Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Preaching Page 1 of 6

The Romance of Preaching

Every year, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, our small group of Oviedo ministers hosts a shared Thanksgiving service in one of our churches. This past year it was held at Oviedo’s Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. Participating were Charles, the pastor of that church, Jayson, the pastor of an independent church, Jon, an Episcopal priest, John, a church planter with a congregational denomination, and Paul, a mainline Presbyterian pastor. Also in attendance were Bobby, a United Methodist pastor, Dan, a former Evangelical Presbyterian pastor who now pastors the Oviedo plant of an Orlando megachurch, and Joseph, a United Methodist pastor and professor at the Asbury Seminary branch here in Orlando. Wonderful men, all of them.

I had been asked to preach which I found terribly intimidating. All of these men are gifted preachers. When each had preached in previous years, my assessment of my own preaching abilities diminished. But they had asked me, and I agreed.

In the weeks leading up to the service, I felt inclined to preach on the subject of lament. At a Thanksgiving service. It was a crazy idea, but I couldn’t shake it. My heart told me that it is hard for the truly sad to endure Thanksgiving. People need to be given permission to lament, if that is where their hearts are, even when everyone else is telling them to be happy. The Psalms, from which I intended to preach, are rich in thanksgiving and lament. Perhaps we needed to learn that thanksgiving is richer and more real when it is expressed through tears and sorrow.

As the service began, and the time to actually preach this sermon drew closer minute by minute, I sat internally scolding myself for choosing such an awful topic for such a joyful occasion. The crowd would be too kind to boo me off the stage, but I was certain that the message would be met with stony silence.

I began, audaciously speaking about the musical genre of the blues to this predominantly black congregation. The “amens” from the gospel choir behind me and joined by the congregation before me encouraged me forward. I felt a comfort and a freedom in the pulpit that made it a surprising joy. The response of many was affirming.

After the service, a woman stood near me as I spoke with others. I could tell she wanted to say something to me, so I finished my conversation and introduced myself to her. She gave me a hug and thanked me. She said, through tears, that she had planned on not coming but at the last minute changed her mind. She explained that her best friend, in Ohio, on the previous Saturday had been killed. She needed to grieve and was afraid that a Thanksgiving service would not allow that. She said that my message was the one she needed to hear. I carefully probed to find out how her friend had died. She said, “Her husband shot her in front of her two children.”

She needed permission to lament, and God, using me, had given that to her. I had not known her, her life, her circumstances, and her need, but God did.

I think it was British pastor Martin Lloyd-Jones who called such experiences the romance of preaching. We never know what the Holy Spirit plans to do with the words we speak.

Sometimes he lets us see.

The sermon, for those interested, is posted here

To Paint or Not To Paint, That Is the (Preacher’s) Question

On a recent Monday, several church members were at the church painting the nursery. When I went to get my lunch from the kitchen, one spied me and said, “Hey! Are you coming to join us?”

I mumbled some kind of answer, appealing to being busy, and the like. The essence of my answer was clear: “No.”

He accepted my answer.

“That’s okay,” he said. “I was half-joking.”


I will begin preaching through the book of Ephesians in January. To prepare for this, I’ve spent the past few Monday mornings coming to know Ephesians as best I can. It’s been a rich time in which I easily lose myself.

But some could easily argue that spending time with church members and youth slopping paint around the nursery might be time better spent. It makes sense. There is no better way to build relationships than working side by side with others. And yet, I spent the day in Ephesians. Why?

First, I genuinely believe there is power in the preached word. When Paul in Romans says that “…faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17) he is not suggesting that the Romans download a Bible app that will read the word to them on their daily commute. The word of Christ read and explained in worship promises faith to its hearers. The power is not in me or in any skill I might claim or possess. There is power in the Spirit of God taking the word and doing his work with it. That is not something to trifle with.

But if that is true, then, I must make sure that it is in fact the word of Christ that I preach. I fear, as I think I ought, the prospect of preaching untruth. I approach preaching with James’ caution in mind, that “Not many of you should become teachers…for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1)

It is annoying to think that people don’t listen to my preaching. But it is frightening to think that they do.

