Archive for the 'preaching' Category

Let me start by saying that this is going to be about the Andy Stanley kerfuffle. If you’ve missed out on what I’m talking about, hit your knees and thank God — even if you’re an atheist.  Also, if you fall in that category (blissfully ignorant) — and here I’ll commit a major sin of authorship — I suggest that you read no further, as your curiosity may be piqued. Then you’ll go and hit Google and start reading up on what this is all about. And then I’ll be partially responsible for you being exposed to articles and comments that have all the civility of Johnny Knoxville burping the alphabet during the prayer at a royal wedding.

In the sermon that everyone’s carping about, one of the other things that Andy said was:

“… people may misunderstand your grace towards sinners as somehow condoning their sin, but that is not the case.”

The story of the woman caught in adultery is a prime example of this. A cursory reading of the passage makes it look like Jesus totally let her off the hook. Actually, forget “cursory” — there’s a level at which I still don’t get it. And it’s probably a safe bet that you’re in the same boat.

Yes, He said “go and sin no more”, but He didn’t even specifically state that the act in which she was caught was sin. Based on nothing more than that single isolated instance (notice a pattern here?), we could just as easily conclude that He was telling her to stop smoking those funny cigarettes.

When Jesus told parables, people misunderstood all the time. And it wasn’t simply an issue of Him knowing in advance that this would be the case and thinking “c’est la vie“. Part of the reason that He used parables was specifically because people wouldn’t understand.

By sheer definition, not everyone can be the sharpest knife in the drawer. When we show grace, some people are going to misunderstand. The only way to avoid misunderstanding is to stop showing grace altogether.

Is clarity of your beliefs that important to you?

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Why does everything seem to be about numbers and lists and steps?*

I was taking a minute this morning to peruse some of the headlining blog posts and the Twitter feed at Churchleaders.com and here’s a sampling of what I found:

Twelve Reasons Why Church Membership Matters

Ten Reasons Twitter is like a marathon

Ten Ministry Principles I Wish I Knew When I Started

Nine Reasons why you shouldn’t give up

Eight Leadership quotes and lessons from Super 8

Five Ways to Protect the Heart of a Leader

Five Distortions of the Gospel in our Day

Four Ways to Show Outsiders You Care

Three Stumbling Blocks to Forward Progress

Three Theological Foundations Shaping 21st Century Youth Ministry Strategy

Two Rules for Transparency in the Pulpit**

There was also an advertisement: 25 Proven Outreach ideas for your church.

Really?

And if I had looked harder, I’m sure I would have found 6 & 7, and maybe 11. (And believe me when I say there were other 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, and 12’s scrolling on the Twitter feed and on the news page.

I have to be honest with you: this bores me to tears. Does anyone really expect anyone to keep all those numbers or lists in their head? This is one thing I dislike about the generation of humanity now living: everything can be summed up in a bulleted list. Sometimes I think preachers or writers do these list things because Jesus isn’t interesting enough. That’s just my opinion.

I’d like to see someone write an article at Churchleaders.com titled: One Reason Jesus is Enough.

I just want to take a moment to express my angst. I hate PowerPoint. And I hate lists. And I hate 3, 4, 5, or any ‘point’ sermons. I’m sure they are helpful for someone, but I’m not interested. I have also decided that if I ever have the privilege of preaching weekly in a local church again, I will not ever use PowerPoint. This is only tangentially related to my point.

OK. That’s my technology rant. Here’s my real point: Do we really need 2 of this or 3 of that or 9 of these and 10 of those? Do we? Is this the point of how to be a ‘good leader’ or how to ‘do the job well’? Isn’t One thing enough? Or is that too simple for the church to comprehend? Or are leaders simply incapable to understanding anything apart from a bullet point, numbered list?

I’m reminded of a song by Rich Mullins: My One Thing.

Everybody I know says they need just one thing
And what they really mean is that they
need just one thing more
And everybody seems to think
They’ve got it coming
Well I know that I don’t deserve You
Still I want to love and serve You
More and more
You’re my one thing

Save me from those things
That might distract me
Please take them away and purify my heart
I don’t want to lose the eternal for
The things that are passing
‘Cause what will I have when the world is gone
If it isn’t for the love that goes on and on with

‘Cause who have I in Heaven but You Jesus?
And what better could I hope
To find down here on earth?
Well I could cross the most distant reaches
Of this world, but I’d just be wasting my time
‘Cause I’m certain already I’m sure I’d find

You’re my one thing (one thing)
You’re my one thing (one thing)
And the pure in heart shall see God***

I’m not putting down Churchleaders.com or the people who write there. I’m just asking a question: Is it too simple to say to the leader: Jesus is enough? Is it naïve to say only One Thing matters?

Frankly, I think too many people make it way too difficult to be a Jesus follower let alone a preacher in the church.

“Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

*Don’t read too much into this article. Mostly I found it amusing that so many articles began with the idea that “Here is a Definitive List of [some important topic]“. It seems about as creative as stacking rocks.

**I have written out the word for the numbers due to a formatting glitch. The articles themselves use the representative symbols (i.e., 12 or 2 or 3, etc.)

***That’s only a portion of the lyrics. There’s more. Mullins may not have been making my point, but I like the song and wanted to include it.

