Monday, August 30, 2010

Lesser Things

Today was one of those days that I needed a word from the Lord all day. Fortunately, in his sovereignty, God spoke to me last night through Jeremiah 12:5. “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?” I sensed him calling me away from all the things that make me bitter—the frustration of ministry, the unfairness of life, so on and so forth. That, he said, is a race against men. Those are lesser things.

As it turns out, this was precisely the word I needed this morning. I got some disappointing news bright and early today, and rather than devolving into a pattern of bitterness and anger, God lifted me up and sustained me with this thought: Run with horses.

Running with horses means forgetting the lesser things of life. It means not being dragged down by disappointment, frustrating circumstances, or shattered dreams. The worries and anxieties of suburban, American life is a race against men. It’s a race that God has not equipped me or called me to run. My race is with the horses, a race I can’t possibly hope to win without his help.

Running with horses demands that I lift my eyes to Jesus. It requires me to get my chin off my chest, to stop feeling sorry for myself, and to recognize that what God has called me to is not, nor ever will be, easy. This race demands more from me than I can possibly hope to muster. It immediately takes me to the end of myself, to the point at which God must provide the energy, strength, wisdom, and courage to persevere. It is a call to the focused pursuit of excellence in all areas of life.

Our culture teaches us to pursue the lesser things—money, fame, fulfillment, and success. American culture, including many evangelical pastors and authors, tells us that God wants us to be satisfied in the lesser things. All too often, the church tells us to run against men.

But the lesser things don’t matter. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well.” In other words, run with horses, and the lesser things will take care of themselves.

Lift up your eyes. Get your chin off your chest. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You won’t find God in the rat race. You won’t find God amongst the lesser things. No, God is out in the wild, running with the horses. 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Run With Horses

Of all the characters in the Bible, I think the one I most identify with is Jeremiah. He was a malcontent. He complained to God all the time. His melancholy weighs heavily on his writings. And yet he was passionate, and the word of God was like a fire inside of him, burning him up from within. He tried to shut up. He tried to walk away. He tried to get out. But he couldn't. He was compelled by the word that God had planted deep within his soul.

God has a peculiar way of speaking to people like that: He asks them questions. I don't mean silly little questions like, "Hey, how's the weather down there?" I mean incisive, stop-you-in-your-tracks-and-shut-you-up kind of questions. Sometimes that's the only way to get us to stop complaining or feeling sorry for ourselves.

In chapter 12, Jeremiah offers this complaint to God:

1 You are always righteous, O LORD,
     when I bring a case before you.
     Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
     Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
     Why do all the faithless live at ease?

2 You have planted them, and they have taken root;
     they grow and bear fruit.
     You are always on their lips
     but far from their hearts.

3 Yet you know me, O LORD;
     you see me and test my thoughts about you.
     Drag them off like sheep to be butchered!
     Set them apart for the day of slaughter!

4 How long will the land lie parched
     and the grass in every field be withered?
     Because those who live in it are wicked,
     the animals and birds have perished.
     Moreover, the people are saying,
     "He will not see what happens to us."

Jeremiah's all upset because these wicked folks, who only pay lip service to God, are living great lives. They don't have any problem paying the bills! They've got the 3,000 square foot house in the safe neighborhood. Their kids get to go to private school. They drive the best cars. They've got all the new toys. Meanwhile, I'm stuck back here in the ghetto! There's crime all over the place. My kids go to a bad school. My car's held together with duct tape. But you know me! You know I'm legit! I'm true. I don't mess around with you. I live it, I believe it, I say it and I pray it. Oh I know you're righteous God, but you need a little help with your justice.

Have you been there? Feeling sorry for yourself because your life is hard? Because you're poor? Because God seems to be coming through for everyone but you? I've been there. That's an easy place for me to get to, let me tell you.

What do you expect God to say to you in those times? "Don't worry, just be patient. I've got it all taken care of. I'm sovereign. I'm in control. I own the cattle on a thousand hills. I've never seen the righteous forsaken, or their children begging bread. I will provide for all your needs." All good things, right? Comfort in our time of need. But I bet you'd never expect to hear God say this:

5 "If you have raced with men on foot
     and they have worn you out,
     how can you compete with horses?
     If you stumble in safe country,
     how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?

And all God's children said, "Oh, snap!" Whenever you complain to God, get ready for him to ask you a question that will absolutely tear you in half. And yet, within the verbal beatdown, God is calling Jeremiah (and you and me) to something higher--something far greater than this present rat race.

You see, Jeremiah had been running the wrong race. He looked around him and saw other men, mere humans, and they were leaving him in their dust. But God did not call Jeremiah to run against men. He called him to run against horses.

