Delta: What Changes, What Doesn’t

My former love of mathematics came in handy the other day.

I was in a clergy meeting, and we were talking about the delta variant of the coronavirus. And I remembered using the “delta” sign in math equations. It’s a triangle: ∆. Whenever you’re taking the delta of something, you’re finding the difference, or the amount of change.

So the delta between 5 and 3 is 5 – 3, or two. ∆x (“delta x”) is the change of a variable, x.

Delta is change. It’s difference.

As I came out of this math flashback, I spoke up in this clergy meeting, talking about how the delta variant, this change in the trend of coronavirus cases, surely means a change—again—for how we do church, for how we are the church. It’s like “Delta Church” now.

This felt like a deep insight, until I said it out loud, when I saw a bunch of other pastors staring back at me on Zoom, as if to say, “Uh, yeah, Pastor Abram. We already knew that delta means change.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

What we don’t know is what kind of changes this new wave of coronavirus cases may require from us. More patience, for sure. More trust, yes. More caution? You bet. A vaccine booster, even after you’ve had two shots? Yes, that, too. A vaccine as soon as it’s available, if you’re younger? Yes, please.

Delta is all about change. It’s about things being different. And here we finally thought things were done being different, with the cases dropping a few months ago and vaccinations on the rise. It seems we’re back into an unclear present. And it’s hard to keep perspective, when we don’t even know where we are anymore!


Enter Joshua.

At end of the book of Joshua, Israel’s great leader sees the end of his life approaching.

He leads the people of Israel in a covenant renewal at Shechem in Joshua 24. Joshua seems to sense that, as faithful as this group of people wants to be, they are only a generation away from abandoning the LORD.

So before he leads them in a declaration of trust in God, in the uncertain present moment, he has them look back.

They reflect on God’s faithfulness in the past, to remind themselves that God is a faithful God, not just in the past, but also in the present, and that God will be faithful in the future. God provided for the people in the past. He’s going to do it again today, and he’ll do it again tomorrow!

Think about your own life—whatever kind of moment you’re in, however uncertain you feel, however scared this new delta variant has you, whatever the rest of your life feels like right now… think about your past, and how God has been present to you. Think about how God has healed you, how God has provided for you, how God has shown up to you.

Joshua walks through this important act of remembering with his people.

He recaps the history of this people in the presence of all the leaders and judges and officials and tribes. He begins with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, then goes on to Moses, Aaron, and how God parted the Red Sea and brought the Israelites out of slavery from Egypt. All praise be to our liberating God! Other nations fought Israel, but through God they prevailed. God says through Joshua in verse 13, “I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.”

In other words: I, the LORD, gave you what you have.

Even so, Joshua presents the people with a choice, in verse 15: “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.”

Will a faithful, loving, generous God in the past be enough for God’s people today, and well into tomorrow?

Yes, God gave us water from the rock, but… can he do it again? Yeah, God has literally defied the laws of physics to save us, but… what if he forgets how to do it again? Sure, God has done miracles in our past, made a way where there is now way, but what if God gets stuck this time?

It’s not going to happen. There is no delta with God. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” God is good… not some of the time, not off and on, but God is good… all the time!

That doesn’t mean God is unmoved by our challenges. He weeps with those who weep, and he knows what it’s like to be tempted, to suffer. God knows what it feels like to be swept up by a storm at sea, or surrounded by contagious sickness.

But there is no delta with God, no change. No such thing as a God who is here today but gone tomorrow. With God, it’s not just faithfulness and provision up to a certain point. God is who God is yesterday, today, and forever.

Joshua leads the way in recommitting to this changeless God: “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Mater the Tow Truck

In an uncertain moment, in a season of drought, or in-between-ness, it can be tempting to say, “Well, everything is kind of on hold right now, so there’s nothing we can do. Let’s wait till things resolve, and get back to it then.”

As a pastor—the pastor of a church living through almost two years of transition now, as the pastor of a church without a meeting space, without a church office, and at the mercy of the elements for if we can meet in person or not—I confess that this temptation is real for me, too. It’s the temptation to say, “Let’s just survive and get through this so we can go back to being the church, for real.”

But we are the body of Jesus Christ in the city of Boston right now. Do we need a building to be the body? In some ways, yeah, it really helps! Do we need to be able to attend large gatherings without masks and be back to where we were two years ago, before any of these changes came? That would be awesome! I would love that.

But that’s not our reality. Reality has changed.