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Introduction

Contemporary Christians often feel Hebrews to be a strange and difficult book. There are, I think, two reasons for this. First, it seems to ramble about and discuss a lot of themes which have never made it into the ‘top ten’ of Christians discussion tops. It begins with a complex discussion of angels; continues with a treatment of what Psalm 95 really meant in talking about ‘entering God’s rest’; moves on to Melchizedek; lists the furniture in the Tabernacle; and ends with an exhortation to ‘go outside the camp’. Well, you see what I mean; were I a betting man, I would lay good odds that none of my readers have found themselves discussing these things over the breakfast table within the last month or two. Small wonder that most people don’t get very far with Hebrews, or let it get very far with them.—NT Wright, Following Jesus, 4

I think he’s probably correct in his assessment. There is a lot going on in the book of Hebrews—and most of the stuff going on is terribly complicated to understand. The arguments are complicated, the exegesis is tricky, and the logic is sometimes a maze of confusion. I’m not suggesting for a minute that I have it figured out entirely. Not at all. That is not to say, on the other hand, that I am completely wordless or thoughtless about this magnificent book.

Exegesis, Patterns, and the Big Idea

What I like to look for when I am reading is patterns: patterns of thought, recurring phrases, foreshadows, double-backs—you know, all those things we were taught to pay attention to when we were learning to interpret writing back in junior high. Reading through the book of Hebrews has given me an opportunity to notice a pattern repeated without fail over and over again in the book at least 14 times in the book. It’s a simple pattern and really helps us understand what the book is about or, at minimum, what small sections of the book are covering.

I add one small caveat: the book does, I believe, have an overarching point. I again agree with Wright who is very careful to write that

The book of Hebrews offers us, quite simply, Jesus. It offers us the Jesus who is there to help because he’s one of us, and has trodden the path before us. It offers us the Jesus who has inaugurated the new covenant, bringing to its fulfillment the age-old plan of God. And it offers us, above all, Jesus the final sacrifice; the one who has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, who has lived our life and died our death, and now ever lives to make intercession for us. (Following Jesus, 10)

Jesus is the Big Idea in Hebrews, without doubt. What I would like to demonstrate is a pattern for how we understand what the smaller arguments in the book of Hebrews and thus how they all tie together to help us understand the bigger argument of Hebrews, viz., that Jesus is enough.

I think if we break up Hebrews into small chunks and see how the author ends each argument then we will begin to understand the greater point he is making within each argument. That is, each argument he makes leads naturally to breaks and conclusions which are set off by key words or phrases. Then all of these smaller arguments, when clumped together, give us a grand picture of Jesus. Throughout the book, leading up to this grand climax, the author has taught us how to live—not leaving theology without a point because all good theology has, ultimately, the point of teaching us how to live because of Jesus. So we learn how to live because of Jesus or what Jesus has said or what Jesus has done and when the book is done, we can say, “Yes, I will join him outside the camp.”

Conformity to Jesus

Barth noted that “Christian speech must be tested by its conformity to Christ.” Unless ‘speech’ is a metaphor for an entire life, then I would expand upon his thought and say that Christian life must also be tested by its conformity to Christ. We have concocted all sorts of ways to judge one another (how often do we go to church, how much money do we give, how much do we serve, etc.), none of them without some merit and some with more demerit, but it seems to me that the best way to examine ourselves, the Bible way, is to judge ourselves and see if we, I, in fact conform to Christ. I’m fairly certain the apostle Paul wrote something to this effect at some point in Romans or Ephesians or both. And this only makes sense given that Paul did definitely write that we are being transformed into the image of Jesus, renewed in the image of our Creator who is Christ Jesus.

So all throughout Hebrews, the author will give frequent pauses, after short or lengthy expositions of Old Testament Scripture, and say something like, “OK, here’s a conclusion. I just said this and that, therefore, here’s how to check yourselves against what I just wrote.” Or, “OK, I just said this and this about Jesus, now, therefore, here’s the way you ought to be conducting yourselves.” He does this over and over again; I count at least 14 times where this pattern is used. The key, if you are reading in English, is to find the word ‘therefore’. In our English translations, this word will signify the need for the reader to pause and consider what has just been read. It’s a good exercise in exegesis that when you see the word ‘therefore’ to ask what it is there for.

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[Here I offer some rather preliminary notes and observations on the book of Hebrews. I hope I can writes some more, but I don't want to make promises. This is part of a project I am working on to get myself back into preaching shape. I also offer it as part of the prophet part of prophets, priests and poets. --jlh]

“The story of Easter is thus a prophetic story of the way in which this God will not keep silent (Luke 24; John 20), will not let the conversation (the argument?) between God and humanity be ended simply because of the sin of humanity, will not be defeated by human intransigence. The Risen Christ comes back to the very ones who betrayed the Crucified Jesus, came back to them and resumed the conversation. This is the hope upon which every church is built, the hope upon which every sermon is preached: Christ comes back to his betrayers and talks to them.”(—William Willimon, Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 145)

I have been stuck in the book of Hebrews. I suppose calling it a book is a bit of a stretch since it’s really a letter. It’s a brilliant letter and every time I open its pages I come across something more that I hadn’t noticed on the previous visit. Every time I read this letter, I fall more in love with it. It is so deep, so massive, and so theologically profound that even a surface reading leaves one overwhelmed and in awe. I wish I had discovered this letter sooner in life, but I confess that its depth was enough to persuade me, when I was younger, to avoid it.

