Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Preaching Page 2 of 6

The Middle Man

Ron Unz of the American Conservative has thought for some time that so-called ‘gay marriage’ was an inevitability. What is somewhat troubling in his re-statement of his position here is his cynicism regarding the power of the church to shape thinking. I post this not to take a position on marriage, but to encourage thought about preaching. The relevant passage is this (emphasis mine):

Above all, the transformative power of the American media is once again revealed. Some time back I joked with a conservative friend that after a few years of relentless media pressure the very same preachers then denouncing Gay Marriage as the “sin of Satan” would probably be uniting same-sex couples in holy matrimony at their own churches, and so far the social trend lines seem to be supporting my prediction. After all, in modern American society the Word of the Almighty and His Holy Book may have a powerful influence, but they are regularly trumped by whatever our electronic media tells us to believe. Perhaps churches should just install television sets in front of their pews and cut out the middle man.

What do you think? Too cynical?

Bono and Grover

It is inscribed in the lore of Hope Presbyterian Church in Bradenton the Sunday that the preacher, showing off his “acquaintance” with pop culture, made reference to the lead singer of the band U2, pronouncing Bono with both o’s long. Whatever point I was making was quickly lost as those in the know snickered with silent amusement mixed with pity.

That was then. I’m far more careful now.

Sort of.

Easter Sunday at Covenant Presbyterian Church is one of two or three Sundays each year that we do not dismiss the children to children’s church before the sermon. So since my audience was much larger and much younger than normal, I made an extra effort to speak to the children.

My opening reference to The Wiggles went fine. No problem there.

But then, trying to give the children something to look forward to, I assured them that Elmo was going to make an appearance in the sermon. A brilliant strategy, thought I.

Twenty minutes in, when the slide with Elmo’s picture appeared, I expected, properly, for the children to perk up and some to say, “There he is!”

But they didn’t. I was surprised. Shocked, almost. I really expected them to be excited.

And then it was pointed out to me that the slide in question was in fact not Elmo, but Grover.


One child reportedly said to his parents after the sermon, “But Elmo never came.” This is a failure of Bono proportions.

As a follow up, after the service, I found this on my desk.


I will be studying my Sesame Street characters this week.

And how to pronounce the names of major pop artists.

What will you be doing?

Bring Snacks

My sermon yesterday seemed to go long. We’ll see after it is posted online just how long it was. But I had to simply summarize the last point, and that weakly, to allow our service to end on time.

The irony of this, of course, is that the sermon was on the shortest chapter in the bible – Psalm 117, a mere two verses. This led one member to quip, “If this is how long you go with the shortest chapter in the bible, when you preach on ‘Jesus wept’ [the shortest English verse] I’m bringing snacks.”

Which led some to whom I told this story to ask how long a sermon should be. I always answer that question with the very wise answer of the British pastor and author John Stott who said something like this: “It does not matter how long a sermon is as long as it seems like twenty minutes.”

But I don’t mind if you bring snacks.

The History Channel Bible

I heard about the History Channel’s broadcast of a Bible mini-series through predictable channels – the buzz through evangelical church culture that we should all watch this so that major media outlets would produce more like it.

I’m not moved by such marketing ploys. I did feel some sense that I SHOULD watch the first installment so as to be able to responsibly review what I believed others would be watching. But I didn’t even do that.

However, my friend Bill is a much more fair and honest critic of culture and of the contemporary religious scene than I. He has done us a favor and issued a generally favorable review of the first segment of this series. Bill has the background and grace to do this well. His wisest point was his reminder that we live in a biblically illiterate age, so that ANYTHING that in a reasonably accurate way tells the bible’s stories is going to be a helpful thing.

Much more critical was a review published in the NY Times. Interesting to me was that this review did not, as we might expect, take shots at the series’ attempt to be biblically faithful. Rather, the reviewer felt that the series falls short of really capturing the grand flow and passion of the whole bible. The series gives snapshots of biblically reported events but fails to root them in an overall narrative. That seems like a fair critique, as Bill as well compares the series to the bible story books of our collective youth.

