In a few days I have the privilege of attending a seminar called “Imaginative Reading for Creative Preaching.” I’m so thankful for this opportunity to retreat in a beautiful place with my family (Colorado), network with other pastors, and to reflect on the books that we were assigned to read in preparation for this learning event. I confess that one of the biggest challenges that I’ve faced so far as a pastor is carving out time to read. I resonate with Doug Bratt when he writes in, “Character References: Meeting People Through Literature”: “Good pastors know that reading is a vital part of ministry. After all, we prepare to preach by prayerfully reading and studying the Scriptures. We read theological works and Bible commentaries. We monitor events and trends by reading newspapers and magazines. But what about fiction and other literature? Shouldn’t pastors also regularly incorporate that sort of reading into their ministries?” (Reformed Worship 101, 40). Some would say no. In fact, I’ve had people imply that after seminary-training I should be good to go for a lifetime of ministry. Just get out there and do the job! But it didn’t take me long to realize that in order to be an effective pastor, let alone an effective preacher, I would need to read a lot. But this has been a great challenge, for a variety of reasons. That’s why I am so excited about this seminar, because it emphasises the importance of reading for the preacher, and then encourages it by assigning a number of books to read in preparation for the seminar. I’m curious what our mentors will say regarding the importance of reading for the preacher. Perhaps they’ll say something like Doug Bratt, who, paraphrasing Alexander Solzhenitsyn, writes: “Reading literature is a way for us to meet people whom we otherwise might not meet.” After reading the assigned books, many of them fiction, I would have to say that I have met some new people. As Doug Bratt concludes: “As Cornelius Plantinga has noted, busy preachers may be tempted to read good literature for the sole purpose of mining it for sermon illustrations. The remarkable characters we meet in good books, however, aren’t just fodder for anecdotes. They’re the kind of people who are created in God’s image, much like those who sit in our pews every Sunday. They’re the kinds of people to whom God calls us to proclaim the gospel on a weekly basis.” Amen! I look forward to writing about my experience after I return from my study-leave. Until then, may the Lord be with you!
Recently I was reminded of the benefits of silence. Happily, the governing board of my local church meets for prayer before they take care of the church business. At the recent leadership prayer meeting I felt called to invite our leaders to practice the discipline of silence. I began our time of prayer by reading a few lines from Dallas Willard’s book, The Spirit of the Disciplines (HarperOne, 1988): “In silence we close off our souls from ‘sounds,’ whether those sounds be noise, music, or words. Total silence is rare, and what we call ‘quiet’ today usually amounts to a little less noise. Many people have never experienced silence and do not even know that they do not know what it is” (163) (emphasis his). “So for the sake of our souls, we must seek times to leave our television, radio, tape players and telephones turned off” (163). “As with all disciplines, we should approach the practice of silence in a prayerful, experimental attitude, confident that we shall be led into it’s right use for us. It is a powerful and essential discipline. Only silence will allow us life-transforming concentration upon God” (163). Accordingly, I believe the minute or two of silence that we observed between our prayers helped us to concentrate intently upon God. I had another unexpected moment of silence last night that simply delighted me. I led evening worship at a neighboring church as their pastor is currently on sabbatical. During the offering, when music is usually played, for some reason the sound technician was unable to play the CD. The result was an unexpected silence, which was absolutely golden! After the service, a young man approached me and expressed his delight at that moment of silence. We agreed that it was an unexpected blessing. Then we talked about the benefits of silence and the challenge in practicing it. I left that service and conversation with a new appreciation for and determination to practice the discipline of silence. Care to join me in this quest?
This Sunday we conclude our brief sermon series called “Contagious Holiness: Jesus’ Meals with Sinners,” by exploring Luke 24:13-35 NIV. In the previous church that I served, there was an old retired minister whom I used to meet with from time-to-time to study the Scriptures and pray. After these mentoring meetings, he would often say, “Let’s keep walking the Emmaus Road together.” I’ve since adopted that saying for myself. In fact, I may have even said it to you! I love this story, because it was while these followers of Jesus walked, talked and ate with the Lord that they discovered him. In the context of our series, I find it particularly interesting that it was when Jesus broke the bread and gave it to them that their eyes were opened (see vv. 30-31). There’s something intimate and revealing about eating together. It’s often during a conversation over a meal or a good cup of coffee/tea that personal or spiritual discoveries are made. As we’ve observed in this series, this is how the Lord works. He uses the simple and practical things of life (i.e., eating), to reveal himself and to help us grow spiritually. The meal in this story reminds me of the Lord’s Supper. So the next time you come forward to receive the bread and cup, I invite you to imagine that you are walking the Emmaus Road with Jesus. As you eat the bread and drink the cup, may you discover or rediscover Jesus the Messiah.