At first glance, yes, Hebrews is complicated stuff. In fact, if you have not spent significant time reading through the Old Testament—especially the books of Leviticus and Exodus—you might as well avoid reading Hebrews for a while. Yet I discovered a long time ago that there’s a simpler way to understand the various books of the Bible. Usually, not always, but usually, the author gives us a hint at his purpose in the opening of the book or letter. I think Hebrews is very much like that. So: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors [in] the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” When reading the book of Hebrews, it is imperative we listen to what God is saying to us. It seems to me that the author could have started anywhere, but he begins by exhorting us to hear the voice of God which spoke first in the prophets and lastly in Jesus.

It almost seems too simple to say that the book of Hebrews is about this God who speaks to us, but I think that is a pretty good place to start. And it goes a little further, too, when we see that the author has attached his own prophetic voice as the natural successor of Jesus—not that he adds to anything Jesus said, but that he continues proclaiming the message of Jesus. I note that four times (at least) we are told to pay attention to our leaders, to those who speak to us the Word of God. In fact, this idea forms an inclusion for the entire book: “We must pay careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (2:1) and “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven” (12:25; cf. 13:7). I suspect, however, that in many cases this idea has been quite lost on us rebels. Many think we don’t need to listen to leaders who expound the Scripture—as if their job is something else. And, to be sure, many leaders take this as a carte-blanche excuse to wield all sorts of ungodly power over the church. We need not look far for examples.

We have to pay attention. But it’s terribly important for us to note who we listen to first. Hebrews is very careful to note that we first listen to God who spoke in Jesus. God spoke in the past in the prophets, in the last days he spoke in Jesus—but regardless of whether it was the first days or the last days, it was God speaking in them and the message was consistent. The continuity between then and now is that it was God speaking. His message was consistent too (see Hebrews 3:5). We have to listen to him who spoke—which is, I think, easy enough to discern: He who spoke is God in Jesus (1:2-3). We are not to refuse Jesus who speaks to us. Why? Because he has spoken to us by Jesus ‘in these last days.’ There is an eschatological element to our listening and to his speaking. We ignore his voice at our own peril: we will drift away, we will not escape, there is no voice left for us if we ignore his voice. God has nothing else to say save for Jesus; that is, Jesus is the last word from God on matters of salvation. Consider the further words of chapter 2:

“For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (Hebrews 2:2-4).

What was announced by Jesus was God’s salvation. If we ignore the message proclaimed by Jesus, confirmed by those who heard, and testified to by God through signs and wonders, what other hope do we have? In the context of the letter to the Hebrews what we find is that this final message of Jesus in these last days concerning salvation is far superior to anything it is compared to. It is superior to the message spoken by the prophets (1:1), superior to the message spoken by angels (2:2), superior to the message spoken by Moses (3:5), superior to the message spoken by Joshua (4:8), superior to the message spoken by the sacrifices (10:5), and superior to the message of Abel’s blood (11:4; 12:24). There is nothing that compares with the voice of Jesus: he has spoken, we must listen; we ignore him to our own peril and disaster. (In fact, the word ‘better’ (Gk. kreitton) is a significant word in Hebrews, 1:4; 6:9; 7:7, 19, 22; 8:6; 9:23; 10:34; 11:16, 35, 40; 12:24). Everything about Jesus and his last word is, finally, better than anything that preceded it or anything that might follow it.

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There is an interesting phenomenon that takes place in the world of the church (blogdom serves as a microcosm of this phenomenon). It is marked by a careless attention to detail when it comes to Scripture which thus results in a profound misreading of Scripture to suit one’s own ends, to justify one’s own position, and to hammer to death those with whom we disagree. This phenomenon is, of course, proof-texting.

I heard a professor say it like this once: A text without a context becomes a pretext for a proof-text. Or, something similar to that. As I reflect on the way I was trained to read Scripture and exegete it, I see what the professor was getting at: the authors of the Bible did not write verses. Instead, they wrote books comprised of stories, poems, laws, Gospel and more. Paul did not sit down and write Romans 3:21. Paul sat down and wrote an entire letter to a church (or churches) in the city of Rome (1:7). In other words, what we call Romans 3:21 is merely (not minimally) part of a carefully crafted argument concerning God, the Scripture, and humanity contained within a much larger context. He wrote it to a specific people, at a specific time, and in specific circumstances.

Still, he did not write a single verse of Scripture. He wrote entire letters, the contents of which have been, through the years, utterly mangled in people’s attempt to justify their own belief systems in a sort of a priori kind of way: I have an idea, let’s see if I kind find a verse of Scripture to back it up! And, as it turns out, just about any idea we want to find in the Bible can be found in the Bible. And wow! The ideas are limitless. I never cease to marvel at the religions that have been constructed upon the foundation of one jot or one iota of one word of one verse and then given the name ‘Christianity.’