To work carefully to ensure that the sermons I preach conform to the word I’m seeking to expound takes time and care. I’ll stumble and I’ll fall and I’ll say foolish and ill-advised things. But I labor against that to speak what is the word of God.

These things together give me hope that the word preached might effect change. John Stott, a British pastor and theologian of the last century, was moved deeply by the powerful picture of a united Christian community that he found in the book of Ephesians. “At the same time,” he lamented, “the realities of lovelessness and sin in so many churches are enough to make one weep, for they dishonour Christ, contradict the nature of the church, and deprive the Christian witness of integrity.” (God’s New Society1979, page 10)

It was by preaching that he hoped to bring to pass the lofty vision of the Bible among a weak and struggling humanity. The word preached has the power to accomplish the change we hope to see in the lives of God’s people.

I believe these things. And so I and many others study when we could paint.

Whether my friend was ‘half’ or ‘fully’ joking, I can’t say. I think it is the latter.

Regardless, I can say with certainty that he and those like him are generally unaware of the important contribution they make to the preaching of the word. When they take up the brush, their pastors can study. And that promises blessing beyond measure.

Give Me Jesus. Please.

“Our seeing then, Lord, will be the vision of you as you are, but this is not granted to us yet.” [Augustine, Confessions]

I am a jockey who for nearly three months has been watching the horses race from the stands. I’ve had a great deal of time to contemplate how I do, or am to do, what I do. That contemplation, which is one of the benefits of sabbatical, is occurring in a world that feels like it is coming undone. It is occurring in a time when people, those who have not written off the value of preachers altogether, are either looking to preachers to tell them how to think or are telling preachers what they must speak.

It is an invigorating and challenging time to be a preacher. I, as most ordinary pastors I know, am a shepherd, not just a preacher. I have sheep I want to guide, people whom I want to help navigate the world’s uncertainty. And as a Christian, I have convictions – political ones that sound like moral ones and moral ones that sound like political ones. I have a strong impulse to give people any biblical guidance I can. As I prepare to return to the pulpit I wonder if I should adjust my preaching to touch more directly upon what people should think about immigration, assault weapons, sexuality, and the like.

But that impulse is tempered by two realities.

First, I’m reminded of the preacher’s calling. Paul’s emphasis is upon the preaching of the cross. In Corinth he resolved to make the cross his primary message (1 Cor 2:2). To the Romans he argued that the hearing of the gospel preached is what would bring faith and consequent reconciliation among people (Rom 10:8-17). His message to the struggling Galatian church was so centered on the cross that John Stott devotes a moving chapter of his book The Cross of Christ to helping us see this. Do 21st century congregations need this message any less? I could argue we need it more.

And though we need it more, we we may find it less. A benefit of sabbatical is that I can visit other churches. As I search for one to attend, I do so as one thirsty and weary and hungry and fearful. I look for a church which will through the preaching and the liturgy bring me to Jesus. I want to hear His voice. I want to know His presence and His comfort. More than ‘want’, I need this. We all do. I’ve had a difficult time finding it.

Considering this sense of calling and need has led me to a certain resolution regarding my own ministry. Yes, I will touch upon the difficult matters of our day when the text upon which I preach demands it. But that will not define my preaching. I have to understand that all who make the effort, the huge and consuming effort, to get up on a Sunday morning to drive to church and then face the trauma of being strangers in a crowded room are, like me, whether they know it or not, in a desperate need to meet and to hear Jesus. They need to hear what He has done for them more than they need to hear what they must do for Him. And it is my calling to make sure, as much as it is in me, that that happens.

I urge my fellow preachers to commit to the same. There are innumerable resources out there for our people to help shape their views on the political issues du jour. There is time for private conversation and classes on those matters. But on Sunday, when I or others come to your church, what we need is Jesus. We need liturgy and word and table linking up in an unbreakable thread to reacquaint us with the savior, with our Lord, with our soul’s desire. These things we can only find in church, and you have the opportunity to shape the service and preaching so that we do.

