My Sermon This Morning: The Light Shines in Our Hearts

It’s been a while since I posted one of my Sunday sermons here. Below is what I preached this morning, the Second Sunday of Advent, on 2 Corinthians 4:1-6.


 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4044
This photo taken at 4:14 p.m.

Until recently I’d forgotten that the sun could even set before 5:00. Last night the sunset was at 4:08 p.m. 4:08! 

My six-year-old asked me this week if it was true that there were only four hours of daylight each day in December. 

Not quite, but it feels like it. 

These short, dark, cold days seem to linger on. We await a later sunset, the buds of spring, and warmer days. 

What are we to do with all of this in-between time? 

That’s the question of Advent. Christ has broken into our world, but so much remains untransformed by his power. We are waiting. We are hoping. We are longing for Jesus to come again and make everything right.

The stand-up comic Mitch Hedberg once disparaged instant oatmeal. He said:

I get up in the morning, and I make myself a bowl of instant oatmeal, and then I don’t do anything for an hour… which makes me wonder why I need the instant oatmeal… I could get the regular oatmeal and feel productive!

Advent calls for our patience in dark days where God’s kingdom (still) isn’t here. It doesn’t come in an instant. 

But it’s not a passive waiting that we do. And there’s nothing hopeless about Advent. It’s not a season where we throw up our hands and say, “Welp, I guess we just hang out until Jesus comes back.” 

On the contrary, in Advent we remember and re-activate that hope within us that believes—that knows—Christ will come again. We proclaim with Zechariah:

Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.

In these dark, cold, in-between days, “the light shines in the darkness.”

And the light shines right into our inmost beings.

That’s what Paul says to the Christians in the city of Corinth: 

The [same] God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

There’s the miracle of God’s love… the all-powerful creator of the universe who could bring light from darkness, has sent his light right into our hearts, so that we could know Jesus. The one who created worlds could be bothered to shine light into my dark heart, and yours. God even delights in shining light into our hearts. 

 

What does the light do?

The light shines in the darkness, and that includes the darkness of our inner world. 

I think Paul has something in common with us. None of us wants to just talk in platitudes or generalities. The light shines in our hearts, yes, so now we want to know: what exactly is the light doing in us? What does the light-of-Christ-in-our-hearts do?

Paul suggests a few things. As it shines in your heart, here is what the light does. 

First, he says, the light illuminates what is hidden. 

Here is the first part of verse 2: “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides.”

That’s because Paul and his fellow believers have the light of Christ in their hearts. That light has illuminated what is hidden—shameful things. 

Paul models a response to the shameful things the light has shown him in his heart. “I renounce them.” 

It’s a line you’ll hear in the baptismal liturgy: “I renounce them.” The light illuminates my hidden, shameful things, shows me what and where they are… and I renounce them.

evolving_google_identity_shareI’ve always been glad no technology exists to Google our brains. Think about what that would be like. All our memories, experiences, hopes, wayward desires, and hurts. Your search for envious thoughts toward others returned 13,849 results.

Thank God we can’t Google our brains. But in a sense, that’s what the light of Jesus does. As the Psalmist David put it, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. 

The light of Christ in us illuminates what is hidden.

Second, Paul says the light of Jesus is a floodlight on lies. The light of Christ shows lies for what they are. 

After verse 2 says, “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides,” it goes on: “we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word.” 

Because the light of Christ shines in his inmost being, Paul and his co-laborers in ministry commit to be truthful, especially when it comes to the revealed word of God. “We refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word.” 

The light shines on lies in the darkness. It points at them and calls them what they are. Where the light of Christ shines, there can be no lies. 

 

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TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

 

I’m reading a book right now by James Clear called Atomic Habits. The author describes a process that train conductors in Tokyo practice. It’s called “Pointing-and-Calling.” He says:

As each operator runs the train, they proceed through a ritual of pointing at different objects and calling out commands. When the train approaches a signal, the operator will point at it and say, “Signal is green.” As the train pulls into and out of each station, the operator will point at the speedometer and call out the exact speed. When it’s time to leave, the operator will point at the timetable and state the time. Out on the platform, other employees are performing similar actions. Before each train departs, staff members will point along the edge of the platform and declare, “All clear!” Every detail is identified, pointed at, and named aloud.

The author concludes: 

Pointing-and-Calling is so effective because it raises the level of awareness from a nonconscious habit to a more conscious level. Because the train operators must use their eyes, hands, mouth, and ears, they are more likely to notice problems before something goes wrong. 

This is great for habit development. But good habits aside, here is the light of Christ, practicing the same method of Pointing-and-Calling in us! That’s what the light of Jesus does!

