Thursday, June 28, 2012

Keeping the Good News to Ourselves

This past April marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.  Interestingly, many young people were surprised to learn that the Titanic was a real ship that really sank, instead of simply a movie plot device.  In reality, over 1500 people died that night in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.  Greg Asimakopolous writes: “Although the death toll was staggering, the greater tragedy was that many more people could have been rescued. The Titanic was certified to offer lifeboat space to 1,178 people. But of the twenty lifeboats lowered overboard, only a few were filled to capacity. Several were less than half full. For instance, the first lifeboat lowered, boat seven, had room for 65 people, yet just 28 boarded. Boat five left with 24 spaces unfilled. Lifeboat nine left with 26 out of 65 paces unfilled. Lifeboat one could accommodate 40 people but left the Titanic with only 12 people on board. In all, only 711 passengers and crew were rescued, while 40 percent of the total lifeboat spaces remained unfilled. Meanwhile, hundreds of people floated in the open water wearing life jackets near the twenty unfilled lifeboats. Only one of the vessels went back in search of other survivors. The rest (with room to spare) remained at a safe distance observing the horrific scene, comforting one another, and praising God they'd been spared.”
I am sure the people in those lifeboats had their reasons for not doing more to save their fellow passengers.  But mostly it came down to ignorance and fear; Ignorance, in that many of the crewmen falsely believed that if they filled the lifeboats to capacity, they would break in two when they were lowered.  And fear, in that they were afraid that if they went back to help the hundreds of poor souls thrashing helplessly in the water, they would be swamped and sink themselves.  Today, I want to talk about the possibility that many of us are guilty of the same ignorance and fear, and that the ultimate eternal cost is even greater than it was the terrible night the Titanic sank.  In our Bible reading plan as part of the Radical Experiment, we come next week to the stories of Elisha, which give me lots of great stuff to choose from in preaching; the hard part has been limiting myself to just one story, one passage, per week.  This Sunday we’re going to look at an event that could have been far more tragic than the Titanic, but turned out far differently.  We will focus on a small subplot to that story, about four obscure men who became unlikely heroes (2 Kings 7:3-9).  I’ll take some time to unpack that story for you.  Then I will talk about the excuses we often use for behaving more like the survivors of the Titanic than like the men we’re reading about today.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Your Life is a Sermon

The first funeral I ever preached was for a man named Trav Brown.  I had known this man my whole life.  He lived in the little community of Hope, where I grew up, where my family has lived for generations--and where my parents and brother still live.  Back when Hope had a little store, Trav was one of the old men who sat there every day, drinking Dr. Peppers and eating cheetos, talking to whoever came in.  His wife and sister were both faithful members of our church, but Trav never darkened the door.  His wife was already gone home to the Lord, but his sister was still alive, and living in the nursing home in Yoakum (When I told her that Trav had died, she said simply, "Well, prepare to meet thy God..."). 

It is a sobering thing to realize that (unless the Lord returns before you die) someday a preacher will have to think of some way to sum up your life.  What I want to say to you today is this: Long before that day comes, your life itself will preach a sermon.  One way or another, God will glorify Himself in that sermon.  The question is, what sermon will your life preach?  As we look at this story today, I want you to ask yourself a couple of questions. First, what message has your life preached up to now?  I don’t mean a message about you, like “Work hard enough, and you can achieve whatever you want!”   I mean a message about God.  And second, what message do you want your life to preach from this time on?
2 Chronicles 7:11-22 represents the second time the Lord appeared personally to King Solomon. The first, which we looked at a couple weeks ago, came near the beginning of his reign, when God offered him one request, anything he desired. Solomon chose wisdom, which was the best choice of all. As a result, he was the wisest king Israel ever knew, and he led them to the greatest prosperity in their history.  The days of Solomon were Israel’s golden age, when the nation had political power and military peace, when silver was as common as stones.  But this time when God came to Solomon, it was in the middle of his reign.  Solomon had finished building the temple of the Lord and his own magnificent palace.  He was in the 40-50 year old range.  CS Lewis once said “The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather for the Devil.”  That was certainly true for Solomon.  That is the context; This Sunday we'll look at what the Lord said to the king.

Reading over my shoulder

Have you ever walked past someone's desk, seen an article on their screen (or their newspaper, magazine, etc) that interested you, and found yourself reading it over their shoulder?  Some folks find that annoying.  I'm actually inviting you to do it.  Here are a few links to articles I've read recently that I found particularly interesting. 

Twitter gets religion  It seems the good folks at Twitter have found out that preachers and other religious figures get more "re-tweets" than anyone, even celebrities.  So now they're courting preachers. 

Today was supposed to be my wedding day  This is for anyone who is engaged to be married, or anyone who wants to be.  It's also a great story for the rest of us about the blessings and sacrifices of obedience to God's will. 

Twelve ways to love a wayward child  This should be required reading for every parent.  A few years ago, Abraham Piper, son of the well-known preacher John Piper, rejected his parents' faith.  His parents were baffled and distraught, as you can imagine.  He has come back home, like the Prodigal Son, and here he lists the ways that parents should respond when their kids rebel.  As a parent, I found this article very, very powerful.  