Who we are in Christ Jesus has not changed.

We are still the congregation, the people, God has called us to be.

The same God who has led us “where (we’ve) been” is going ahead of us into a future we cannot see. This future is crystal clear to God. Muddy for us, totally in focus for God.

Consider Mater the Tow Truck, from Pixar’s Cars movie. Mater declares himself to be, among other things, “the world’s best backwards driver.”

He shows the race car Lightning McQueen his skills. He uses his rear-view mirrors to look behind him and quickly drive backwards through town and over various obstacles. To an amazed Lightning McQueen, Mater says, “Don’t need to know where I’m going, just need to know where I’ve been.”

“Don’t need to know where I’m going, just need to know where I’ve been.”

And that’s a good thing, because, ask me what I know about the present? Ask me what I know about next week or next month? Shrug of the shoulders.

But that doesn’t mean we’re on hold. God’s Spirit is living and active among us, and we get to be the body of Christ in the city right now in a world where everybody else is feeling anxious about all of the delta changes ahead. Do we know where we’re going? We’ll still make plans, but no, we don’t really know where we’re going. But do we know where we’ve been, how God has walked with us? You bet!

What if this tough, in-between time is vital work God is doing in is right now to shape us into the church he needs us to be for the future?

What if our building-less summer and fall means we’re an even more public witness to the city, as we worship in full view of the public at the park?

What if we were like Joshua, and led the way in helping our friends, families, and neighbors remember a good God who has always been faithful? What if we said to others, I believe that this loving and generous God is not going to give up now!

What if our faith and trust in God, even in this “delta” season, inspired others to trust God, too?

Friends, let’s say with Joshua, loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear, “But as for (us) and (our) household, we will serve the LORD!”

I adapted the above from a sermon I recently preached.

Bonhoeffer: Lying Destroys Community


Source: German Federal Archive
Source: German Federal Archive

Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his Cost of Discipleship:

Because the first and last concern of truthfulness is the revealing of persons in their whole being, in their evilness before God, such truthfulness is resisted by the sinner. That is why it is persecuted and crucified. The truthfulness of the disciples has its sole basis in following Jesus, in which he reveals our sins to us on the cross. Only the cross as God’s truth about us makes us truthful. Those who know the cross no longer shy away from any truth. Those who live under the cross can do without the oath as a commandment establishing truthfulness, for they exist in the perfect truth of God.

There is no truth toward Jesus without truth toward other people. Lying destroys community. But truth rends false community and founds genuine fellowship. There is no following Jesus without living in the truth unveiled before God and other people.

How My 2-Year-Old Helped Me Practice What I Preach (or, Saying Psalm 23 Through Gritted Teeth)

My two-year-old gave me an unexpected opportunity yesterday to practice what I just preached Sunday. I noted in my sermon that I had been understanding Psalm 23 as a “counter-circumstantial prayer of defiance,” a “subversive prayer when you compare it to what you see around you.”

I mentioned some potential circumstances which make us feel far from the idyllic pastoral imagery of the Psalm, and then suggested that those are some of the best times to (defiantly) pray Psalm 23:

When you hear about wars and rumors of wars, say this Psalm.

When your best friend gets sick, say this Psalm.

When someone in your family grieves you by their seeming lack of care for you, say this Psalm.

When you don’t know what the next year of your life holds, say this Psalm.

An instance I didn’t think to include was:

When your two-year-old daughter draws with permanent marker all over the brand-new cork floor that the church graciously put in last year in the parsonage kitchen… say this Psalm.

When I noticed the damage, this image is about the opposite of how I was feeling:

Image Credit: (Todd Bolen), used with permission
Image Credit: (Todd Bolen), used with permission

I was feeling more like this:

The Scream

For at least 10 minutes as I frantically scrubbed, I didn’t even remember there was a Psalm 23, let alone think to say it.

But then I took a step back (by God’s grace) and began to quietly say–through gritted teeth:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul….

And when my gracious and patient wife came home, she gently reminded me of the “magic sponge” we have under the sink that takes permanent marker off of everything. Within minutes, the green marker drawing on the floor was gone. Gone. The cork floor is good as new.

True, there are much darker valleys in life to walk through, but I think sometimes in parenting those little mini-valleys of frustration and exasperation can add up pretty quickly. And for us parents, they can be the regular “stuff” of our everyday existence. We need good Psalms to pray for the big valleys, and good Psalms to pray for the little valleys.