If you're bitter, or frustrated, or disappointed with God that your life has not turned out like you thought, it's because you're running in the wrong race. God hasn't called you to run against men. God has called you to run with horses. He has called you to a far more difficult task--an impossible race. He has given you something to do that you can't possibly do on your own. If you think the task God has given you is manageable, then you're not thinking big enough. You're supposed to run with horses. And win.

Here's the gameplan. (And this one has to come from Isaiah, because Jeremiah is just too cynical to ever think like this.)

Those who hope in the LORD
     will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
     they will run and not grow weary,
     they will walk and not be faint.

Put your hope in the Lord, and only in the Lord, and you can run with the horses. Don't put your hope in the things you want, even the good things. Don't hope for a better life. Don't hope for a more effective ministry. Don't hope for more money. Don't even hope for justice! If you hope for anything but God you'll be running the wrong race, and you will get worn out. But if you put your hope in God, and only in God, not even the horses will be able to keep up with you.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Book Review: God Is Great, God Is Good

I used to make mix tapes when I was a kid. I would put together a list of all my favorite songs and painstakingly record them to a cassette tape. That’s right, a cassette tape. I even went so far as to design cover art for the tapes. Don’t hate.

God is Great, God is Good (edited by William Lane Craig & Chad Meister) is kind of like a mix tape. It’s a collection of essays from many of today’s leading evangelical scholars, including Alister McGrath, Scot McKnight, Gary Habermas, John Polkinghorne, and others. The book is like a mix tape in that it gets the best that these authors have to offer, each writing within their respective sweet spots. (Wow, talk about mixing my metaphors!)

The subtitle of the book is, “Why Believing in God Is Reasonable and Responsible”. This is a book of apologetics written in response to the New Atheists—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, et al. William Lane Craig opens the book by lobbing an attack against Dawkins’s arguments that God cannot exist, and the rest of the authors follow suit with short, succinct apologies for various elements of Christian faith.

Due to the nature of the book, most of the chapters are too short to present a sustained argument. This is the sort of work that hits the highlights, and then points you to further resources for more detailed information. This approach is perhaps most useful for Christians who have occasional interactions with skeptics because it will provide them with basic answers to some of the questions that have been made popular by the writings of the New Atheists. While not making any comment on the quality of the work, I would call this a primer on apologetics, not a textbook.

Some of the most rewarding material comes at the end, where the reader will find an interview between Gary Habermas and noted atheist-become-theist scholar Antony Flew. Flew was one of the most influential atheist voices in the world in the last half of the twentieth century, and his conversion to theism in 2004 caused quite a scandal. While, to my knowledge, he never became a Christian before his death in April, his “leap of faith” was certainly a dramatic and powerful conversion.

Also at the end of the book is an Appendix written by Alvin Plantinga, where he reviews Dawkins’s book “The God Delusion”. If you don’t know who Alvin Plantinga is, you would do well to look him up. Have you ever heard someone say something like, “If God exists, and he is good, why is there evil in the world”? This is often assumed to be an ironclad proof that God does not exist. Well, not anymore, thanks to Alvin Plantinga. I won’t go into details here, but almost no serious philosophers consider the problem of evil to be a legitimate critique of the existence of God.

If you’re interested in apologetics, especially in conversing with people who are influenced by the New Atheists, then you should definitely pick up this book. You’ll find that the arguments of Dawkins, et. al., are really not so devastating as they seem. If you’re really serious about Christian apologetics, then you’ve probably already read everything in this book. No need to pick up the mix tape when you already know the albums.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Your Hope

Last night, after everyone from life group had left, Breena and I sat down to pray. Sometimes, before I can pray, I need to read some Scripture because I don't really have the words, and praying God's word back to him helps me to find those words. So I opened to Isaiah 40, and started in verse 21:
Do you not know?
     Have you not heard?
...Those who hope in YHWH
     will renew their strength
They will soar on wings like eagles;
     they will run and not grow weary,
     they will walk and not be faint.
It was that bit about hope that struck me most. It occurred to me that I had been hoping in the false idols that Tim Keller had written about in his book Counterfeit Gods, as well as in some idols that are particular to me. I spend a lot of time thinking about the future, hoping for a better life for me and my family. I create films in my imagination of the life I really want.

It occurred to me, as I sat and prayed with my wife, that my hope is not in YHWH. My hope is in making enough money to provide a good life for us. My hope is in finding a ministry job that truly satisfies me. My hope is in having a more structured, organized life so that I can do all the things I want to do. All of these are good things--things that, I believe, God wants for me--but they cannot be the object of my hope. That must be God, and God alone. These things had become idols in my heart because I directed my hope toward them and not toward God.