I have an idea about the Bible that is fairly simple and greatly eases the project of exegesis. Commenting on the nature of the hermeneutic used by Luther, Berkhof writes, “He defended the right of private judgment; emphasized the necessity of taking the context and historical circumstances into account; demanded faith and spiritual insight in the interpreter; and desired to find Christ everywhere in Scripture” (Principles of Biblical Interpretation, Louis Berkhof, 26-27). It’s in that last phrase that I find the most hope and, I think, that through the years it has been that piece that has stuck in my mind and heart more than any other piece of hermeneutics: Jesus is there in Scripture, and all I have to do is open my eyes, listen to the Holy Spirit, an adjust my priorities (so that I am looking for Jesus and nothing else).

So, we look carefully at Scripture and we see Jesus all over the pages, and in every story, without allegorizing or even putting too much effort into it. Paul did write, “But apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” Jesus made similar statements in Luke’s Gospel: “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and Psalms” (Luke 24:44, cf. Luke 24:25-27). There are other instances too, for example John 5:36-47 and Acts 8:26-35—especially verse 34-35. That sounds too easy, doesn’t it? Even the book of Revelation, so often abused and misused and misunderstood is perfectly understood if we begin with the idea that it is (as it is in the Greek) ‘the Revelation of Jesus Christ’ (I take it as both an objective and subjective genitive) instead of as ‘the Revelation of John’ (as it is in English) or the ‘Revelation of how the end times will come about’ (as it is in so much popular fiction based on the book.

A wonderful example of what I am talking about is the letter we call ‘Hebrews.’ This short letter, surely one of the most beautifully written books in our Bible, is about Jesus—first to last. It is difficult to read Hebrews and come away with anything but a stunning picture of Jesus who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God. I could go on and on and on.  All this is to say that I believe we spend far too much time looking for things in Scripture that are simply not there—and we are not meant to find them. When we read the Bible, we are meant to find Jesus.

Jesus is the point of Scripture. I heard it also this way: The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed; the New Testament is Old Testament revealed. Cliché? Yes. True? Yes. “Jesus our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7; it’s kind of difficult to escape the sort of Jesus hermeneutic that Paul is using.)

But there is ‘tragedy’ in the church. Mafred Brauch writes of this tragedy, “…many who most passionately and stridently proclaim allegiance to the Bible and love for the inspired, authoritative Word of God often interpret and apply Scripture in ways that are abusive, thus distorting its mean and message…[C]onsequently, instead of releasing the transforming power from God and the treasures of God’s Word into the world in and through broken vessels of our presence and witness (2 Cor 4:7), we contribute to brokenness and abusiveness in our world” (Abusing Scripture, 18). Brauch goes forward with five specific ways we manage to accomplish this (the following paragraphs are direct quotes from Brauch):

A. We use [the Bible] as an instrument of bitter warfare, both within our own circles and against outsiders: we condemn, judge, malign, demean and reject. What does this say about the validity of the central message of Jesus—loving not only brothers and sisters but also neighbors and adversaries?

B. We announce that the Bible speaks the truth from God about human life and relationships, but then we undermine our commitment to that truth by using all kinds of biblical proof texts—often out of context and not in keeping with their original meaning or intent—in an effort to ‘prove’ to those with whom we disagree that we are ‘on the Lord’s side’ and they are of the devil (or at least very wrong!) Is this attitude and practice compatible with the spirit and teaching of the Jesus of the Gospels?

C. We use biblical texts selectively to build arguments for particular theological doctrines or biblical teachings, while conveniently ignoring biblical texts that stand in tension with our views.  Or we employ sophisticated (and often deceptive!) ‘exegetical gymnastics’ to eliminate tensions between and among diverse texts, or we reinterpret texts that are inconvenient and do not support our dearly held convictions or doctrines. What does this say about integrity in the work of interpretation?

D. We invest tremendous energy and time on matters that our Lord told us were not to be our primary concern (such as timetables of the end times) and spend too little time and energy on matters that both God’s prophets and our Lord, as well as his earliest followers, placed very high on their agendas—such as a passion for justice, peacemaking, concern for the poor and righteousness in human affairs. Does this not undermine our claim that the whole Bible is our authority?

E. In the midst of the confusing and distorting voices about human sexuality in our time, we champion Scripture’s call to holy living and morality, grounded in creational intention and covenant commitment. And so we must. But at the same time we often blithely set aside or ignore the cancers eating away at the communal life and witness of our churches—such as strife, bitterness, gossip, backbiting, greed, divisiveness—all named in the New Testament as incompatible with kingdom values (1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Ephesians 4:25-32; 5:3-5). Are we then not guilty of distorting the Bible’s claim on all areas of human life and community?  (All quotes are from Manfred Brauch, Abusing Scripture, 18-19.)

I don’t think Brauch is suggesting anything radical or out of the ordinary or, for that matter, new. What I do think he is suggesting is that we carefully examine ourselves and how we use Scripture, what we expect of Scripture, and what we are showing the world when we talk about Scripture. Let’s find a way to listen to Scripture, to seek Jesus who, from first to last, is the Mystery of Scripture.

