the only hope of cleansing for broken and contrite hearts in the gift of Jesus' sacrifice for us. Only there!  Like all the psalms, which formed Jesus' own prayer book, only Jesus can bring the cleansing we need.

So, I was on the bench ready, wondering if I would be called right up until 6:00 pm on Saturday. Then in answer to my query to the preacher I heard I would not be needed.  Sitting on the bench in church was a strange experience. He did preach a challenging sermon. But at least I have the luxury of a blog to use some of my prep.   

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Pivots (2)

The first pivot turned me from a disinterested schoolboy into an enthusiast for geomorphology.  So much so, that entering my last year at university I really wanted to continue in academics. To my joy, a Christian organization working with colleges in Asia offered me two or three years teaching students. The college was in India at Serampore and I was thrilled to think I could continue my love of geomorphology in a far-off exotic land. Dots seemed to join up wonderfully. 

Then came the second pivot.  An unimpressive small brown envelope arrived in which a duplicated letter had been stuffed.  The old Gestetner machines used wax stencils through which typewriters punched letters.  Frequently, as in this case, some of the type face was worn so that every e or f, for example, was illegible. Additionally, ink splodges marked the paper where the typist had hit keys too hard. This messy letter told me that the whole organization had closed with all its arrangements null and void.  Little apology, no explanation and suddenly my planning was turned on its head. The dots had been disrupted. 

I did just wonder what God was doing in all this.  It had all seemed to work out so neatly. Having nothing else planned, I heard about an experimental full-time job working in the Baptist Union headquarters in London. Termed "Secretary for Student Work' it was all about encouraging students and their chaplains in different parts of the country, plus representing student work more widely, I felt I could do this. It was not what I wanted.  It meant working for the church which I had early rejected as a career choice!  

I have written elsewhere how this sudden shift from one direction into another led me to the biggest decision of my life when God called me into Christian ministry. 

In the men's meeting I invited them to reflect on pivots in their own lives when their direction of travel suddenly changed.  And to reflect on God's working through such pivotal changes.  It led to some interesting questions afterwards.  Perhaps you have some pivots too!