10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons–Lesson 5: Taking the Towel

(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’m doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)

This past Sunday night I celebrated my 6th anniversary as the primary teaching pastor at Bloom. It’s been quite a ride. When I think back over these past six years of (almost) weekly teaching, one of the things that stands out is how completely the orientation of my heart has shifted in terms of my spiritual understanding of what I do… what my preaching means to this community and how it functions within the community.

In perfect honesty, I came into this job six years ago holding at least a partial hope that my preaching every week would launch me out into “next big deal” status in pop Christianity. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s true. And every time someone would listen to one of my messages and compare me to some bigshot preacher out there, it would only fuel the flames of vanity.

Maybe the best thing that could have ever happened to me is exactly what DID in fact happen to me. The hoped-for “next big deal” status never arrived. And I think I got something better in return: I got to learn the joy of week-in and week-out service to the people of God in the pulpit, without the distraction of having to think about what some mega-audience out there was thinking about my preaching.

One of the things that we (preachers) sometimes lose sight of is how local and specific the work of preaching is. We’re talking about lives here. Actual lives, lived before the face of God, in all their pain and joy and beauty and complexity. And the absolute BEST way to make a difference in those lives is by holding them lovingly in your heart, and then from your heart bringing a fresh word to them, FOR them specifically, based on your knowledge of who they are and your discernment of what God is saying to them.

And with that, we have the 5th lesson: preaching will always lose its mooring when it is divorced from the call to serve the Body of Christ in love.

By the same token, it will be all the better for being anchored in a more general pastoral call, and all the disciplines pertaining thereunto.

Paul’s words in Ephesians 4 ring true, and have a peculiar significance for the preacher:

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Note the juxtaposition of verse 29: “unwholesome” is set at the opposite end of the spectrum from whatever brings “benefit to those who listen” and builds them “up according to their needs.” A failure to walk in this total orientation to the needs of others with our speech represents “grieving the Holy Spirit.” And then of course Paul goes on to spell out in more detail in verse 31 just what this “unwholesome” speech looks like and is driven by.

Let’s be honest here for a second. A lot (maybe most) of preaching is driven along by motives that come straight from the pit of hell. Can I list some of those motives? (Disclaimer: I have been guilty of all of them… )

  • The desire to be thought well-spoken, intelligent, educated, or gifted (vanity)
  • The desire to be more like so-and-so, secretly comparing yourself to them (envy)
  • The desire to show how you are right and others are wrong (self-righteousness)
  • The desire to divide the world up into who’s right and who’s wrong (factiousness, self-righteousness)
  • The desire to become a big deal one day (vanity again…)

We could go on and on here. The point, I think, is becoming self-aware of every motive that falls short of the call to “serve one another in love”, a command which is constantly repeated throughout the New Testament, and then, aided by grace, beginning to learn to say “no.” For the truth here is that not only is preaching driven by these (and other) motives generally unhelpful (and usually bad) for the local church, it is also a heavy burden for the preacher to bear. It does damage to the preacher’s soul–that is, his (or her) whole life.

When I think back to some of my early years preaching, part of the reason that the task routinely felt heavy to me was that I was determined that basically every time I preached, I was going to “wow” people with some new insight, some bit of novel biblical or theological knowledge, some really edgy illustration, some incredible rhetorical flourish or turn of phrase. In my mind, the pulpit was my playground to work out my ideas, refine my gifts, and build a platform.

Good God. I am so sorry for that.

After years of preaching that way and finding it to be just as empty as the writer of Ecclesiastes said it would be, I know better now. I know that just to the extent that the call of Christ is a call into the community of faith, a call in which the ego goes to die; so also the call to preach is a call to die to the ego for the sake of loving and serving others.

Just so, when I lay down my ego-needs, I find myself stepping into the “light yoke” that Jesus promised, AND… I find that my preaching “hits the mark” far more routinely than it used to. I rise to preach, give voice to what I think the Spirit is saying to our community, trying to do so with the utmost simplicity and straightforwardness, and then let worship continue. I am not trying to make a name for myself. I am not trying to impress. I am not the center of our worship. I am not the main attraction.

I am a servant. With Jesus, I wash the feet of the faithful. And my unique way of “taking up the towel” for the sake of this community is with my words. The moment my preaching becomes detached from the ministry of the towel, it is an exercise in futility.

Part of what is entailed in the task of approaching preaching in this way is that we anchor ourselves as preachers more deeply in a life of prayer for our people. For it will be out of our prayer (which is a deep expression of the agape we live in with others) that our best and most helpful preaching will come.