For those moments–should my two-year-old again somehow elude my watch like she has been so eager to do lately–I will try again (and again) to remember to “say this Psalm.”

Psalm 23: Psalm of Trust, Psalm of Defiance

Psalms of Summer

Psalm 23 is a Psalm of Trust. A Declaration of Confidence in God.

The imagery and tone of the Psalm are peaceful: “green pastures,” “quiet waters,” a restored soul, the promise of God’s presence even when death and darkness are near. The LORD is my shepherd: he provides, he guides, he restores, he is with his sheep, and he comforts.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures.” With God as my comforting shepherd, there is time to rest. Time to stop. Time to be still.

Image Credit: (Todd Bolen), used with permission
Image Credit: (Todd Bolen), used with permission

Typically a shepherd leads sheep to a pasture where they can graze. The sheep still do work; the shepherd does the leading but not necessarily the feeding. As the Psalm progresses, God as comforting shepherd becomes welcoming host, who sets out a whole banquet for his flock.

Image Credit: (Todd Bolen), used with permission
Image Credit: (Todd Bolen), used with permission

Psalm 23: It Just Got Personal

Psalm 23 is intensely personal. It’s a prayer of an individual to God; a song from one soul, who recognizes that the ruling king of the universe has taken the time to lead him to a restful spot to get a drink… to rest.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul….

David uses the first person singular pronoun throughout the Psalm. God is the shepherd of each individual who would follow him.

This may seem slightly unremarkable to us. We live in a North American society that already tends toward individualism. Our cultural construction of the self tends to be individually-focused.

The culture in which David found himself was much more communally-oriented. The sins of an individual and the corporate sins of the community were not always distinguished. A person’s sense of self was constructed and informed and shaped in a communal context.

Identity for a Hebrew man or woman had much more to do with being a part of a chosen and called-out community. A chosen people, plural.

Even in other Psalms, when God is prayed to as shepherd, there’s a sense in which he’s understood as a shepherd of a whole people:

For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.

So it’s at least a little remarkable, in the larger context of Hebrew worshiping society, that David begins–the Lord is MY shepherd.

The idea of God as personal shepherd is consistent with Jesus’ interpretation of himself as shepherd. You remember the Christlike image of the shepherd who–even though he has 100 sheep–will stop and go find the one who goes missing.

So it really is okay, and probably even closest to the original intent of this Psalm, to put your own name in there as you read it.

Psalm 23 as Prayer of Defiance

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading this Psalm through the lens of the news this week, but I’m beginning more and more to see Psalm 23 not only as an affirmation of trust and confidence in God, but also as a counter-circumstantial prayer of defiance. It’s a subversive prayer when you compare it to what you see around you.

Verse 4 says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” David seems to just take it as a given that life contains dark and death-filled valleys.

11,002 ThingsI saw in a bookstore yesterday a little book called 11,002 Things to Be Miserable About. It’s a work of satire, mostly, though not all of it is. Here are a few of the things it listed:

  • Exaggerated vows of love
  • Abysses of regret
  • Tipping over backward in your chair
  • The misery of goldfish
  • Heel pain caused by flip-flops

But we don’t need a book to think of all the ways in which life is full of dark valleys.

You’ve been in a dark valley before. Maybe you’re in one now. It can be a valley of darkness and shadows that you’ve found yourself in due to no choice of your own: some hurt or frustration someone has caused you; prayers that continue to go unanswered in the way you’d like to see answered; illness and physical ailment; unexpected and sudden grief.

You could be in a valley of darkness and shadows that is more of your own making, too. Maybe your whole life doesn’t feel like a valley, but maybe you’re aware of your “shadow side” that you wouldn’t dare bring to church, that part or those parts of you that you don’t want anyone to see. Maybe you’ve looked inside and seen something in your heart that—it pains you to see—doesn’t please God.

Or, to see some “valleys of the shadow of death,” you could just pay attention to global events this week. 4 children in Gaza—cousins—playing at the beach and shot dead from the ocean. An Israeli ground invasion into the Gaza Strip. Another Malaysian Airline plane crash full of passengers, this one shot down by a ground to air missile as it was flying over Ukraine.

And if you really want to lose some faith in humanity, you probably have already heard that that airplane had something like 100 of the world’s top HIV/Aids researchers on their way to an international Aids conference.

So, yes, there are plenty of valleys of the shadow of death and darkness that we walk through.