The light of Christ illuminates what is hidden, even shameful things. And it’s a floodlight that shows lies for what they are. The light of Jesus points-and-calls in our hearts.

Eugene Peterson translates verse 2 this way:

We refuse to wear masks and play games. We don’t maneuver and manipulate behind the scenes. And we don’t twist God’s Word to suit ourselves. Rather, we keep everything we do and say out in the open, the whole truth on display, so that those who want to can see and judge for themselves in the presence of God.

Paul also says more generally: the light of Jesus guides our inner life. 

The word Paul uses for light is more expansively defined as “illumination for the inner life.”

Are you confused, or torn up inside? The light of Christ can guide you. 

Are you anxious, scared, uncertain of what the coming days and weeks will hold? The light of Christ doesn’t make all your problems go away, but it will illuminate your inner thought life, as you try to make sense of it all. 

Things become more visible, clearer by the light God gives us. 

The light of Jesus guides our inner life. 

Finally, and most important, the light that God shines in our hearts reveals “God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

This is more than just your run-of-the-mill illumination. Verse 4 says it’s the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. Verse 6 says the light God shines in our hearts is the light of the knowledge of his glory. 

Paul is not talking about “the light within” or whatever light or goodness or hope you can generate yourself. 

There may be a place for that, but it will only take you so far. 

The Episcopal preacher Fleming Rutledge says, “(I)f Christian faith is going to have any guts, it simply cannot be satisfied with exclusively human hope.” 

This isn’t just any light. It’s Jesus light. 

One poet put it like this: 

It gets so dark it stays dark,
Even when I turn on the light.

We need more than ourselves to turn on the light. We’re prone to error, prone to despair, prone to exhaustion if we try to face and fight the darkness all on our own. 

Thank God, we don’t have to. 

The [same] God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

For light to truly shine in our hearts and illuminate our paths, it needs to come from an external, inexhaustible source. 

That light source is Jesus. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people.”

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer waited in prison for a release that would never come, he wrote, “Only the coming Lord can prepare the way… the end (goal) of all preparing the way for Christ must be the recognition that we ourselves can never prepare the way.” 

To that let’s add: we ourselves never shine enough light to dispel the darkness.

 

The light persists

Paul begins this passage thus: “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

Paul and company knew deep in their bones that the mercy and love of God were essential to their doing ministry. 

We show mercy, he would say, “just as we have received mercy.” 

And that’s how the light works—it’s received, it’s given, just like grace. It’s not all up to you to do the shining.

You know that your light alone, will burn out. Maybe it already has. 

Your batteries will expire. 

The flame will extinguish. 

The wick will run out. 

And you’re not just contending with yourself here: Satan will try to keep you from living in the light. 

But as Paul says, “the god of this world” may try to keep people from “seeing the light of the gospel,” but he can’t actually touch the light itself. The so-called god of this world can’t stop or prevent or even reduce the shining of the light of Jesus. 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4012Jesus’s light is eternal… limitless; it forever burns bright. 

And that light is yours. It’s ours. 

So with the beleaguered apostle Paul, “we do not lose heart.” We wait in hope; we wait in power. 

We have the light of Christ already in part, and lean forward, eagerly awaiting the day when we’ll have Christ’s light in full. 

God has shined the light of Christ in us. 

NOTHING can darken the light of Christ. 

May God shine that light, brighter and stronger and warmer, in our hearts this Advent season.

John the Baptist: Are You Ready?

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Are you ready?

John the Baptist arrives on the scene today, the second Sunday of Advent. Here’s how Luke describes it:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Through the Incarnation of Jesus, God exalts the humbled, humbles the exalted, brings light into darkness, and reverses the fortunes of the rich and poor alike, of those who are ahead and those who feel left behind. What a wonderful promise that we would see the salvation of God in this way!

Even as God himself lowers mountains and straightens crooked paths and makes rough ways smooth, we can look inward to our own hearts and ask, “What crooked ways are here? What mountains have I tried to build so I can climb them and exalt myself above others? Where are my own rough ways?”

Are we ready?

Psalm Songs: The Best New Worship Music You Might Not Have Heard Yet

I wrote about the Psalms as descriptive and prescriptive not long ago:

The writers of the Psalms give language to the whole range of emotions: from gratitude to fear, from joy to lamentation, from petition to thanksgiving, from intimate, private prayers to national, corporate prayers. In this way they are eminently descriptive of the human experience.

The Psalms also prescriptively guide the reader into various postures of prayer, so that the one praying does not only ever approach God with petitions, or only ever with complaint, and so on. The cognitive and affective come together in the Psalms in sometimes unexpected ways. Psalms of lament, for example, often begin with a loud “Why?” (stressing the affective) yet end with a determined profession of faith like, “But I will trust in you still….” In this way they stress the use of cognitive powers in prayer—external life evidence notwithstanding!