Now, when I prepare, I am not just thinking about the text of Scripture, and all the interesting words and phrases and intertextual connections and that thing I read in so-and-so last week and so forth… as wonderful and valuable as all of that is… as much as anything else, I am reading the Scripture and also, in my heart, scanning my congregation, over whom I “pray without ceasing”, trying to let the Scripture be part of my general pastoral discernment of the Spirit’s work among us. As I sit all week with the Gospel reading, meditating on its twists and turns, I find myself naturally thinking about this situation over here, or that coffee I had over there with that person whose life is a wreck… I find myself thinking about who we are as a community, stories that I’m hearing, feedback I’m getting from people on how it’s going following Jesus. I can’t help but ponder our past and our future as a people in light of who Jesus is and what he is saying. Once again–all of life, OUR VERY CONCRETE LIFE TOGETHER–brought under the gaze of the Almighty, subjected to his scrutiny and wisdom and boundless love.

If and when I prepare this way, my preaching gains a simplicity, focus, and clarity that it would not have had otherwise… I’m not getting up to do a song and a dance… I’m not getting up to try to wow people with my intellectual ability…

Instead.

I’m drawing attention to the Scripture

I’m relating a story or a situation that came to mind as I meditated this past week

I’m wondering out loud how that touches broader issues we all face

I’m calling us to yield our lives to Jesus Christ in the midst of that

Is there more to it than that? Sure. But at its core… this is what we’re doing.

Preacher–there is a better way. Be quick to identify driving factors in your preaching that are unrelated to the more general task of washing the feet of God’s people. Then make a choice: do you want life, or do you want death?

Because everything outside of the call to die and rise with Christ Jesus in the service of God’s people is death. But to “die before we die”, as CS Lewis put it… that is life.

And your people will thank you.

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10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons–Lesson 4

(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’m doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)

If you’ve been following this series of posts so far, one of the things you’ve noticed (and perhaps are frustrated with) is how little I’ve said about things like actual sermon prep, using good illustrations, delivery, and all the other technical stuff about preaching. Instead, I’ve tried to focus more on “big picture” philosophical issues, and within them, the issues of personal formation as a preacher that I think are central to any attempt to speak meaningfully about preaching as a task and vocation. I promise I will address some of the technical stuff (look to coming lessons 6-10 on that), but for now I want to continue to talk about the kind of life we must live if we are to not only last but thrive in this beautiful and daunting challenge of opening up windows to the kingdom for the people of God each week.

And with that, Lesson 4:

A basic discipline for the preacher is the discipline of whole-life attentiveness.

One of the things that used to baffle me when I was a kid was the sheer volume of really poignant content our pastor was able to come up with. And I’m not talking new biblical or theological content either (which is easy to come by if you’re studious enough). I’m talking about the kind of content that might, in a different time, been called “testimony”–i.e., stories and examples from his own life and the lives of people in our community that illustrated just how God was actually present and at work. That always amazed me. In fact, it sometimes made me wonder if he lived a more romantic, exciting existence than the rest of us.

Then I started grappling with my own call as a preacher. And some of the things we’ve been talking about over the last few weeks started coming into focus. And as I journeyed with God and became more deeply acquainted with what the nature of his activity looks like as it is recorded in the Scripture, my vision sharpened up. And before too long, I started seeing God everywhere, in everything.

It really didn’t matter what I was doing. I could be reading a book. I could be jogging. I could be watching a movie. I could be sitting in a counseling session with someone. I could be walking around downtown. I could be making a new friend. I could be holding one of my babies, or laughing raucously with my wife over something silly. I could be dealing with an interpersonal conflict, or weeping in prayer over some injustice in the world. It could be anything.

But in it, I would see God and Gospel and Kingdom at work, and all the nuance and subtlety of the biblical world gradually became the nuance and subtlety of my own lived existence–the drama of redemption playing out at every moment in my own life and experience.

You just have to develop eyes to see.

It takes time, though, to develop such eyes. I remember being really impressed the first time I read through Annie Dillard’s masterful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In one of her chapters she describes the experience of some of the first recipients of the newly pioneered surgery for cataracts around the turn of the 19th century. Folks that could not see at all were suddenly given the gift of sight. BUT–and here’s the interesting part–when light first flooded their eyes, they didn’t see what you and I see. Their experience of sight, as they recorded it, was that of near blinding light and shapeless color–like newborn babies, it took time for them to begin to make sense of what they were seeing. A wooden chair, for instance, may feel one way to a person that cannot see. But beholding the chair is an entirely different experience–at first glance, a nearly incommensurate experience to that of feeling the chair. Of course, eventually the two ways of perceiving become synoptic, and one experiences the world with a newfound depth and power. BUT, again… it takes time. To be able to interpret the light one sees and categorize it meaningfully requires both the strengthening of our sight and the requisite wisdom to be able to know what one is seeing.

That’s really an apt metaphor for the whole life of the disciple, which, as I contend, is what the preacher is before they are anything else. We–all of us–are like the blind man in Mark who begs Jesus to heal him. When Jesus spits in his eyes and lays hands on him, the man receives his sight, but only partially. “I see people,” he says, “they look like trees walking around” (Mk 8:24). And so once again, Jesus places his hands on the man’s eyes, and his sight was restored fully.

That, I think, is just how it is with us. As we journey with Jesus, he keeps placing his hands on our eyes and healing our ability to see, so that increasingly we see with eyes healed by the kingdom, in order to perceive the kingdom.