So, preacher, this is not a small thing for those of us who are sitting before you. We need Jesus. We need a clear, believable, thoughtful, heartfelt, warm, presentation NOT of some position, nor even of some gospel schematic or theological system. We need to see Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. We need to be brought into the presence of the living God and to hear his welcome. In such glory we will find grace, and on the other side of grace we will long to be sent and to do his will.

Please give this to your people. To us. To me.

UPDATE: A good friend has pointed out to me, justifiably, that the original form of this post was unnecessarily critical of churches in the community I inhabit. I own that. I know these churches are seeking to be faithful to bringing the gospel to a troubled world in a way that world can hear what they have to say. All churches face the same challenge, my own included. My positive appeal – to make sure our worship focuses on Jesus – was clouded under what was unnecessarily negative in my own experience. For this I am sorry, but as well grateful for friends who won’t let me get away with such things.


Leaping to Conclusions

Edwin H. Friedman says a number of good and helpful things in his book on leadership A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Too easily, he says, we allow our emotional engagement in a system to lead to a sort of gridlock that kills imagination and shuts leaders off from exciting possibilities. He’s right. But like many good books on leadership Friedman overstates his case, bases it upon what appear to be wild generalizations, and takes too long to say it. I’m clearly not a fan of books on leadership (except this one!).

As an example of innovation freed from such constraints, Friedman points to the courage and innovation of Christopher Columbus to whom he credits the restoration of European greatness. In so doing, Friedman paints a picture of European malaise drawn from a 1493 publication called the “Nuremberg Chronicle”. We ought always to be suspicious of points made by reference to single ancient texts. And preachers, no less than leadership gurus, are guilty of this.

Imagine in the wake of a nuclear holocaust or zombie apocalypse, the only historical record of our age several hundred years into the future are several fragmentary speeches of Donald Trump.
We would not want generalizations made about life now based upon such sketchy evidence. Rodney Stark, a Baylor sociologist, speaking of the late Roman Empire as an “experienced pollster” has reminded us that we ought not to characterize

“…the ‘feelings and thoughts of fifty-million people’ on the basis of a few fragmentary literay quotations.” (The Rise of Christianity, page 200)

This reminds me of the caution that writer Barbara Tuchman developed in her own presentation of medieval history A Distant Mirror. The negative will always be over-reported.

“A…hazard, built into the very nature of recorded history, is overload of the negative: the disproportionate survival of the bad side—of evil, misery, contention, and harm. In history this is exactly the same as in the daily newspaper. The moral does not make news. History is made by the documents that survive, and these lean heavily on crisis and calamity, crime and misbehavior, because such things are the subject matter of the documentary process—of lawsuits, treaties, moralists’ denunciations, literary satire, Papal Bulls. No Pope ever issued a Bull to approve of something….
“Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place.” (pages xviii-xvix)

Writing this in 1978 Tuchman had never heard of the internet, or imagined how it could magnify this tendency.

I say all this to urge caution in the generalizations that we accept as true. I say it as well as a caution that we not be those, especially we who are preachers, who further mistaken conclusions by making them or repeating them.

Scolding and the Treasures of God’s Grace

I asked my wife Sunday afternoon if she felt that I had ‘yelled’ too much in Sunday’s sermon. I don’t yell, exactly. But I can allow a strained elevation of my voice to be sustained for a significant period of time that can seem, to me, like yelling.

I felt I had done that Sunday. She told me that I had not yelled and that, in fact, I came across as more reserved than the previous Sunday. So, I concluded, as I do with such information (I’m an Olympic caliber conclusion-jumper) that I had yelled THAT week.

Perhaps I did, perhaps I did not. But I did come perilously close to scolding. Much of those sermons was spent challenging the congregation, and myself, to examine some elements of our discipleship and to call us to a purer devotion to Jesus. That is necessary and it is good. But alone, it is empty and vain.

