Saturday, August 29, 2009

not walking past the best ones

One of the major irritants for me in the training of preachers is the dependence people can develop on books and websites for their illustrations.

"Omnibus volumes (and websites) of sermon anecdotes are the last refuge of a bankrupt intelligence." They sound so second-hand, so predigested, so stale...

We tend to walk past our best illustrations. So it is about pausing to listen and to watch. Then it is about using our imagination to think creatively. This will yield - consistently - the best illustrations. There is an immediacy about them. There is an intimacy with them. There is an everydayness. Everyone identifies with the everyday. That is why it is called 'everyday'.

Being able to see the spiritually significant in the utterly ordinary is the key. The best illustrators are like fishermen who trawl and photographers who click ... and then think for a bit.

Let me illustrate(!) what I mean. During the Langham Preaching seminars in which I am involved I now get people out of their seats and we go for a walk together. "Look at this. Look at that. What truth might they illustrate?"

When in Pakistan a few weeks ago we did this. I had them look at a vast slab of immoveable concrete out of which, in one section, a bit of a plant was growing which carried a tinge of greenery.

What might this illustrate?

They looked and looked. Not a lot of firing-up of the imagination in that rote-learning style of education! I wondered whether this approach would work?! Silence. Gulp - did I misread things here?

A voice speaks. Then the translator speaks.

"It is a bit like how it is for us as God's people in this (Muslim) majority culture in Pakistan."

What do you mean? Please tell me more.

"It is just so hard here - but maybe God can still bring some growth."

I will never, ever forget that moment. I don't think they will either. Immediacy. Intimacy. Everydayness. And we didn't walk right past it...

This morning I walked back from the letterbox and caught the sight of this rose. Just for a bit of fun, what illustrations might this image generate? I invite readers to offer their suggestions and see how many we can gather...

OK? Click on it to get the closer view...

What d'ya reckon?!

nice chatting


Thursday, August 27, 2009

peter adam's written for us

The 'theology of the word' is not where it needs to be today. Intimidated as we are by image and event, music and symbol, entertainment and short attention spans, and goodness only knows what else - we tend to lose our convictions about the Word of God and our appetite for it drains away as a result.

Ellul was right. There has been a 'humiliation of the word'.

The obvious medication that comes to mind is for communities of the people of God to live and linger in Psalm 1, Psalm 19, and Psalm 119 and have these songs become their songs in theory and in practise.

We do need to recover the potential of the ministry of the Word to be an echo of what happened in Genesis 1, believing that something can be formed out of nothing in peoples' lives. We do need to recover the potential for Ezekiel 37 to be retold in peoples' lives whereby something living emerges from something dead in response to the Word of God. At different times in my life this has been my experience. Haggai 1. 2 Timothy 4. Luke 24. It goes on and on. The ancient Word of God creating something out of nothing, turning death into life, in me. I covet this experience for others.

Yes - that's right. Our theology of word is nowhere near where it needs to be.

This is where Peter Adam's book can be so helpful. He calls it a "biblical theology of the Bible" (12). The design of the book expounds a single sentence, phrase-by-phrase, chapter-by-chapter: "receiving God's words, written for his people, by his Spirit, about his Son". [NB - while the whole book expounds this sentence, in one chapter (16) he expounds it from just the one book of the Bible: Hebrews].

So the book is about appreciating the Bible through these successive perspectives of ecclesiology, pneumatology, and christology. This macro-structure to the book is its best feature as it binds an understanding of the Bible to the very things from which it so readily becomes unhinged: the church, the Spirit, and Jesus.

I liked other things...

1. Basically Adam just travels from one biblical passage to another, opening it up with an eye on what it contributes to our understanding of the Bible. Afterall the book is about "what the Bible teaches about itself" (14). Then on pp259-260 there is an Index of Major Bible Passages covered in the book. An incredibly useful list that could form the basis of a course or a series of studies/messages. His explanation of the following passages were the ones which impacted me the most: Ezra 7/Nehemiah 8 (pp99-106); 2 Timothy 3 & 4 (pp133-140); 1 Corinthians 1 & 2 (pp 164-174)

2. His "Ten keys to the useful application of the Bible' (pp140-144 - and the later illustration of these keys from Hebrews on pp207-209) will be required reading in future courses which I teach on preaching.