It’s not hard. But it does take time. This is probably in part what was behind E. M. Bounds’ saying that it takes 20 years to make a sermon, because it takes 20 years to make a man. As our character develops and matures in the sight of God, so also does our ability to behold the work of God in and around us. We begin to perceive it with a nuance that would have been impossible when we first started. And when we stand up to preach, again, we’re not just parroting abstractions at people. We’re speaking out of the depths, right into the depths. Because, of course, the depths are all around us, just waiting to be named.

Sometimes when I’m telling some story or giving some illustration during a message, I fret a bit that my listeners will think that my life is more charmed or interesting than it really is. I fret about it because the truth is that my life is probably, on the surface, far less charming or interesting than many of their lives. I’m a busy pastor in his 30’s with a wife and four kids. My life mostly orbits around those primary obligations, and there’s not a lot of room for superfluous intrigue. I wake up early. I work. I come home. We eat and put the kids in bed. I read some. We watch TV for awhile. We fall asleep. It’s really as hum-drum as it comes.

AND.

What I’ve discovered is that the life God has given me (and each one of us) is chock full of glory. There’s more than enough there. It is sufficient for a communion with God, a manifestation of the glory of God, that is as robust as any of the great saints and mystics ever had. That is how God has set it up.

We just have to develop eyes to see.

And the only way we do is by walking with God. Every moment, every hour, every day… until the days pass into weeks, which pass into months, which pass into years… and before long, the words of the Psalmist go from poetic rhapsody to a straightforward description of how we experience the world: “the unfailing love of YHWH fills the earth…

Probably no one I know has expressed this better than Frederick Buechner. He writes:

If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. (from Listening to Your Life, p. 2)

If you learn to do this, you’ll always have more than enough to say.

10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons–Lesson 3

(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’ll be doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)

When do you “prep” to preach? Probably for all but the very most charismatic among us, there is a definite time and day that you sit down each week and begin to work on your coming message (or messages, if you’re one of those annoying folks capable of planning multiple weeks and months out 😉 ). You open your Bible or pull out your computer at, say, 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and get to work. So in your mind, sermon prep began on Tuesday at 9:00 a.m. and ended whenever you stood up to deliver your message. Basically. Most of us could probably measure our “prep” time in hours–5, 10, 15, etc., and oftentimes we feel better or worse about our messages (heading into Sunday) based on how much time we invested.

But is this really the best way to think about “sermon prep”?

My experience has taught me that it is not.

We’ve talked already in parts 1 and 2 about how the preacher needs to have a clear idea of what they are doing (opening a window to the kingdom), and how they need to make sure that their focus is not on “applying the text” to our “everyday lives” but rather on making plain how the text is already a description of the one beautiful and vexing life we now live before the face of God. But how do we become preachers capable of doing this?

I know one thing–thinking of something called “sermon prep” simply as a discrete moment that happens at regular intervals in your pastoral schedule ain’t gonna get the job done.

It’s just not big enough.

A text that has always been formative for me in my own ministry has been this one, out of Ezra 6. The restoration of the city is underway, and Ezra the scribe has been sent to help with the project. The favor of God, according to the text, is clearly upon him, and the narrator puts forward this explanation as to why:

For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to practice it, and also to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel. (Ezra 6:10)

This is so fabulous to me, and brilliantly instructive. Note the order–Ezra has “set his heart” to:

  • Study” Torah (the Heb. is “seek out” Torah, which I love)
  • Practice” or “do” Torah
  • Teach” the statutes and decrees of Torah in Israel

The priority here is clearly upon Ezra’s commitment to seeking out the wisdom and purpose of Yahweh in Torah and then figuring out just how to put it into motion… how it works… what it does… how it opens up vistas of understanding… how it binds and looses the human experience… and then, and ONLY then, can he “teach Yahweh’s statutes and decrees in Israel.”

It seems to me that the first call of the preacher is to live with God, in a dynamic interface between the nuance and texture of Scripture on the one hand, and their lived experience with God on the other hand. We are explorers in the frontier of faith, guided by our sense of who God is and how his world works through a careful and continual study of Scripture… a sense which is continually tested against what we’re actually finding out on the frontier. We move back and forth, in our own lives, in our families, in our interactions with neighbors and coworkers, between text and the “context” of our lives, seeking to understand how it all works.

And then here and there, out of our own experience of God, we stand up before the people and bring a fresh word.

That means, obviously, that the preacher must be, above all things, a disciple, a learner, an apprentice in the task of following Jesus. What we bring to the people of God when we stand up to preach is not (God forbid) some clever new interpretation of a text, or some purely academic or poetic twist on truth, or some clunky abstraction that requires 10 pages of notes to talk through… but rather the fruit of a lived experience with God, rooted deeply in, tempered by, and in fact made possible through the text of Scripture, which is our “norming norm” and the prism through which we’re called to perceive the one life God has given us.