I just read and re-read an article in the June issue of Christianity Today that I’ve found insightful. One of my reasons for writing a blog is to share what I’m learning with you. Accordingly, please allow me to reflect briefly on “The Juvenilization of American Christianity,” by Thomas E. Bergler. He argues in this article that the American (including Canadian) church has for the past number of decades embraced a “juvenile” version of Christianity, that has had major implications on our faith. This juvenilization of the faith began with pure motives: to reach the younger generation for Christ. And it was and often continues to be very successful. As Bergler explains: “This feel-good faith works because it appeals to teenage desires for fun and belonging” (24). I’m sure we can all agree that there are many positive aspects to this sort of faith that many of our churches promote and practice. It’s raw and heartfelt. It’s fun and lively. But according to Bergler, it’s not all positive, as it has led to a “self-centered, emotionally driven, and intellectually empty faith” (23). “Today many Americans of all ages not only accept a Christianized version of adolescent narcissism, they often celebrate it as authentic spirituality. God, faith, and the church all exist to help me with my problems. Religious institutions are bad; only my personal relationship with Jesus matters” (24). Does this sound familiar? Actually, it was some of these concerns that led me to study theology in Bible College and seminary, because I was concerned with what I observed: a shallow, self-centred faith–in myself and in others. The more I read Scripture, the more convinced I am that we are to aim for spiritual depth–in ourselves and others. So how do we get there? Happily, Bergler ends his article by suggesting that local churches can help raise deep adolescent Christians by encouraging an intergenerational way of life. For starters, “pastors and youth leaders can begin by teaching what the Bible says about spiritual maturity. . . . Church leaders also need to ask the hard questions about the music they sing, the curriculum materials they use, and the ways they structure activities. . . . I believe one key is to renew our commitment to the church as an intergenerational family, in which each person has a unique role in helping others toward our shared goal of maturity in Christ (Titus 2:1-15; Eph. 5:21-6:4; Col. 3:18-4:1; 1 John 2:12-14)” (24). In reflecting on this article, I’m certainly not minimizing the faith of our youth. I know with certainty that many of them have a genuine faith in Christ. But I’m grateful for the reminder that our aim is to grow deep Christians of all ages, which, frankly, takes a lot of work, and isn’t always a lot of fun. But it is the meaningful, joyful work that we are called to do. So who’s with me in this mission?
Last week we started a new sermon series on biblical hospitality, which is a theme I’ve borrowed from Craig L. Blomberg’s book called, Contagious Holiness: Jesus’ Meals with Sinners (InterVarsity Press, 2005). Accordingly, we briefly explored Mark 2:13-17 NIV, where Jesus calls Levi the tax collector to follow him, and then he dines at his home. In the ancient Jewish world, to eat with someone was an expression of friendship, so by eating with Levi and his tax collector colleagues, Jesus was saying to the sick and sinners of this world that he was a friend. Although Levi is the one showing Jesus hospitality in this story in terms of inviting him to his home, Jesus actually performs the greater act of hospitality by eating with these “sinners and tax collectors.” Eating with people is a natural and effective way to show hospitality, in order to develop friendships, in order to love people into the Kingdom of God. Did you know that June is block party month in Lacombe? Accordingly, you’re all invited to show hospitality in some way this month and in the future. I’m pleased to report that our family co-hosted a barbecue on our avenue tonight, which allowed us to meet and love our neighbors–thanks be to God! So who are the “tax collectors and sinners” of this community and the world, and how can you show such people radical hospitality, the kind that Jesus showed to Levi and his friends?
Last week I had the privilege of joining an existing worship team and leading worship for the entire service. I used to do this regularly at the church I previously served, but happily we have some gifted and capable people at this local church to take an active role in that ministry. But I still enjoy leading worship when the opportunity arises. Some people think that leading worship is about leading the people in singing songs of praise to our Lord. True, that is a very important part of worship leading. But worship is more than singing! In fact, as far as the Sunday morning worship service is concerned, worship occurs from the Call to Worship to the final Blessing and song. Some people have commented on my more liturgical style of worship leading, that I seem more formal than some other worship leaders. For example, I will often include a litany (interactive prayer) or a Profession of Faith after the sermon, etc. So why do I do this? I do this because I am trying to engage the people in the worship service through speaking. I’m also trying to help them respond to God’s Word. Worship is not meant to be performative. In other words, the worshippers should not remain passive listeners. Good worship engages the people of God on many levels. It calls them to participate in the cosmic dialogue between God and his people. The worship service is also a place for spiritual formation. When I lead worship, including when I preach and pray, my goal is to form people spiritually for mission. My prayer is that the people will encounter the living God in the worship service and be compelled to seek His face through the week and respond to him with grateful service. I could say more about leading worship, but I think this is enough for now. I leave you with a Call to Worship: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24 NIV)