The Psalms express (descriptively) and call forth (prescriptively) a whole spectrum of human experience in relationship to God. They teach us to bring our whole selves to God in worship.

There comes a point in biblical studies when one has to say, I guess we’ll never know. That’s especially true with possible musical settings of Israel’s Psalms (careful efforts notwithstanding). So when it comes to music today for the Psalms, the Church (and before that, the synagogue) has had to make the way by walking.

 

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A few months ago I received an email from Adam Wright, a church worship leader in Alabama and primary force behind The Corner Room. He introduced me to his band’s Psalm Songs, Volume 1. I’ve heard Scripture set to music in ways that were helpful and edifying, as well as ways that were… well… not. I was getting ready to reply with what I usually need to say, which is that I’m behind on existing reviews and need to take a pass on writing about this record. But then I listened and found myself spending at least a half hour at his site. Months later the record is still on regular rotation at our house and during my sermon preparation sessions and in our car.

 

Adam Wright (image via The Corner Room)
Adam Wright (image via The Corner Room)

 

Each of the album’s ten tracks sets a Psalm to full-band music. Adam writes, “As the Psalms are diverse in their character and intent, so is the musical character of this collection – rock, folk, bluegrass and modern worship are genres you’ll hear on this first volume.” Not only that, the kinds of Psalms represented are wonderfully diverse. The album covers a broad range: from the Psalm of Ascent (121) to the pastoral Psalm (23) to the lament Psalm (42)–and that’s just the first three tracks!

Adam’s voice on the record is perfect. It’s smooth but not overly saccharine, strong but not abrasive, and his soaring tenor has me singing in my falsetto just to try to keep pace. He calls to mind Chris Thiele, not just in terms of vocal timbre, but also in his ability to effortlessly cover different styles of music. If Adam will forgive my mild Hoosiers obsession, I can say that he’s as good a songwriter, musician, and band leader as Jimmy Chitwood is a ball player.

 

Jimmy Chitwood Hoosiers
Psalm Songs: Like This Guy’s Shooting Set to Music

 

The musicianship on Psalm Songs is as good as it gets. The band is tight and the instrument parts all fit together well–from mandolin to guitar to fiddle to bass and drums. The multi-part harmonies so characteristic of bluegrass will have you singing along as soon as you know the song.

 

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psalm songs vol 1_itunes imageThe album takes the Psalms verbatim from the English Standard Version. The ESV is not my all-time favorite translation–I will probably always take issue with the generic Hebrew or Greek word for human being translated as “man.” But that version is more fluildy poetic than I expected for the Psalms. Rare is the moment on the album when the words feel shoehorned into the music–the settings do the Psalms great justice.

Psalm 23 has been set to music so many times, one might wonder how it could be done well again. But the second track is poignant and uplifting all at once. It’s got a moving video, too:

 

 

The other two videos at this page are pretty awesome, too.

One of Adam’s driving motivations, by the way, is to help people memorize Scripture via these musical settings. I’ve found the music helpful to that end, for sure.

I could go on about how much I like this record (and my three kids are big fans, too, especially of the opening Psalm 121). But go listen for a few minutes and I suspect you’ll have the same reaction I did, that this is an album you’ll not only want to own, but will also want to get a few copies of so you can give away to others.

Check out The Corner Room’s site here. You can also get Psalm Songs on iTunes (link) and Amazon (link).

 


 

I received Psalm Songs, Volume 1 free for the purposes of review–I’ve already given away my hard copy but am happily still listening to an electronic copy.

After Philando Castile: The Christian’s Calling

This is the text of the sermon I preached the Sunday after Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers were shot to death.

 

Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of Philando Castile (© Adam Bettcher / Reuters—REUTERS)
Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of Philando Castile (© Adam Bettcher / Reuters—REUTERS)

 

Michael Brown’s homicide in Ferguson, Missouri was almost two years ago. His encounter with a police officer set off a wave of protests and brought a conversation about institutionalized racism once again into the public square.

This week Michael Brown’s mother expressed the numbness and wordlessness that often comes after unjust killing:

When their children are killed, mothers are expected to say something. To help keep the peace. To help make change. But what can I possibly say? I just know we need to do something. We are taught to be peaceful, but we aren’t at peace. I have to wake up and go to sleep with this pain everyday. Ain’t no peace. If we mothers can’t change where this is heading for these families — to public hearings, protests, un-asked-for martyrdom, or worse, to nothing at all — what can we do?

We can at least remember the names of the deceased as we are gathered in the presence of God.

37-year-old Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

32-year-old Philando Castile of Saint Paul, Minnesota.

And then five police officers killed while they were protecting the people’s right to protest police brutality: Patrick Zamarripa, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, and Brent Thompson.