Think about it for a minute. The messages you’ve heard preached in your life that were the most powerful, the most transformative… didn’t you get the sense that those messages came out of a whole life lived with God? That this wasn’t truth newly acquired, but truth that the preacher had gotten friendly with over the years? And when you heard that message, didn’t it have a ring of depth and authenticity to it that made it so compelling?

Then ask yourself… where does that come from?

I contend that it comes primarily through an Ezra-like commitment to be a disciple first, and a teacher second.

(At least) two things will immediately start happening to you when you begin to understand your call as a preacher this way:

First, “sermon prep” will go from something that happens at discrete moments on your weekly calendar, to something that is basically happening all the time. Now of course you will likely STILL sit down at set times to do work germane to the assembly of your sermon… but when you do, you’ll no longer be entering into some activity totally alien to the normal ebb and flow of life, but rather you’ll be sitting down to reflect on what the Lord is graciously showing you as you walk with him. Of course, the text of Scripture will often challenge you here. There will be times that the “window” being opened through this or that text is one that you’ve only barely begun to put your head through… or one that scares the living crap out of you! That’s ok. Be honest about that. Your listeners will thank you.

Second, you will begin to understand in all kinds of fresh ways the “light yoke” that Jesus spoke of… as a preacher. I know a lot of preachers who live with continual anxiety about Sunday. I was one of those guys, and honestly still struggle with it from time to time. But as I’ve walked with God and clarified some of this business in my own heart, the anxiety is starting to evaporate. I’m not getting up on Sundays to do some song and dance to entertain people. I’m not getting up to try to give some elaborate explanation of a so-called “truth” that is beyond my present experience, or the experience of my congregation.

I’m getting up to try to tell them what I’ve come to know of the God who is speaking through that text, and what that might mean for us. I am free, in fact, I am encouraged to draw on my own experience in doing this, since my own experience, after all, represents the training ground in which God is working his beauty in my life. And because in my whole life I am committed to understand what it means to live in the kingdom, everything in my life is fair game for “sermon material.” There is no shortage, for I am always living with and knowing God. Anything that makes the cut on Sundays is surely “run-off”, overflow out of the abundance.

At it’s best, I’ve come to understand a sermon to be a rhetorical act that combines biblical and theological insight stitched together with the very stuff of life. And once again, if what I’m saying is accurate, then the “narrative” or “personal vignette” moments of my message are not incidental or complementary to the “real thing” of the sermon (the biblical or theological exposition), but they also are the “real thing”–living testimony to how the glory of God is actually shining through.

I’ll get into how this notion of sermon prep effects actual sermon prep and organization of content in following posts, but for now I’ll leave you with this challenge:

If you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety about preaching each week, chances are you haven’t entered into the “light yoke” of discipleship as a preacher.

You’re trying to do too much, or you’re doing it in the wrong way, or your life and your preaching are disconnected. Whatever the case, I’ve come to understand that the Abba of Jesus does not lead us into that soul-crushing, toxic anxiety that stifles generosity of soul even as it eats us alive. He wouldn’t put that on us. He’s better than that. If we’re feeling that pressure, it means somewhere we’re out of sync with him.

What’s been your experience with this? Do you resonate?

10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons: Lesson 2

(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’ll be doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, “This is a beautiful and compelling truth; now how does it apply to our everyday lives?” I would be a rich man.

Not that trying to figure that out is a bad thing. When, for instance, groups of friends get together to discuss the Bible or theology, one expects such questions to arise naturally–it’s all part and parcel of trying to understand how our lives are implicated by what the Scripture commends.

BUT.

When I hear preachers, especially in their sermons, ask that question: “Now how does this apply to our everyday lives?” I want to run out of the building screaming. I once told my staff that if they ever–EVER–heard me say such a thing in one of my messages, they should shoot me on the spot. An aggressive bit of hyperbolizing, no doubt, but my seriousness was sincere. And here’s why: to ask that question is to totally misunderstand the nature of God, the world he loves, and the good news the Church tirelessly proclaims.

For underneath that question is a sort of Enlightenment, dualistic mentality most aptly stated by the German philosopher Gotthold Lessing, who several hundred years ago said this:

Accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason…That, then, is the ugly, broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap.

In other words: there is an uncrossable chasm between the vicissitudes of history and the so-called “necessary truths of reason”–the things that all people, everywhere, must necessarily believe.

I hear Lessing’s “ugly, broad ditch” at work in the “how does this apply to our everyday lives” question–it seems that we also are operating under the assumption that what the Bible and theology are MAINLY doing are describing some ethereal, pure, spiritual world, which here and there, you know, sometimes touches our material, impure, unspiritual world, and that it is the job (and man, it is a hard job!) of the preacher to try to bridge the gap in their preaching.

HOGWASH I SAY!

