why is it?

 

Now this is odd.

Or is it?

In 35 years of preaching I’ve never once had anyone complain to me saying …

“In your sermon Sunday I noticed you didn’t mention _______. I don’t like that. You need to mention _______ every time without fail. And I’m listening to see if you do.”

Fill in the preceding blanks with any of the following:

  • attitude
  • brotherly love
  • church
  • civility
  • communion
  • community
  • compassion
  • confession
  • contentment
  • contrition
  • courage
  • courtesy
  • covenant
  • cross
  • devotion
  • discernment
  • discipleship
  • empowerment
  • encouragement
  • endurance
  • enlightenment
  • eternal life
  • faith
  • faithfulness
  • fellowship
  • forbearance
  • forgiveness
  • gentleness
  • generosity
  • God the Father
  • goodness
  • grace
  • holiness
  • honesty
  • hope
  • hospitable
  • humility
  • idolatry
  • intercession
  • Jesus
  • joy
  • justice
  • kindness
  • kingdom
  • Lordship
  • love
  • mercy
  • morality
  • ministry
  • mortification
  • non-violence
  • obedience
  • peace
  • peaceable
  • praise
  • prayer
  • purity
  • reconciliation
  • reflection
  • repentance
  • reputation
  • respect
  • resurrection
  • righteousness
  • sacrifice
  • salvation
  • sanctity
  • self-control
  • service
  • sin
  • submission
  • temperate
  • thankfulness
  • the Holy Spirit
  • transformation
  • unity
  • wisdom
  • worship

But, I guar-an-tee you, if I don’t specifically mention the word “baptism” in one Sunday’s sermon, and likely repeatedly, despite the fact ….

  • I have been immersed myself …
  • have assisted with many dozens (hundreds) across the years …
  • and I mention it 90+% of the time …

will hear about it.

And I know I’m anything but alone in this experience.

So … what’s up with that?

Just let me ask you to think about it.

And then … don’t stop thinking about it.

you’ve got to make your own kind of music

 

I have a friend who, back in the day, was in the orchestra. He was very good at what he did. It was a joy to watch and hear him play. I often sat in awe. There was simply no way on earth I could have played what he did or the way he did. Not in a million years.

Orchestra and me? Not a mix. Not that I didn’t care for orchestral music, you understand. It’s just that I was in jazz band (stage band). If you had put me in the orchestra I would have been like a fish out of water; I would have shriveled up and died. And hey, I’m even bold enough to think my friend might have struggled had he been thrust into stage band.

See, in orchestral music, there’s rarely, if ever, any real opportunity for improvisation. Every note is planned out long before the sheet music even hits the stand. The idea is sound: you take the music and you put your heart into it. Hard to argue with that.

But, in jazz band, we typically lived or died by improvisation. Improvisation was the air we breathed; it was our bread and butter. While most of what we’d do was planned out to the note before we went on stage, included in the music was deliberate open space for exploration of what was in our heart in the moment. And the way it sounded in performance might not be at all what it sounded like in practice. It’s a healthy idea: you take your heart and you let the music come out from it.

Now if you can grasp that, then understand it’s the same way with preaching. Some preachers are like those in the orchestra. They live by structure and predictable repeatability. They know what they’re going to do months in advance and their Sunday sermons are in manuscript form long before Saturday night rolls around. Improv isn’t even in the vocabulary of such ministers. And that can be a good thing.

Meanwhile, other ministers can’t plan out in detail a single sermon in advance, much less a series. A manuscript? What’s that?! Oh, but don’t think for a minute that such preachers are unprepared or of a lower grade. No, they’re prepared to the hilt! It’s just that it’s just not possible for them to preach the same sermon twice and it come out the same way. They’re often just as surprised by what comes out when they get up on stage as anyone else in the room. And that too can be a very good thing.

Now I say all of this to simply say two things. First, if you’re a minister, deliberately experiment. Find the style toward which you tend to gravitate. And then, own it. Refuse to beat yourself up for not being like – or even able to be like – others who preach differently. And if others, who preach differently, give you static, let it roll right off of you. I know, that’s easier said than done and it’s a ceaseless task, but improvise. Because you’ve got to make your own kind of music.

Second, if you’re an elder who oversees your preacher – or you’re a member who listens to your preacher – give your preacher the freedom to sing their own special song. They need that. And you need that. Don’t ever try to squeeze them into your own mold. Especially if they’re more of the jazz band type and you’re more into the orchestral mode – or vice-versa. After all, the preacher’s task isn’t to cover the song the way you would or the way you think they should, but to play the music they sense God is laying on their heart. If they try to do otherwise the music will likely, at best, come out all wrong – forced, stilted, and flat.