Let us remember their names and their faces and their families. They were and are loved deeply by God. May the Lord receive them into his loving arms, into his eternal care.

In one sense it would be missing the point for white folks to dwell on our cluelessness in what to say after another spate of gun violence. Though the thought keeps crossing my mind, I would be selfish to complain about having to find words for this pulpit after yet another week of killing in the United States.

Because as much as we may struggle in figuring out what to think and how to pray, there is an entire segment of our population that is worrying about how—worrying about if—they can live under these conditions.

Ty Burr, a writer for the Boston Globe, expressed it this way:

I understand; it’s exhausting. Social change asks a lot of us, but most of all our attention. To process all that incoming outrage, we have to become stronger in heart and clearer of head, and we have to decide when it’s time to stop watching the slipstream and dive into it instead.

If you hadn’t already, a week like this one all but demands that we followers of Christ dive in.

But… “what can [we] possibly say?” And “what can we do?”

Well, I don’t know. But I sure have read Ephesians 4 in a different light. And, so help me, God, may I not be shaken in my faith that Scripture always—always—will have something to say to us, even in our darkest hours.

With that conviction, hear again the first three verses of Ephesians 4:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Ephesians 4:1 is the pivot point of the whole letter. Paul moves from the theologically rich prayers and beautiful expression of Christian identity—chapters 1 through 3—to what we should do about it—in chapters 4 through 6.

“Therefore,” he says, “I—a prisoner of the Lord!—urge you strongly to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called.”

Paul lays a nice guilt trip on his listeners: Look, I’m in chains here! I’m a prisoner! The least you could do is live up to your calling as a Christian, like your poor Paul is urging you to do.

If you’ve been thinking about memorizing part or all of Ephesians recently, you could at least memorize 4:1, since it summarizes the whole book. Paul’s told them what their calling is in the first half of the letter.

He’s said: you Christians have been chosen by God, God delights in you, and you are sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit. He’s encouraged the church by saying: we are a people called to hope. We are God’s riches. And God’s power for us who believe—even for those who feel powerless—God’s power for us is immense. Nothing compares to it, and we who believe have the power of God.

Paul has also written: we were dead in sin, but God was rich in mercy, and God intervened. He made as alive with Christ, he raised us with Christ, and he seated us with Christ in the heavenly realms.

When he says, “Therefore,” or “Live a life, then,”—he’s got all of that in mind, everything in the first three chapters.

From here on out he’s going to get specific about how to live a life worthy of that calling. You are this, this, and this… so here’s how you can live like it.

“Live a life”—or as Paul first put it in his letter: “walk” in a worthy way.

It was a Jewish metaphor to talk about life as a walk. A sort of ongoing journey: active, with movement. “Walk the walk,” your “Christian walk”—that didn’t come from your evangelical youth pastor, it came from the Hebrew Bible!

Paul starts in right away with some of the ways Christians should walk.

 

Humility

 

He says in verse 2, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

Completely humble. Gentle. Patient.

As I studied the passage this week, I was surprised to learn that the particular word for humility in this verse was not really in Greek literature before the Bible. And then finally there was a Greek writer outside of the New Testament, Epictetus, who mentioned “humility” in the first century. He said it was the first character trait to avoid.

That could help explain why a humble and even humiliated Jesus was mocked on the cross. God had said, through Isaiah, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (66:2). But humility is a counter-cultural value; it always has been.

 

Gentleness

 

“Be completely humble,” Paul says, “and gentle.” Be gentle.

Jesus told Peter to put away his sword in the garden. Those who live by the sword, he said, will die by the sword. Or as I’ve heard it paraphrased, “When you fight fire with fire, the whole world burns down.”

Micah prophesies about a day when “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

There will be a day, when what happened this last week, and all the evils leading up to it (that still exist!)—will not happen anymore. Nations will not go to war with other nations. Nations will not even feel like they are engaging civil war within their own borders.

This is what it means to be gentle. Loretta Lynch said, “After the events of this week, Americans across our country are feeling a sense of helplessness, uncertainty and fear … but the answer must not be violence.” Paul would agree: the answer must not be violence, but the answer must be gentleness.

Yeah, gentleness.

I know… I almost picked another passage and didn’t preach on this one today because after Alton and Philando and five officers died, a gentle response felt like a cop-out.

I might as well have been reading, “Be tepid. Let it go. Don’t do anything about it. Just watch.”

Turns out, that’s not what Paul is saying. Harold Hoehner, who taught at Dallas Seminary for many years, says, “The word [gentleness] never connotes the idea of weakness. Rather, it implies the conscious exercise of self-control, exhibiting a conscious choice of gentleness as opposed to the use of power for the purpose of retaliation.” Self-control, not retaliation.