The thing that one immediately notices when reading the biblical text is that it has almost no interest in disembodied “truths” about God. Instead, it thrusts us right from the outset into the welter of life–“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” This is no abstracting discussion about divine impassibility or omnipotence, but a narrative in which we will see how the glory of God, indeed the designs and purposes of God, are made manifest in space and time. This total lack of interest in abstractions is carried straight through the entirety of the narrative, where all of life is seen to be the arena of Yahweh’s interest and power. In fact, it’s almost embarrassing to note the level of interest Yahweh takes in human life. I laugh every time I read through Deuteronomy 23 and the instructions regarding what to do, for instance, with one’s excrement. A very routine and ordinary task is given a theological dimension: “so that Yahweh will not see anything indecent among you and be displeased…” HA. And on and on like this it goes… power, money, sexuality, joy, pain, children, disillusionment, eating and drinking… all of it is brought underneath the gaze of our loving God.

And of course, ever since the Everlasting One became a man, the Lessonian ditch has been completely destroyed. In the God-Man, heaven and earth, nature and supernature, ideas and history, have been indissolubly wed. The truth that is made manifest in Jesus our Lord is forever about the lives we all live, in all of their beauty and grit and complexity, before the face of our Lord and Maker. Nothing is excluded.

This talk of “applying truth to our everyday lives” can really only exist in an environment in which it is assumed that there is an ugly world of materiality that God has come to save us from and into a pure and blissful world of disembodied spirituality that we will live forever in. But man… seriously… the resurrected Christ, according to the Gospel, asked for a piece of fish and ate it in the presence of his disciples. This is what resurrected existence looks like–it includes and dignifies every bit of ordinary life, even as it transcends it, as the cube includes and transcends the square. It does not leave it behind. Neither should our preaching.

That is at the heart of my frustration. It is a misunderstanding of how this whole thing works, which thankfully scholars are beginning to see on all kinds of levels. I’m reminded of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” debates, in which questions of the venerable Reformation doctrine of justification by faith are set within the important socio-cultural questions of the 1st century, in which Jews and Gentiles in the church are trying to figure out who gets to have table fellowship, and under what circumstances. This is about life, folks!!!

Not, of course, that it’s always obvious just how our lives are implicated by this or that bit of biblical text. Some texts (one thinks immediately of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount) make it easy. Others (like, say, the first chapter of Hebrews) take a bit of work. But if one starts with the assumption that this is about life, you usually won’t go too far astray, and your preaching will take on BOTH a theological/biblical depth AND a poignancy vis a vis “real life” that it probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.

There are at least two implications I can think of that come out of this:

First, if you begin to think this way, you’ll approach your preparation differently. Instead of trying to figure out the theological meaning first and then going onto to its practical application (again, think Lessing here), you’ll probably find yourself asking about meaning and life concurrently. I remember years ago doing a series on an utterly ethereal book, Ecclesiastes, and during my study, every single time I felt like the passage in question threw light on something (anything) or reminded me of something (anything), I would write it down in the margin of my notes. A story, a memory, a quote, something that happened with my kids recently, something I saw in the news… I mean whatever. And the funny thing was, the more I wrote those things down, the more energy my biblical and theological study gained. Pretty soon, as I crossed effortlessly between the world of Scripture and my own world, I stopped seeing them as separate worlds altogether, and suddenly the connections started to flow. We weren’t talking about the Bible anymore, with “life” over here on the other side… we were talking about all of it, together, under the gaze of God.

Secondly, if you begin to think this way, you will probably stop privileging “propositional” content over “narrative” or “personal” content in your messages. Again, such a privileging is Lessing’s “broad, ugly ditch” at work. I am under the impression that most of our formal training for preachers, especially that given in traditions committed to the authority of Scripture, operates under the assumption that the most important thing for the preacher to do is simply explain or announce the disembodied “truth” at work in the passage, and then use a personal story here and there to “apply” the truth or make it more personal. I understand that, but also think it’s bad form insofar as it obscures the truth that, again, the gospel is already-always, first-and-foremost, about the actual lives we live before the face of God. So a steady dose of narrative is not mere adornment. It is in fact the place where the glory of God shines through in great depth and clarity. When we begin to talk about our marriages, our kids, our neighbors, our jobs, relationships, ISIS, police brutality, hunting, fishing, coffee, and country music… we are talking about the very things that God in Christ came to save from eternal degradation. We SHOULD be talking about these things, stringing them together in tiny narratives that open windows to eternity. After all, by and large the Scripture itself is a narrative. Not a disembodied announcement of God’s love, but a gracious and soul-stirring “Once upon a time” that invites our little lives into the grandeur of God’s story, dignifying and transforming every little “once upon a time” that gets pulled up into its sweep.

All of this helps address, I believe, the concern raised by one reader last week who said:

I ideally desire practical application from the passages I pick/am asked to preach on. Sometimes [I find myself] running into incredible frustrations when the applications don’t seem very life changing to me, but more so a biblical lecture increasing head knowledge.