The NY Times reviewer notes that

By taking on the entire Bible, even at 10 hours in length, Mr. Burnett and Ms. Downey force themselves into a clumsy “Bible’s greatest hits” approach. This doesn’t serve the source material — so rich in interconnections across time — very well, and it doesn’t make for very involving television.

and then suggests

Those looking for something that makes them feel the power of the Bible would do better to find a good production of “Godspell” or “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Well, in my mind, perhaps not. Rather those looking for something that makes them feel the power of the bible arising from is marvelous interconnections across time would do better to find a good church and a faithful pastor/preacher whose goal it is to do just that.

Wide Right

I tend to leave the sports analogies to my good and wise friend Geoff at Be Thou My Vision. One should leave stuff like that to the pros. He does a great job. But today I can’t help myself.

I happened Sunday afternoon to catch the wild finish of the Seattle-Atlanta football game. With something like 18 seconds left in the game, Atlanta’s Matt Bryant was preparing to kick a 50+ yard field goal for the win. Just before the snap, but not in time to stop the snap, Seattle called a time-out. Teams do this ostensibly to mess with the kicker’s head. This time it backfired.

As the whistles blew, the center snapped, and Bryant kicked. The ball sailed wide right. But it did not matter. It did not matter, except that this gave Bryant a practice shot and enabled him to make adjustments for the actual kick, which he nailed, and with which Atlanta won the game.

Most of us don’t get to make such adjustments in the work we do. I know I don’t. I preach a sermon and on Monday can detail to any who will listen (and generally no one really wants to hear me whine) all that was wrong with it. I can see exactly how I went wrong, wide right or left, and what could be done to fix it. But the chance to make adjustments never comes.

A preacher (or teacher, or worship leader, or whomever) has to realize that the power of his work does not alone reside in his ability to split the uprights. I told our music team on Sunday that they work really hard at their craft and I work really hard at mine. And we work so hard, that we might easily begin to think that the power in what we do lies in our hard work. We so easily forget what we regularly confess in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit”.

I won’t always nail the field goal. Sometimes I won’t even reach the end zone. But when it comes to worship, we are really waiting to see what God will do with what we offer.

What Is That Text About?

Let’s start with a familiar story:

There was once a young Shepherd Boy who tended his sheep at the foot of a mountain near a dark forest. It was rather lonely for him all day, so he thought upon a plan by which he could get a little company and some excitement. He rushed down towards the village calling out “Wolf, Wolf,” and the villagers came out to meet him, and some of them stopped with him for a considerable time. This pleased the boy so much that a few days afterwards he tried the same trick, and again the villagers came to his help. But shortly after this a Wolf actually did come out from the forest, and began to worry the sheep, and the boy of course cried out “Wolf, Wolf,” still louder than before. But this time the villagers, who had been fooled twice before, thought the boy was again deceiving them, and nobody stirred to come to his help. So the Wolf made a good meal off the boy’s flock, and when the boy complained, the wise man of the village said: “A liar will not be believed, even when he speaks the truth.”

Thus Aesop delivered to us a cautionary fable encouraging truth telling. At least that is how we will read this if we are careful and notice particularly the wise man’s concluding sentence.

If we are NOT careful, however, we might write an entire essay on the struggles of loneliness in agrarian society. Preachers might take such a text and preach a sermon on how economic ruin can come to a community if it marginalizes any of its members in the way this poor shepherd boy had been marginalized. And they might conclude with a stirring challenge to look around and find those marginalized people and reach out to them before they revert to antisocial behavior to gain attention and acceptance.

Not a bad challenge, for sure, but it is NOT what the fable is about. And the preacher, in fact any interpreter of language, has as his first task to understand what a text is about. That may seem obvious, of course, but what is obvious is not always practiced.

When I finished preaching on 2 Samuel 6 on Sunday, two comments following reminded me of the importance of getting the text right. In this passage, David determines to bring the Ark of the Covenant into his newly minted capital city of Jerusalem. The first attempt is met with a troubling death, but eventually the Ark is brought successfully into the city. This is to David’s delight, as he is pictured dancing at the head of the procession. His behavior elicits the disdain of his wife Michal.