Aristotle talks about gentleness as coming between two extremes: “never being angry with anything” on the one hand and “excessive anger against everyone and on all occasions” on the other. Gentleness is somewhere in the middle. As another interpreter put it, if you’re gentle as Paul urges, you are “always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.”

Our model again is Jesus, the one who said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus was “always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.”

When Jesus saw oppression, hatred, and racial injustice—he got angry. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t gentle.

“Be completely humble,” Paul says, “and gentle.” That gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, a piece of evidence that we Christians are living lives worthy of the calling we have received.
 

Patience

 

Then to humility and gentleness, Paul adds this one more: patience.

The Old Testament talks about patience as long-suffering. Being patient doesn’t mean letting injustice go unprotested, but it does mean persistence… holding out hope… slowing down to wait and listen to the voice of another.

Those of us who have not been racially profiled and probably never will be, would do well to slow down and listen to our brothers and sisters who have. We need to exercise patience to hear the stories and pain of others… even to let it transform our own view of the world.

And now Paul gets into church territory—he says one mark of patience is “bearing with one another in love.”

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

“Put up with each other,” he’s saying! This is the same word Jesus uses when he is exasperated by his faithless disciples: “How long shall I put up with you?”

Well… how long did Jesus put up with his disciples? He’s still doing it, right? He is still, even right now, interceding for us while we worship.

Patience—putting up with each other’s differences and even annoying habits—is required if the church is going to be a bastion of unity… a witness of one love to a divided world.
 

Eager to Keep Peace

 

Paul says, then, ”Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” He tells them to be eager to keep the peace.

But here’s a nice twist—he’s calling on them to be peacekeepers. The peace has already been made. Paul had said earlier, Jesus himself is peace. Jesus is the one who made peace—it’s the work he did when he broke down the dividing wall between so-called races—Jew and Gentile in the first century, a work that extends to black and white America in the 21st century.

“Keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

Paul calls for Christians to be humble, gentle, patience, and eager to keep the peace that Christ himself established. Even as Jesus made peace, others try to snuff it out. But we’ve got to guard and protect the peace of unity—and for Paul that starts in the church and then emanates outward.

Paul reminds the church that the reason we can be practice a peaceful witness of unity is that God is not divided. God is one. And God is everywhere. God is, Paul says, “Over all and through all and in all.”

In other words, he’s still on this throne, though evil powers try unsuccessfully to unseat him. He’s still working through his church and his followers. And he’s still making his home with us. He walks alongside us, even as Paul calls us to walk faithfully in the world. It’s because of the strength of the God who is over all, through all, and in all that we can be faithful to our calling. God is with us. He walks with us to enable us to walk strong in our call.
 

God Speaks in Falcon Heights

 

I heard an echo of this promise in the horrific video of the Falcon Heights shooting.

A four-year-old girl saw what no child should ever have to see. Afterwards she says to her grieving mother, “It’s okay, Mommy. It’s okay. I’m right here with you.” That little girl had to have been full of the power of the Holy Spirit to be able to say that.

She was the mouthpiece of God: “It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”

There’s a scene in Hoosiers, the greatest basketball movie, greatest sports movie, and—yea, verily—greatest movie in human history. The assistant coach, Shooter, stumbles out onto the court in the middle of a game, totally inebriated.

One of the players is Shooter’s son, who’s utterly embarrassed by his dad.

Coach Norman Dale pulls his player aside and says, “Hey, you keep your head in the game. I need you out there.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, friends: we’ve got to keep our heads in the game. God chooses to need us. God calls us to witness with humility to a world filled with the arrogant who are still getting their way. God urges us to witness with gentleness to a world where violence continues to make headlines. God needs us to show patience with each other, to work together as one body to witness to a hurting world.

So let’s keep our head in the game. As a classic lament Psalm says, “none of us knows how long this will be.” But as best as I can tell, God encourages us to wait it out anyway, to walk out our call every day.

And we don’t walk alone. Our generous God gives us each other, and even himself. He’s like that precious little girl telling us, “It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”

The one who calls us is faithful—he will freely give us his power so we can live out the humility, gentleness, and patience that seem at first blush too weak to us. But those virtues are, in fact, our strong and powerful witness. Humility, gentleness, patience, and peacekeeping—they’re all an expression of the calling we’ve received.

And we need to live it out now more than ever before.

White Privilege Curriculum from the United Church of Christ

WhitePrivilege-graphic-3

 

I read through the United Church of Christ’s 2015 Annual Report this afternoon and was delighted to learn about a forthcoming curriculum to help congregations think through white privilege.

It’s slated for a September 1 release: good timing since I’m eager to once again explore and offer resources to my congregation that will aid in racial identity development and help us bolster anti-racism efforts.