3. He doesn't let himself get drawn into an apologia for the Bible: "In this book I have not attempted to defend what the Bible says about itself: all I have attempted to do is to describe it (247)". I found this both refreshing and reassuring.

Here is his final paragraph:
"...a sound theology of the Bible depends on our theology of God's capacity for verbal revelation, and our capacity to receive it. It also depends on a theology of the one people of God ... It depends on the authentication of Christ, who in his teaching authenticates the OT, his own teaching, and the teaching of his apostles. It depends on a theology of the Spirit which connects the Spirit with the self-revelation of God, with truth, with words, and with verbal revelation. It also points to the Christ of the Scriptures: the word of the Lord speaks of the Lord of the word. It is this robust theology which supports Scripture's own theology and invitation: to receive God's words written for us, written for his people, by his Spirit, about his Son(247)".

While Peter Adam may not be a rivetting read with multiple quotable quotes, over the years I have found his books squeezing in there to form a critical part of my foundation as I give myself to a ministry of the Word.

nice chatting


Monday, August 24, 2009

william hague's william wilberforce

On this the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wilberforce, I offer my tribute by engaging with the biography written by former leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague - which I finished on Saturday.

I have wondered about starting a WWW club for William Wilberforce Wannabees like myself but maybe I'll settle for listing some of his qualities which I wannabee like:

1. www.generosity

Heir to a massive fortune Wilberforce was generous to a fault. When in discussion with Hannah More about the educational needs of poor children, he responded "If you will be at the trouble, I will be at the expense" (213). And as he moved into retirement, he brought with him "the same group of shuffling servants he could not bear to sack" (491). His was a life lived with "unfailing generosity amidst unavailing chaos" (428).

2. www.carefulness

And yet amidst the chaos he gave attention to some details - like the way he would "make long lists of how he could help his friends" (213) and then spend Sunday afternoon studyng the list and deciding how to act upon it. Or, the occasion when he wrote out an alphabetical list of his faults (208) and his intention to have God help him with them.

3. www.providence

Again and again and again, instead of saying 'God', Wilberforce simply writes "Providence" with a capital P (92, 205...) . For him this was the essence of God's activity in his life, for "Providence governs the world" (352). It is that lovely blend of sovereignty and grace captured so well in the testimony of Nehemiah "the gracious hand of my God was upon me (Neh 2.8, 18). I like it. But I notice the P-word cannot even make it into the Index of McGrath's classic text on Theology. It embarasses us. In the colloquial, Christians far prefer to use the word "luck" - OR they consider that the bad things happening in the world will always trump any sense of providence and thereby eclipse it. No! On so many fronts Wilberforce lived a miserable life (his own health, his own failures, the death of children, other children squandering all his money so that he died virutally penniless...) - and yet near the end it could be said "For 45 years he had believed in Providence; he was not going to stop now" (495).

4. www.conversion

His conversion, the "Great Change", was so gradual and it took place in a thoughtful way. The head was engaged - something was understood first - and then heart and hand were transformed forever. This profound conversion, together with the other Claphamites, led on to "one of the greatest varieties and volumes of charitable activity ever launched by any group of people in any age" (220). Yes, Ephesians 2:8,9 ... and 10 in a way that changed a century. FROM the London Missionary Society (LMS), the Church Missionary Society (CMS), the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the Sunday School Union, TO the 'Society for Superseding the Necessity for Climbing-Boys in Cleansing Chimneys', the 'Friendly Female Society for the Relief of Poor, Infirm, Aged Widows and Single Women of Good Character, Who Have Seen Better Days', and the Society for the Suppression of Vice.


There can be no substitute for the words of John Newton to Wilberforce in the movie: "Do it, Wilber. Do it." I've been saying them to my kids ever since. But there is something about John Wesley's words (among his final ones before he died) to Wilberforce as well: "Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God be for you who can be against you. Are all of them together stronger than God? Oh, be not weary in well doing" (195).