One person commented that when she had heard the passage preached before, its focus was upon whether dance should form a part of Christian worship and liturgy. I think it is safe to say that this text is NOT about dance. Yes, David is said to have danced. That is a fact of the text, but it is not what the text is about. To attempt to make it so is to distort the text.

Another, though, said that my treatment of the text went in what he considered to be a unique direction. And that comment concerns me. I never want to come to a text with the intent of taking it in a unique way. I cannot consider that I am the first to have opened a text. I hope that my preaching exposes to the hearer the fundamental intention and application of the text, which would have been seen and preached by others before me. When someone finds my treatment ‘unique’ I’m always concerned that I have imported too much of my own interpretive spin into the text and perhaps have missed myself what it was intended to be about.

It is also possible that I have gotten the text ‘right’ and have helped this person and others in the way they see such texts. I’ll trust that this indeed is the case. But I never want to let the prior concern grow silent. It keeps me from too many flights of interpretive fancy.

This is a great concern of mine because I have this notion that the Bible is disrespected by so many not because the intellectual arguments against it have been so great, but that the Christian misuse of the Bible has been so widespread. If we are not careful, we can make the Bible say just about whatever we want it to say. But when we can make the Bible say anything we want, then it really says nothing at all.

By extending the authority of the Bible beyond where it intends to go, we run the risk of undermining its authority where it does speak authoritatively. If, for example, there are Christians arguing with great passion that the Bible teaches a capitalistic economic system, and other Christians arguing with equal passion that the Bible envisions an economic environment of communal ownership, there will be a large number of those looking in from the outside who will have a hard time believing that the Bible speaks with authority on things of greater import, such as the deity or resurrection of Christ. Our carelessness undermines our testimony.

I once had a couple of people ask me to preach on things the Bible “clearly” taught, such as an alleged prohibition against women working outside the home or its supposed ban on contraception. I have opinions on those matters which are biblically informed and which I’m happy to discuss. But I pray I never confuse in the pulpit my biblical opinions with the true direction of the the message of Scripture. I hope only to preach what a text is about that we might come to know the mind of its Author.

[I will, of course, get it wrong. Soon the sermon on 2 Samuel 6 will be posted here. There you can judge how close I came.]

Advice on Preaching

This collected wisdom on writing by famous authors is applicable, with minor adjustments, to all communication, including preaching. Enjoy!



Follow the link and read them all.


Thankful for Gospel Preaching

By virtue of his position, a preacher rarely gets to go to other churches. My own peculiarity is that I like familiarity and, honestly, I like the church I pastor, Covenant Presbyterian in Oviedo. So, even when on vacation, I’m likely to be found as a congregant there rather than anywhere else.

Today was the last Sunday of two restful vacation weeks and I uncharacteristically took the opportunity to visit a very popular local congregation. I attended their early service and so was still able to make it to my own church, albeit a few minutes late.

To attend another church is a dangerous thing for a pastor. It can bring out all kinds of unsavory responses – envy and judgmentalism among them. I genuinely try to fight these and to give glory to God for the way in which he is using us all in building his kingdom in this community.

And so I give thanks for this congregation. I really do. I know this church to be composed of men and women far more devoted to Christ than many. I know that God has given them a vision which is expansive and inclusive and worthy of praise.

The problem is that I heard two sermons today – one preached at this church to 4000 congregants and one preached at our church to 110. And only one of them pointed to Christ.

The first was a memorable and convicting message regarding the hardness of the human heart. The application directed us to dig deeply into the scriptures so that our hearts might be more receptive to the things of God.

The second was a memorable and convicting message about the blindness of the human heart. The application directed us to abandon all self-religion and to flee to Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.

The first, you see, identified a problem and then directed us how to fix it. The second identified a problem and and then directed us to the one who could fix it.

The first directed us to effort we must expend to find hope. The second offered us hope to which we could already cling. The first challenged us to make something more of ourselves. The second reminded us that we can make nothing of ourselves apart from Jesus.