Here is an excerpt from the May press release:

“As an extension of our ongoing commitment to Sacred Conversations on race, it is time that this still largely white denomination wrestle with its investment in whiteness, and learn all it can about the manifestations and impact of White Privilege,” said the Rev. John Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president. “This Curriculum, written by five gifted authors with decades of experience teaching about race and privilege, is presented to enable such dialogue to take place at every level of the Church.”

Due to traveling, I missed the related Webinars in June, but more information is available about them here. (I plan to watch recordings.) I already love the title of one session: Spiritual Autobiography through the Lens of Race. Brilliant.

If you, dear reader, are aware of any other resources (specifically already structured as group curriculum) for congregational racial identity development (especially for predominantly white churches), I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Or you can contact me here.

 

 


 

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After Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Dallas Police… How to Pray in Church Sunday?

Image source: Dallas Police (I think)
Image source: Dallas Police (I think)

 

It’s getting way past old: Senseless murder. Institutionalized bias and racism. Sheer evil in action. Too-easy-to-access AR-15s used to kill in times of peace.

There’s more to say than any single blog post could. I simply want to suggest here a resource for worship service planning for this Sunday. After looking through a host of lament prayers, both ancient and modern, I’ve come to Psalm 74.

It doesn’t take much imagination to update its striking imagery of “men wielding axes” and ones who “smashed all the carved paneling with their axes and hatchets” to the context of this last week in the United States. Verse 9 offers the poignant observation, “None of us knows how long this will be.

Here’s Psalm 74 in its entirety, which our congregation will use as our Call to Worship on Sunday, mindful of and mourning for this week’s tragic loss of life.

O God, why have you rejected us forever?
    Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture?
Remember the nation you purchased long ago,
    the people of your inheritance, whom you redeemed—
    Mount Zion, where you dwelt.
Turn your steps toward these everlasting ruins,
    all this destruction the enemy has brought on the sanctuary.

Your foes roared in the place where you met with us;
    they set up their standards as signs.
They behaved like men wielding axes
    to cut through a thicket of trees.
They smashed all the carved paneling
    with their axes and hatchets.
They burned your sanctuary to the ground;
    they defiled the dwelling place of your Name.
They said in their hearts, “We will crush them completely!”
    They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land.

We are given no signs from God;
    no prophets are left,
    and none of us knows how long this will be.
10 How long will the enemy mock you, God?
    Will the foe revile your name forever?
11 Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
    Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!

12 But God is my King from long ago;
    he brings salvation on the earth.

13 It was you who split open the sea by your power;
    you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.
14 It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan
    and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.
15 It was you who opened up springs and streams;
    you dried up the ever-flowing rivers.
16 The day is yours, and yours also the night;
    you established the sun and moon.
17 It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth;
    you made both summer and winter.

18 Remember how the enemy has mocked you, Lord,
    how foolish people have reviled your name.
19 Do not hand over the life of your dove to wild beasts;
    do not forget the lives of your afflicted people forever.
20 Have regard for your covenant,
    because haunts of violence fill the dark places of the land.
21 Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace;
    may the poor and needy praise your name.
22 Rise up, O God, and defend your cause;
    remember how fools mock you all day long.
23 Do not ignore the clamor of your adversaries,
    the uproar of your enemies, which rises continually.

 
 
 
 
 


 
 

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What I’m Learning About Preaching, and a Massive Resource that Helps

Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching

The Art & Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan, 2005) is a massive and indispensable reference work for preachers. It is true to its sub-title: A Comprehensive Resource for Today’s Communicators. When it comes to the process of preaching–start to finish–there is very little the book does not cover. Virtually all aspects of sermon preparation and delivery are here, such as the call of the preacher (chapter 1), careful consideration of the listeners (chapter 3), sermon structure (chapter 5), delivery (chapter 8), and seeking sermon feedback (chapter 11).

The book’s 201 (!) chapters vary in length. A handful of the articles are barely a page, while others approach ten pages. Not that length correlates with quality. One of the most beneficial articles is the one-page set of self-evaluation questions by Haddon Robinson (“A Comprehensive Check-Up,” 701).

The quality of article is high, with just a few exceptions along the way–perhaps inevitable among over 100 contributors. (A handful of articles feel more vague than I would have hoped.) There is also an overwhelmingly disproportionate inclusion of male contributors, while there are just a few articles from female contributors, and no women on the book’s accompanying 14-track sermon audio CD. The CD is otherwise a great inclusion, since you get to hear great preaching examples in action. My five-year-old loved the first few stories on the disc.

The Art & Craft is a joy to read and a goldmine of a resource. Following are three highlights of the rich book, as well as some reflections on how they have informed my preaching.