In addition to these there is room for a chapter on Slavery (ch 6: "The Trade in Flesh and Blood") which could be required reading in either a high school or university course. Similarly p178f on the secret of his effectiveness as a speaker could find its way into a course on preaching/speaking quite readily. There is the intrigue about Wilberforce proposing to Barbara (20 years younger than him - "a woman capable of bearing prosperity without intoxication" 280), 8 days after meeting her - and married 6 weeks later! GULP?!

I should have seen this next one coming... I think I am going to further celebrate his birthday by watching Amazing Grace tonight - yet again!

nice chatting


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

shane claiborne's the irresistible revolution

"Have you read Claiborne's book yet?"
Finally, I am able to respond "Yes".

There is a lot to like about this book.

1. There is that title. Ever since I read David Wenham's The Parables of Jesus: pictures of revolution twenty years ago I have been partial to the use of the word 'revolution' as a contemporary equivalent (roughly) to Jesus' idea of the 'kingdom of God'. A bit militaristic but... Wenham writes of the "excitement of Jesus' message. He was announcing a dramatic forceful change in society to people who really longed for such a change" (Wenham, 23). Claiborne captures something of that excitement so well in his book.

2. He strikes so many prophetic blind-spot-exposing notes in what he writes.

His plea for a fresh generosity with a commitment to hospitality because "redistribution springs naturally out of rebirth (163)." We still need the wealth-creators. It is the distribution of that wealth that needs addressing.

His courageous and perceptive exposure of the priority given to patriotism in the USA, as seen in things like the American flag at the front of churches. That has always seemed odd to me. That "messy collision of Christianity and patriotism that has rippled across our land (197)." He writes of the need to see the church develop a sense of being one family "without borders". He resists speaking of the church as plural - only as singular (which is, of course, one of the striking things about 1 Peter 2). Terrific stuff.

Chapter 12 is entitled "growing smaller and smaller until we take over the world". His critique of BIG things carries weight for me. He is onto something that needs to be heard. This is why for ten years I have never asked a pastor how many people there are in his/her church. Not that numbers do not have their place, but such talk immediately prejudices the subsequent discussion in unhelpful ways.

I think his passing critique of Wheaton College - where many of my own in-laws went to school - is not unfair and he seems to want to be critical of Willow Creek, but can't quite pull-the-trigger (because he has too many valued relationships in the organisation, I suspect). But he still manages to explode a few bombs around seeker-sensitivity (104-106)!

3. Then there are some profound contributions to my understanding of different issues. For example:

Holding the tension of dignity and depravity in our self-understanding. "Some of us have been told our whole lives that we are wretched, but the gospel reminds us that we are beautiful. Others of us have been told our whole lives that we are beautiful, but the gospel reminds us that we are also wretched (245)."

There are 'activists' among the social justice circle; there are 'believers' in the church circle - but what is needed are "lovers" of people.

The inner city may have its crime, but let's not forget that "the suburbs are home to more subtle demonic forces - numbness, complacency, comfort - and it is these that can eat away at our souls (227)." Brilliantly said.

His call for the use of the imagination, his desire to see vocation redefined, his maintenance of the attack on dualism in the church, his stopping short of rubbishing the church ("we mustn't detach from the church in a self-righteous cynicism" (354)). It is all good stuff. Yes, I really liked the book. If I am honest, I liked it more than I expected.

There is some stuff that leaves me a little cautious as well

1. Claiborne admits that this is a 'book of stories' and that he is writing autobiographically. That's fine - but when he is so good at it, he needs to take care. There is an awful lot of Shane in this book! Not sure that heroes of his like Bonhoeffer - and maybe even Mother Teresa - would write like this. While I do not doubt for one minute that he is a deeply committed follower of Jesus, impressionable readers with less maturity are in great danger of becoming disciples of Shane, rather than Jesus primarily, after reading this book. It doesn't surprise me that he tells a story about being caught up at one point signing autographs for younger people. He writes in a way that attracts that kind of celebrity status from the young.

I've watched this sort of communication impact young people here in NZ for thirty years. It is a frequent feature at Easter Camps and Parachute Music Festivals, for example. Inspiring personal story-driven messages that seem to display more confidence in the speaker's own story than in the story of God and Jesus as revealed in the Bible. The fruit of this can be seen in the struggle we have had creating mature disciples among the young who can prevail beyond the time when the inspiration runs out. For three decades I have grieved the lack of confidence in the Bible among so many of our youth ministries... In Claiborne's next book I'd love to see him base what he says more in the Bible, with his own story being illustrative of what he is revealing from the Bible, rather than the other way around.