Our prayer last night was a prayer of repentance, of unmasking our idols and removing them from the throne of our hearts. The challenge is to continue in this new way of hoping, of rewriting the films of my imagination. I'll know that my hope is truly in God alone when I have stopped daydreaming about a better life and financial blessing, and started to imagine a future in which God is most fully glorified through my life.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Naming Your Idols

I just finished reading Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller, which is an excellent series of sermons-turned-book-chapters about idolatry. I'll post a review for the book next Friday. (This week I'm posting a review of God is Great, God is Good, which I promised would come two weeks ago.) But I wanted to do more than just review the book here, because idolatry is a core issue for all of us, and yet most of us don't even think about the idols that we worship. We think that sort of thing only happens in primitive cultures that aren't as technologically advanced and civilized as our own. And yet...

Love. Money. Power. Success. These are the four idols Tim Keller assails in his book. You could probably add to that list Fame, Pleasure, Attention, and so on and so forth; but the four that Keller addresses are as good a place as any to start.

An idol, he says, is something you can't live without. It's something that you can't stop thinking about, that you obsess over and would be devastated if you lost it. It's something by which you identify yourself. Without this thing, you would not be a complete person...or so you think. Idols promise what only God can deliver. Idols take up residence in a place that rightfully belongs to God--the throne of our hearts. Idols usurp the place of God, and steal the blessings that he longs to pour out onto our lives. They promise to give us so much, but they are nothing but thieves.

Destroying the idols in your life begins by naming them. Naming your idols means unmasking them, bringing them out into the light where they are exposed to the heat of the judgment of God. It means exposing them for what they really are. When you name your idols you come fully present to the reality that what sits on the throne of your heart is not Jesus. It is something that goes by another name, something that doesn't belong there.

I was walking into work yesterday thinking about the idols in my life. I wanted to name them, to expose them so that I could conquer them and put them back into their proper place. (So often an idol is a good thing that has been given primacy in your heart.) I thought about the things my heart desires when I get tired: lying on the couch, watching TV, relaxing, eating whatever food I want, drinking a Coke (or a Throwback Pepsi made with real sugar--mmmhmmm!), just taking it easy. Then it hit me: My idol is Ease! I want a life of ease, of comfort, of painless existence and the absence of hard work. Something clicked inside of me as soon as my idol had been named. I knew that Ease sat upon the throne of my heart--the seat that only Jesus Christ could rightfully claim as his own.

The thing about it is that Ease is not necessarily a bad thing. God has a different name for it: He calls it Rest, or Sabbath. Rest is my eternal destiny. Sabbath is ordained to occur once a week. But I want a lifestyle of Ease, devoid of difficulty and drudgery. So I let projects pile up. I procrastinate. Certain things don't get done in my never ending quest for Ease. But this is not the Rest that God wants to provide me. Ease comes with guilt, that nagging feeling that you should be doing something instead of nothing. Rest from God comes with the peace of mind that you have worked hard and the invitation to enjoy some recreation. As an idol, Ease sucks. As a gift from God, Rest is glorious.

What are your idols? What can you not imagine living without? What do you fixate on? What does your heart want most of all? Naming your idol is the first step in giving the throne of your heart back to Jesus Christ, the King of All Creation.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Message

I must get this e-mail once a week. It comes from a local clinic that helps women in difficult pregnancies find alternatives to abortion. The e-mail I get is a prayer list, asking me to pray for these anonymous women and their unborn children. This week there were 14 women on the list, which is pretty much typical. As I scanned the requests it occurred to me that each of these women represented a human being who could be dead within two months. All of them are considering abortion, and to carry through on that choice would mean that their unborn babies would die.

What would you do if you received a message telling you that 14 people you do not know and will never meet could very well be dead before Christmas? I don't know that I've ever thought of it like that before. I stopped in my tracks. I was overwhelmed. Here were 14 real human beings, fully alive, unknowingly facing the prospect of being killed in a matter of weeks; and that by the choice of the only person they've ever known.

I don't know how anything has ever been more unjust than abortion. I really don't. It used to make me angry, but now I just get sad. I'm sad that evangelicalism is trending away from this issue. I'm sad that something so clearly immoral has become so irreparably political. I'm sad that a lot of humans never get the chance to know what it's like to breathe the air. I'm praying for these 14, that they will live to, quite literally, see the light of day.