The first was a message drawn from a story Jesus told, and that is as far as Jesus made it into the message. The second exposed the darkness of our hearts and pointed us to the Jesus who died for a heart as dark as mine that he might draw me out of that darkness.

The first left me wanting to do more. The second left me grateful for the more that Jesus has already done.

4000 people heard the first message. 110 heard the second.

I have faults that are legion. I have a heart that is corrupt and full of shame. I am so unworthy of the gospel of the grace of Jesus Christ, unworthy to be a recipient of it, and certainly unworthy to be a preacher of it.

But I’m grateful for those God has used to show me how for so many years I was one who preached the first type of message. I know how easy it is to do. And when I do, I grieve. And my prayer will be for me, and for this other church, and others building Christ’s kingdom in this community, that God will no longer let us preach a message of human effort, but will solely lead us to exalt the gospel of the grace of his Son.


Baseball, it is said, is a game built on failure. A superb hitter fails twice as often as he succeeds. A hall of fame pitcher will have games in which he inexplicably gives up six runs in a three and one third inning blowout. One can learn perspective from a game built on failure.

Mlb g upton 300Tampa Bay Rays outfielder B. J. Upton Sunday had a day in which failure outgunned success. He struck out four times. After a walk, he was then picked off first (albeit making it to second anyway). And he missed a spectacular, but catchable catch in the ninth inning.

When asked about his day, his response, as reported in the Tampa Bay Times, was this:

“Describe my day? Malo. If I was fluent in Spanish, that’s exactly what I would say, malo, which means bad,” Upton said. “But, you know what, it’s over with.”

It’s that last line that struck me. That’s perspective.

I, too, had a bad day yesterday. I’m a preacher, and a good portion of each week is invested in preparing and delivering a sermon. It is easy to let a whole lot of my identity get wrapped up in that thirty minutes or so of public attention. And Sunday I felt like I struck out four times, got picked off first, and dropped a catchable fly. In my opinion, the sermon was malo.

Asked later why I thought so, I gave my five irrefutable (!) reasons for my judgment, but I still lacked perspective. I was still mulling over the sermon this morning, unable to say, “But, you know what, it’s over with.” B. J. is ready to move on. I was not.

But perspective is what we need. Most, if not all, preachers are going to have bad days. There will be sermons that just do not soar. There will be days when the heart fails to engage with the words. There will be days when we care far more about what this person or that thinks. And such days bother us when we forget that God can take the well meant words of a bumbling preacher and change the world. He can draw his straight lines with our crooked sticks.

In the end, I realize, what suffers most in a sermon that just does not make the cut is my pride. When I care more for the ‘Great sermon, Randy’ than I do for the ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ I will not be able to let go of the remorse when a sermon is malo. The problem, always, is in my heart.

So, thanks, B. J. We both had a bad day. “But you know what, it’s over with.” I am still loved by God who has prepared work for me to do, and he has given me another week in which to do it.

Thanks for the good reminder. (But please, stop striking out.)

Questions from the Sixties

The title does not refer to the famous decade of the 20th Century, but of the advanced decade of a human life. We are considering the kinds of questions that various decades of life force upon us, as suggested by Gordon MacDonald in his book A Resilient Life.

The sixty-year-old then is asking questions which reflect the fact that some whom he loves have died and his accomplishments are fading farther into the background.

When do I stop doing the things that have always defined me?
Why do I feel ignored by a large part of the younger population?
Do I have enough time to do all the things I’ve dreamed about doing?

Life and death issues loom:

Why am I curious about who is listed in the obituaries?
Who will be around me when I die?
Which one of us (if married) will go first?
What is it like to say goodbye?

And again, end of life issues push the buttons of doubt and fear:

Are the things I’ve believed in capable of taking me to the end?
Is there really life after death?
What do I regret?
What have I done that will outlive me?

We invest a great deal of effort in trying to form our messages to be comprehended by youth. We need to take these questions to heart as we seek to speak to those who are older as well.

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