Think about it: what would happen if we, the Body of Christ, consistently pointed to Jesus instead of our pet projects and pet theologies when we talk about Scripture? I wonder how much strife could be done away with in the church if we ‘used’ the Bible to talk about Jesus—which is what God used it for. Doesn’t it lay to rest a lot of controversy when we point to Jesus instead of ourselves? Seriously, isn’t the end of all hermeneutical adventures to find Jesus? I wonder how many churches could be planted if we preached Christ and him Crucified instead of something else? How many churches would not split if we were all on board that Jesus matters only? How many preachers would not lose their jobs if they consistently, weekly, perpetually preached about Jesus? Conversely, how many preachers would lose their jobs if that were all they talked about?

Sometimes I think that we talk about all the extra stuff because we are not brilliant enough to talk about Jesus without end. Or we get bored talking about Jesus so we have to talk about all that other stuff that is so beside the point. I’d challenge any preacher to put aside his plans for sermons about life, family, finances, heaven and hell and talk for a whole entire year about nothing and no one but Jesus. I contend that if we talked more about Jesus we could talk about the rest of it much, much less. Can we ever exhaust our conversation about Jesus? But we are not predestined to become like a theological system or an idea about life. We are, Paul wrote, predestined to become like Jesus (see Ephesians 1)—and God is, in fact, renewing and restoring in us the image of Jesus (wow, see Colossians; what else could this mean, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ, in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you will also appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:1-4); see also Hebrews 12:1-3 among others).

“The story of Jesus is full of darkness as well as of light. It is a story that hides more than it reveals. It is the story of a mystery we must never assume we understand and that comes to us breathless and broken with unspeakable beauty at the heart of it, yet it is by no means a pretty story, though that is the way we’re apt to peddle it much of the time. We sand down the rough edges. We play down the obscurities and contradictions. What we can’t explain, we explain away. We set Jesus forth as clear-eyed and noble-browed, whereas the chances are he can’t have been anything but old before this time once the world started working him over, and once the world was through, his clear eyes swollen shut and his noble brow as much of a shambles as the rest of him. We’re apt to tell his story when we tell it at all, to sell his story, for the poetry and panacea of it. ‘But we are the aroma of Christ,’ Paul says, and the story we are given to tell is a story that smells of his life in all its aliveness, and our commission is to tell it in a way that makes it come alive as a story in all its aliveness and to make those who hear it come alive and God knows to make ourselves come alive too.” (Frederick Buechner, “The Two Stories” in Secrets in the Dark, 85-86),

May we find Jesus in the Scripture, that the world may find Jesus in us.

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I’ve been finding my way back recently. It’s not been an easy journey. I have chronicled my journey here and elsewhere. The road has been crooked and confusing. The journey has been filled with missteps and sidesteps. My feet have been tangled in weeds and soaked from stepping in potholes deep enough to hold melted winter water.

Sometimes we grope in the darkness and hope for a helping hand. Sometimes the hand is clenched, fist-like, and lands squarely on our jaw.

Therefore, when I approach Scripture these days it is not without trepidation and fear and trembling. I used to be a ‘pro,’ but the Lord was convinced that I need to be demoted to the minor leagues. He demoted me in dramatic and startling fashion. I have had to find a way to know God when I don’t have to know God. It’s hard to know that water quenches thirst when it’s on tap, much easier to know it does when you are in a desert. Still, as I walk back to the life I was ushered from, I begin to find my way back to the pulpit. That is, I find myself able and wanting to talk about Scripture from a particular point of view: the pulpit.

The view from the pulpit will never be the same for me again in this life. And that is probably a good thing.

____________________________

The short letter to the church at Ephesus has, for reasons not entirely unknown to my heart, captured my attention anew in recent days. Last year, it was from reading Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection. It was also due to a sermon series I heard at one of the two churches my family attends—the preacher did a masterful work exegeting Paul’s thoughtful, pastoral and prophetic words, bringing them to life inside the congregation.

I have realized much, lately, that I am hungry again. The letter to the church at Ephesus has startled my taste-buds like a fragrant and aromatic wine. It’s like tasting a sweet cake all over again for the first time. It’s like having an ice cold beer after cutting grass in the hot August sun. It’s like seeing my wife, gorgeous and majestic as she was, on our wedding day. It’s like waking up from a long illness and craving a tasty, sumptuous, and rich dinner. It’s like walking down the Emmaus Road hungry and finding oneself strangely satisfied, without ever having taken a bite, because Jesus was in our midst all along.

Do I have words to describe what water tastes like after walking thirsty across a desert for many, many days? What is a sound night’s sleep like after being awake for many days? What is a dreamless night after a year of nightmares? What is it like to finally beat up a bully who has been humiliating you day after day after day? What is it like to put on fresh socks after walking for miles barefoot on the jagged rocks? It’s like realizing again that our hunger is satisfied only by things we cannot feed ourselves. Taste and see, the Lord said. It’s no wonder he told us to taste and see. I gave up pop for Lent; water is delicious.

Yeah. That’s what Ephesians has been to me as I have awakened from my slumber and realized that Jesus has not been nearly as silent as I had previously thought.  I am hungry. I am thirsty. Ephesians has been good food, good drink, for me.

The other day, I was reading through chapter 1 again and I realized some important things about it. So I offer some tentative thoughts from chapter 1.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,  in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength  he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Ephesians, like pretty much all of the Bible, is about Jesus. It is really, truly difficult to avoid that idea. What I noticed is that God is working out a plan in Jesus. Read through these verses slowly and notice how many times he uses simple pronouns: he, him, his. Notice how often he talks of Jesus, writes his name, sings his praise. God has a lot to do through Jesus and he is doing it, has done it. God means to accomplish three main tasks as I see them here in chapter 1.