And yet, even though—“even though I walk through through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” “Even though,” David says, in a hope-filled prayer of defiance.

There’s an old story of a young preacher who was preaching in a rural church in Louisiana during the depression. This church had just one lightbulb coming down from the ceiling that gave light to the whole sanctuary. As Pastor Taylor was preaching, the electricity went out. He was a newish preacher and didn’t know what to do in the now-dark sanctuary. But an elderly deacon in the church, from the back of the room, shouted, “Preach on, preacher! We can still see Jesus in the dark.”

“We can still see Jesus in the dark.”

For whatever reason, when I hear “shepherd,” there’s part of me that thinks of a humble, young boy (or girl) walking sheep through beautiful country fields on a quiet, sunny day.  And that’s right. Leading your sheep to serenity is part and parcel of what it means to be a shepherd.

But there’s this fascinating passage of Scripture, Micah 5, which says:

When the Assyrian invades our land
nd marches through our fortresses,
we will raise against him seven shepherds,
even eight leaders of men.

Maybe it’s just me, but reading about a coming invasion by an Assyrian superpower, my first reaction is: What kind of a country would send their shepherds out to battle?

But Micah is drawing on a rich tradition in the Scripture—especially in the Old Testament—of using “shepherd” imagery to describe kings, to describe commanders, to describe strong and mighty leaders.

When Micah says “shepherd,” he is talking about a ruling king who goes to battle for his people.

David, as a ruler himself, surely had this aspect of shepherding in mind. The readers and prayers and singers of this Psalm surely saw not just a shepherd to comfort me, not just a host to welcome me, but God as a ruler to protect me. This ruler won’t do away with all of life’s dark valleys—not yet, anyway—but he will be with me while I walk through them.

The Lord is my shepherd, and his rod and his staff—weapons of protection in the hands of a skilled shepherd—fend off that which would attack us.

When Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, we see his gentleness in his willingness to lay down his life for the sheep, and we see his ferocity, his power, his authority over all things when he says, “No one can snatch them out of my hand.”

Even the presence of enemies in verse 5 cannot keep this ruling shepherd from playing banquet host, setting out a feast for the ones he loves.

So good shepherds are not to be trifled with, because they protect their flock. They walk with them through darkness. The Good Shepherd is a ruling king, and he keeps our modern-day enemies—shame, guilt, fear, anxiety, the accusations of others, stress, hatred… he keeps our modern-day enemies at bay. Even though life is full of valleys of the shadow of death, tens of thousands of things to potentially be miserable about, Jesus the Good Shepherd is a ruling king who STILL is sovereign over all he has made, no matter how fouled up it gets.

“We can still see Jesus in the dark.”

So—when you’re riddled with doubt and self-loathing, or just questioning your worth? Say this Psalm.

When you hear about wars and rumors of wars, say this Psalm.

When your best friend gets sick, say this Psalm.

When someone in your family grieves you by their seeming lack of care for you, say this Psalm.

When you don’t know what the next year of your life holds, say this Psalm.

When you have to do the hard work of reconciling with someone you have hurt or that has hurt you, say this Psalm.

When you can’t pay your mortgage on time, say this Psalm.

When you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, say this Psalm.

When you get scared of the dark, say this Psalm.

As a holy act of defiance against the darkness,
as an affirmation of trust and confidence in Jesus,
when you come up on one of life’s dark valleys,
get ready to walk through….and say:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.

He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached today. Scripture quotations are from the 1984 NIV. See my other sermons gathered here, including the first Psalm of Summer sermon here.

Change Your “Pas5w0rd,” Change Your Life

Psalms of Summer

This summer we’re going to delve more deeply into the Psalms. “The Psalms of Summer,” I’m calling the preaching series. (Or, as a pastor friend of mine called it, the Psalms of Psummer.)

We’ll find ourselves here in these poems and see our heart’s desires expressed in the Psalms. Some days we’ll walk out of church with new prayers to pray: prayers we’ve been longing to pray and have already been feeling, but maybe couldn’t put words to.

We’ll seek, too, to be shaped and formed by these prayers.

Psalm 1 as Preface, and Picking a Password

Psalm 1 is, as one early church theologian called it, the “foundation” of the house. It sets up the whole book of 150 Psalms. You could almost even think of it as a sort of “Psalm 0.”

The ones who are blessed, this Psalm says, the ones with the richest, most God-filled lives, the ones who flourish, are the ones who meditate on God’s word. Over and over.