If you approach preaching in the way I’m recommending, this frustration will start to dissipate. For there will be less and less “how does this apply?” going on in your preparation–a question, again, assuming that there is “truth over there” and “our lives over here” that only meet once in a great while. Such an assumption is totally false. We are not trying to “fit” God or his truth into our lives. For when God became man, we were forever barred from trying to figure out how we are going to fit God into our lives. God has “fit us” into his life. Every bit of our finitude is radiant with divine splendor, if we have eyes to see it.

(If you’re in the Boulder, Denver, or COS area, you should join me for this–http://www.denverseminary.edu/resources/initiatives/preaching-cluster-groups/. I’ll be leading one. Really reasonable rates. Let’s learn to preach better, together!)

10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons: Lesson 1

(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’ll be doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)

If you pushed me and said, “Andrew, what is the single biggest, the single most important thing you’ve learned about the craft of preaching over the last ten years?” at first I’d bluster about for a bit trying to tell you that there are all sorts of important things and it’s really hard to artificially say which is more important than the other, since in so many ways they all rise and fall together… and then if you were really persistent and kept pressing the issue, I’d have to answer this:

You’d better, at an absolute minimum, have a clear idea of what it is to preach… what a sermon is, what it does, how it functions within the life of the community of faith.

Failing to have a clear grasp of this, your preaching is likely to careen wildly between motivational speech (for those so inclined), theological or biblical history lecture (for those so inclined), angry rant (hahaha, also “for those so inclined”–you know who you are), pep-rally talk (they’re so exhausting, aren’t they?) or insipid, cliche, Christian greeting card drivel (ouch, and once again, you know who you are).

In my early years of preaching, I’d say that my sermons tended to be some combination of theological lecture and angry rant. Though the sands of time have largely eroded my memory on this point, I have a vague recollection of patting myself on the back in congratulations for being “prophetic” in my preaching, when in point of fact I was an immature egghead with a chip on my shoulder who had no idea what a good sermon actually was. The result of this was preaching that didn’t help people very much, and often wore them out. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, when folks would come up to me after messages and say, “Man, I love your passion” or “Wow, you really are smart”, as often as not that was simply their way of being nice to a kid who had a long way to go (and was probably the only person in the room who didn’t realize it… ugh).

Over the years, time, experience, and some measure of study have taught me that at its heart, the sermon is none of the things I listed above.

  • Though it includes motivational elements, it is not a motivational speech
  • Though it includes teaching moments, it is not a theological or biblical lecture
  • Though there are times when prophetic passion erupts, it is not an angry rant
  • Though here and there you will need to do a little “pep rally” talk, it is not at its core a “mobilizing the base” moment
  • And do I need to say anything about Christian greeting card drivel?

Instead, I have come to the firm belief that at bottom, the sermon is this:

It is a WINDOW into an alternative reality–one based on the claim, and all that goes with it, that “Jesus is Lord.”

When I get up to preach now, I stand there knowing that what the community of faith demands of me are words that will remind them of how the world really is now that God has established his reign in the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The reason the community of faith demands this of its preachers is that more often than not, this is difficult to see, and therefore our lives tend to slip into other narrative construals of reality–that Death has the final word, that America is God’s chosen nation, that God doesn’t love me, that reconciliation is impossible, that justice will never be realized, that my guilt will never be assuaged… etc etc etc.

These narratives, you understand, literally PULVERIZE people’s lives, trapping them in stories that are fundamentally unlivable. What the preacher does, then, is the preacher stands up, and out of the vast resources of the Scriptural tradition (which provides the fundamental linguistic elements that the preacher will creatively construe), tells the truth that it’s all false. In announcing the kingdom of God, the preacher is exposing the lies that are driving people’s lives, ripping them to shreds, sapping them of strength and energy. With great love and passion, the preacher is saying, “Peer into this alternative reality. Imagine yourself into a world that is saturated with the goodness and justice of God. Know yourself afresh to be one who is loved, called, chosen, bought, forgiven, and promised an indestructible future in God’s good world through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. You don’t have to live in the lie anymore.

That, brothers and sisters, is preaching. It is standing up in a tradition that reaches back to Moses and Isaiah and finds its consummation and climax in Jesus of Nazareth and saying, “The reign of God is here. Change your mind, and believe yourself into this shocking good news.”

The thing that I think we must grasp as preachers is that in the economy of salvation, God does very little, arguably almost nothing, apart from the verbal announcement of his reign. Amos 3:7–“Surely the Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” God, whose Son is literally called his “Word”, his self-expression, makes worlds available through words. He overthrows empires, brings down kingdoms, frees the oppressed, and liberates slaves, all through human speech. As Walter Brueggemann puts it so well, in discussing the oracles of salvation in Isaiah chapters 40ff:

The news is theological, but it is world-changing, with both a permit and a requirement implied. Note well, that if the Jews go home, it will be because they accept the world that is available to them only on the lips of this messenger… (Cadences of Home, 47)

We messengers are called to this–to employing all of the resources our speech to construct alternative modes of understanding for the people of God so that they can leave every dehumanizing Egypt and Babylon they find themselves in. Week after week, we summon them saying, It is time to go home!

