Friday, March 28, 2014

illumination on sunday

Off the train. Into a taxi. The long weekend in Mysore with our friends, Rod & Denise Edwards, had begun. Immediately, our chatty taxi-driver asked me, "Are you here for the illumination on Sunday?"

"Yes, we are."

Every Sunday night, the Mysore Palace is illuminated with thousands and thousands of light bulbs. It lasts for 45 minutes. Spectacular. They are the weekly minutes around which Mysore's thriving tourist industry is dependent. Here is the Palace anticipating the illumination to come:

Just a few minutes later, here is the Palace enjoying its illumination fully:

Anyone who knows me well knows exactly where my mind went when the taxi driver uttered those words. Yep, you guessed it. The role of the Holy Spirit in preaching.

I am big on the Word. But I am big on the Spirit too. Gotta keep Word and Spirit together. Over the years of my involvement in teaching preaching, a persistent annoyance has been how often those most committed to biblical preaching say so little about the Spirit. Flick through evangelical textbooks on preaching, for starters. To help avoid this malady, I have four pictures that fill my imagination.

(a) It was my Langham Preaching colleague, John Tucker, who I first heard use the metaphor of the train. The carriage is the sermon. The tracks are the Word. The engine is the Spirit. Think about it. It is a goodie. The Spirit pulls the sermon along the tracks which are provided by the Word.

(b) It was a former principal of Moore College (Sydney), John Woodhouse, who provided the quote that gives me my second picture. Word and Spirit are like God's Speech and Breath. That is the way the Bible talks. Can you separate your speech from your breath? It is difficult to do so! Well - stop doing it to God.

Then a couple of my own images:
(c) I like picturing the journey from text to sermon to be one that visits four corners. Start with the corner of the text - move to the corner of the (believing) listener - move on to the wider (unbelieving) world in which that listener lives - come to the corner of the preacher themselves ... before returning to the corner of the text where the final shape and purpose of the sermon will be determined.

One of the reasons why I love using the 'four corners' is because it welcomes a strong doctrine of the Spirit into the journey to the sermon. It is the Spirit who inspires the text. It is the Spirit who illuminates the listener. It is the Spirit who can, and must, authenticate the truth for those immersed in the world. It is the Spirit who anoints the preacher.

(d) One day I looked at the power-generating windmills on the hills around Palmerston North in New Zealand. Why are they there? It is because those hills are known to be a place where the wind blows.The Spirit is sovereign and like a wind, it blows where it wills (John 3.5-8). BUT it is possible to immerse yourself in scripture and in history and discover 'the windy place' where the Spirit has been known to blow ... and then to go and stand in that place and have a greater expectancy about the likelihood of the Spirit blowing through my preaching because I do so.

Here's to illuminations on Sunday - be it for 45 minutes each week in Mysore, or wherever it is that God's Word is opened and preached.

nice chatting


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

preaching before dawn

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to contribute by skype into a UK seminar. The topic was Evangelistic Preaching and it was organised by Roger Carswell.

[For those of you in New Zealand, Roger is the father of Ben Carswell who pastors Hutt City Baptist Church and is on the staff of Tertiary Students Christian Fellowship ... and a great mate of mine. Then it was Jonathan, Ben's brother, who interviewed me. He is Managing Director of 10ofThose, an innovative Christian book distributor. Well worth a look].

The interview was conducted at 4.30am (Indian time).
[I selected the time, by the way]

It appeared on youtube and when I watched it, I realised that the 30 minutes contained a lot of the stuff that is important to me in training preachers - and so I thought I'd post it on my blog.

nice chatting


Sunday, March 16, 2014

quack, quack, quack

The power of story cannot be denied. Neither can the priority of story within the Bible. It is a story. And yet sometimes those most committed to biblical preaching suddenly become ambivalent when the conversation moves to story and storytelling. I don't get it. As far as I am concerned, at its best, biblical storytelling fits within the best descriptions of biblical preaching, or exposition.

When I teach on the subject I find the most effective entry point to be the children's story. I like to start with Joy Cowley's Quack, Quack, Quack.  
[NB: it is not easy to purchase these days, I see!].

As the image to the left describes (I chose it for this reason) - the story takes place in 16 pages, with only 126 words.

It takes just five minutes to read. But the discussion which follows is difficult to stop. People hear and see for themselves the significance of all the central features of narrative: scenic structure, setting, plot, realism, character development, tension, humour, emotion, imagination, dialogue, point of view, repetition, surprise ...

All of that in just 126 words. Have I mentioned that yet? Amazing. The illustrations help as well. This brevity, or compression, is something we find in biblical stories - particularly the parables.

One of the reasons why I love Quack, Quack, Quack is because it was given to me by my lovely Alyssa when she was six years old. It came with a greeting inscribed at the beginning - and then a little note which I have stapled as a postscript at the end. It brings me joy...

[Can you tell it's time to head home and see the kids again?! 28 days]

After Quack, Quack, Quack, I like to take people to a fuller story - Love You Forever. I am not the world's best story-teller, but I have had grown men crying at the end of telling this story. One time in Hamilton it was a professor at a university in New Zealand... It has all the same features - except that the repetition is more obvious and the surprise is an unbelievable exaggeration, but it doesn't seem to matter to most people.

