Thursday, June 17, 2010

Song of the Week - Grace's Waltz

It would make for a nice wedding song, eh?

The Mission

Promoting the gospel to the world is more than a rescue mission (though it is certainly that as well); it is a reality mission. It is our plea to all to acknowledge that they belong to one Lord.

- John Dickson

Friday, June 11, 2010

Their First Anniversary

Almost a year ago to the very day, something happened that would change the course of my brother's life forever. Something so beautiful, so pure, so God-ordained that he couldn't help but believe in storybook love. I'm of course talking about the time he first laid eyes on my professionally styled sideburns, which I had done especially for his wedding. They were a thing of rare beauty, and this weekend is their first anniversary.

No less importantly, it is also the first anniversary of the marriage itself. As one of the great Christian thinkers once said toward the end of yet another stirring display of oratory prowess, "marriage is not something authored by man, but by God". The Storyteller par excellence has written the marriage between one man and one woman into his Story. It may even be that marriage unveils some of the deepest mysteries and wonders of the Story, but as yet I am not privy to this knowledge.

To commemorate this momentous occasion I'm going to do something thoroughly self-indulgent and post the video of my Best Man Speech at the bottom. Of course as distracting as my sideburns were, the day wasn't in the least bit about me, but you'll be relieved to know that the speech wasn't about me either. The quality of the video is poor - a statement you can take to be applicable on multiple levels. The volume is low, so headphones might be necessary. And the jokes...they're in there somewhere. You just have to really want to hear them.

I was nervous about the whole ordeal. That shows. But this is Declan that you hear in this speech, for better or worse. My subject matter (chiefly my brother) did make things slightly easier. His life has always been an open book. There were shouts of joy on happy occasions, tears of anguish on disappointing Christmases (note the plural), all culminating in the feeling of "walking on air" when he knew in that most profound of ways that Julie was the one.

I haven't done David Michael Kelly justice. As I noted at the beginning of the speech, I didn't even try.

And on that note...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Art of Listening

Have a read of this paragraph by Merold Westphal and feel the conviction that I felt after doing so!

If I am a good listener, I don't interrupt the other or plan my own next speech while pretending to be listening. I try to hear what is said, but I listen just as hard for what is not said and for what is said between the lines. I am not in a hurry, for there is no pre-appointed destination for the conversation. There is no need to get there, for we are already here; and in the present I am able to be fully present to the one who speaks. The speaker is not an object to be categorized or manipulated, but a subject whose life situation is enough like my own that I can understand in spite of the differences between us. If I am a good listener, what we have in common will be more important that what we have in conflict.

This listening heart applies to so many situations. The key, as Westphal says it, is to be present in the present. In the words of Jim Elliot, "Wherever you are, be all there." Too often we simply use the present to manipulate and cajole our desired future into being. We talk to people as if they are objects to gain utility from, and so our conversations involve little more than waiting for moments that will never come.

Can I apply this to preaching? You bet I can! The preacher must first be a good listener. After all, the preacher is not uttering his own words but the words given to him by an Other. Every sermon should be the result of a conversation with Scripture. The preacher may -- indeed must -- ask questions and bring his own life to the table, but he must not manipulate Scripture to achieve his own desires. He must listen; he must hear what the word of God is saying in the present time, and allow the presence of God to shape the future. The same holds true for the congregation. We must be good listeners. We must be present, without a destination in mind, and always open to the "newness of life" created by the spirit of truth, who operates in texts, sermons, and -- most importantly of all -- hearts of flesh like yours and mine.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Preaching: Creation

In reading The Cross-Shattered Church by Stanley Hauerwas (whose surname I can neither spell nor pronounce), I came across the following line:

…God’s good creation is not finished.

