Sunday, August 17, 2014

encountering jesus with john and mark

I have loved John 1 for many years. This week I have added Mark 1 to my deeper affections.

In John 1
we encounter Jesus in the pile-up of nouns which describe who Jesus is.
  • Word, God (1)
  • life, light (4-5, 8-9)
  • grace, truth (14)        
  • Jesus Christ (17)     
  • Lord (23)
  • the Lamb of God (29, 36)
  • the Son of God (34, 49)     
  • Rabbi (38, 49)
  • Messiah (41)
  • Jesus of Nazareth (45)
  • the son of Joseph (45)     
  • king of Israel (49)
  • Son of Man (51) ... and maybe even more :)     
Look at that list. Consider what it opens up about Jesus. His humanity. His divinity. His Jewish identity, fulfillment, ministry. His historical reality. His salvation purpose ... and then one of my favourite sermons: Jesus is light to a dark world, life to a dying world, grace to an undeserving world, and truth to a deceived world. You gotta love the johannine christology found in John chapter one!

In Mark 1
we encounter Jesus in the pile-up of verbs which describe what Jesus does (or has done to him).
  • baptising with the Holy Spirit (8)
  • having the Spirit descend on him like a dove (10)
  • knowing the Father's love and pleasure (11)
  • being sent by the Spirit in to the desert - and tempted by Satan there (13)
  • proclaiming the good news of God (14)
  • calling fishermen to follow him and making them fishers of men and women (17-20)
  • teaching with authority in a way that amazed people (21-22, 27)
  • casting out an evil spirit in a way that amazed people (25, 27)
  • healing a woman with a fever (31) and many other diseases (34)
  • driving out demons (34)
  • retreating to a solitary place for prayer (35)
  • preaching in synagogues and driving out demons (39)
  • filled with compassion, touching a man to cure leprosy (42)
  • staying out in lonely places (45) ... and maybe even more :)
Look at that list. Consider what it opens up about Jesus. All the Father-Spirit-Son stuff going on. Proclaiming. Teaching. Healing. Casting out. The authority. The compassion. The reality of temptation. The need for retreat. You gotta love the markan christology found in Mark chapter one!

How do we respond to this twin encounter with Jesus?
Here is my response - and in this order:

1. Put myself at his feet and, as the hymn-writer expresses it, becoming 'lost in wonder, love, and praise' - and 'casting down my crowns' while I am at it. So worship is the first response - a worship of Jesus as a unique person with a unique mission.

2. Put myself in the audience: hanging out with John the Baptist, giving my life to preparing the way for Jesus; with the listeners and observers, being amazed at Jesus' authoritative teaching and healing; with the disciples, obeying Jesus' call to follow him; with the sick and demon-possessed, knowing Jesus can and does heal. My primary identification is with the people like me in the story.

Then I am ready to engage the assumption with which so many commence: mission is about doing what Jesus does. 'We are to follow him and so let's expect to do what he did'.
No - and yes.

3. No - because #1 and #2 are where we should find ourselves first. Some things that Jesus does are unrepeatable. With the full revelation of Jesus that we have in scripture now, it is sharing who Jesus is (evangelism) and doing what Jesus says (obedience) that are to grab the headlines in our lives.

4. Yes - because 'doing what Jesus does', particularly the signs and wonders, can still be part of what he wants us to do. However I remain persuaded that this happens, primarily, in settings where the gospel is pioneering its way into new frontiers where the knowledge of Jesus is limited. I remain skeptical about claims from those who have a full revelation of Jesus available to them, and yet who still hunger for the miraculous. I find myself wanting to say, 'blessed are those who have not seen - and yet have believed' ... or words to that effect.

nice chatting


Sunday, August 10, 2014

the power of listening

I'd love to be a really good listener. In fact three longings cluster together for me. I'd love to be more humble, to be more holy - and to be a really good listener. Why? As far as I can observe, this is the combo that God delights in using and I really want to be used by God. Simple as that.

Don't get me wrong. I can listen well - particularly if the expectation for such listening is in place. For example, over the years I've developed different structured listening exercises in which the perspectives of others are given precedence. The trust it builds and the team it develops is terrific. This facilitative leadership makes space for others. It draws them into setting the agenda. I love it.