It is much more advisable that you order your own copy - but there is a link on youtube where you can hear and see the story being read...
[Spoiler Alert: the narrator goes far too is kinda disappointing].

In more recent years, I've taken a shine to a little book set in Africa called Handa's Surprise. It is the story of a gorgeous little girl (Handa) who takes a basket of fruit to her friend (Akeyo) in a neighbouring village, but along the way different animals steal different pieces of fruit from the basket on her head - and then there is ... well, a surprise.

My lovely Alyssa is all growed-up now. She and Tim have a gorgeous little boy - Micah (not yet two years old). Every time we chat on skype, Micah and I eat crackers together and read Handa's Surprise. I never tire of the story...

In 28 days Micah and I are going to enjoy an animation of Handa's Surprise - exquisitely done (at the right pace!) and with the right accent too. Alyssa has offered to ensure that Micah does not see this animation of the story until he is sitting in Grandpa's lap - but we can make exceptions for you.

But back to preaching...
There are two pathways by which to travel into this world of retelling the stories of the Bible. One is through the scholarly world of what is called narrative criticism, or analysis. It is important. But it is not the place to begin. Too much clutter, too early. No! Start with the best in childrens' stories. Sensitize yourself to all these literary features by soaking often in simple, brief and compelling stories designed for children. Aim to be simple, brief and compelling with your retelling of the biblical story ... and then go away, do your exegesis and engage the scholars.

nice chatting


Thursday, March 13, 2014

everyday church

It is more than twenty years ago now. My first effort at a series called 'Brightening the Post-Christian Blues' - through 1 Peter. The opportunities this letter creates for intersections of Word and World are striking. I love 1 Peter. It remains my favourite book from which to teach and preach...

Then along comes Everyday Church by Tim Chester & Steve Timmis. They do it so well. The book winds its way through 1 Peter - pretty loosely, it must be said - while, at the same time, addressing the missionary situation which the church in the West faces today. The result is a realistic, practical and truth-filled guidebook on how to be a 'gospel community', written by a couple of people in the midst of giving it a go. I loved it. One of those books that makes me want to be a pastor again...

I took particular delight in the way they know their sociological stuff (like so many others do) - but these guys engage it without compromising the theological stuff (like so many others don't). In the conversation between sociology and theology, sociology does more listening than theology for a change. That is so refreshing - and timely.

They start with affirming that 'it is possible to plant a church and see it grow without doing mission ... (but simply) by offering a better church experience than other churches' (16). True enough. Across the diverse spectrum from cafe-models to mega-models, the same assumption has been in place: 'people will come to church if the product is better' (31). That is not the answer. It just leads to disappointment - and burnout.

This book takes us back to 1 Peter where 'Christians are like immigrants, foreigners, temporary residents, refugees. We do not belong...' (32). They carve out an identity on the margins of society. They are into 'doing good in suffering' (51) and 'doing church under the radar' (111). Rather than looking for ways to flow with society out of a passion to be relevant, they look for ways to flow against society out of a passion to be resistant. Too many leaders today are too keen on cool to think in this way. Their desire to belong at the center, to be trendy and fashionable, and to be liked is just too strong. Too much salt. Not enough light. 'Our missional cutting edge is not events that are like the culture, but a life and message that are unlike the culture' (56). Plenty of salt and light. In fact, 'our strategy must be to litter the world with communities of light' (99).

This issue of 'doing good in suffering' which drenches 1 Peter (and so much of the New Testament) is an ingredient which so often seems to be missing back home - and the one I see so much more clearly living now in Asia. These guys don't miss it. They nail it. 'In all the contemporary talk of missional church and the plethora of cutting-edge strategies for reaching people with the gospel, little attention has been given to the issue of persecution' (153-154). What do you do with the obvious fact of history that persecution seems to be one of the 'most effective evangelistic strategies' going around? Are we prepared to hold so profoundly and deeply to the gospel that it leads to persecution - not so much from stuffy church people, but from the core voices which drive our society? I am not so sure. This seems to me to be the glaring blindspot - largely, because this overheated desire to be relevant has taken control.

Today, so many creative ideas and initiatives are heading in the right direction. They have the trajectory. But they need to hold their nerve, pressing on to a more complete vision - to the alternative and authentic community that is attractive because it is deeply impacted, first and foremost, by the very gospel itself. This is where this book is so helpful.

The book has some purple patches. For example:
pp48-49: a series of questions to ask in order to relearn the culture
pp86-96: showing how God as great, glorious, gracious and good transforms pastoral care
pp104-105: an exercise to help identify opportunities for mission
pp119-121: a description of 'gospel communities' - such a great phrase
pp123-125: a questionnaire to assess the health of a gospel community (see also pp175-177)
pp133-141: demonstrating how a person's "My identity, My problem, My solution, My hope" story - a story which everyone has - can lead to an 'intersection point' with the gospel story of creation-fall-redemption-consummation.

nice chatting