First, he means to bring us all together into complete unity (v 10). All things in heaven and earth under Christ. All of this is accomplished through the work of Jesus—this is his purpose in Jesus. Complete oneness of all God’s people, and all God’s places, in Jesus.

Second, he means to bring about our final redemption (v 14). And in the meantime, he has given us a promise, a seal, in the form of his Holy Spirit. Our redemption is through his blood (v 7).

Third, he means to once and for all, finally, to place all things under the feet of Jesus (v 21-22). This dominion begins with the church. We are the firstfruits of his rule and authority even though clearly all things are under his authority (Matthew 28)

That is brief and unfinished to be sure, and they should probably be expanded and finished. What is amazing is this: look how much the church is included in this work of God! Look at what he has done for us, how much he has included us in the mystery, how much he has invested in the church, how much authority he has given us already, how much he has promised us, and how he gone out of his way to make sure we are not entirely in the dark. We know what to expect of God, we know what his ambition and goal is: unity, redemption, dominion—all resulting and exalting God’s glory (‘to the praise of his glory’, 3, 6, 12, & 14).

I just finished reading David Platt’s as yet unpublished book Radical Together. He writes of what I believe is of utmost importance that many of our churches have yet to figure out here in this world (that’s not a blanket criticism, just a general observation based upon my own personal experiences in the church–and I’m probably limiting it to the Church of Christ/Christian Church). You see, the letter to Ephesus asks the church to be involved in some rather important and heady stuff—stuff we couldn’t plan, cannot finish, and cannot control. The letter also informs us that we have not been left helpless or powerless. Platt captures exactly my point:

As long as church consists of normal routines, and Christianity consists of nominal devotion with little risk, little sacrifice, and little abandonment, then we can do this on our own. But what happens when we give ourselves to something that is far greater than we can accomplish on our own? What happens when we dare to believe that God desires to use every one of our lives and every one of our churches to bring about kingdom advancement to the ends of the earth? We will find ourselves around every corner and at every moment dependent on his power and desperate for his grace as devote ourselves to his purpose. (129)

This is the God who calls us to abandonment and the freakishly terrifying idea of taking his Gospel to the masses of lost and hopeless people in this world. This is the God who gives us a spirit of wisdom and revelation that we ‘might know him better.’ And when we know him better, we clearly communicate Him to others. He has given us resurrection power to accomplish that very purpose that all things may one day be brought to complete unity, that one day he might finally redeem us, that one day all things might truly be brought under the power and rule and authority of Jesus—to the praise of his glory!

What’s so amazing is that God has included us in that plan. Amazing.

God does not involve us in his grand, global purpose because he needs us. He involves us in his grand, global purpose because he loves us…Let’s rise up together as selfless followers of a self-centered God, and let’s live—and die—like we believe our highest prize is his global praise. (Platt, 135)

To the praise of his glory.

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“Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:15-17).

“Jacques Ellul insists that this resurrection life must be lived in this world, but at the same time he insists that the Christian ‘must not act in exactly the same way as everyone else. He has a part to play in this world which no one else can possibly fulfill.’” (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 261)

Graduate school is a lot of fun. I am learning so much about achievement gaps, high-stakes testing, functional behavior assessments, response to intervention, No Child Left Behind, and more. I am learning about Bloom’s Taxonomy, KWL, Evidence Based Practice, content standards, teacher accountability, labor unions, graphic organizers, charter schools, magnet schools, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and…well, there are more ways for a human to be ‘broken’ than I could have ever imagined…and I could go on and on for a while. I have learned more than I thought I needed to know, and less than I probably need to know. Who would have thought that teaching children to read would be such a complicated ordeal?

Education is a serious enterprise in the United States. I am getting my money’s worth out of this experience and I am glad for it because I am spending a lot of money getting this education.

About 9 months ago or so, I began to realize something strange. It goes something like this. I am in school to learn about more than the multitude of variations of ASD that a child might have. I am learning about more than the thousands of children’s books published every year in the United States. I am learning about more than what is required to be a certified teacher in the state of Ohio (3 different praxis exams including HQT requirements for NCLB, comprehensive exams, 52 hours of graduate school, a semester of student teaching, a portfolio, and more).

You know what is scary? I have been learning about myself. You know what I realize? I’m ugly. I realize that I am pretty much un-fun. You know I have had to learn how to laugh and be the class clown again? I’m boring. I’m sensitive to rebuke. I Hate failure (I recently lost three points on an assignment; not happy). I’m jealous of the success of others. I’m impatient (the trip to Cleveland about kills me). I’m arrogant. There are a few people who are smarter than I am (I didn’t get the highest grade on a recent mid-term). I’m comfortable. I like leading, and not so much following. I like talking, and not so much listening. I like being in charge, and not so much taking orders. And, trust me, there’s more.

I am learning not just what is required of a teacher, but I am also learning the sort of teacher I do not want to be. This has been the most important lesson I have learned and not just from going to class at CSU, but also from working a part time job at a local school. And I realize, most importantly, that the teacher I do not want to be is a teacher who is not the things I just listed, above, that I am. I don’t know if that makes sense or not. I’ll say it this way then: not having my own pulpit any longer is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. It is harder to lose a pulpit than it is to gain one.