Imagine, and let it be.

my special reading & study in 2014

 

In recent years I’ve adopted the habit of annually identifying a specific subject to which I’ll devote myself in some special study. As I read on the matter, I do so with two questions foremost in my mind: (1) what does Scripture have to say about this? and (2) what perspectives and actions ought a Christian take in light of what Scripture says? It’s been a very good habit for me; I wish I had started such many years ago. I commend such a habit to everyone.

The topic I selected this year was violence. Perhaps you’ve noticed my posts on Saturdays of links to some of my reading each week on such. This coming Saturday’s post of links on violence will be the last in that series this year. As to books, through the course of this year I’ve found some by Justin Bronson Barringer, Lee Camp, Shane Claiborne, Stanley Hauerwas, Philip Jenkins, Preston Sprinkle, Craig M. Watts, John Howard Yoder, and Tripp York to be particularly helpful. If I was limited to only one book on this subject to own and read, I would choose A Faith Not Worth Fighting For edited by Tripp York and Justin Bronson Barringer. If I was looking for a book to give to someone as a gift, I’d choose either York and Barringer’s work, or Lee Camp’s challenging piece Who is My Enemy? I consider both of these books to be simply superb. Would that every Christian would read them both!

In the coming year, I’m going to change things up quite a bit, primarily by focusing on three subjects for nine months of the year (I’ll take a month off in the summer, as well November and December). As to subjects, I’ll study (1) worship & idolatry [Jan.-Mar.], (2) the environment & ecology [Apr.-June], and (3) preaching & ministry [Aug.-Oct].

And where shall I begin my reading in regard to worship and idolatry? I’ve decided my first steps will be reading Ron Highfield’s book entitled Great is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God and G.K. Beale’s work entitled We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry.

some of why I preach

 

A friend of mine recently asked me, and many other preachers, two questions: (1) what led you to decide to preach and (2) what most helped your development as a young man? Feeling a bit  reflective at the moment, I’ll take a swipe at answering such right here.

A lot of creeks fed those two rivers, but I’ll only share a few of them.

First: what led me to decide to preach?

(a) A godly grandmother laid the foundation before I even realized it. My Dad’s mother was a devout Christian. She lived 1,600 miles away and in the course of my entire life, I can count on one hand the number of times we saw each other face-to-face. However, from the time of my earliest memory, she wrote my family a letter every week, without fail; every week for years. With every letter – and with no exceptions – she would include along with her letter some religious clipping, a quote from a sermon, a church bulletin, a prayer, or some such. When I grew old enough to read on my own, I read her letters … and what she sent along. Ever so often – not “too” often, just ever so often – she would write a single sentence to the effect of something specific she was praying about for me and my parents, typically regarding our coming to know the Lord.

I was baptized into Christ at the age of 16 and shortly thereafter, my grandmother conveyed to me that her prayers had now shifted from my coming to Christ to my continuing with him and proclaiming him. I have no doubt that had it not been for my grandmother’s prayers, any and all other creeks that might have fed that river would have turned up dry.

(b) A sorry sermon was the tipping point. I was a young Christian (both in terms of age [19] and duration in Christ [3 yrs.]) anxious to hear some good word to help me grow in Christ. I had worked all day at my job, quickly come home and cleaned up, bolted out the door, and drove to a gospel meeting in a nearby town that had been heavily advertised, featuring the preaching of a very experienced and competent minister. However, what I received that night in terms of a sermon was a virtually empty plate, devoid of milk or meat. It was a 45 minute account of how many verses there are in the Bible, how many years required in its composition, etc. When the final “Amen” was said, I walked out the door totally frustrated, muttering under my breath as I exited, “I don’t know ‘come here’ from ‘sic ‘em’ yet and I could have done a better job than that!” It was not the most humble of thoughts, but it certainly was not one devoid of conviction … or lacking genuine foundation. I found myself dwelling on that thought all the way home, that night, considering it until I drifted off to sleep, and for the better part of probably a month following.

To fully appreciate that statement (“.. I could do a better job …”) you should also know that at that time, when it came to speaking in public, I was an introvert’s introvert. Looking back, I can say with confidence that the die was cast as I walked out the door that night; it just took a while for me to realize it.

(c) A college prof sealed the deal. Fifteen semester hours short of a degree, I had dropped out of college. After working at my Dad’s service station for about nine months I decided to get back into college (Cameron University). At the time, I didn’t have a clue what I was going to pursue for my degree, much less my life. My first class back was Fundamentals of Speech, my first exposure to any training in public speaking. The last day of the course, the prof – Dr. Tony Allison, a deacon in one of the Churches of Christ in Lawton, OK – called me into his office to talk privately. He had two things to say to me. First, he asked me what I planned to do with my life. I told him I hadn’t a clue. Second, he simply said: “Have you considered preaching? You’ve got what it takes. I think you should.” I was consumed with much thought and fervent prayer the weeks following. I went on to major in Speech and was preaching every week for well over a year before graduation. All because a brother in Christ, a prof of mine, took an interest in me and offered me his measured guidance.