Blessed are those… who delight in the law of the LORD and meditate on his law day and night.

I found myself this week being redirected to an article on NBC’s Today Website, because I had to click on the link that said, “How a password changed one man’s life for the better.”

And how can you not click on that, you know?

Mauricio Estrella had just gone through a painful divorce and was depressed. He says:

One day I walk into the office, and my computer screen showed me the following message:

“Your password has expired. Click ‘Change password’ to change your password.”

His work required a change of password every 30 days. He writes:

I was furious that morning. A sizzling hot Tuesday, it was 9:40 a.m and I was late to work. I was still wearing my bike helmet and had forgotten to eat breakfast. I needed to get things done before a 10 a.m. meeting and changing passwords was going to be a huge waste of time.

As the input field with the pulsating cursor was waiting for me to type a password — something I’d use many times during every day — I remembered a tip I heard from my former boss.

And I decided: I’m gonna use a password to change my life.

He reasoned like this–he has to type in his password several times a day–when his screen saver came up or his lock screen kicked in when he was away from his desk for extended periods of time.

So, freshly wounded from the divorce, he set a password: “Forgive her.”

Except he had to have at least one capital letter, one lowercase letter, one symbol, and one number, so it was “Forgive@h3r.”

Every day for a month he wrote, “Forgive her.” And Estrella said:

That simple action changed the way I looked at my ex wife. That constant reminder that I should forgive her led me to accept the way things happened at the end of my marriage, and embrace a new way of dealing with the depression that I was drowning into.

A month later, his password expired, so his new password–reflecting a new mantra he wanted to take on–became: Quit@smoking4ever.

It was a great article–a little self-help-y for my tastes, and it is true that we find ourselves in way too many situations that we can’t just positive think our way out of. But Mauricio Estrella knew what the writer of Psalm 1 knew–what we meditate on has the power to transform us. 

Two Ways

Here is one way of outlining Psalm 1:

What are the two ways? (Ps. 1:1-2)

What are they like? (Ps. 1:3-4)

What do they lead to? (Ps. 1:5-6)

This Psalm tells us, especially, that what we meditate on has the power to transform us.

What are the two ways? (Ps. 1:1-2)

Ps 1:1    Blessed are those
who do not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,

2 but who delight in the law of the LORD
and meditate on his law day and night.

Or, get this–I’d never read Psalm 1 in this translation until this week:

Happy the man
who did not walk by the counsel of the impious,
and in the way of sinners did not stand,
and on the seat of pestiferous people did not sit down.

(Stay away from the pestiferous ones!)

Walk… stand…sit. There’s a progression into wickedness here. At first you might be walking on by, just taking a look at–thinking about–going down a road you shouldn’t. If you slow down enough to stand there and look at the way of the wicked–that’s worse… when you stop to sit in the chair of those pestiferous people, well, then… you’re done for. Because what we meditate on has the power to transform us. And the ones that we spend time with also have the power to transform us, for better or for worse.

These are the two ways: the way of the wicked, the way of the righteous.

Righteous ones “delight in the law of the LORD and meditate on [it] day and night.”


Later Psalms will echo this. In Psalm 119, verse 97, it says, “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.” Then in verse 103, the Psalmist writes, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”

I suspect that this idea of loving the law of God can sound a bit strange to us. We all see the value in laws and rules and regulations, sure, but to love somebody’s laws more than the summer season’s first ice cream?

We hear the word “law” and might think about some of the detailed instructions given in, say, Leviticus, regarding physical hygiene and ritual purity, such as Leviticus 14, which is about cleansing from infectious skin diseases and what to do when you notice mildew on your clothes.

So your new computer password becomes: Remove@clothingm1ldew.

Or we hear the word “law” and think of it as opposed to “grace.”  They were living under “law”; we are living under “grace.”

So what’s the Psalmist talking about?

He’s talking about his equivalent to our Bible. The Torah–the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. This is “the Law”–it’s “God’s Word.” And not just the laws part of God’s law–but the revelation of God that it brings, the story that it tells of a compassionate God who is, in fact, slow to anger and eager to show compassion on all he has made.

In meditating on God’s law–God’s very words–the Psalmist is meditating on God: his guidance, instructions, blessings, love, character.

And I think Psalm 1 is self-referential, too–those who meditate on these Psalms will be blessed, will experience the favor of God.

What are they like? (Ps. 1:3-4)

3 [The righteous] are like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.