2. I have some suggestions of where his engagement with the Bible could be deepened! This book was crying out for some Ecclesiastes. On page 225 I was sure he was going to jump across to Ecclesiastes 11. It would have been so compelling in his gifted word-making. At numerous times I was sure he was going to touch down in Ecclesiastes 4. I missed him unpacking the passages in the Epistles that so deepen our understanding of what it means to be church. And then when he writes about complacency in the suburbs - please, please, please take us to the post-exilic prophets (Malachi, for example) for whom this was their message. But no - each time I was left really disappointed.

3. I love his Marks of a New Monasticism. I do love what is there - but I am a little concerned about what is not there. Our understanding of the gospel needs to be truly wholistic and not one with holes in it. Never assume things, or else they will tend to be forgotten by those who follow. There is such a danger today to underplay the importance of sharing Jesus with people using words. For example, when Jesus mourned over Jerusalem at the end of Matthew 23, it was not because the city of Jerusalem was beginning to slip into nearby Gehenna, an environmentally-unfriendly wasteland. Nor was it because the people of Jerusalem were oppressed and impoverished, even though they were. Jesus was mourning because they had rejected him and they were lost until they found him, enabling him to be to them "as a hen gathering her chicks under her wings" (Matt 23:37). That is why Jesus mourned. Creation care and/or caring for the poor is not the full gospel. Lost people were remaining lost...let's never lose sight of the need to be introducing people to Jesus.

4. We need to respect the political-religious-cultural context of the American church in which Claiborne is writing (not too many of those websites at the end escape the USA!) and discern the ways in which it is different from what churches in other countries confront. Claiborne is rightly pushing back at a church with power and wealth far beyond what we find in any other country in the world. That needs to impact the way we read his book sitting elsewhere in the world. And if the church is one (singular) church, I reckon there's plenty to be learned from our brothers and sisters in the Majority World of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

That'll do. I enjoyed the book. It provoked lots of reflection. I am praying that God will keep and protect Shane Claiborne, continuing to deepen his insights into the gospel for the benefit of us all.

nice chatting


sex laws

When I was in the USA for a period last year I heard stories like the ones recorded in this recent issue of The Economist.
Read the first few paragraphs of this link to an article entitled "Unjust and Ineffective". and feel a shudder go down your spine as you weep for Wendy.

nice chatting (I think)


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

on indigenous peoples

One of the differences between Australia and New Zealand that has fascinated me over the years is the vastly different ways in which they have addressed the issues of the rights of indigenous peoples. Australians, particularly within the evangelical church, just seem to ignore the issue.

Not any more.

Dr Peter Adam (Principal, Ridley College in Melbourne; a favourite author of mine on the subject of preaching and pretty conservative theologically) has just given a most remarkable lecture with the title "Australia - whose land?"

The Sydney Morning Herald has picked up on the lecture and there is a similar story in The Age from Melbourne.

WOW - this one is going to cause a stir. They'll be talking about it for years.

Good on him!

nice chatting


Saturday, August 08, 2009

word + prayer = worship

Saying that there are Anglicans in Langham Partnership is like saying there are All Black fans in New Zealand (oops, maybe that analogy is breaking down - I hear things aren't going so well on the rugby front back home ... although Southland keeps winning - surely that is all that really matters, isn't it?).

Anyhow - back to those Anglicans. In these early months of my new job I find myself being oriented to many things Anglican. For example, this week in Australia I have been intrigued by what has followed the sermon/message - on three occasions and counting.

As an act of worship in response to the preaching of the Word someone comes forward and prays a long prayer. While the sermon is happening someone is "taking notes and getting ready to turn those notes into prayers". Then up they get to pray.

If it is done half the time just half as well as Arthur did it in Ridley College's chapel service the other day, count me in. I found it very moving. Lots of pleas and passion as God is beseeched to make his Word true in our lives. I've loved it.

It would keep a few preachers on edge in their preparation as well!

nice chatting