Now I say all of that to say three things. First, for whatever reason(s), sometimes a sermon falls flat. Not to worry: someone just might get the idea to take up preaching as a result! Trust me, this is no small source of consolation to me whenever I feel upon exiting the pulpit on any given Sunday that I “just didn’t bring my ‘A’ game” that day and would rather just go crawl under a big rock and die. Second, never underestimate the power of little old blue-haired church ladies’ prayers. God’s answers to them just might be what keeps things going! Third, an individualized, sincere question from a righteous person coupled with a thoughtful, considered suggestion, is powerful and effective.

Second: what most helped my development as a young man in Christ?

(a) Middle-aged folks and old timers in the church – not my peers – who took the time and made the effort to learn the name of a faceless teen who suddenly started showing up at church. They went out of their way to get to know me, befriend me, and deliberately be a source of endless encouragement to me when I had little to offer them in return aside from a smile and a simple pleasantry.

(b) Preachers who allowed me to simply be in their presence, ask them questions, hitched me up to responsibilities, gave me opportunities, put up with my mistakes, and/or who simply had a listening ear for a clueless teen seeking company and direction were invaluable. I will forever be in tremendous debt to men of God like Steve Bracken, Duard Givens, Robert Gregg, Jerry Hurst, Stanley Sayers, and Clayton Waller.

Preaching. It’s something that at one time in life I would ‘ve laughed in your face at the mere suggestion of it. Now it’s something I can’t imagine not doing. I wouldn’t ever want it any other way.

every time I preach …

 

Recently, I asked a large group of preachers how they would complete this sentence: “Every time I preach I _____.” It was an attempt to let us all overhear what we’re intentional about, as well as what else is going through our head, every time we deliver a sermon.

Following are two versions of how I completed the sentence. Obviously, the “long answer” version could be greatly expanded and also assumes the content, first and foremost, of the “short answer.”

Every time I preach I …

Short answer:

  • trust God will work through me.
  • believe God will work in spite of me.
  • have faith God is working on me.

Long answer:

  • try to give to all: skeptics & believers, seekers & wanderers, friends & enemies, men and women, rich & the poor, young & old.
  • can point to and reveal only the tip of the iceberg of what the sermon preparation has done for me and to me.
  • feed on seeing people hunger for God and actively work with me in that before, during, and after the sermon.
  • find fuel in recognizing those who are giving me clear encouragement to speak God’s will as I grasp it.
  • strive to do the best I can with what I’ve been able to contribute the preceding week to this moment.
  • am sensitive to the fact that people can’t hear a word of what I’m saying unless I’m living it myself.
  • deeply grieve over those who have obviously mentally checked out of what’s happening.
  • pray God will use this moment to bless someone powerfully and all of us in some way.
  • forget some of what I planned to say and insert things I hadn’t planned on saying.
  • want to magnify God in the name of Christ through the power of his Spirit.
  • feel inadequate to the task, being simultaneously broken and built up.
  • rejoice at the sound of crying babies, for it means youth are present.
  • hope for no needless distractions or attention-breaking happenings.
  • stay keenly aware of the quality of the content and the connection.
  • thank God for this tremendous responsibility and privilege.
  • regret having said something or having said it in some way.
  • yearn for prayers to be offered up for myself and for all.
  • will unintentionally leave some things unclear to some.
  • intend to represent our Lord the best way I know how.
  • wish I could do it without having to wear a necktie.
  • don’t know everywhere the sermon will go.
  • endeavor to deliver “fresh bread.”
  • thank God it’s not about me.
  • know I will make mistakes.
  • can’t wait to do it again.
  • sweat like a race horse.
  • seek to just be myself.
  • ain’t got not spit.
  • tremble.
  • pray.

7 reasons why I preach from a variety of Bible translations

As I typically put up on projection via Powerpoint the majority of Scripture texts I use in a given sermon, I often, and quite deliberately, make use of a variety of English Bible translations. Though I might reference a dozen or more texts, they might appear from as many as a half a dozen different versions.

Have you ever wondered why I consider this a good thing to do? I think this approach offers a host of pluses, but let me share just a few of them with you here, in no particular order.

1. It “shows my work” to the people and thereby, ups my credibility. In effect, it silently says to those assembled: “Yes church, I’ve done my homework on this passage and looked at it through several different lenses. I’m not flying by the seat of my pants here. You can take this to the bank.”