Those who meditate on God’s word are rooted, strong, nourished, bearers of good and visible fruit to all who walk by them. The wicked–in this case those who ignore God’s truth and go their own way–they are the chaff that has fallen to the floor. The grain is kept and preserved, the chaff just blows away. No roots, no fruit, no nothing.

What do they lead to? (Ps. 1:5-6)

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will be destroyed.

Then in verses 5 and 6 there is what one interpreter calls a “parting of the ways.” God watches over them. What we meditate on has the power to transform us, so the righteous one now is a rooted and well-watered tree, bearing fruit like it should. She or he receives God’s blessing, God’s preservation.

The wicked one has been transformed by the bad company he keeps, so he just floats away with the next wind, on his way to judgment.

It’s God who does the planting and watering and blessing here, but it’s the righteous person who has done his or her part to meditate on God’s word. And that meditation has caused a transformation.

Scripture Memory

Over the last month or so I’ve gotten back into Scripture memory. I have these little cards I bring in my pocket with verses on them. The pocket is a great place for them because I might reach for my phone to check for messages, and I’ll feel the little packet of cards instead. This is a prompt for me to either pull a card out and learn a verse, or if I already know it, to try to say it and pray it.

There are many ways to meditate on God’s Word. We’re going to try one particular way this summer, and that is Scripture memory….

[AKJ note: Here we looked at some Scripture memory cards I made up for Psalm 1:1-2, as a way to put into practice what this Psalm preaches. Make your own, using this document, if you want!]

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached last Sunday. Scripture quotations are from the TNIV. See my other sermons gathered here.

Before and After #NoFilter

A sermon on Romans 6:1-11, on the day of ocean baptisms.

I’ve always been a little suspicious of Before and After photos. It’s as if Before photos are bad on purpose, and After photos do everything they can to try to enhance the actual improvements that have taken place, whether the subject is a human body or a newly improved, re-stained back deck.

I just found an article about a Before and After set of photos of an Australian fitness trainer. On first glance the After photo looks like about three months worth of exercise and nutritional improvement, compared to the Before.

Before and After

But, in fact, one scrolls down past the Before and After to see a note: “Check out my transformation! It took me 15 minutes.” Meaning, the Before and After photos were 15 minutes apart.

A paragraph accompanying the photos goes on, in part:

Wanna know my secret?  I…. smothered on some fake tan, clipped in my hair extensions, stood up a bit taller, sucked in my guts, popped my hip, threw in a skinny arm, stood a bit wider…pulled my shoulders back…Zoomed in on the before pic, zoomed out on the after and added a filter. Cause filters make everything awesome.

It seems that actual transformation–whether it’s of our bodies or of our inner selves–is elusive. We often try to short-change the process, or make things look better than they really are. And yet it’s a burning human desire to be different, to look better, to grow, to change.

Paul’s Before and After

The apostle Paul understands that. He speaks in Romans 6 of true transformation, a fundamental shift in the selfhood of the one who believes in Jesus. There is no doctoring of Before or After photos needed, because the picture of transformation that Paul paints is the most real kind of personal change there is.

For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.

When we give ourselves to Jesus, we understand that sin does not rule over us. We are free from having to sin. We are free from the inevitability of it.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Even as we are being sanctified, we’re far from sinless–and the next chapter in Romans will emphasize this frustrating reality. But we are to consider ourselves dead to sin, or, we might say, that sin is dead to us, because we are “alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

This is “Before and After” for the child of God:

Before: living in a body of sin, slaves to sin, an old, listless, aimless self.

After: dead to sin, alive to God, united with Jesus in his death, and so united also with him–and other Christians–in his resurrection glory, in new life.

This true transformation, the Christian’s inward change, Paul points out, is marked by baptism:

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

The old self walks to the edge of the water, wades in, is dipped under–washed in the ocean of God’s love and forgiveness–and the new self comes up, freed to live a new life in Jesus.

Or as God’s prophet Ezekiel so eloquently put it:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

What Baptism Is

Baptism is a physical, visible, experiential sign of this inward transformation that takes place when a person says, “Yes,” to the gift of God’s grace.

In just a few moments I will ask our candidates, “Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire the freedom of new life in Christ?” They will say, “I do.” Before: we were slaves to sin, afraid to even try to cast off the “powers of evil.” Or maybe we didn’t want to. After: we have renounced those powers. We celebrate our freedom. We have new life in Christ.

