May 12, 2011
Faith In Strange Places
Stories of God at work inspire us to be more prepared to answer God’s call in our own lives. In their new book, Clouds of Witnesses, Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom have collected some unique instances of how God has worked through his servants during the last two hundred years.
After decades of writing I (Carolyn) think this is the most ‘fun project’ I’ve ever worked on. I was able to enter the lives of seventeen Christians from the past century of the non-Western world and to compose brief biographies of each. Their faith, courage, tenacity and sometimes downright peculiarity challenged me at every point. Contributing to the fun was my privilege of working with friend and scholar Mark Noll. I think you might enjoy meeting these characters too. As an excuse for reading, you can always comb their lives for sermon illustrations.”
Faith Gone Silly
God’s Mysterious Power of Invitation
God Uses Flawed People
Sharing the Gospel with Unknown Consequences
“Working on these biographical sketches has made me (Mark) much more conscious of both diversity and unity in the worldwide body of Christ. The figures we sketch in this book were unlike each other in many ways—levels of education, styles of Christian life and witness, willingness to work with established movements, degrees of independence, beliefs about the most important things, attitudes toward family and many more. Yet in all were found (amidst also a diversity of weaknesses) deep attraction to the Lord Jesus, the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit and a burning desire to live faithfully unto God. As a coauthor I could not be more challenged by what I have seen in these diverse lives or more humbled by their unity in pointing to Christ.”
July 1, 2010
God the Seamstress
Recently, I gave a funeral message for a member of my congregation. She was well known as a seamstress par excellence, sewing innumerable wedding dresses. So in my funeral message I encouraged the family to use their memory of her work as a seamstress to be reminded of the gospel, which saved her and all those who are clothed in Christ’s garments of salvation.
After all, God does indeed know a bit about sewing and clothing. In fact, on that dark day when his perfect creation was sliced open by sin, God sewed his first outfits and gave them to Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness; something they had not been aware of before. Now they sensed their need for clothing, and their crude fig leaves were replaced with God’s garments.
Ever since, humans have had a sense of nakedness and the need to be clothed. This is a universal result of sin. Even people who live in the tropics, and seemingly have no need for clothing, wear something; without it they feel, well … naked.
God is a great seamstress, clothing his family. Clothing is a symbol of God’s salvation, which can be seen even in the great sin sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. On this most holy day of the Jewish calendar, the high priest took off his priestly garments and wore only a white linen tunic woven of one piece of fine fabric. Then he was allowed to meet with God in the holy of holies as he sprinkled the sacrificial blood on the ark.
You know, somebody else wore a white linen tunic. He too was a high priest, though unrecognized as one until his sacrifice was finally understood. The apostle John gives us the story:
I have always wondered why Jesus wore something so fine the Roman soldiers did not want to rip it up. I like imagining Jesus as the funky itinerant teacher dressed in something from the Salvation Army. But under it all he wore a fine tunic of the sort the high priest wore into the holy of holies. In the case of Christ though, it was stripped from him that he might take our sin, shame and nakedness on the cross. We in turn are clothed in his righteousness. Only he could stand before God naked and unashamed. He became unclothed so that we could become clothed with the finest wedding garments.
In this life we still feel a bit naked and exposed. Death is one of the things that can do this. Death reminds us just how feeble and frail we are no matter what we might be wearing. We cannot dress up death. Our own sense of nakedness moves us to find the greatest seamstress, our Father, who gives us the festal garments of salvation.
God has created us for this very purpose, for this wedding feast. And it is with confidence that we look forward to this feast, for in Christ we will not be found naked but clothed in the white garments of righteousness.
December 1, 2009
A Timely Textual Tremor
You are probably not going to believe what I am about to tell you. But it’s absolutely true and unembellished.
It happened Labor Day Sunday 2007, when I was preaching. At precisely 10:29 a.m. according to the National Seismographic Agency, an earthquake, magnitude 4.7 on the Richter Scale, struck Southern California. It was centered a few miles east of Lake Elsinore, which is about seventy miles from my church in Downey, California.
Our service begins at 10 a.m. We were smack in the middle of the service. In fact, I was smack in the middle of my sermon. The first thing you will not believe is that I did not notice the earthquake. Honest, I have three good reasons. I am a very intense preacher. Not much distracts me. (One time a gentleman fainted in the back of the church and until someone came up and told me I did not notice!) Also, the distance and magnitude of the earthquake meant that Downey experienced it as a very small and very brief tremor—probably less than two or three seconds. Finally, due to renovation, we are not in our sanctuary but in a temporary space where the temporary platform creeks and bounces normally. So I did not notice.
Right in the middle of a sentence of my sermon several people said, “Earthquake.” I said, “You’re kidding!” “No, we’re not.” Now, you may be thinking, What is so unbelievable about that? After all, Southern California is synonymous with earthquakes, and so experiencing one during a worship service is not all that surprising. But—my text for the morning was Hebrews 12:14-29, a text that warns us about paying attention to God’s speaking through the ages and now in Christ. The text ends with the reminder that God at one time shook the mountain (Sinai) but one day will shake both the heavens and the earth so that what cannot be shaken (eternal life and eternal reign of God with God’s people) will remain. Smack dab in the middle of that sermon, the congregation felt an earthquake.