What I have learned, though, is that those things I described above are the very things that I had become. I hate mirrors. I keep asking God, ‘Is it safe to land?’ He keeps saying, ‘Wait’ (which I suspect is God’s way of saying, ‘Oh, I have a few more revelations for you.”) As I look back on nearly fifteen years in the pulpit I realize that I had quite forgotten what it was to be a terrified 25 year old fresh out of Bible School and stepping into a pulpit for the first time. I had grown quite comfortable with my skills. Frankly, I had become impatient, arrogant, condescending, comfortable, boring, sensitive, jealous, boring, and un-fun. And more. You know what I forgot most? People. I did a lot of serving, but I think sometimes I did it so I could be up front, in charge, and not (always) because I loved people.

I forgot what it was like to work 60 hours a week and have to get up on Sundays to worship. I forgot what it was like to have visitors in town and want to stay up late Saturday thus necessitating an absence on Sunday. I had quite forgotten that most people do not have Bible College educations and even less have seminary educations. I forgot to be with people and their hurt. I forgot what it was like to serve because I was called to and not because I was paid to. I used to complain that the money I was paid tied me down, bound my hands and prevented service, real service. As I look back I realize it did so, but not in a way I expected: that is, I stopped serving because I could and wanted to and started doing so because I had to.  I forgot what it was like to drown in sin, to struggle with addiction, and to feel hopelessness. I forgot what it was like to think God had moved a million miles in the opposite direction.

I forgot how to suffer. I forgot how to hurt. I forgot how to feel. There is a certain amount of pleasure and satisfaction that comes from a sermon well-written and better-delivered. And don’t get me wrong: a great sermon goes a long way on paper. But for all that I suffered, I forgot to suffer. I forgot to weep with my people. I forgot to hold them. So protective of myself was I, so angry at not having leadership, so frustrated by the lack of growth, so bitter at betrayal, so jealous of fellas half my age preaching in churches a hundred times the size of mine…I was becoming more and more the person I was warning the congregation not to become. I gave up the safety of insecurity and vulnerability and weakness for the caves of strength and clarity and well-spokenness. I traded. In the end, the only way for Jesus to awaken me was to destroy me.

Now, here I am, alone with the self I hate, the one I created in the image of the world. Here I am, now, alone with my introspection. I am the Bob Eucker of preaching: thought I belonged in the front row only to find out…not so much. Here I am, now, saved by grace only much more aware of it than ever before in my life. I am learning what I had forgotten: how to love and be loved, how to be known by Jesus, how to walk by faith. I am learning to let Jesus be in charge. I am learning to follow and listen. Learning that temptations are all around and there are people who will spoon feed them to you if you ask.

I’m in no way undermining the consequences or the failure or the sin of those who hurt my family. But, and this is a huge but, but, neither I am clinging to them for dear life and breath any longer. Holding on was probably worse than experiencing them to begin with. Genuine love, true joy, is possible when the person counts on Christ for his love and joy and not on the perfection of circumstances or identity. I spent almost ten years forging an identity in this community where I live only to have it taken away in a matter of hours and days. I spent the better part of 20 years becoming a preacher, but along the way I forgot how to be a disciple.

Sad. But true.

I should wrap this up for now. In learning what sort of teacher I do not want to be, I have inadvertently, or not, learned the sort of preacher that I had become. I also have learned why I became not so useful in the church. You see, I let My Ministry become that which defined me and my life and my existence. I learned from Tim Keller that this is a bad thing to do. My identity, Paul wrote, is not wrapped up in who I am or what I do. That is why he writes that we are to imitate Christ. Our identity is wrapped up in who He is which is, precisely, why Paul writes that we are to become like Christ.

I do not know yet what part I am to play in this world, but I am learning that if I must continue that I must find myself in Jesus first. So all I’m really trying to say is this: be careful. Maybe you are a young preacher, setting out on your way and looking to forge an identity or be the next big thing on youtube or the next big itunes podcaster. Don’t give in. You were meant for less.

Maybe you are a long time faithful person in Jesus. Don’t despise the wilderness.

I am meant for less. Thankfully. Because where there is less, there I will find Jesus, the one who has been looking for me all along. And now that I am exposed, undone, out in the open…now, I suspect, he can finally see me, and I can finally see Him.

And He is a sight to behold!

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Daily Office

“I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” –1 Corinthians 9:23

I have frequently and publically lamented the fact that I have no ministry, no particular service to the church in the sense of the paid clergy. I do not wear a collar or preside at the Eucharist…sometimes, I don’t even particular feel like partaking of the Eucharist. It’s not an easy way to feel or to live. I have spent a good part of the last year sobbing at the loss of my pulpit and my voice and my identity. Then I got to thinking—which is never a good thing—and I didn’t like the conclusions I came to.

Preaching is no easy task. Ask anyone who does it and they will tell you that it sucks the life out of your soul at times because, for one reason or another, the preacher typically really believes in what he is saying. I always, and I say this without equivocation, always preached to myself first. I went to the pulpit ready. I was so ready in fact that there was simply no challenge that could be mounted against my impeccable grammar, my on point theology, dead on conclusions, gripping introductions and weighty, challenging, and artful main body. I can say without blinking that I had mastered the art of preaching.