But ne'er a week goes by without me having three or four self-flagellating debriefs for not listening better in a conversation. I am an enthusiast. Sometimes I jump in at inappropriate times. I am curious. Sometimes my questions flow far too fast and furious. I have a mind that is as active as it is forgetful. Sometimes the only way I won't lose a gem is by expressing it verbally - immediately. I am frustrated. Sometimes I am with people who have an unrelenting need to talk and I barge into the conversation to remind them that I am here too.  It's bad. You'd think that by my age I'd have learned to do this better.

This is why I jumped on the opportunity to read Lynne Baab's The Power of Listening. I've enjoyed her books before (see here). She has a distinctive style. It is chatty and accessible. It is practical and realistic. It is collaborative with much of what she writes being generated by what she hears from others. It is transparent as she lives in her own vulnerabilities without wallowing there (check out p119). Plus there is an authenticity here, as Lynne has worked at becoming a good listener herself. I've benefited from this.

The focus in the book tends to be on congregations and communities, with the first half of the book making its way around the power of listening in this setting: 'healthy congregations are composed of people who listen well (ix).'

It is all good stuff, as each chapter concludes with a list of questions for discussion - and then each list concludes with an encouragement to 'pay a compliment' to someone. A nice touch.

But for me the book finds another gear towards the end. The final chapters on The Listening Toolbox, Anxiety and Listening, Humility and Listening, and Listening, Receptivity and Speaking Up ... this is where I was helped the most. For example, in the 'Toolbox' chapter (107-126), Lynne opens up (a) the skills that encourage people to keep talking; (b) conversational directing skills; (c) reflecting-back skills; and (d) skills that build empathy. Anyone involved in the caring and forming of others (which is pretty much all of us, isn't it?) will benefit from this chapter. The pages on 'Roadblocks to Listening' (150-153) are likely to make some others feel as uncomfortable as they did for me ...

Tomorrow I return to India after a three week visit home to New Zealand. It has been a personal visit with a threefold purpose: take my niece's wedding, gain a longer visa for living in India, and be present for the birth of our second grandchild (just slipping in a little photo of Amaliya Grace - afterall it is my blog and I can do with it as I please!).

Over these few days at home I've been struck again by how much listening we do. And not just to wedding vows and High Commissioners and baby cries.

To live well is to listen well.

I've been to a large funeral, a concert (Grieg's Piano Concerto), a party (or three), a lunch (with Don & Joy Carson!), a lecture (with Richard Bauckham), a breakfast (with an accountability group), a lunch (with another accountability group), numerous family chats - and then, remarkably, 14 different lingering conversations with friends, facing all kinds of situations, mostly difficult, and mostly at their initiative: redundancy, sickness, separation, life intersections, disappointment etc. And while this is all going on I am doing my Langham work - comprised mainly over these weeks with capturing the essence of a week-long meeting with our key leaders ... which was really one long listening exercise for me.

To listen well is to live well.

In her book Lynne Baab takes me back to my cluster of longings. The essence of humility is not so much 'to think less of myself , but to think of myself less' (Keller) so that I can attend to others and listen to them well. I wonder, too, whether holiness begins with being so absorbed with God, listening to him well - so well, in fact, that I take his primary expectation of holiness seriously - so seriously, in fact, that I give his Holy Spirit full reign in my life to do his primary thing - help make me holy.

nice chatting


Friday, August 08, 2014

evaluating the sermon

Offering critique is always tricky.

While it is possible that a preacher can develop without being critiqued, it is not possible for a trainer of preachers to do so. They must learn to give and receive critique. In Langham our goal is to develop trainers and so it is critical that we think about critique.

The most learnable moment in our training process comes late in each afternoon. The work from the small groups is hung up around the room - a bit like an art gallery. They've been in a biblical passage all afternoon and now here is their 'sermon in a sentence' and a basic shape to their message. Learners roam around, enjoying each other's handiwork (see photo).

Then we evaluate each group's work together. But how? It helps to be evaluating a group's work - not an individual's work.

I try to lay down some ground rules, for starters.
'We are a community of learners together. Let's make this a safe place, an honest place, an encouraging place. But let's commit to improvement in our preaching. I want you to know right now - at the start - that I will always find one area in which you can improve. After I preach later this evening, I want you to do the same with me. OK?'

From my time in New Zealand, there is the sandwich
Here you begin and you finish with affirmation and in the middle you offer some meaty critique. I don't use this approach any more. The affirmation tends to become a forgettable frame for the picture! It is too easy for learners to go away with just the picture (ie critique) in their hearts.