Also in just a few moments, all of us, as a congregation, will say: “Out of the waters of baptism, we rise with new life, forgiven of sin, and one in Christ, members of Christ’s body.” We affirm this “Before and After” that baptism represents, and we do it in a larger, communal context. We are “one in Christ, members of Christ’s body.”

Ancient Baptismal Pool (Source: Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary)
Ancient Baptismal Pool (Source: Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary)

As we’ve gone through our high school confirmation class last month and this month, we’ve been talking about baptism and confirmation as a multi-faceted commitment. On the one hand, baptismal candidates and confirmands are themselves making a public commitment to God in the presence of us, the church. And on the other hand, we promise our commitment to them as they seek to carry out their baptismal vows. Ultimately, the waters of baptism signify God’s commitment to us to continue and one day complete his work in us.

So please do support these young people who are about to be baptized, as best you are able. When they go out of state for college and then come back on breaks to worship here, ask them how they’re doing–not just in school, but in their relationship to God. Seek them out during coffee hours in future Sundays. Commit to pray for them. You might even pick one or two of the folks you see being baptized today and decide that you will pray for them by name, for the next month, six months, two years.


We began our confirmation class with a short teaching video and discussion centered around the question, “Who Am I?” How do I understand my identity as a person? We watched and discussed a short video by a teacher from Grand Rapids, Michigan named Rob Bell.

Bell talked about our tendencies to compare ourselves with others, to measure ourselves against those around us. As he talked, the camera followed a cast of actors who had t-shirts with a single word printed on the back: baker, consultant, double degree, Southern, apathetic, ashamed, listener… single words that can define how we think about ourselves, especially in relation to others.

But Bell says:

We need to be saved from all the times we haven’t been our true selves. All the times we’ve tried to be someone else.

All of the lies we’ve believed about who God made when God made us. All the times we’ve asked the wrong questions:

‘What about him? What about her? What about them?’

And we’ve missed the voice of Jesus saying, ‘You, follow me.’

To those who are about to be baptized, I want to say, this is who you are: one who is loved dearly by God, one who is saying “yes” to Jesus’ invitation to follow him. You are choosing to not miss that voice. You are saying, “Yes, I will follow.”

Your decision to be baptized means that you are affirming your identity in Jesus–as one who is “forgiven of sin, and one in Christ with the members of Christ’s body, the church.” “The old has gone, the new has come,” as Scripture says. Baptism is a physical sign of the ultimate “Before and After” transformation.

Remember Your Baptism

This Baptism Sunday is also a chance us who have already been baptized to remember our baptism. We know that we at times wander away from God, but we can never be un-baptized. We always come back to our fundamental identity as ones forgiven by God’s grace, and given new life.

So, whether your baptism was years ago or is about to happen today: remember your baptism.

Whenever you look at the ocean, may God remind you of the cleansing, washing power of his forgiveness.

May the vast waters call to mind the immensity and intensity of Christ’s love for you.

Remember who you were before you said “yes” to following Jesus, but especially remember the new life to which you are now called.

Just as Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again, “In the same way, Paul says, “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Scripture quotations above are from the 1984 NIV. See my other sermons gathered here.

One Year to Better Preaching

One Year to Better Preaching

Here’s a recommended preaching resource for you: One Year to Better Preaching: 52 Exercises to Hone Your Skills, by Daniel Overdorf (Kregel, 2013).

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed the inspiring Preaching in an Age of Distraction. Whereas that book took a largely big picture approach, building on itself chapter by chapter, One Year to Better Preaching contains 52 exercises (plus a few “Bonus Exercises”) that give preachers a tangible, nuts-and-bolts set of practices to engage.

Overdorf wants to help preachers “sharpen preaching skills.” Just “an hour or two of effort” is required for most of these practices, so it’s an easy book to pick up, get right into, and use right away in preparing next week’s sermon.

The 52 exercises can be weekly ones for a year, or can easily be spread out over more than a year. Overdorf wisely suggests that preachers could focus on exercises that help them overcome their particular preaching weaknesses.

To try to achieve a “process similar to cross-training,” the 52 exercises are grouped into eight categories:

  1. Prayer and Preaching
  2. Bible Interpretation
  3. Understanding Listeners
  4. Sermon Construction
  5. Illustration and Application
  6. Word Crafting
  7. The Preaching Event
  8. Sermon Evaluation

Exercises include an introduction and setup to that exercise, a description of the exercise itself, an “I Tried It” testimonial section, and “Resources for Further Study.” A preacher could easily make the benefits of this book stretch out beyond a year.