2. It exposes people to matters many of them would otherwise never be exposed to in Bible study. It asks: “Did you know there’s a whole new world of understanding out there in a different cover? There’s much to learn from actually studying your Bible.”

3. It models good study habits to the church that they can imitate. It tells people: “Here’s a way you can study, not just read your Bible, and you’re already well equipped to do it. It’s as simple as closely comparing the wording of a text in several different translations and pondering what they have in common and how they differ.”

4. It does healthy pastoral work by allowing the pulpit to reflect the variety of renderings used by the variety of people in a flock. For example, it subtly says to that singular user of the Good News for Modern Man, “No, I haven’t forgotten you; we have this in common.”

5. It allows me to utilize the rendering I sense does the best job of conveying the text’s meaning rather than simply using a version because a lot of people do and then having to explain that version’s quirkiness. Think about how many times you’ve had to say something like this: “The rendering of the _____ is unfortunate here because …” Using a variety of translations lets you get back to wrestling the demons that needs to be grappled with, not the translation demons.

6. It injects just another little bit of variety into a sermon and that helps people remain attentive, thinking, and engaged. You’ll know that’s happening when someone comes up to you afterward and says something like: “Hey preacher, I noticed the ____ uses the word ___ and my version, the ____ uses the word ____ and that got me to thinking …”).

7. It helps put the emphasis where it belongs, on the word of God and not on any one “brand” of God’s word. After all, what we’re about is not about a particular version of the Bible, but the “Thus saith the Lord,” right?”

we don’t preach about ourselves

We don’t preach about ourselves. Instead, we preach about Jesus Christ as Lord, and we describe ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. (2 Corinthians 4:5 CEB)

I occasionally encounter a current of thought that runs through some in the Christian community that a preacher should rarely, if ever, refer to himself in a sermon. They feel that if the preacher does so he is, at best, wasting precious time, and quite likely, even worse, distracting or detracting from the good news about Jesus Christ, perhaps even destroying it.

Paul and I beg to differ with such thinking and we say together that such reasoning is misguided. Seriously so, in fact. And how do I know Paul and I are on the same page? The very verse under consideration, and all of its context, tells us so.

For the preacher is an integral part of the message that is being preached. That is, who is speaking greatly affects what is being said and how it can be construed. What if a minister shared the good news and the world knew the integrity of his life was full of holes? We all know the result. No, we all believe the preacher and the message cannot be entirely separated.

And Paul says so here. The “we” in the verse is an “editorial” we; Paul is referring directly to himself. And in so doing who and what does he preach? “… we preach about Jesus Christ as Lord …” But how does he do so? By many means, not the least of which is one means revealed by the remainder of the verse: “… we describe ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”

To preach Christ as Lord and to speak of yourself as a slave to God’s people is not to speak of two different things, but of one thing, the revelation and application of Christ’s gospel. Paul is saying, “I preach Jesus is Lord and I do so with my lips and my life. Hear and see the gospel from me, in me, and through me. Jesus is Lord and so I serve him and his people.”

Literally all of Paul’s letters are proclamations of the gospel of Christ. Now with that thought in mind, pause for a minute and ask yourself how often Paul speaks of himself in his letters. Frequently! Just as we saw in this verse and as is made quite clear in some of the verses that immediately follow. Take for example this paragraph and listen to how Paul plainly, forcefully talks about himself with Christ as end in view:

We often suffer, but we are never crushed. Even when we don’t know what to do, we never give up. In times of trouble, God is with us, and when we are knocked down, we get up again. We face death every day because of Jesus. Our bodies show what his death was like, so that his life can also be seen in us. This means that death is working in us, but life is working in you. (2 Corinthians 4:8-12 CEB)

So if Paul isn’t at all opposed to a preacher using himself as an illustration or referencing himself in the course of a gospel message, what does he mean when he says, “We don’t preach about ourselves”? He is simply saying that Jesus Christ, not himself, is the end in view. He is saying that God’s gospel points to Jesus, not the preacher, in terms of its origin and objective, method and means.

Paul is saying: “The gospel is not about me, but is all about Jesus. It comes to me from him and it goes out through me by him, but it is about him. Look to me and listen to me, but as you do so, understand that I am simply pointing you in every way I can to him who wants to have his way with all of us. The message I preach is not about me, though it makes me who I am. The gospel is about him who is Lord and what being “Lord” means to us all. Hear the gospel through me and see the good news in me.”

Heavenly Father, as a preacher of your good news, make me into an ever clear and obvious signpost pointing to your Son. Work through me and when necessary, despite me, to that end. Make my life a sermon hard to ignore and may my words ever declare him who will not be ignored. For it is in his name I pray for myself. Amen.