What does a preacher say to that? At least I knew I had their attention. Or at least the tremor had their attention. But there was no denying that the timing was remarkable. The warning is so clear. God once shook Mt. Sinai in order to get the people’s attention in hopes that they might believe and obey. One day he will shake all the universe, but the purpose will not be to get people’s attention, hoping they will obey. The shaking of the universe will be to close human history as we know it and to inaugurate the eternal kingdom. There will be no more opportunity to listen and obey. Only a terrible danger for those who have rejected God’s message in Christ. It states clearly: God is a consuming fire. This is not a sermon for every Sunday. But it is true to the text. It follows the repeated warnings of the book of Hebrews where the main message is that Christ is better. He is God’s final “word” to humankind.
Preaching this sermon shook me. Not because of the earthquake tremor. Remember? I did not feel it. It shook me because it reminded me how important it is to preach the gospel in all of its fullness. That fullness means there is hope for those who in faith believe and obey. It also means there is danger for those who reject God’s best Word—Christ. Oh for a sermon illustration like that every Sunday!
November 1, 2009
Preach Revelation... I Dare You!
Do you remember that last line from the opening of Star Trek? “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” For preachers, this mantra would be appropriate for preaching through the book of Revelation. The sentence could be modified this way: “To boldly go where few preachers have gone before.”
The book of Revelation is one of the least preached books in the entire canon of Scripture. When I began the current series on Revelation, I conducted a nonscientific poll and asked for a show of hands to the question, How many of you have ever heard a series of sermons through the entire book of Revelation? The dearth of hands was proof enough. Senior adults made statements like: “I’ve been in church my whole life and I’ve never heard sermons from the entire book of Revelation.” To further illustrate the church’s ignorance concerning the last book of the canon, numbers of Christians refer to it as “Revelations”—emphasizing the plural.
I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too. Wait a minute, I’ve often preached about the seven churches in John’s vision. I actually have several sermons on Revelation 3:20. I also have at least one funeral sermon from Revelation 21. Don’t those count? Well they count, like preaching the Sermon on the Mount and neglecting the rest of the book of Matthew.
What about a sermon dealing with the 144,000 in chapter seven? Or a sermon identifying the two witnesses of Revelation 11? How about a sermon covering the beast from the land and the beast from the sea in Revelation 13?
Why do preachers shy away from the book of Revelation? I think there are several reasons. It’s tough preaching apocalyptic material wherever it’s found—Daniel, Matthew 24 and 25, Revelation—because it is so hard to interpret. Another reason is that the book of Revelation doesn’t present material that appears immediately helpful for the year 2007. In the milieu where sermons are expected to meet specific needs, preachers typically turn to other parts of the canon.
Perhaps the greatest deterrent to preaching the book of Revelation is that the preacher is going to have to stake some solid ground on his or her approach to biblical prophecy. Ah, there’s the sticky wicket. We can nearly preach the entire New Testament and never have to divulge whether we’re pre-, post- or a-millennial. We can preach the entire Pauline corpus and never have to stake out a position on the rapture. (We’ve found ways of skirting 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 1 Corinthians 15.) But get into the book of Revelation, and the emperor is naked again. You can’t preach the book of Revelation and not come clean on how you understand biblical prophecy. That’s the reason so few of us ever tackle the entire book!
About five years ago I decided to seriously study biblical prophecy in order to preach Revelation. After studying a plethora of writers, my conclusion is that the dispensational, premillennial approach to biblical prophecy is the best hermeneutic to explain the biblical texts found in the prophetic and apocalyptic material. Of course, you’ll have to draw your own conclusion.
Beginning with the New Year, we began our journey on Sunday mornings through Revelation. The series lasted into September. Every verse of the entire book was covered.
I have found that people are hungry for an understanding of this enigmatic book. I’m glad I jumped into the water. Now they’re saying they want me to preach the Song of Solomon. Yeah, right!
February 1, 2009
Soldiers don’t win wars in foxholes. Sure, a soldier can take potshots from a foxhole, but it’s not an offensive but a defensive tactic. As an associate pastor my preaching felt like that—foxhole preaching. When the senior pastor asked me, I popped out of my associate hole and took a shot at it. It was a very unsatisfying way of preaching.
After a few years I was able to move into a more offensive posture. I developed some sermon series with the senior pastor, and sometimes I would actually get to preach more than once in the series. I still wasn’t working offensively overall, but it was a move in the right direction. Now that I am serving as a solo pastor, I am thrilled to be on the preaching offensive. I am taking the initiative and have the target clearly in sight, and all my energy and resources are being focused toward that goal. It’s also tremendously freeing not to be burdened with the “what am I going to preach this week” syndrome. Here’s what I am doing—and loving doing it.
Out of the Foxhole
On my study leave I (1) choose a theme or themes for the year and broadly sketch out a year’s preaching plan (it can be designed around topics or books), (2) outline three or four months of sermons, and (3) make detailed preparations for the first six to eight weeks. Sound impossible? It’s not. But it does require time.