Most Holy God, you are the Author and Creator of life. We bear your image by the mere fact of our existence. You have established the order of this world, including the method of procreation. You have knit each of us together in the wombs of our mothers. But millions are the souls who cry out from under your altar--the weakest of the weak, the smallest of the small, the truly forgotten and discarded. Their blood testifies against us. Bring justice for them, O God. Bring justice for the very least of all. Cause your Church to rise and remember, to engage and throw down this greatest of all evils. Tear down the idols of our hearts, and take your rightful place on your throne once again, O Great King of all. Amen.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bedtime Stories

One of the best things I do with my kids (Cyrus & Eisley, at least) is tell them a bedtime story. I started doing this after watching that Adam Sandler movie, hoping that everything in the story would come true in real life. Didn't happen.

So I stopped telling Cyrus the bedtime story where a million dollars just magically appears on our doorstep and I started telling him more adventurous tales, like one where he kills a dragon. But when Eisley started sharing a room with him, we had to change the story up a bit because scary dragons totally freaked her out. So the sinister dragon became a friendly dragon. Here's the story I tell my kids every night.


Once upon a time, there was a great big castle made out of bricks that were painted pink and purple (for Eisley) and red and brown (for Cyrus). In the castle there lived a beautiful princess, and her name was Princess Eisley! There was also a strong prince named Prince Cyrus! And they had a courageous brother named Prince Ezekiel. They also had a daddy and mommy, who were the King and Queen of the castle.

One day the whole family was playing out in the courtyard, when...all of a sudden...from out of nowhere, came a BIG, SCARY DRAGON!!!! And he swooped down out of the sky and grabbed mommy and daddy in his clutches, and flew back to the top of the mountain!

"Nooooooooooooooooo!" screamed Princess Eisley. "What are we going to do?"

"We have to go rescue them," said Prince Cyrus. So they mounted their horses and rode to the top of the mountain. [Insert horse trotting sound effects from Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail.]

Finally they got to the top of the mountain. "Dragon," they said, "you let our mommy and daddy go!"

"Muhahahahaha!" laughed the dragon [in a very deep voice with a slight British accent]. "There must be some mistake. I am a friendly dragon, and I am a very close associate of your mommy and daddy. I brought them here so that they could select gifts for you children from my treasuries of gold and silver. Muhahahaha!"

Then they all shared a good laugh. And they climbed onto the back of the dragon and flew down to the castle, where they all enjoyed a wonderful dinner of mashed potatoes and roast.

The end.


That's the story my kids get every night. They've memorized it by now. They know when to finish my sentences and when to scream. Eisley knows that, even though the dragon sounds scary at first, he's really friendly every time.

Good night!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Five Years

On this day, five years ago, I married the most beautiful woman on the face of the earth. The day is and always has been a blur to me, but I know that she remembers every detail. All I can remember is that it was raining in the early morning hours, but by the time the wedding started the sun had come out and a gorgeous day was breaking upon us.

I wept as she came down the aisle. That, of course, I remember. Before the ceremony I wondered if that would happen, assuming that it probably wouldn’t. But it did, and I made the ugly cry face as she glided down the walkway, radiating beauty for a thousand miles all around.

Since the day we swore to our friends, family, each other, and to God that we will always love one another, our life has been a whirlwind. We’ve averaged a move every 12 months, and a baby every 20. There have been sweet days, bitter days, and a whole lot of days that were a mixture of both. But through it all our bond of love has only grown stronger. I love her now far more than I did the day she made me cry exactly five years ago.

Breena has been everything I could have hoped for in a wife, and more. I’ve seen her at her best and her worst, and she’s certainly seen me at mine. We’ve walked many a path together. She has been with me as I’ve walked the path of vocational frustration and despair. She has always been my biggest fan and supporter. Her trust and belief in me has never waned or faltered. Even when I doubted myself and God’s call on my life, she did not. She never gave up hope in God’s plan for me and our family. And for that I am grateful beyond words.

I have walked with her along her paths of loneliness, which are especially hard for someone so extroverted. I’ve seen her despair of ever making friends, and I have seen her heart come alive as she plays hostess to wonderful companions in our home, friends far more amazing than we could have ever dreamed of having. We have walked healing paths together, and I have seen God’s hand at work in the awakening of her soul. We have walked patient paths together, reminding one another that it is God who leads us, not us who lead God. We may have run ahead, but he has waited for us. We have called out to him, and he has answered us.

The story of the first five years of our marriage is one of trial and error, of glory and chaos, of realized hope and hope deferred. We have learned when to talk and when to be silent. We have learned how to fight and how to forgive. We have learned that living with another human being to whom you are totally committed isn’t easy, but it’s well worth fighting for. Our story is a tale of exhausted joy and overwhelmed bliss. Every day there is a new lesson to learn, and an old one to relearn. We are not bored. We are very greatly loved.