As a reminder of that, these words from a former professor of preaching which I read this morning, ring so very true.

I know I need to be scolded. I need to be corrected. I need to be instructed and exhorted. I need to be called to repentance. But I also need for you the preacher to take me by the hand and let me walk off the size of my inheritance as a child of God. I need every now and then to run my fingers through the unsearchable riches of the treasure of God’s grace, to sing the doxology, and go home.

If preachers could do that better, I’m convinced we would need to do far less scolding.

[from Fred B. Craddock, Craddock on the Craft of Preaching, page 115]

On Presenting Christ

Yesterday, Easter Sunday, Christian preachers around the world struggled to present to their congregations, and to their own hearts, the glory of Christ in his resurrection from the dead. Many no doubt walked away from that effort burdened with a sense of inadequacy. This is to be understood, for the topic we tackle is one which cannot be adequately treated. All efforts fall short. We who see that glory imperfectly will sense that our efforts to reveal it perfectly are doomed from the start.

In such a state, we share worthy company. The Puritan scholar John Owen wrote a treatise titled “Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ” which is rich with reflective wisdom on the subject. But even Owen confesses his inadequacy.

For who can declare this glory of Christ? who can speak of these things as he ought? I am so far from designing to set forth the whole of it, that I am deeply sensible how little a portion I can comprehend of the least part of it. Nor can I attain unto any satisfaction in these Meditations, but what issues in an humble admiration. [Chapter XI]

We are all inadequate. And yet we persevere to that which the resurrection so fundamentally promises: we will see him, and see him as he is. Owen grows warm to this, as should we:

How excellent, how glorious will it be, when with these eyes of ours, gloriously purified and strengthened beyond those of Stephen, we shall behold Christ himself immediately in the fulness of his glory! He alone perfectly understand the greatness and excellency hereof, who prayed his Father that those who “believe in him may be where he is, so to behold his glory.” [Chapter XII]

We give our best efforts to understand and to preach Christ’s glory but it meets in frustration. Such frustration must be tempered by the realization that by these weak efforts, men, women, and children are, by grace working through the word we preach, preserved and kept for that day in which we all shall see His glory face to face.

White/Gold and Blue/Black Sermons

Ah, the Dress. By now we all know about The Dress. One color combination to one group of people; a different combination to another. The phenomenon was all the rage and ‘so last week’.


This is a phenomenon well known to any preacher. Several weeks ago I met with a friend on a Tuesday morning, and he got serious with me.

“Randy, I want to tell you this as a friend. Sunday’s sermon was way too long. I even checked with my wife, and she agreed.”

I take such things to heart. But then I don’t know what to do with them when the next day I hear from another.

“Randy, when is that sermon going to be posted online? It was so helpful and I need to hear it again.”

I asked if it was too long and, as expected, the answer was, “Heaven’s no.”

There is nothing new under the sun. Just occasionally, the Internet notices it.

Unsupported Assumptions

A pastor queried for a series being run on the website of The Gospel Coalition made this observation to support his advice to young pastors:

Much evangelical preaching tends to be either therapeutic or moralistic, regardless of theological persuasion.

That may or may not be true, of course, but there is no way of disputing it. The man making the claim preaches most Sundays, so he can’t have much personal experience by which to make such a judgment. I can’t imagine how he has researched this claim, nor does he cite the research of others. How can he make the claim? Is it because we grant such leeway unthinkingly to prominent pastors?

I’m not sure why without support we are supposed to accept such claims. Maybe no one does. Or maybe they do. I can’t claim to know one way or another.

Mr. Knox’s Courage

In my sermon this past Sunday, I made mention of the period of England’s history in which Edward VI was dying, and others were scheming to retain power by arranging for young Lady Jane Grey to be his successor. (This is all wonderfully captured in a movie called simply Lady Jane which is, unfortunately, very expensive to buy, but can be streamed.)
Lady Jane
In the midst of this intrigue, a young John Knox was given opportunity to preach to the parties involved. He made the most of his opportunity.