For example, here’s what I did to begin my ministry in my present church. The theme of the first three (summer) months of sermons was Catching a Glimpse—What God Can Do Through Ordinary People (demonstrated by people like Abraham, Moses, Esther and the boy with the fish and loaves). During the autumn kickoff month we revisited the marks of the church from Acts 2. Then we spent several weeks studying biblical teachings on stewardship. After one week of Thanksgiving, we focused on Advent and Christmas. Obviously, I have to be flexible. Besides holy days, there’s always special events like Mother’s Day and confirmation. And I must be able to respond when there’s a need for an immediate and relevant word from God to unexpected events like 9/11 or the Southern California fires.
Since I don’t foxhole preach any more, I decided to preach through the Gospel of John because I sensed a need for my church to revisit who Jesus is. (I could use the review as well!) With all the special church services included, the plan got us through John 13 by the end of the year. (Lo and behold, my John plan got me through two years of preaching!) I identified the main focus and title of sermons for three or four months. I created outlines for two months. Then I began working on the first few weeks. What a relief.
And what an opportunity for creativity to arise. Since I had the plan laid out and percolating in my head and heart, a wealth of everyday resources, the myriad flavors of life—things I read, hear, see, feel, smell—could find their way into my preaching.
Personality or Philosophy?
Someone asked me if I did this because of my personality. (I think they were asking if I was some kind of a organization freak!) I responded that it is a result of my philosophy of ministry, not my personality. I believe preaching should be intentional and ordered by God’s Word, not by my weekly whims.
Foxholes are for mere survival. An organized preaching front will win the war.
June 1, 2008
The Divine Conversation
My husband and I recently returned from a trip out West with twenty-five teenagers. What an adventure it was for the kids, many of whom had never traveled that far or had seen mountains before. As we drove through the Rockies and ranges in Wyoming and Utah, they fell more and more in love with the beauty and grandeur of the mountains. We are Midwesterners, and as wonderful as we think it is to see cows out on a green hillside in Wisconsin, we admit that mountains cannot be matched in beauty.
I saw my first mountains as a child. I was in awe of them and remember struggling to journal the deep emotions they evoked in me even at the age of twelve. I did not know God in a personal way at that time, but nonetheless my eyes were drawn to the great Creator God because of the witness of his mountains. Our students had the same revelation. The greatness of the mountains spoke loudly to them of God’s greatness, majesty and power.
Paul’s words from Romans 1 ran through my mind—“From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and the sky and all that God has made. They can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God” (Romans 1:20, NLT).
God has made sure that we are surrounded every day with his divine words. Sun, sky, clouds and earth are part of his divine vocabulary. Even in the middle of the city, if we are listening, we can hear him speaking to us. Even when we are surrounded by buildings, bridges and creations of human hands, his voice can break through.
It is God’s joy to speak to us, and it is our privilege to listen for his words. Have you ever challenged your congregation to become listeners to the divine conversation going on around them? I have. However, when I give that challenge, I am always speaking more to myself than to anyone else. I love being a pastor, but one of my greatest fears is that because of my job, I will lose my own ability to hear God. I want to guard that spiritual sense at all cost, because if I lose the ability to hear the heart and mind of God, I will also lose the ability to hear the hearts and minds of people.
I understand the reasons for losing touch with God’s voice, and I can feel those spiritual guerrillas creeping up on me the longer I am in ministry. Like any pastor, I get so busy with ministry—the “important” stuff—that to stop to listen to God seems a waste of time—even selfish. And then there is the know-it-all trap: I am the advice giver, the comforter, the encourager, the exhorter, the pray-er, the teacher. People expect words from me all the time, and my important words become a habit, even in my relationship with God.
My desire is to always be an eager seeker of the voice of God. I have found that my connection with his creation is what keeps my connection with him strong. Creation reminds me to be still and listen.
We pastors need a place to go where we can get close to those things that speak of the Creator’s eternal qualities and divine nature. Do you have such a place?
October 1, 2007
When Opportunity Knocks - Don't Knock It!
Recently, while teaching the book of Acts to a group of adults, I learned something. We were noting how the early Christians took every opportunity to proclaim Christ. Every circumstance was seized as a moment to talk about Jesus. We decided to take up this challenge. Little did I realize how much I needed it! It’s easy to get so caught up in the management of the church that we miss its real purpose. Suddenly I was seeing interruptions and annoyances as opportunities.
It was 5:30 p.m., and I had been on the job since 7:30 a.m. (without a lunch break). As I was going to my car in the church parking lot, a young man approached me. He was looking for someone to baptize his baby. Obviously this young man knew nothing about faith or baptism. And I just wanted to go home. Suddenly, I remembered I had asked God to help me reach out to the Hispanic parents in the neighborhood of my new church. Here stood a young Hispanic parent, and I almost didn’t recognize the opportunity. I told Jimmy I would love to help him, but that baptism, like surgery, is serious business. His request was a bit like asking a doctor in a hospital parking lot to operate on his little girl! I gave him my number and asked him to call me for an appointment.
The next week, two other young Hispanic parents came to my office to ask about baptism. (They didn’t even know what kind of church they were in.) My businesslike response could have been, “You don’t understand; there are many requirements before a baby can be baptized. You’ll have to … blah, blah, blah” (the list could have gone on forever). Thank God that the Spirit interrupted me and allowed me to see an opportunity. The result: a discussion group with several young Hispanic parents is going on in our church. They are hearing the gospel for the first time!