Blessings come in many shapes and sizes. Ours have names. Cyrus. Eisley. Ezekiel. What wonderful children God has given us! Parenting is the ultimate humiliation, but I pray that these three beauties would find their place in our life and in this world, and that we can someday send them out with confidence that we have raised young men and a woman who know their names and the name of their God.

In some ways our life has been incredibly easy. Our children are healthy. We haven’t known infertility. In other ways our life has been very difficult, like one long trial full of wandering and waiting. But, just as the rain can be both a trial and a refreshment, I believe the early morning of our marriage is passing, and the sun is coming out from behind the gray clouds. I don’t know what lies in either the near or distant future, but I know that we will always walk these roads together. The journey, after all, is the destination, because the one with whom I travel is the one who feels most like home. Wherever God takes us we will always be at home with each other. I love you Breena Ra’cee. Here’s to a glorious mid morning!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Preaching Essentials: The Spirit

Nothing is more important to the preacher, or to any Christian, than the Holy Spirit. He is "God with us". The Spirit empowers us to live godly lives full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The Spirit sets us free from our slavery to sin. He reminds us of the words of Jesus, and helps us to walk humbly and obediently with the Triune God.

For preachers, the Spirit empowers us when we study and when we preach. He is with us through the whole process of sermon preparation. Some people have this understanding of the Spirit that he doesn't show up until church starts. That's ridiculous. He is with us, always. And he wants to be included in everything we do, especially when it relates to God's word.

Do you pray when you sit down to study the Scriptures? Do you invite the Spirit to guide you as you do you exegesis? Do you ask him to lead you as you let ideas ruminate in your mind, or write them down on paper, or type them into the computer? Do you surrender your words, and your agenda, to the Spirit of God, praying that you would have the strength to take up his words and his agenda?

There have been times when I've done a lot of work on a sermon, even typed several pages of it, but then I got a sense that it wasn't right. It wasn't what the Spirit wanted to communicate to the church. There have even been times when I've tossed the whole sermon out as I was walking up to the pulpit. That's always interesting. While that sort of thing is fine to do from time to time, I don't want to live in that place. I want to make sure I'm actively and intentionally inviting the Holy Spirit into the sermon process from the very beginning. Preaching without the presence and power of the Holy Spirit is nothing more than public communication.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Parable of the Roots

There are good trees and bad trees. The bad trees are nothing more than overgrown weeds. They seek to strangle the good trees, and steal all of the nutrients from the soil. Unlike the good trees, they don't add anything of value to the ecosystem. They are thieves. But the roots of the bad trees run just as deep as the roots of the good trees.

It's not enough to simply cut off the bad tree at the trunk. You have not killed it. You have only made it smaller, less of an eyesore. In order to kill the bad tree, you have to remove it by its roots. You have to destroy that which feeds it. This is, by far, the more difficult task. Killing the bad tree means digging, cutting, pulling, twisting, sweating, bleeding. It is a job that requires friends. You cannot do it alone.

If you do not remove the bad tree by its roots, it will choke out all of the good trees. They will die from beneath the surface, becoming only hollow trunks, shadows of their former selves. And when the storm comes, the good trees will fall to the ground, and all the dirt will be swept away revealing only the mangled, complex, horrifying, untouched root system of the bad tree.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Preaching Essentials: Exegesis

Exegesis is another one of those big, fancy words that seminary types (like me!) like to throw around to make themselves sound smart. It literally means “to guide out of”, and we use it to mean the process of finding the original, intended meaning of a passage of Scripture. When we exegete, we’re trying to pull the meaning out of the text, rather than reading our meaning into it.

This process is hard work, but you cannot take short cuts. This is, after all, the Word of God we’re dealing with here. You kinda want to be sure you’re getting it right. It’s truly amazing where good exegesis will take you as you prepare your sermon.

Several years ago I taught basic exegetical practices to a small group of guys, and then asked them to prepare a short sermon on their favorite Bible passage. The results were amazing! Each one of those guys delivered rock-solid Bible messages, complete with sound interpretation and meaningful, Spirit-led application. It was an eye-opening experience for me because I saw, first hand, the power of learning how to study the Bible well.

As you prepare your sermon, take your time with the text. Don’t rush the process. Invite the Spirit to be with you in your time of study. If you don’t know how to do proper exegesis, pick up one of these books:

Grasping God’s Word | Duvall & Hays
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth | Fee & Stuart

I urge you, as a preacher of God’s Word, to let God speak through his Word. Commit yourself to treating the Bible with integrity and honor, to say what it says, and not what you want it to say or think it should say. The Bible really does cut to the heart, and it has the power to transform lives. By doing proper exegesis, you can unleash that power.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Preaching Essentials: The Bullet

It used to be that a good sermon had anywhere from three to five points, and if the sermon was especially great, those points all started with the same letter, or rhymed, or something else totally rockin’ like that. But I’m convinced that style of preaching doesn’t fly with post-modern audiences. It feels forced and artificial.