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Defeating Sermon-Block

Defeating Sermon-Block

                I write out my sermons in full.  I never take the manuscript with me into the pulpit, but I find this to be a good way of organizing my thoughts, making sure that I say everything clearly and concisely.  The process of writing the sermon is the most time-consuming thing I do all week.  Often it’s exciting; the words are flowing from my mind to my keyboard, and I can’t wait until Sunday to preach it.  Unfortunately, there are other times.  Those are the days I sit, staring at the computer screen, waiting for the words to come.  An hour passes, and to my disgust I see that I have only written a single paragraph (and I’ve already highlighted that paragraph, my finger poised over the “delete” button).  I’m in the awful grip of sermon-block.  If writers have writer’s block, then we preachers have sermon block. 
Most of you are not full-time preachers (although if you are one, I hope this post is useful to you).  But many of you teach Bible studies.  Others will occasionally fill-in for your regular teacher.  Still others might occasionally be asked to offer a devotional at the ladies’ retreat or deacons’ meeting, or to “write a little something” for the church newsletter.  In those situations, you want to offer the people something valuable, something that draws them closer to God.  So, rather than simply winging it, you put some thought and preparation into what you will say.  Bravo!  But all the good intentions in the world won’t stop the dreaded sermon-block.    When it hits—and it will—here are some things that have helped me get “un-stuck.”
Pray.  I know, DUH.  But it still needs to be said.  When you feel lost, ask God for help.  Just say what you are feeling: “Lord, I know that Romans 12:2 tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.  But how can I explain that truth in a way that will bless people and not bore them?  Show me what they need to hear.”  While you’re at it, pray for peace in your own heart.  Remember, God won’t love you any more if you knock this baby out of the park, and He won’t love you any less if you put everyone to sleep. 
Say it in a sentence.  Actually, I have found that I need to take these first two steps every time I start preparing a message, not just after sermon block has hit.  Here’s what I mean by “say it in a sentence.”  As you look at your passage, ask yourself, “What is the central truth that God is expressing through the biblical writer here?”  For example, in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4, the Lord says a lot of very memorable things, but the central truth He was expressing to her was that He was the Messiah they had been looking for, the answer to their prayers and the water of life that would quench her spiritual thirst.  Take that central truth and see how you can express it in a way that applies to the people you’ll be speaking to.  For instance, you might say it this way: “We all think we’re thirsty for different things, but in reality, we’re all thirsty for Jesus.”  Make it short enough to put into a twitter post (140 characters or less).  Then expand out from that.  What thoughts does that sentence provoke in you?  What stories or analogies can you use to illustrate it? (Example: a housewife buying soda at the grocery store, wishing everyone liked the same kind so she could buy one 2 liter bottle instead of five different six packs…Jesus is the only drink that satisfies everyone)  What questions might it raise in people’s minds? (Does this mean all my other desires are wrong?  How do I get this water of life?)      
Talk it over with a friend.  Sit down with a friend and read him or her your passage and your thoughts on it so far.  Something your friend says in response might spark a new thought and jump-start your creative process.  Or if not, at least you’ll have another person praying for you!
Google it.  Just type your Scripture reference into your search engine, and you’ll be flooded with sermons and Bible studies from all over.  Reading how other people have handled this verse is much like talking it over with a friend; it can get your mind headed in a new direction, helping you get un-stuck.  But a few disclaimers on this one: First, don’t steal.  If you DO decide to use what you find on the internet, don’t claim it as your own.  Tell them, “A lot of what I will share with you today comes from a devotional I read on Max Lucado’s website.”  Second, be careful.  There’s a lot of great stuff on the ‘net, and there’s some nutty stuff, too.  If what you are reading says stuff about the Bible that you’ve never heard before, it’s probably because it ain’t true.  Third, don’t get distracted.  You can spend so much time reading other people’s thoughts, you never get back to preparing your message.  Browse for a few minutes, then get back to work.
Approach it from a different angle.  Sometimes when I’m stuck, I think of specific people who I expect to be there when I preach.  How are they likely to respond to the truth of this message?  How can I say it in a way that will be meaningful for them?  Another tried and true method is to approach the whole thing in the way a skeptic would.  If I’m preaching on Jesus as the way, the truth and the life, I might structure my whole message around the objections a skeptic might have, and what the Bible has to say to those objections.   
Walk away from it (for a while).  Occasionally, I know I am getting nowhere in my sermon writing.  Continuing to sit in front of the computer is just a waste of time.  So I will move on to something else, promising that I will come back to the sermon tomorrow (this is one of many reasons why it’s best to start preparing days in advance).  Often, I will get a breakthrough while I am doing something completely unrelated: Driving, mowing my lawn, working out.  Perhaps the increased blood to my brain from physical activity is what makes the difference.  Who knows?  I just know there comes a time to set your message aside and do something else.  Try to leave your mind blank—don’t put on the earbuds—and just see what happens.
Keep it simple.  Sometimes I realize that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill.  The biblical truth is clear and simple, and in trying to be witty and profound, I’m making it more complicated than it has to be.  God’s Word won’t return to Him void.  As long as we are faithful to express it in a clear, unadulterated way, we’ve done something beautiful.  So start with three questions: 1) “What?”  What does the passage mean?  2) “So what?”  What difference does this make in real life?   3) “Now what?”  What are some specific things we need to do in response to this truth?  Answer those three questions, and you’ve done your job.