A Syrian man walked into our church and had the audacity to ask for a letter stating that he was a member. (He had attended our church a couple of times several months earlier.) Obviously, this man didn’t know how Presbyterians do things (or how many pages of the Book of Order were involved in such an endeavor!) Eventually I discovered that he was seeking political asylum. It annoyed me that this man was using faith and our church for his own political ends.
But suddenly, I remembered my calling—to preach the good news to every creature. Here was a creature, an annoying one, but no less a creature. I didn’t write the letter he requested; instead I invited him to come back to talk about it. He came back twice. The second time, his desire became so clear to me I almost laughed out loud: He wanted a letter saying he had converted from Islam to Christianity. I was ready to argue with him about the ethics of writing such a letter when I realized he needed to hear the gospel! So I opened up the Scriptures and explained the good news to him. I prayed for his salvation and invited him to come back again.
This is what the church was about in Acts. This is what the church is to be about today—taking every opportunity to boldly proclaim the good news of the gospel.
Thank God that his Word can even get through to pastors!
March 15, 2007
A Scandalous Event
The resurrection of Jesus Christ marks the pivotal, quintessential moment to which Christendom points for its faith. Christ breaking the shackles of death culminates the events of the Word becoming flesh and living among us. What the apostle John wrote about in John 1:14 comes to full fruition in the gospel message of Easter. God incarnate, having fully identified with human life—from birth to death—emerges from a grave, heralding to his followers victory over death, not only for himself but also for them.
These themes mark the central focus of our annual Easter celebrations, and well they should. However, the events of Easter are so well known to us that the familiarity of the holiday might keep us from experiencing the Christ the event commemorates. How do we celebrate when we presume we already know everything there is to know about Easter? If we’re not careful, with the mystery gone, the surprise discovered, and the suspense eliminated, the miraculous moves to the mundane. Christ’s resurrection could seem commonplace, taken for granted, a ho-hum blip in our church comings and goings. Some people know the story so well that it no longer affects them. Some churches blur through Easter as though it were merely an occasion for a pageant, without sensing the depth and impact of what took place on that resurrection morn.
How can we approach Easter so we don’t feel as though there is nothing left forus to discover? How do we celebrate Easter so that we are able tosee something “strange in the familiar” festivities? How can we experience the good news of Easter so that it penetrates the hearts of even those who think they’ve heard it all before?
Perhaps a beginning point is to consider what life would be like if the Easter event hadn’t occurred. If Christ had not died and risen, can you imagine what life today would be like? We would be doomed in the bondage of our own sin and selfishness. Hope of any future would be reduced to despair. Faith would be a mockery. Injustice would rule the earth. We would be bound in a world devoid of Christ’s love. Life would be completely and utterly unbearable were we living in a world doomed by our own personal design. With those thoughts in mind, now consider what Easter means.
Another way to avoid being overtaken by familiarity is to read, really read, the Easter accounts. Don’t skim over the details. Live in the world created by what you’re reading. Don’t read as though it’s merely a familiar friend. Read the accounts as scandalous news, like the news you might read in the morning paper. Read the accounts in all their fear and injustice. Allow your senses to soar. Smell the smells of the city streets in Jerusalem. See the soldiers as they lead Jesus through the mockery of a trial. Feel the crowds closing in around you as you hear the shouts “Crucify him!” Allow the story to come alive again.
Finally, be prayerful and ask God specifically to share a new insight with you about the events related to Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we pray faithfully, God will always be faithful. Who knows? When this Easter season comes, we just might encounter the risen Jesus in ways we’ve only imagined. If we do, I believe we will be changed. I believe it will change our churches!
November 1, 2006
Why Do We...?
Will surprises never cease? Immanuel Baptist Church, where I’ve served for six years, is a traditional church—or at least it used to be. The church was formed in 1909, so you can imagine the traditions that have become a part of this congregation. It is a large, multi-generational congregation. We have many longtime, older believers as well as many new, younger believers. We also have many people who have been involved in church since they were born; and many others who have not come to church with any real consistency as adults. We attempt to be intentionally seeker-sensitive Sunday morning and seeker-targeted Sunday night. OK, that gives you a snapshot of who we are.
Our ministry team often hears questions about why we do the things we do as a church. After evaluating our recent sermons, we decided to do a very basic teaching series. We thought about concepts that seemed second nature to us but which might be confusing or misunderstood by unchurched people. So we framed a six-week morning series titled “Why Do We …” which included the following questions:
1. Why do we talk about Jesus? (Acts 4:12). In this inaugural service our primary focus was the doctrine of the incarnation—Jesus was not only fully human but he was also fully divine.
2. Why do we baptize? (Matt 28:19-20). In this service our thesis was that baptism, commanded by Jesus himself, becomes one of the first steps of obedience for a follower.
3. Why do we study the Bible? (2 Tim 2:15; 3:16). This service described why the Bible is our guide to faith and practice as a church. The Bible, written by men divinely inspired by God, models the incarnation. The Bible reveals and records God’s revelation of himself to humanity.