Today, the best sermons have one point. You say one thing, and say it well. You exegete the text not so that you can make a series of points, but so that you can deliver the overall meaning, and then apply that to the specific circumstances of your congregation.

One of the images that helps me as I prepare my sermons is a bullet. Bullets are streamlined, smooth, and come to a lethal point. They find a single target and take it down. The opposite of a bullet is buckshot. Buckshot spreads out all over the place and doesn’t have that laser-like focus on a single target. Preaching with buckshot is scattered, hard to follow, and overall ineffective. You want to preach with a bullet.

I know the violent language may turn some people off, but one way to think about preaching is as an assassin of the “old man”. Paul talks about crucifying, with Jesus, the person we used to be. Our old ways of living and being must die. Preaching the word of God is a kind of killing (and, hopefully, a kind of raising to new life in Christ). Thinking about your sermon as a bullet may seem morbid and violent to you, but preaching is, and should be, an act of violence against the kingdom of darkness and the ways in which we still obey that darkness. You’re not going to sweet talk anybody out of hell. You’ll need bullets. Lots of them.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Preaching Essentials: Creativity

One of the things that evangelicals are learning to do really, really well is get creative with their preaching. Preachers are bringing massive props, and even live animals, on stage to help drive home the point of their message. I even heard of a pastor who tried to get a tank (army style) on stage one Sunday. No word yet on whether or not the baptismal was blown to smithereens.

The use of video has grown immensely, as well. Playing video clips from popular films used to be cutting edge, but now preachers are developing their own film houses, a la Rob Bell and nooma, to communicate the gospel. Speaking as a video producer and a preacher, this is an encouraging trend, particularly given the high-quality of some of these productions.

But most preachers can't afford their own film crew, an army tank, or a petting zoo for a Sunday morning sermon. There are still ways to be creative, however. Remember, the point of creativity is memorability, and the point of memorability is transformation. Our aim, as preachers, is for God to transform those who listen to us (including ourselves). So your aim, as a preacher, should be to communicate God's word in such a way that it sticks with those who hear you.

This can take a lot of different forms. You can use powerful imagery or good design to support your message. You can try your hand at creative writing or poetry. (Hey, Jesus told parables that he probably made up on the spot! Why shouldn't you?) Think critically about the way that you make your point. The shorter, the better. And the more audacious, the more memorable. But please, whatever you do, never, ever alliterate. Alliteration is dangerous. Alliteration is devastating. Alliteration is dead.

Creativity doesn't have to cost money. The best artists (and preachers are artists) are those who pull their work together through resourcefulness and determination. They pour their souls into their work, not their (or their church's) bank account. Creativity is about remembering. Remembering is about transformation. Transformation is what Jesus is up to on this planet.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Preaching Essentials: Honesty

It seems silly to even have to mention it, but honesty is vital to the task of preaching. It should go without saying that truthfulness is fundamental to the proclamation of God’s truth. And yet, preachers are so often tempted to fudge the details of their illustrations, read their own thoughts into the Scripture at hand, or out and out plagiarize another pastor’s sermon.

While I’ve never thought about plagiarizing another sermon, I have been tempted to manipulate the Bible to make it say what I want it to say. My conscience has been clear thus far; that is until my last sermon. I was given the assignment of preaching on bad choices from the book of Proverbs, and the texts that I wanted to use had already been claimed in the sermon series. So I took the best of what was left (for my topic) and made up the rest. Sort of. I developed a framework for the sermon and overlaid it on the whole book of Proverbs, rather than working the other way around. In other words, I started with the sermon instead of the text. The framework, rather than the Bible, dictated where the sermon went.

Although my conscience wasn't overburdened with the sermon, and what I did probably fell into a gray area of creative license (maybe), it is still a practice I don't want to turn into a habit. While I can justify what I did (I was given the topic not a text; nothing I said was unbiblical; you could make a case that my framework is mostly derived from the text), it is a path I don’t want to walk down. True honesty is staying faithful to the text. God can speak for himself, and God’s word can speak for itself. Neither need my fancy-pants preacher’s tricks to communicate the message.

The core temptation of the preacher is to be the man or woman who delivers the message that saves the world. We tend to have overblown messiah complexes, even while we tell people about the true Messiah. This creates pressure (mostly internally, but sometimes externally as well) to write and deliver better and better sermons. This pressure can leave us looking for shortcuts, which so often means falsifying stories, playing fast and loose with the biblical text, or stealing another sermon.