 

1. Preaching with Intensity

 

“Preaching with Intensity” (596), by my friend Kevin A. Miller, is one of the best essays in the book. I first read the article two years ago, and only realized when re-reading it recently how much of Miller’s advice I’ve internalized. It’s that good.

He leads off by asking, “Why is it that sometimes we as preachers feel a message so deeply, yet our listeners don’t feel that? Why is something that’s so intensely meaningful to us not always communicated in a way that grips the congregation as intensely?” (596) He suggests four factors as to “why intensity doesn’t transfer.” One of these is “the time factor,” and Miller’s point hit me so hard the first time that I’ve never forgotten it. (That’s a rare occurrence for me.)

By the time I step into the pulpit, I have studied for this message all week. I meditated on the text. I read commentaries. I prayed about the message. I gave this sermon from eight to twenty hours of my best thought, prayer and energy.

Amen! say the preachers! But here’s the blunt truth:

But the people listening to me are hearing the sermon cold. What’s become so meaningful to me has had no time to sink in to them. I can’t expect the truths that have gripped me during hours of study to automatically grip a congregation–unless I practice the skills I describe below.

Once you pick up this book, turn to page 597 to pick it up from here. Miller will walk you through what to do next.

Because of “the time factor,” one of my first steps in preaching prep (on my better weeks!) is reading through the text out loud in English, since that is what will happen immediately before the sermon in the actual church service. With note-taking capability ready at hand, I try to anticipate what questions and reactions might come up when the congregation hears it Sunday–that is what will be top of mind for them (not my hours of study!) as soon as I begin the sermon. It’s not that I need to try to come up with FAQ For Sunday-Morning Hearers of This Passage to start off every sermon, but keeping the congregation in mind like this has become an essential part of my process.

One more takeaway from Kevin Miller, since it’s stuck with me: don’t over-nuance your points. I was a philosophy major, and I have an educated congregation, so this is difficult for me. Miller doesn’t mean don’t be nuanced–our faith requires it at times. He just means:

Every nuance and qualifier, though it may add technical accuracy, also blunts the force of the statement we’re trying to make. Even if we believe something intensely, we can drain the energy out of our statement so that the congregation doesn’t sense that. It’s good to be accurate, to use nuance, to balance. But we must never let those good practices dull the share edge of the Bible’s two-edged sword. (598)

I’ve kept this advice close during my sermon editing process in recent months. Almost every draft revision includes taking out an overly (and probably unnecessarily) nuanced sentence or two.

 

2. Manuscript, Outline, or No Notes?

 

After my first 60 or so weekly sermons in the church I pastor, I remember moving from a 10-page manuscript to a 2-page outline. That entire fall I thoroughly enjoyed the flexibility of an outline, and found it enhanced my preaching, not made it worse (which I had feared). I swore off manuscripts forever.

The next spring, and ever since, I’ve been preaching from word-for-word manuscripts. (Ha!) Of course I add and delete and rephrase on the fly, once I look at the congregation and make connection with them. But I’m also thinking it’s time again for me to go back to using a more minimal outline.

Whether a preacher should write out her or his sermon, whether she should preach from an outline, or whether he should go into the pulpit with nothing but a Bible is a matter for the preacher to decide. It is, after all, a matter of style and personal preference.

In “No Notes, Lots of Notes, Brief Notes” (600), Jeffery Arthurs explores the benefits and drawbacks of each approach. I was pleasantly surprised by the nuance and balance offered, since Arthurs teaches at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where the modus operandi is to require preaching with virtually no pulpit notes. Arthurs explores “no notes, lots of notes, and brief notes” (600). For each he asks, “Why Use This Method?”, “Why Avoid This Method?”, and, “How to Use This Method.”

The point I found most useful was under the “Lots of Notes” section. Two of the drawbacks to such an approach (as in my current practice of preaching from a manuscript) are, “Most readers cannot read with skill” (604) and, “Eye contact is difficult or impossible” (604). Those two points have not been challenges for me, but the third drawback has been an area of growth: “Most writers write in a written style” (604). Arthurs suggests preachers should write for the ear, and specifically gives tips to that end. “Your writing will seem redundant and choppy,” he says, “But that is how we talk” (605). So I’ve made efforts this year to preach with orality in mind.

 

3. The Value of Sermon Feedback

 

Since I’ve been soliciting preaching feedback from a few members recently, I was especially eager to read Part 11, Evaluation. Bill Hybels leads off with “Well-Focused Preaching” (687), one of the longer essays in the book. Hybels shares in detail how he looks for sermon evaluation, especially from his church’s elders. It’s a refreshingly honest essay. Hybels also helped me see again the connection between what the sermon is trying to do in relation to larger church goals and vision. This is a link that is too easy to forget when yet another Sunday message seems to be just around the corner.