It struck me: God is not a retired Creator. In the beginning he created, and he is still creating. And as lofty as it sounds, the preacher gets to assist in this act of creating. For a preacher does not preach his own word, but he utters the word of God to those with ears to ear. And when God’s word goes out, it does not return to him void. This was true in the opening chapters of Genesis, and it is true even now. Through the folly of preaching God is creating a community of people for himself. His work of creation is not finished; maybe it never will be, since he is the eternal Creator.

When we preach the word of God, God is creating and re-creating. When we hear the word of God, we are being created and re-created.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Preaching: Presence

Jacob's words uttered in the city formerly known as Luz sum up what every preacher wants to hear from each member of the congregation: Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.

New Testament Scholar Daniel Patte explored Paul's preaching methodology in his book Preaching Paul, and attempted to glean some insights for the present day practice of the craft. For we are not in a cultural and sociological situation all to dissimilar to the one facing Paul on his missionary journey's throughout Asia and Europe: the language of the gospel is foreign to the masses, and the symbols and stories are nonsensical in our world of power and prestige. What do we do? What do we say to people for whom the gospel seems like the greatest of irrelevancies, or the greatest of mysteries? What did Paul do? What did Paul say? Tom Long (commenting on Patte's findings) writes that Paul

looked at the world of his hearers through the cross-resurrection refraction of the gospel, and by doing so, he saw something he could not have seen without the gospel lens: the trajectory of God in their world. He saw God at work in cross-resurrection ways in their present-tense circumstances, and he told them what he saw. God is present; God is at work in your world. Can you see it?

Paul saw the world through eyes that were coloured with the person and story of Jesus. And by looking at the world with these eyes, he could see that the story of the world was now wrapped up with the story of Jesus. "Our story became His story", as my former teacher likes to say.

Our stories of loss, brokenness, hurt, abandonment, find their fullest voice in the story of Jesus. When he cried out from the cross "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani", he cried the cry of ultimate suffering; he told the story of our lives in one tragic sentence. But at Calvary a new chapter was also being written, for God was in that place, reconciling the world to Himself.

In light of the cross and resurrection, the preacher can boldly proclaim that the resurrected crucified Lord Jesus still identifies with the weak, the marginalised, and even the sinful in the present time, and that he is powerful enough to make things new. The preacher can say that the Lord is in this place even now, though we may not know it. He is making our stories His story so that His story can become our story. The finished work of the cross has created fresh possibilities for today. The LORD is doing a new thing: do you not perceive it?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Preaching: Story

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. The truth behind this rather disturbing adage also applies to preaching. There is more than one way to skin a sermon…or something.

Many sermons today could pass as lectures, with their points and subpoints, logical structure, and symmetry. I read recently that the structure of a lot of sermons is to begin by telling the congregation what the sermon is going to be about, deliver the sermon, and then finish by telling the congregation what the sermon was about.

“Today I’m going to speak about the love of God….”

“The love of God is like…”

“This message was about the love of God…”

There is another school of thought, however: Narrative preaching. Highlighting the claims of Eugene Lowry in The Homiletical Plot, Tom Long writes that

…what really gets the juices going for hearers is not learning about ideas but resolving ambiguity, and thus, good sermons should be built on the chassis of a narrative plot that moves sequentially from stirring up ambiguity and resolving it, from conflict to climax to denouement.

One group of writers have as succinct a definition of preaching as you’re likely to hear: Preaching is shared story.

There is much that has been and could be said about this way to skin the proverbial cat, but one of the central truths commending it is this: When we preach grace, we are not preaching about an abstraction or a concept. We are telling the story of a God who has definitively revealed his grace through the story of Jesus, specifically the story of his death and resurrection.

This ties in with yesterday’s post. We bring people to the vantage point where everything is seen as gift by allowing them to be swept up into the drama of God’s gracious action towards his creation. The hearers of the story must become participants in the story. That’s the goal. The lecture-sermon (or lermon, if you like) cannot achieve this. It can do a lot of good things, but it cannot do this, because it does not make the story the thing. Something else is, but what exactly?