4. Why do we pray? (James 5:16). Jesus said that his house would be known as a house of prayer. We described God’s purposes for prayer and probed questions like: Does prayer change God’s mind? What is the difference between private and public prayer? Does God always hear prayers?
5. Why do we walk by faith? (Heb 11:1). This question focused on faith: We talk about having faith, walking by faith, and believing. Why is so much of following Jesus about faith?
6. Why do we tithe? Unchurched people often think all the church ever talks about is money. We examined a healthy, biblical understanding of what it means to be a manager of all that we own as provisions from God himself.
That brings us to the surprise. We were hoping that seekers would appreciate our attempt to open up the inner workings of our church to them. However, we were afraid that we would get yawns from those who had “been around” for a while. The response surprised our entire team. Seekers responded in droves. They even attended the evening series called “Coffee Talk,” where we follow up the morning series with dialogue and a question-and-answer time. And surprise: longtime members said it was a refreshing reminder that helped them answer their acquaintances’ questions. We have been persuaded to offer the series as a tape package.
Why were we surprised? Because we thought it might be too basic—too plain vanilla. Then I was reminded: vanilla remains one of the most popular ice cream flavors. We learned that people want to know why we do—and ask them to do—the things we do in church. They are not interested in merely going through the motions. They are hungry to be authentic. The series has helped us address these issues.
June 1, 2006
To Siam With Love
In the early 1950s little was known about Thailand except that the small country in Southeast Asia had been formerly known as Siam. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein put the small kingdom into the awareness of people with their visual and musical masterpiece The King and I. It tells the story of an Englishwoman, Anna Leonowens, who comes to Siam as schoolteacher to the royal court in the 1860s. Though she soon finds herself at odds with the kingdom’s monarch, over time Anna and the king stop trying to change each other and begin to understand each other.
My personal experience with Thailand began in December 1969 when I arrived at Ubon Ratchathani Royal Thai Air Force Base as an airborne missile specialist. Even in December, the tropical Thai air was thick with humidity, topping out in the nineties every day. We worked two twelve-hour shifts, with the desired shift being from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. The day shift, working through the heat of a Thai summer, was nearly unbearable. But being new, I was providentially given the opening on the day shift. I began to work in an area that included a Thai liaison. He and I were friendly from the first. We became good friends. Little did I know that we would wind up being family.
One day, when we were going to have a long weekend, he invited me to his family’s home for a meal. I arrived at the house in a sahm lar, a bicycle-powered carriage similar to a rickshaw. When I passed through the front gate, I was met by several of my friend’s brothers and sisters, but one sister caught my eye. Her smile nearly melted me! I had heard Thai women were beautiful, but she took my breath away. As Paul Harvey says, “Now for the rest of the story.” We talked long into the night. I asked if I could see her again. For our first “date,” we were accompanied by, as I remember it, nearly the entire family. To make a long story short, after we dated for six or seven months, we decided to get married. That happened on January 19, 1971.
Now, thirty years later, Aunchalee and I have returned to Thailand, together, for mission work. Neither one of us, if asked in 1970 what our lives would be like in thirty years, would have ever, in our wildest dreams, thought we would one day return as mission workers. But all we can say is that we serve an awesome God.
We are serving in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a city in the northern mountains of the country. Our mission is to minister to physicians, dentists, and other health care missionaries who have come from all over Southeast Asia for a time of clinical training and spiritual refreshment. These medical missionaries are affiliated with the Christian Medical and Dental Association. Aunchalee and I are teaching each morning, are available to counsel and minister to the missionaries throughout the day, lead worship on Sunday, and lead a communion service at the conclusion of the experience. We have prayed about—and God led us to—two themes: “Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire” was our opening theme, followed by the series, “Just Give Me Jesus!” Because of the generosity of the members of Immanuel Baptist Church, who donated 165 copies of Jim Cymbala’s book, Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, the missionaries have been able to read firsthand the story of the Brooklyn Tabernacle. God’s Holy Spirit has blessed the missionaries through hearing and reading about His work among other people around the world.
As a pastor of a local church in North America, and as a preacher, I think this experience has taught me some things. I’d like to share a couple of these things with you. First, we’ve discovered that God really is doing an awesome work around the world. Medical and dental missionaries at this conference come from 27 different countries, and about as many denominations or sponsoring organizations. Too often, we presume God works in prescribed ways according to our traditions’ formulas or paradigms. Getting outside of Lexington, Kentucky, and getting away from North America has reminded me that God is bigger than the small worlds we inhabit and from which we do our kingdom work.
Second, many Christians around the world literally face life and death decisions for their faith in Christ—an experience which we in North America find hard to comprehend. We found out yesterday that missionaries in a certain country are now under a death threat if they attempt to share the gospel with anyone under the age of eighteen years. That kind of thing puts into fresh perspective the religious freedom we have in the United States.
Third, the missionaries we send often feel isolated and alone from their fellow believers at home. Certainly we provide financial support through a variety of avenues. And that financial support is crucial. But more than financial support, they treasure and hunger for our presence support. By presence support, I don’t necessarily mean getting on an airplane and visiting missionaries or volunteering with them, though that is an option many of us should consider. No, by presence support I mean keeping their work alive and in front of, in the presence of, the folk back home.