But communicating God’s word demands honesty. How can you lie and preach the gospel at the same time? Haven’t you become horribly corrupt? How can God’s ends be served by your Satanic means? Deception is the native tongue of hell. Are we to communicate the glories of heaven in the diabolical language of hell? Flatly, no. Beware of the temptation to exaggerate and falsify stories. If the text doesn’t fit what you want to say, change what you want to say to fit the text. If you use another sermon or an extended quote, give credit where credit is due. God’s word is truth, and he will not abide it to be spun with lies.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Preaching Essentials: Humility

Seeing how this is a blog by a preacher (sometimes, anyway), I thought I should occasionally talk about preaching. So this is the first in a series of posts called "Preaching Essentials". As I've studied preaching in seminary, listened to great preachers, and done a little bit of it myself, I've developed a particular philosophy of preaching. These posts will be my attempt to communicate that philosophy to those of you who are interested, which is probably a small percentage of you. Hopefully, if you are a preacher, you'll find something of value here.

Now to it.

Humility is the most important thing in the world, and therefore it is the most important thing in preaching. The preacher must be humble. There is nothing less tolerable and more awkward than an arrogant preacher. Oh, let me guess, you're the hero of this story, too? Ah, another personal illustration of how godly you are! Let me give you some practical advice: Never tell a story that makes you look good.

You need to understand that the congregation assumes, simply by the mere fact that you are preaching, that you are more mature, more spiritual, and just plain better than they are. They expect you to have wisdom they need. They anticipate that you will say something that will change their lives. They are willing to sit, in silence, and listen to you talk without interruption for up to an hour. You, preacher, are highly-esteemed and wield a power that is unparalleled by any other vocation in our soundbite, jump cut, 140-character tweet culture. If you do not come to the task with humility, therefore, it will swallow you whole.

The preacher's responsibility is to step down from the pedestal upon which he has been placed by the congregation. God, alone, can be lifted up. You cannot take his place. If you stand too tall you will block the congregation's view of the risen Christ. So how can a preacher stay humble?

Don't Take Yourself Too Seriously

Your task is important, but you are not. Don't get caught up thinking that you're going to save the world through your preaching. That's ridiculous. God's going to save the world through his Son, you just get to talk about him.

Be Self-Effacing

Make fun of yourself. Be open about your shortcomings. Tell stories about how you've gotten it wrong. Name your sin before the congregation. Too many preachers think they have to maintain some kind of image in the society of their church, but that kind of image is from the devil. The only image you need to maintain is the broken-but-being-repaired image of God you carry with you everywhere.

Praise Others

If you're going to share a personal illustration, make sure it's one where someone else in your church comes out looking good. Heap praise on other staff members. If you share a pulpit, talk up the other preachers on your team. And, most importantly, mean it.

Be Respectful of Opposing Viewpoints

Who knows, but maybe you're not nearly as right as you think you are. Don't let arrogance seep out of your soul by trashing someone else's viewpoint (or, even worse, someone else's humanity). Talk about it as though you were having a respectful dialogue with someone with whom you're trying to share Jesus.

I'm sure there are other things we could do to demonstrate humility in the pulpit. Maybe you've seen a good or bad example of this: please leave it in the comments so we can all learn. Remember, whether you're a preacher or a CEO or a college student, humility is the most important thing in the world.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Book Review: Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites...And Other Lies You've Been Told

Christians are the worst. So say the critics, many of whom come from within the Church. Everyone has a story of some Christian acting like a hypocrite, lying, committing adultery (or worse), or just plain being mean. The book UnChristian found that Christains (and Evangelicals in particular) have an image problem among nonChristians in America.

Bradley Wright, a sociologist at UConn, says, “Not so fast my friend.” He believes that Christians don’t have an image problem so much as pollsters have a numbers problem. He doesn’t believe the polls, and doesn’t think you should either. The date, he claims, indicates that Christianity (and Evangelicalism in particular) is alive and well in this country.

To prove his point about the numbers game, Wright comments on a recent, shocking poll that claimed the only group of people who were viewed more unfavorably than Evangelicals were prostitutes. The truth, however, requires a closer look at the numbers. A disproportionately large number of people responded “Don’t Know” when asked if they had a favorable opinion of Evangelicals—more than twice the number of the next highest group. Maybe a lot of folks don’t know what an Evangelical is. The poll also asked people their opinions of Born-Again Christians. Maybe others didn’t know the difference between Evangelicals and Born-Agains. The point is, according to Wright, you can’t always trust a poll, nor can you always trust the pollster’s conclusions.