William Willimon includes a questionnaire for sermon evaluation: “Getting the Feedback You Need” (698). I’m not sure I would use his numbers for rating a preacher’s sermon, though. To my mind there’s a subtle but important difference between sermon feedback and sermon evaluation. The book speaks in terms of sermon evaluation, but I prefer to use feedback when soliciting input from congregants. The sermon is not a performance to be graded or an initiative to be voted on by the congregation. Using the language of evaluation could easily put a congregant in a mindset of grading a sermon, which feels like a category mistake for something that is supposed to be formative. There may already exist among churchgoers the evaluation of, “I liked it” or, “I didn’t like it,” and asking for “evaluation” could unintentionally encourage that. Of course, preachers need feedback to know what’s connecting and not, and we can always improve in our proclamation of God’s Word. Either way I found benefit in the section on evaluation.

Haddon Robinson’s “Comprehensive Check-Up” (701) is short but sweet. He gives the preacher a host of good questions to ask herself or himself. There are questions especially for the introduction of the sermon (“Does the message get attention?”) and its conclusion (“Are there effective closing appeals or suggestions?”). There is a sense in which some of these questions read as common-sense measurements, but in the press of weekly ministry and preaching, it’s really to forget them. Robinson does preachers (and has done me) a great service by putting so many good self-evaluation questions in one place.

Barbara Brown Taylor offers a refreshing perspective in her “My Worst and Best Sermons Ever” (710). Her account of a sermon at the death of a baby girl is moving:

When it came time for the service, I walked into a full church with nothing but a half page of notes. I stood plucking the words out of thin air as they appeared before my eyes. Somehow, they worked. God consented to be present in them. (710)

She concludes–in a subtle corrective to the use of sermon “evaluation”–that there is value in being “reluctant to talk about ‘best’ and ‘worst’ sermons” (710). Indeed, “Something happens between the preacher’s lips and congregation’s ears that is beyond prediction or explanation” (710). The reader finishes her short piece wishing her writing had been featured more than in this and one other article.

Finally, “Lessons from Preaching Today Screeners” (704), features 10 questions “by which we evaluate all the sermons received by Preaching Today, and some of the lessons we’ve learned from listening” (704). It’s a fascinating read, and a set of questions to use in sharpening one’s own preaching. I was especially convicted by, “Is the sermon fresh?” There Lee Eclov cautions against preaching to the congregation “things they surely already know and believe, and doing so in terms the congregation would probably find overly familiar” (705). This one is a big challenge for me.

 

Conclusion

 

The Art & Craft of Biblical Preaching easily lends itself to both quick and sustained study. Whether you just pick it up and read what you need to give you a boost one week, or whether you spend hours poring over its advice, it’s an outstanding resource to keep at the desk or quick-access bookshelf. In “How to Use This Book,” the editors wisely say, “A manual like this–overflowing with helpful information–must be managed. …You will consciously focus on one important principle from a chapter for weeks or months. Eventually it will become second nature, and you will be ready to focus deliberate attention on another principle” (15).

As a production note, the book’s glued binding is an unfortunate choice for a rich reference book like this.

The editors are right in their expectation: “We expect this manual is one you will grow with for years to come” (15). I’m looking forward to my own continued growth as a preacher, and grateful to have this resource to help me to that end.

Here are all the main sections in the book, with the questions they set out to answer:

Part 1: The High Call of Preaching (“How can I be faithful to what God intends preaching to be and do?”)

Part 2: The Spiritual Life of the Preacher (“How should I attend to my soul so that I am spiritually prepared to preach?”)

Part 3: Considering Hearers (“How should my approach change depending on who is listening?”)

Part 4: Interpretation and Application (“How do I grasp the correct meaning of Scripture and show its relevance to my unique hearers?”)

Part 5: Structure (“How do I generate, organize, and support ideas in a way that is clear?”)

Part 6: Part and Style (“How can I use my personal strengths and various message types to their full biblical potential?”)

Part 7: Stories and Illustrations (“How do I find examples that are illuminating, credible, and compelling?”)

Part 8: Preparation (“How should I invest my limited study time so that I am ready to preach?”)

Part 9: Delivery (“How do I speak in a way that arrests hearers?”)

Part 10: Special Topics (“How do I speak on holidays and about tough topics in a way that is fresh and trustworthy?”)

Part 11: Evaluation (“How do I get the constructive feedback I need to keep growing?”)

You can find the book at Amazon or at the publisher’s page. It’s available in both Accordance and Logos Bible software programs, too.

 


 

Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy, given to me with no expectation as to the review’s content, and certainly not with the expectation of a 2,000 word review essay!