Finally, we must remember that missionaries are not super-Christians who leap tall buildings in a single bound. They too are wrestling against “principalities and powers” that would rob them of faith and discourage them at every turn. And so they also hunger for our prayer support. The stories we are hearing of how God has answered the prayers of these medical and dental missionaries have powerfully renewed my prayer life and have reminded me of the awesome incarnational partnership God offers us through prayer. My prayer life in general, and my prayers for missionaries in particular, will be ever changed.
I trust this experience will change my pulpit practice. Only time will tell. From Chiang Mai, “Sawadee krop!”
May 15, 2006
The Preacher's Bookshelf
With Pentecost Sunday approaching, here’s a helpful book dealing with the power of prayer and the movement of God’s Holy Spirit among his people.
Few books have influenced me with a vision for ministry as has Jim Cymbala’s Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997). In it, Cymbala chronicles the growth and ministry of the Brooklyn Tabernacle. Twenty-five years ago, the Tabernacle could barely draw twenty people to a Sunday service. Today it is six thousand strong, made up of former prostitutes, pimps, drug addicts and homeless people—along with doctors, lawyers, and professional people. The book’s flyleaf calls the miracle of Brooklyn Tabernacle “a testament of what God can do when men and women begin to pour out their hearts to God.” It continues with this admonition: “Don’t look in this book for faddish techniques—you won’t find them. And while the Tabernacle today has an interracial membership and a world-renowned choir, don’t look for an emphasis on cross-culturalism, numbers, or well-orchestrated worship music. Instead, look for what God can do when a handful of people humble themselves and take the Gospel seriously. When believers turn to their last and only recourse—their knees—and discover there the life-changing reality of the Holy Spirit.”
From his recalling the cracking of a pew, which dumped five people onto the floor, to the overwhelming return of his prodigal daughter, Jim Cymbala shares a testimony of God’s power still to move in miraculous ways. Cymbala writes with a humble heart, desperately seeking God: “I discovered an astonishing truth: God is attracted to weakness. He can’t resist those who humbly and honestly admit how desperately they need him.”
An evangelist once said: “You can tell how popular a church is by who comes on Sunday morning. You can tell how popular the pastor or evangelist is by who comes on Sunday night. But you can tell how popular Jesus is by who comes when the church is called to prayer.” Which one of us could not use a more effective prayer ministry in our churches? I firmly believe that if our people would bathe us and our sermon preparation in prayer, our preaching would become more powerful than any of us would dare to imagine.
Based on personal experience, Jim Cymbala said, “Satan’s main strategy with God’s people has always been to whisper, ‘Don’t call, don’t ask, don’t depend on God to do great things. You’ll get along fine if you just rely on your own cleverness and energy.’ The truth of the matter is that the devil is not terribly frightened of our human efforts and credentials. But he knows his kingdom will be damaged when we lift our hearts to God. Let’s not divert attention away from the weak prayer life of our own churches. In Acts 4, when the apostles were unjustly arrested, imprisoned, and threatened, they didn’t call for a protest, they didn’t reach for some political leverage. Instead, they headed to a prayer meeting. Soon the place was vibrating with the power of the Holy Spirit (vv. 23-31).”
Cymbala’s strong indictment of modern church life hits home too clearly: “If our people don’t have an appetite for God, what does it matter how many are attending the services? How would that impress God? In the face of a world ignoring Christ’s offer of salvation, we can either humble ourselves before God and return to his basics … or we can go on dancing with ourselves. The potential to see local churches explode with the life of God rests in the balance.”
Satan laughs when he can get churches to spend their valuable energy focusing on trivial pursuits—issues that have no eternal significance whatsoever. When you find yourself getting worked up over some issue in church, ask yourself, “Is this an issue that Jesus would spend the time I’m spending on it?” In our preaching and ministry, let’s be able to look back and say, “We focused our energy where God focused His energy.”
It’s my prayer that God blows fresh wind and fresh fire on your preaching. As we approach Pentecost in 1998, may God’s mission become our passion and God’s passion become our mission.
May 1, 2006
Reflections of an Aging Preacher
I recently celebrated one of those birthdays that marks a completely new decade in one’s life. In 1990, I was proud of myself when I turned 40. Having previously experienced a mid-life crisis, I cruised past my fortieth birthday with hardly a whimper. Many of my friends hit a brick wall when the big “4 - 0” confronted them. Not me! It was good to be forty. No gray hair yet, but my age was enabling me to open some doors that a younger man just couldn’t quite budge through. But turning 50 in the year of the new millennium has hit me pretty hard. I didn’t think it would, because it didn’t affect my wife that way. I don’t mean that my turning 50 didn’t affect my wife. I mean it didn’t affect her when she turned 50, two years ago. (Didn’t I tell you that she’s older than me? Yes, I married an older woman; now I’m nearly her age.) Well, last year we were living in different decades. Now we’re both in our fifties. All our friends say they find it hard to believe. They say, “She looks so much younger than you.” That’s depressing!
The gray hairs are showing more now. I don’t have that many, but friends accuse me of coloring my hair. They say they can tell I do because my hair has that washed out look. That’s encouraging, thank you very much: it’s my real hair and it’s its natural color. Other telltale signs are emerging, however. My eyebrows get bushier by the week. I’m starting to feel like Groucho Marx. Once in awhile I’ll find a hair boldly growing where no hair has ever grown before! (Let’s not go there.)