To take just one example, Exercise Two, “Balance Your Biblical Diet,” suggests that preachers be sure they are preaching from both Testaments and from a variety of literary genres. Overdorf suggests charting out recent sermons to see where they fall, and shows a chart of his last 175 sermons in various biblical genres as an example. As balance in this sense is one of my preaching priorities, I appreciated this section.

Overdorf also makes the welcome suggestion that even a preacher’s illustrations be well-balanced:

Additionally, you may consider charting your recent illustrations. What aspects of life have you used most to illustrate biblical truth? How many illustrations have come from the world of sports? From your family? How many stories have you told from the Civil War, or from popular movies? How often have you quoted Tozer, Bonhoeffer, or your favorite contemporary authors?

Other exercises that I found helpful (and have tried put to use in the pulpit) have been: “Show, Don’t Tell” (on phrasing), “Have Listeners Evaluate You,” “Listen to a Storyteller,” and especially, “Craft Evocative Words.”

Despite how truly thorough the book is, one lack I noticed was any mention of the lectionary. For as many preachers as use the lectionary, some reference to it would have been useful. Or especially for preachers who don’t ever use the lectionary, suggesting they at least try it for a while would have been a good exercise.

One Year to Better Preaching is the kind of book you put right on your desk (not your bookshelf) where you can reference it repeatedly. I’m looking forward to continuing to mine its riches in the weeks and months of preaching ahead.

Thanks to Kregel for the review copy, offered with no expectation as to the content of this review. Find the book on Amazon here (affiliate link), at Kregel’s site here, and check out a pdf sample of the book here.

What makes a worship song good for congregational singing?

What makes a worship song suitable for use in a corporate worship service?

I’ve been mulling this question over lately, trying to articulate what is often largely an intuition for me as a worship leader. Here’s a first go at it. (Thanks to my friend Steve for sharing some good thoughts with me on this.)

The song needs to be neither too low nor too high. Worship leader Jamie Brown has what I’ve found to be a helpful guideline for what range of notes to cover: “From C to shining C.” He puts it well, so I quote him here:

My rule of thumb is “C to shining C”…, meaning that the lowest a song should generally go is a C (one octave below middle C on a piano) and the highest it should go is one octave up from there. I’ll still use songs that dip a bit lower than a middle C or jump up to a D, Eb, or even an E from time to time, but I want to make sure the song isn’t “hanging out” up in the stratosphere or down in the depths.

Chris Tomlin and Hillsong United both sing their songs pretty high. Just try doing “From the Inside Out” in its original key!  (Or, rather, don’t. Drop it down a few steps before leading a congregation in it.) Same with Charlie Hall–love his music, but I often change the key before leading others in his songs. And that’s okay! In fact, it’s an important part of my job as a worship leader to make sure the range of the song is singable for a congregation.

The rhythm and lyrical cadence ought to be simple. Too many dotted eighth notes or too-fast moving lyrics are difficult for a group of folks to sing well together. I often slow down “Blessed Be Your Name” and “Everlasting God” when I lead them for this very reason. I want to make sure we have time to savor the lyrics we’re singing, and not feel rushed to squeeze them all in to the song.

If it’s new, teach it first. I wrote about this last week here.

“More stepwise motion and fewer big leaps up or down.” This one is from Steve. It articulates well what is often intuition for worship leaders. Simpler is better. An example:

Thanks to some students with whom I lead worship in a Christian college setting, I’ve really gotten into the band Gungor recently. I love their song “Dry Bones.”

This song has quite a few “big leaps up or down” and not a lot of “stepwise motion.” It’s hard for me to imagine a congregation singing this in a worship service. But I will blast it through my speakers when I am feeling the need for God to breathe life into my dry bones! I might even rock out to it on guitar with a fellow worship leader, or in a jam session. Great for in car, perhaps not for in the chapel.

I hesitate to use Gungor as a foil, especially since he’s one of the most thoughtful contemporary music worship leaders I know of. His We Will Run, on the other hand, is a great song for congregational singing–especially with its focus on repentance of sin and corporate turning back to God. Listen to it if you like:

Notice that “We will run” is one note, then “to you” is just a half step down:

That same pattern is then repeated a few notes higher: “Turning from our” is one note, “our sin” is just a whole step down.


What would you add to this list?