While I don’t have space to address all of the data (mostly encouraging) that Wright presents in the book, I do want to look at one issue that gets bandied about a lot these days, and that is the fear that Christianity is dying in America. Maybe you’ve heard some of the following statistics (11):

  • “Christianity will die out in this generation unless we do something now.”
  • “Only 4 percent of this generation is Christian.”
  • “Ninety-four percent of teenagers drop out of church, never to return again.”

These are frightening statistics! And they’re also demonstrably false. Almost 76% of Americans self-identify as Christian, and 26% say they’re Evangelical. While 16% claim the title Unaffiliated, only 4% of our population are agnostic or atheist. (35) Not quite the death-knell of Christianity, is it?

Evangelicalism isn’t shrinking either, having held steady at 26% of the population for 30 years. While the number of religiously unaffiliated people has grown in recent years (largely from the exodus of political liberals from mainline denominations), a majority of those believe in God, believe the Bible is the Word of God, pray regularly, and consider themselves to be religious and/or spiritual.

The truth is that atheism is not taking over America. Despite the fears of many Christians, atheism has not grown in the past 20 years, and atheists constitute less than 2% of the total population.

This is a very readable book that will help to dispel some of the myths about Christians and Christianity in America. Things are not nearly as bad as they seem. And if you read UnChristian (like I did), and thought that things were hopeless for Christians (like I was), then this book will be a great encouragement to you. Cheer up, Christian. You’re not really the worst!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What Evangelicals Do Well

Someone recently posted a comment at Scot McKnight's blog Jesus Creed accusing him (and most of those who post there) of hating evangelicalism. His point was that there was so much criticism coming from his blog that the evangelical church must be doing nothing right. Scot posted a winsome reply, but I think the commenter's point is interesting.

It's so easy to be a critic. There's nothing easier than standing back and offering your commentary while others go about their business. I do this. You probably do this, too. To counter the easy, critical mentality, I wanted to think about some of the things that evangelicals do well. You'll find, below, an incomplete list of some of the things that I think evangelicals tend to get right.


Maybe we don't have the most finely-tuned christology, but evangelicals tend to do a good job of putting Jesus at the center of our faith. We're "Jesus people", and we will always find our way to Jesus in any conversation. We love him. We worship him. We try really hard to follow him well.


Well this one's obvious. We love to share the gospel with our neighbors! It's always at the top of the list for how we define spiritual maturity, and we live with the guilt of not doing it enough. We are eager to share our faith with others, and we're always looking for better ways to do it.


We're always talking about grace. In fact, most evangelicals have probably attended a church called "Grace" at some point in their lives. (I grew up in one.) We lean, heavily, on grace, and shy away from even the slightest hint of "works-righteousness". God has saved us because he has chosen to do so through his son Jesus, and not because we have somehow earned his salvation.

Spiritual Growth

We're obsessed with growing in Christ. We tend to think in terms of progress. How am I getting closer to God? Am I becoming more like Christ? We know that we're not perfect, and most of us try hard to follow Jesus well. We want to be better Christians and better people.

Biblical Authority

Evangelicals take the Bible seriously. We read it at home. We want it to be the center of our sermons. We try to live by it, obey it, and understand it. We give it authority over ourselves, and not the other way around. We're constantly on guard against those who don't, in our estimation, take the Bible seriously.

These are just five that, I think, we evangelicals get mostly right. What are some others?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Simple Message of Scripture

Most Christians will readily admit that understanding the Bible can be a daunting task. There are so many strange names, places, customs, and sayings preserved in the text that it can feel awfully remote. One of the things that preachers love to do is whittle the story of the Bible down into a short, memorable phrase that will help the average Christian understand what it's about. Some examples you might hear on any given Sunday morning are:

  • God's Rule Book for Life
  • Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (Get it? B.I.B.L.E. Yep.)
  • God's Love Story
  • His Story (like history, but with an extra 'S'.)

I freely admit that I've done this sort of thing. I like to think of the Bible as the story of Redemption & Renewal; or of God reconciling humanity back to himself; and on this blog I even described the Bible as "the story of God in search of friends." All of these are helpful, and describe one particular way of looking at the Bible.

I'd like to add another one to the list. One way of understanding the message of the Bible is hearing God say this: You need me. I want you. We could say that the Bible is the story of God in dogged pursuit of humanity, which has failed to acknowledge their need for him.

We need God. You need God. He knows this. The Bible says, "in him we live and move and have our being." Our very lives depend on God. But he doesn't sustain our lives begrudgingly. He doesn't get tired of us. He doesn't want to write us off. He wants you. He has a place for you in his home. He will treat you like a son or daughter. He wants to tell you about himself and yourself and how you fit into his plan for the world. So the next time you look at your Bible, hear God saying to you, "You need me. I want you."