I’m not quite old enough yet to write one of those books under the genre “Things I Would Do Differently” or “What I Have Learned in Life,” but I can see its headlights in the distant horizon, and it’s coming fast.
Okay, what does any of this have to do with preaching? Well, when I was a young preacher (Oh my gosh, can you hear it? I’m even beginning to sound like I’m 50. I hate listening to old preacher stories; now I’m telling them!) it was easy to identify with the culture and with the younger members of the congregation. Identifying with them was important to me; I wrote my first book about preaching and identification. I knew what young families were going through. I understood their trials and temptations. We either were in the midst of something similar ourselves, or had just recently experienced it. I knew when they heard me preach, they knew I knew where they were coming from.
I didn’t worry too much about identifying with the older members of the congregation. They treated me like their son, or for that matter, their grandson. They were like my grandparents. They forgave my many mistakes. They tolerated my attempts at trying new things and using progressive preaching methods. They would say, “He’s young. He’ll learn.” They don’t say that anymore. Now they’re probably saying, “Don’t expect him to change now. At his age, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
I guess that’s what worries me the most about preaching and growing older. Sometimes wedo get pretty set in our ways. We just assume younger people should listen to us, because we’re older and know what they need to know because we’ve been where they’re going, and if they know what’s good for them, they’ll just save themselves a lot of trouble if they’ll just bear with us and hear us out. And we assume that senior people should listen to us to because we’re all in this A.A.R.P. thing together, and after all, we are the preacher.
Instead of making those bad assumptions, maybe if we continued to try to identify with our hearers, listening to them when they speak, no matter their age, they’ll continue to listen to us, no matter our age. And maybe, if we continue to learn how to preach, no matter our age, and never assume that we’ve arrived, we’ll continue to use progressive preaching methods that will gain a hearing without merely tickling the ears of our congregations, no matter their age. And maybe, if we’ll rely on God’s Spirit like we did when we had absolutely no idea what we were doing, and we were scared to death at the mere thought of standing up to preach, we’ll be better able to usher all people—young and old—into the presence of the living God through the witness of our lives. Maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for us after all.
April 1, 2006
Apologetic Preaching: Proclaiming Christ to a Postmodern World
An excerpt from my book, Apologetic Preaching.
Preaching Between Times
A cartoon I have displayed on my office door portrays a pastor, sitting behind a large wooden desk, being consoled by an obviously caring parishioner. The pastor’s face betrays disappointment and discouragement. The “Worship Attendance Chart,” prominently displayed on the wall behind the desk, has apparently provoked the pastor’s heavy anxiety and dismay. The chart shows a steep decline in worship attendance over the past two years; shortly, the rapidly descending line will extend beyond the chart’s boundaries. The parishioner, in model pastoral care tone, suggests, “I’m no expert … but perhaps you shouldn’t close each sermon with ‘But then again, what do I know?’”
The pastor and the parishioner reflect the angst of today’s preaching situation. We live and preach between times. The dogmatism of the modern era’s pulpit has led to ambivalence in dawning pulpits of the postmodern era. In the presence of political correctness on one side and the fear of sounding like a rabid fundamentalist on the other, preachers skulk from their studies to the pulpit, wide-eyed and confused, like children facing their first day in school. The children’s fear, however, appears warranted because they will truly enter an unknown world. But preachers cannot hide behind such childlike innocence because we have been to the pulpit before, and the fear we face is often of our own making.
We fear successful mega churches who have marketed their programs well, drawing from the rich reserve of baby boomers and baby busters in our communities and, yes, even from our churches. We fear church apathy and lethargy. The empty pews in our line of sight Sunday after Sunday do nothing to quell such fear. Yet, we also fear what might happen if we push too hard or demand too much. We fear being labeled narrow-minded by colleagues, by the media, by academics, under whom we studied while pursuing theological education, and by our educated church members who remind us, in so many subtle ways, who pays our salaries. Words like sin, judgment, immoral, evil, righteousness, faith, commitment have been purged from our progressive ecclesiastical vocabularies. We fear their use might rupture our hearers’ boundaries and offend their sensibilities. We fear being stereotyped with both the Religious Right and the Religious Left. We have become so hyper-cautious that our sermons offend no one at best and merely bore at worst. We fear being irrelevant, so our sermons become mundane chatter about raising self-actualized children or coping with the latest mid-life crises or providing five easy steps for managing anxiety. The role of one who introduces people to mystery runs counter to everything we hear or read about so called “successful” ministers and churches. Thoug we cringe at the idea of being successful, we fear the alternative even more. In our ubiquitous fear, apologizing for God rather than courageously proclaiming the gospel, in all of its scandalous stead, becomes our sermon fare.
Frightened as we are, we live and preach between times. The modern world passes; in bursts the postmodern world. “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” proclaims Dorothy. I think she’s right.