This, of course, will help put all the other bits of preaching in their proper place. We will often motivate, we will frequently find ourselves needing to instruct on the finer points of theology or biblical history, we will sometimes kick into a passionate rant, we will on occasion find ourselves rallying the troops… but all in the service of and within this core call: to open up a window into another reality.

Once you begin to understand preaching in this way, one of the “practicals” that you’ll likely notice is that your sermons will become cleaner, clearer, and often shorter. Though I’ll be getting into those items and more in following posts, for the time being I’ll just say that if and when your preaching is done in the service of opening up windows, as we’re saying here, you’ll find that there will be a lot of things you once thought (or were told were) important in preaching that no longer are.

As an example, my time in seminary had me convinced that really good sermons thoroughly “explained and applied” each and every item in a given text of Scripture. Because I was really committed to biblical preaching, I felt a profound weight of obligation to translate every passage, do thorough word and background studies, etc etc., and then bring the better part of that to bear on the message, explaining, illustrating, and applying every little detail. It didn’t take me very long to realize that because the text of Scripture is fundamentally inexhaustible, it was an unreasonable goal to think that my preaching should even adequately “explain and apply” each bit of text I was asked to preach on.

A better goal, when dealing with discrete bits of Scripture, I soon learned, was to try to understand the heart of God as revealed in this or that text… to ask how it throws open a door to the kingdom, how it’s unique vantage point flings wide one of the windows of eternity, letting the fresh breeze of God’s infinite love pour in. If I could connect with THAT, then all the other elements would find an organizing center.

Good preachers understand this and have honed an ability to execute messages that give people a glimpse of an alternative reality. People walk away having had their imaginations drawn, even if just for a few minutes, into the possibility that life under the reign of God in Christ could be different… and those moments hold the power to change everything. Change perception, change reality.

So the next time, preacher, you’re begin preparation for a sermon, do this: in the midst of all your study, brainstorming, mind-mapping, praying, and whatever else it is you do to get ready, ask yourself this question–“How is this text a window into the kingdom? What is it inviting people into?” If you can identify and articulate that with clarity and passion, you’ve at least cleared one important hurdle to giving a coherent and compelling sermon.

What about you? What have you learned? What kinds of questions does this raise for you?

10 Years of Preaching: 10 Lessons

At the beginning of this year it dawned on me that 2015 marks my tenth year of preaching (more or less). That’s a funny thing to me, because, as I mentioned yesterday in my post about turning 34, I do feel like in so many ways I’m just getting started in life. And that applies to my preaching as well. The “ministry of the word”, as they call it, is one of the central callings of my life (so far as I can tell), and in my heart I feel as though I’ve only lately “left the Shire.”

But ten years of doing anything is nothing to sneeze at, and when I look back over those years, I realize that I’ve learned some really concrete lessons that guide how I do what I do on a (mostly) weekly basis now–with the result that I am able to hold this ministry with ever greater clarity, power, conviction, and most of all, joy.

Those of us who labor in this ministry know that for all the rewards it can give–seeing moments of insight erupt on people’s faces, watching lives transformed, seeing people set free, delivered, and enabled to more faithfully live the life to which they have been called–it can also be extremely disorienting, frustrating, and sometimes downright demoralizing.

Some of that, I think, just goes with the territory. One is reminded of the great prophets of Israel–fellas like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel–whose preaching, according to YHWH, was not likely to result in accolades but rather scorn. “Afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted” sounds wonderful in theory, but when you get down to it, it can really wear on you. Thus YHWH’s challenge to each of them: “Do not be afraid–I am with you.” The occupational hazard of preaching, which none of us can avoid, if we are to be faithful to God, is that the repeated exposure inherent in the task of preaching can leave us feeling raw and vulnerable. We need to know that God is with us, and then stand up, yet again, and speak in his name.

Some of the disorientation, frustration, and demoralization, however, boils down to a whole bunch of practicals. When I started preaching 10 years ago, I found that despite having a raw gift, which was affirmed often and by many, it was the practicals, which I had not yet grasped, and that for the most part only time and experience could really teach me, that were repeatedly tripping me up. Not having a clear grasp of what preaching really was, not knowing what kind of a life I had to live to hold the ministry of the word, not understanding what went into effective preparation, not trusting that preparation when I actually got up to preach, etc etc… my preaching was pretty “hit or miss” in those days, as it always is for those who are just setting out to preach, because of my failure to grasp those things and more.

My conviction is that this ministry can and should be both rewarding, and effective. As one who shares in it, I have a real love in my heart for those who labor each week in the service of the word and desperately want to help them. At its best, preaching is beautiful and compelling. At its worst, it is oppressive, confusing, and frustrating. I’d like to help those of you who feel called to this ministry come to a clearer grasp of what you’re doing so that your preaching rises to the level of the beauty of God’s kingdom–which, after all, our preaching is meant to open up a window into.