The second Sunday in April 1553 the last Tudor King of England went to hear, for the last time, one of his favourite preachers in Westminster Abbey. All the glitter and jingle of a medieval court was there; the glorious, flashing colour, the shields and banners, the velvet and miniver. His Highness Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, a gorgeous figure, famous as a jouster, with his tall handsome sons: Paulet, Marquess of Winchester, the perfect time-server, who was Comptroller, Secretary and Lord Treasurer to Edward, who cursed Mary as a bastard, yet lived to ‘crouch and kneel’ successfully to her in turn; all the dukes and earls and jewelled ladies were there: for sermons were high fashion, for the moment, in England.

Knox, the dour little Scotsman, rising to preach, perhaps looked round from the white-faced boy to the jealous lords: and gave out his text from the Gospel of St. John xiii. 15: ‘He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me.’

These words, used by the Lord at the Last Supper, are quoted from Psalm 41, v. 9, in which David laments the treachery of Absalom. Knox turned back to read again those incomparable stories of treachery and heroism in Isaiah, in 2 Samuel xvi and xvii, 2 Kings xviii; stories of three different sorts of traitors: of Shebna the traitor who wormed his way into King Hezekiah’s confidence, becoming comptroller, secretary and treasurer – did the congregation prick up their ears? Of Achitophel who rose to be the highest in the land while he plotted with Absalom to supplant David: whose counsel ‘was as the oracles of God’: of Judas who sold his friend.

The preacher’s voice rose to a climax: ‘Was David and Hezekiah, princes of great and godly gifts and experience, abused by crafty counsellors and dissembling hypocrites? What wonder is it then, that a young and innocent King be deceived by crafty, covetous, wicked and ungodly counsellors? I am greatly afraid that Achitophel be counsellor, that Judas bear the purse and that Shebna be scribe, comptroller and treasurer.’

There must have been a wave of anger – perhaps of laughter – along the gorgeously dressed congregation. Was there too a flicker of satisfaction over the white face of the little King? But whether or not he was the King’s favourite, this sermon went a little too near the bone : Knox was summoned before the Privy Council of England on 14 April.

There were present at this Council, Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor, the Earls of Bedford, Northampton and Shrewsbury; the Lord Treasurer (‘Shebna’), and the Lord Chamberlain, and two Secretaries of State. For obvious reasons, they did not take him up on the sermon; but instead brought up the old complaints against him. Why had he refused preferment? Why had he objections to kneeling, to the special wafer instead of common bread, and the like? Knox had answers ready for all their points: so in the end they ‘dismissed him with fair words’, saying only ‘they were sorry to understand he was of a contrary mind to the Common Order’….

His enemies could afford to wait a little. The sands were clearly running out for Edward. Youth had ceased to fight with death: his days were numbered.

Plain Mr. Knox, Elizabeth Whitley

This scene, unfortunately but not surprisingly, does not make it into the movie.

Timmy Keller Guys

Eugene Peterson in his wonderful book The Comtemplative Pastor strongly urges pastors to be conversant with poetry. If that is the measure of pastoral success, then I am a hopeless failure, to which the following bears sufficient witness.

(This is offered in fun, with sincere apologies to The Beach Boys and all mentioned herein.)


Timmy Keller Guys

Well, emerging guys are hip;
I really dig those styles they wear.
And the southern baptists with the way they talk
they knock me out when I’m by there.

The Pentecostal screamers
can get you wound up oh so tight.
And they let it loose with a holler and a whoop
so we come back another night.

I wish they all could be Timmy Keller,
I wish they all could be Timmy Keller,
I wish they all could be Timmy Keller guys.

Reformed boys have the insight
and they cross their T’s just so.
I dig a Genevan gown on a pipe-smokin’ man
in a pulpit of marble stone.

Piper channels Edwards
and Dr. Sproul, he is so sly.
Begg packs ’em in with his Scottish dialect,
And Osteen only has to smile.

I wish they all could be Timmy Keller
I wish they all could be Timmy Keller
I wish they all could be Timmy Keller guys.

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