The Landscape of the Postmodern World
If my thesis about preaching between times is correct, what does this meantime look like? What makes up this dawning postmodern world and how will we know it when we see it? Will there even be preaching in postmodernism? Well, the speculation hinges, of course, on how one defines “postmodern.” Definitions of the term abound. A current flood of books, journals, and doctoral dissertations uses postmodern as though it had a fixed meaning, one to which every thinking person ascribed. Such pondering is a paradox, because one characteristic of postmodernism centers on its intentional willingness not to objectify anything. Is postmodernism a movement, a philosophy, a reaction to modernism, or merely a modern shibboleth academicians use to impress other academicians? The answer of course—all of the above. A dictionary definition might describe postmodernism as a reactive movement against the theories and practices of modern art, literature, philosophy, economics, politics, and theology. Calling postmodernism merely “a reactive movement,” however, begs some larger issues at stake. In a basic and sweeping sense, postmodern is what follows modern: that is, it is post modern. Thomas Oden offers a helpful framework by dating modernity from 1789-1989, what he calls “from the Bastille to the Berlin Wall.” So one definition of postmodernity is that period which follows modernity.
Yet, is postmodernism merely a temporal description—a turn of the calendar page, a kind word to describe the death of an aging era—or is there more going on in the cauldron of time and space than meets our modernity-conditioned eyes? Homiletician David Buttrick suggests we live “in the midst of a cultural breakdown not dissimilar to the collapse of the Greco-Roman world or the fragmentation of the Medieval synthesis.” Is this description of our cultural milieu mere hyperbolic musing? Or are we truly experiencing the disintegration of the existing world order, a system to which we might owe more allegiance than we care to admit? Diogenes Allen states: “A massive intellectual revolution is taking place that is perhaps as great as that which marked off the modern world from the Middle Ages. The foundations of the modern world are collapsing, and we are entering a postmodern world. The principles forged during the Enlightenment (c. 1600-1780), which formed the foundations of the modern mentality, are crumbling.”
One would have to live as a hermit not to personally experience the anxiety enveloping modern, or should I say, postmodern living. Increased violence mars our cities. Teenagers, even churchgoing teenagers, appear oblivious to the moral moorings that once seemed to hold our culture from going adrift. Heightened racial and ethnic tensions splinter what used to be sane communities. “We live in systems that no longer work,” bemoans Buttrick, “a politics of gridlock, an economy based on four million homeless people, an educational network that is now entered through metal detectors, and churches that isolate lonely-for-God members in their own subjectivities.” Even hippies of the 1960s, now entrepreneurs and corporate executives, wonder why baby busters lack institutional confidence and initiative to invest themselves in these systems gone awry.
Like children finding out that Santa Clause is not whom they thought he was, the promises of modernity have disillusioned us. The vows of the Age of Reason collapse before our eyes. The Enlightenment heralded the unlimited scope of the human spirit. Rationalism would lead to complete knowledge. Empirical observation and the scientific method would free us from learning born of immeasurable myths and superstitions, whether they were cultural or religious. Reason emerged as the God of the human conscience. Objectivity became the hallmark of intellectual endeavor. History moved on a teleological path of unending progress. Yet something has gone wrong. Oden describes the situation as the “enchantment of modernity” and characterizes this enchantment by “technological messianism, enlightenment idealism, quantifying empiricism, and the smug fantasy of inevitable historical progress.” Modernism teeters on thin ice. Standing in the wings waits a postmodern world, highly skeptical of modernism’s lost innocence and, as rapidly as it can, shedding itself of any vestiges of a modernist world view.
Is it possible to preach mystery in an age of information, hope in an era of skepticism, confidence in a time of doubt, truth in a climate of relativism? The ultimate question becomes, Can we preach Christ to a postmodern world? My answer, of course, is yes. But then again, what do I know?
March 1, 2006
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
We live in a vid/aural culture. Video images stream into our living rooms and across our computer screens. We have come to expect, yes even demand, high quality images to enhance everything from our computer’s screen saver to our church’s bulletin covers. While video images for such things can be found readily on web sites, where do you go to find images for your sermons? I’m not talking about images that can be projected while you’re preaching; I’m talking about images embedded into your sermons. Where do you go?
There’s a resource available from InterVarsity Press: The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. The book’s subtitle will help you understand the approach of this resource: “encyclopedic exploration of the images, symbols, motifs, metaphors, figures of speech and literary patterns of the Bible.” I also like the following description from the flyleaf: “The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery explores the dazzling variety in which the Word of God comes dressed in the clothes of everyday life. It traces the trail of images from Eden to the New Jerusalem. It captures the plotted patterns of biblical narrative. It surveys the imaged texture of each book of the Bible.”
A couple of short excerpts from articles will demonstrate the value of this resource, especially for preaching and teaching:
The editors of this volume—Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit and Tremper Longman III—have covered the waterfront from A to Z (well, almost, there is no entry for the letter “X”). Here is just a smattering of the topics covered: Aaron’s rod, Baal, Cain, eagle, face, Gabriel, Habakkuk, idleness, jackal, keys, labor, madness, Nahum, oak, pain, queen, race, sabbath, tabernacle, unbind, vale of tears, wages, year, Zechariah.
As you study in preparing to preach and as you work on a sermon, you’ll find this book triggers mental images that will help your congregation not only hear, but “see” your sermon. In a vid/aural culture, there’s not a better way to communicate!