So what we’ll do is this…

Each week, I’ll write one or two short (500-700 word) blog posts on a lesson I’ve learned, and include along with each post a “practical” that you can think about or start to try to put into motion in your own preaching. I’d love to hear from you–so if you have questions, feedback, comments, or things you’d like me to weigh in on vis a vis preaching, I want to hear it. (Who knows? Maybe your own feedback will turn into one or two of the lessons.)

What I’l ALSO do is host Periscope sessions here and there where I’ll talk live online about some of the stuff we’re discussing here. Which should be pretty fun.

(A DISCLAIMER: the “lessons” I’ll be posting will be more or less “at random”–stuff straight from my heart. I’m not going to try to impose an artificial structure on it; rather, I’ll just reflect on what’s become really important to me. So if you’re looking for a comprehensive “theology of preaching” or something, this ain’t the place :).)

I’m looking forward to this. If you know anyone who you think would be helped by these posts, make them aware of this conversation and bring them over. Hopefully we’ll all learn something along the way.

Peace,

Andrew

On Turning 34: A Birthday Reflection

I turned 34 yesterday. Weird.

There was a time in my life, not long ago perhaps, when 34 seemed old. A very long time away. I’m not altogether sure what I thought I’d be when I got there, but I would no doubt be old by then. I remember my parents at this age (I was seven or so). Mustaches. Poofy hair. Lax fashion sensibilities. Ford Tauruses. They were the definition of old. Am I that?

I constantly have the experience of meeting people who look old to me and then finding out that they graduated a year before (or after!) I did. It’s disorienting… do I look like that?? I must…

Mandi and I recently went to former Packers quarterback Brett Favre’s induction into the Packers Hall of Fame. On the way over, she said to me, “Do you know he has two grandkids?” I replied, “Do you know he’s only about ten years or so older than us?” “Noooooo….” she gasped, incredulously. Sure enough. Our childhood hero has grandkids, is getting inducted into Halls of Fame, and only has a decade on us.

Old.

When my mom was around my age, she asked my younger brother John, “Do I look old to you?” His reply: “Just your face…”

Ha. OLD.

I’m a romantic at heart, so the idea of letting go of childhood and coming into a full, ripe adulthood is an inspiring one for me. I’m not sure what exactly I thought it would “feel” like to be the age I am now, but this is what it feels like, to me… this is where my heart is:

I’m so grateful for what I’ve accomplished, and still feel like I haven’t done a darned thing. I think I thought at 34 I would be walking around with this sense of, “Man, look at all the cool stuff I’ve done.” That there would be more in the rearview mirror than in front of me. I don’t feel like that. What I do feel is immense gratitude for what I’ve accomplished and where life has taken me… and still feel like I’m just getting started. I hope that I feel that way for a very long time. Kierkegaard once said that the intersection between time and the eternal is not in the present, as many assume, but rather in the moment that is rushing upon us, in the possibility that constantly presents itself anew. Therein is hope. I want more of that. A heart full of eternal possibility.

In like manner, I’m so grateful for what I’ve come to know of God, but feel like I’ve only just begun to explore. That wasn’t always the case. There was a long period I went through where I could feel something like a sad resignation creeping around the edges of my heart, whispering, “It will never get better than what it was.” Those were hard days, and I am glad that they are over. God’s infinity eternally beckons us to more. He is the Far Shore we never reach. The Country we will forever explore. The Name whose mystery eternally unfolds itself. I love God. I want more.

My family is more important to me now than it has ever been. Mandi and the kids. My mom and dad, my siblings, their significant others, my extended family. The older I get, the more stabilizing and orienting and identity-shaping family becomes. Ministry in particular has taught me that firm, stable relationships can be really hard to come by. You fall back on what has carried you. My family has carried me. I love and trust them, and am so grateful for them.

I am less impressed with celebrity than I have ever been. That doesn’t mean I’m not still a little impressed with it :). Just that it’s not as important as it was to me. Knowing “so and so” and being able to say that you’ve met “such and such” a person, and even becoming the kind of person that people might name-drop in a conversation… blech. It’s meaningless. The older I get, the less impressed I am with it. And I’ve learned this: There is absolutely no correspondence between celebrity and truth. I know that now. I didn’t always. More and more, what impresses me are lives lived with full integrity, rooted in the truth.

Which is what I want my own life to be. I am bent on living now, in a way that I’m not sure I have ever been. I want to love my wife and kids. I want enjoy the life I’ve been given. I want to be a great help to the church I serve… and a blessing to those beyond it. I want to keep growing in wisdom and grace, and keep finding my life “hidden with Christ in God.” I want to know and gaze upon the Beauty, and find thereby that my own soul is beautified. I want to live.

Not too long ago I sat down for lunch with an older pastor (and by that I mean a pastor older than me; he’d probably be offended at being called an “older pastor”… ha). His encouragement to me: “You’ve got your whole life and ministry out in front of you. Enjoy it all. Spread your wings. Experiment. Don’t be afraid of living. This decade will be about a profound self-discovery. Soak it all up.”

Good advice. I intend to :).