And it is for that reason, I suspect, that I was never able to conjure up a congregation. As a preacher, as a minister, I was an abysmal failure. I was better at shrinking churches than growing them. I did a lot of things and did them well, but there is a spot in my heart that knows I did these things for very wrong reasons. This is hard for me to admit because I loved preaching and I was good at it. I believed in preaching and the Word of God I preached. I believed it would do its work and not return to the Lord void. The problem is this: I wanted the Word to return to me. I say this too without equivocation: I wanted little more than to grow a church, be recognized by my peers as an outstanding preacher, and get an invitation to preach at some convention, or earn a chance to preach at a bigger church. This is not easy for me to admit, but it is true.

I loved preaching; I miss it terribly. But I know the truth is that I did not always preach only in service of the Gospel. Sometimes I preached the Word of God and it worked in spite of me…like those days when I was convinced the sermon stunk and someone would really be challenged by it. Those days the Spirit of God worked in spite of my best efforts, but I never really figured that out quickly enough. I confess here in public: I was a very self-centered preacher often more, and too, concerned with the form, the art, the process than I was with the Gospel I claimed to be preaching. There was more than once that while preaching I would come across a typo in the manuscript and instead of blowing past it I would note it to the congregation, take out my pen, and correct it then and there. We laughed, but inside I seethed with self-hatred that I had made such an error. Then I would regret sharing the news with the church. And so on and so forth.  Like I said, I have been a terribly ugly person.

So now I work at a video store and if there is one thing I have learned it is this: I am not there for myself. I am there in service to the corporation that owns the store. I have individual sales goals but they gain me nothing when I meet them and earn me scorn when I do not. They gain the store only the slightest recognition. They earn me no spiffs or perks or bonuses. They simply keep my name on the schedule because, as you might have guessed, I am good at it. I am good at it for the sake of the corporation. Period. I have no choice but to do everything I do there for the sake of the corporation. Frankly, I am more selfless working at the store than I ever was preaching.

Sad, but true.

It may be that someday I end up preaching again; maybe not. I will take this knowledge with me wherever I end up though: I do not preach for the sake of grammar, church growth, or for personal opportunities and advancement. Whatever I do, I must do for the sake of the Gospel. It’s a hard lesson to learn that those who serve the Gospel serve the Gospel alone. I talk a lot about taking up the cross, denying the self, and following Jesus—a lesson I clearly did not learn until the very thing I did to accomplish such a trifecta was taken away from me.

It seems to me that when we serve the Gospel alone, we share its blessings. In the meantime, we are just serving the self, alone It’s a difficult lesson to learn. The Spirit of God is still working on me. He’s still working on me, to make me what I ought to be.

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It’s not quite a One Line Thought. It’s not quite long enough for a Thought for the Day. It is just long enough to shake me this morning.

“We have made the bitterness of the cross, the revelation of God in the cross of Jesus Christ, tolerable to ourselves by learning to understand it as a necessity for the process of salvation.”

–Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (as quoted by Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, 108)

Maybe it is true that I have taken the cross for granted. For all the preaching I have done about the cross in the past, maybe now, while I’m not preaching, is when I am learning just how much I believe what I used to preach about it.

All I am saying is that this wilderness I am in right now is teaching me more about myself than I care to know, and causing me to lean on God more than I am particularly comfortable doing. I am not sure I am particularly comfortable having to take the cross so seriously not just as the means of my salvation, but as the burden I am asked to take up and carry every single day.

I am learning just how bitter that cross was.

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I was editing my church’s listing information on Google when I came across this:

Google business listing

This is designed for businesses.  Plumber?  Yes, this business serves customers at their locations.  Hardware store?  No, all customers come to the business location.  Simple.  I put “No” for our church.  Somewhat because we are still stuck in the business church model of the last 100 years, but mostly because I’m having a hard time bringing myself to say Yes.

This past Sunday I preached a first-person sermon from Jonah (you can listen to it here if you want):

 
icon for podpress  Jonah - Called to Go: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download

During my sermon study I always try to examine my own life in light of what I am going to be preaching and you can’t help being changed when you spend the necessary time and depth that a first-person sermon requires.  Jonah was called to go to Nineveh.  One of the extraordinary things about Jonah is that the book is the only latter prophet whose message is presented in narrative prose.  One of the functions of the literary genre of narrative is that the audience naturally identifies with one or more of the characters.  A talented narrative writer is adept at drawing the reader into the story, not just to be surrounded by it, but to become a part of it.  Part of the function of the book of Jonah was to do that for the people of Israel: to see themselves in Jonah.  To see their rebellion against God was a rebellion of the heart, a rebellion against His very nature.

And so I did.  I saw… I see myself in Jonah.  And I can’t even claim to have any enemies.  Jonah didn’t want to go to those he detested.  I don’t want to go to those I am uncomfortable around.  I know that my God is compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love, patient.  Maybe that’s why I’m still allowed to be where I am… to do what I do… even though I don’t want to go.

I think it’s time that I– that we– started to say “Yes, this business serves customers at their locations.”

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