From my learning from others in the Pacific, there is the 'giving a helping hand'
No negative words. No disheartening comments. No shaming in front of others. Just the gentle image of extending a hand to help them move onward and upward in their preaching. Or, alternatively, they speak of 'adding-value' to the preacher's sermon, as distinct from 'e-valuating' the sermon.

From my learning from others in Cambodia, there is the 'honour - advice'
The words are beautiful. 'Honour' is so exalted and 'advice' is so non-threatening. And so this is how they say it: First, 'we give honour to the preacher and then we give advice'.
(see photo from Cambodia)

After my years in Asia, I've stumbled across this phrase: 'if you had more time, this is what I'd work on...' .
I use it a lot. It works well.

In  fact, this post was prompted by an email from Pakistan that arrived just one hour ago. Two local trainers, Tariq and Nancy, are leading a basic Level One seminar in that country this week. My expat colleague writes,
I'm sitting here smiling in a Langham group feedback session - led by Tariq, but hearing your voice. he started by praising him and then your sentence, 'If you had more time...'. The same from Nancy yesterday. I hadn't reminded them and so it is great to hear this in a culture where the teacher can be so devastatingly critical...
So, here is another one to add...
From my learning with others in Pakistan, there is the 'if you had more time...'

[Do readers of this post have other approaches which you use? I'd love to learn from others a little more...]

Some of the deepest and most joyful community experiences have occurred late in the afternoon, late in the week of a Langham seminar (it takes a few days to get the hang of it). I love it. Getting evaluation right can be so satisfying for everyone.

But sometimes it goes wrong. My worst experience of giving an evaluation to a student happened just this past February in a classroom at SAIACS (Bangalore). I still can't believe I handled it so badly. I apologised to the student in front of the class the next day. On other occasions it can be hard to receive an evaluation. At a Langham seminar in the Pacific, they were working on Amos 3 & 4 through the afternoon. I preached in the evening after which a senior, respected participant offered this evaluating comment of my sermon: 'the Amos passage came alive for us this afternoon - but this evening, in your sermon, the passage died again.' Hmmm

nice chatting


Friday, August 01, 2014

preaching trio

Someone somewhere has flipped the switch. After spending more than two decades moaning about the lack of basic books on how to preach, such books have been rushing off the press in the last few months (see here and here and here).

In the last couple of weeks, I have read three more and it is hard to be too critical of any of them. Quick and easy reading. Ideal for the beginner - but still so useful for the one who has been around the clock as a preacher.

Alec Motyer's Preaching? (Christian Focus, 2013). For those who don't know the name, Motyer (pronounced 'moteer', as Don Carson corrected me earlier this week!) comes out of that sage and saintly Stottian tradition. It is easy to be captured by the tone of the book, as this voice of experience engages the topic with such warmth, humility and gentleness. It is a lovely book. But the content makes its mark too - as he moves seamlessly between instruction and example. Lots of examples. We are looking over the shoulder of a seasoned preacher. The only thing that detracts from the book is all the exclamation marks. Maybe the editor had one eye on the cricket at Lord's! (please note the exclamation mark).

David Helm's Expositional Preaching (Crossway, 2014). This book fits within The Gospel Coalition world coming out of North America. A little tight theologically - for example, the critique of lectio divina (30-31) is over-the-top. But lots of good stuff. Lives a lot in Acts 17. Great little introduction to biblical theology. Puts the pursuits of relevance and contextualization in their place because they do have a place - but it ain't the primary place. People can talk about contextualisation like it is some new gospel - but 'a healthy gospel ministry is always contextually informed, but textually driven' (106). The only thing that detracts from the book is the diagrams. I might be a bit thick (although I love images) - but they just don't do it for me.

Tim Chester & Marcus Honeysett's Gospel Centred Preaching (Good Book Company, 2014). Preaching is introduced in a chatty, interactive way. If you are developing a team of preachers, this is a great resource to go through together. Each chapter targets an explanation of the simplest of principles - for example, 'Effective preachers trust in the power of the Spirit' (45-52). The advice is so wise, but if you don't read carefully, you'll miss it - for example, 'work on the text until it moves you' (17). The interactivity cements the learning well. - 'ideas for action', 'questions for reflection' etc. The only thing that detracts from the book is that this commitment to interactivity kinda felt like an annoying interruption for me from time to time.

For a couple of decades (1990-2010), when I was developing courses in homiletics, I easily got a bit lost in the more academic world of North American homiletics. On reflection, this world can become so arid. I wish books like these had been around to keep me hydrated.

nice chatting