Memorable sermons

29 01 2010

If you go to church, you end up hearing a lot of sermons over the years. And, the truth is, they pretty much are forgotten Monday morning. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, although I have heard a lot of bad preaching over the years. Let’s face it, you just can’t hear 52 memorable sermons a year – you wouldn’t remember them all!

But there are a few… a few that stay with you. A few that have a core idea that gnaws at you, or a phrase that haunts you, or a beauty that transforms you.  These are the memorable ones, the ones that you can quote years later.

For me, one of the key elements of a memorable sermons is the maxim or epigram that encompasses the main idea. Now, when I was taught homilectics (preaching), I was told that the phrase ought to be from scripture. I suppose that’s a good rule of thumb, but the phrases I recall most are not from scripture. I believe that’s because scripture is so familiar, that using a phrase from it doesn’t stand out in my memory long term.

One of my most memorable sermons was entitled, “First, you pray.” And that was the point. The speaker, whose name I unfortunately forget, had raised the dead. People would ask him how he resurrected someone. His answer, “First, you pray.” When people ask what you do next, his answer was, “First, you pray.” The point of the sermon was that (a) you do nothing without prayer and (b) whatever God tells you to do in that prayer, you obey. So, first you pray. That’s the only answer to anything.

And you know what? To this day, almost 10 yrs later, I remember it. In preparation for starting up a small group, I sat down to thinking through what I needed to do. I have one week to choose my material, time, location, plan the meeting, etc. One week in which I’m already very busy. So, I sat to write. Suddenly, the words “first you pray” came to my mind. I said, “Yes, of course! First I need to pray for the group members. That’s most important.” I wrote that down at the top of my to-do list. Then I wrote the number 2 and waited. I was reminded, “First you pray”. Yeah, thanks God, I got that already. “No. . . you didn’t. You’re not praying. First, you pray!”

Right. “First you pray” doesn’t mean listing prayer on a to-do list. It means praying. So, I put the list away and prayed instead. The list never did come out again, although it might later. After I pray.

The point is, a memorable sermon does precisely that. It actually changes our actions long term. It’s transformative. It’s a seed that grows. It’ll only grow if its true, if it’s perceptive/witty, and if its broadly applicable. How do you write /  prepare a memorable sermon? First, you pray.


To the person with whom I had lunch yesterday…

28 01 2010

You have incredible vision. I may not always say it, but I deeply respect that. You see the hand of God in everything. You overflow with joy at the work of the Spirit. You attribute to God all good things, praising him with your words. Your gratitude is a greater testimony than you know. Your enthusiasm inflames embers in my own heart.

I don’t know where God’s going to take you, or how, or to what extent. I don’t know if you’ll transform the shape of the church, serve long term missions abroad, or simply live the faithful life. I do know that you’ll walk paths unexpected and follow roads undesired. I know you’ll be disappointed, hurt, and gloriously surprise.

So here, then, is my prayer for you:

May you walk with the Lord all the days of your life. May your faith and understanding grow ever deeper, even as you experience the out-flung reaches of the Kingdom. May you impact lives, whether through the church or personal interaction. Encourage, sustain, but also be encouraged and sustained. Learn to sense both your limits and strengths, to embrace them, and know that God’s power and glory are revealed in them.

Finally, I pray that you can take all that God has shown and given you, take all your passions and desires, and synthesize one succinct calling for your life. I pray that you do this sooner, rather than later. That God reveal to you the one mission to which you can give your life, knowing that all these things play into that one principle. You’re looking for your calling; I pray you find it. Many people miss it completely or stumble into it. But for you, I pray that God reveals it in the next month. Seek it, pray for it, and I know you will walk away from this experience with firm certainty. You’re going to need that where you’re going.

An unanswered prayer

27 01 2010

Today, my pastor’s daughter was buried. She died of heart failure following 10 surgeries. She was on 24-hr dialysis for months. Many of her organs were shutting down. She was only 3 months old.

People around the world have been praying for her during her entire life. And when I say around the world… my pastor has served at churches in the US, Canada, Australia, and now here in Korea. Literally thousands of people. They prayed for her healing, her life…

Now, what happens to their faith? I sat in a crowd of 500 people as we poured out prayers for her. As her father poured out his heart before us. You could feel it: she might live! She must live! She will live! We knew it, we prayed it, we felt it, we believed it.

But now, she’s buried. She didn’t live.

This doesn’t make me doubt my own faith. And honestly, I suspect my pastor’s faith will be worked out with God, in time. But what happens to the new Christian who sat in the church, feeling that she must live? The person who saw it all, but was not a part of it? The person who just sees one more unanswered prayer?

I’m not sure. I’m not sure why God answers some prayer and not others. I’m not sure why he didn’t give us a miracle. I’m not sure why he didn’t proclaim his glory in a way that we can easily understand. It seems that God missed the chance to make his glory known.

I am sure of this: “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.” (Jn 12:37)

So all I can know is, that God is still God. He’s God even though a baby died. He’s God even though we doubt him. He’s God even in the midst of parents’ pain. He’s God even to the uncertain faith. He is still God.

So God, take this child into your arms and thank you that she is free of pain. Now give those of us left behind the grace to mourn, to question, and to live.

Praying before you act

18 01 2010

I made a mistake recently. It wasn’t really a big deal in one sense; it was simply a misunderstanding. But in another sense, I hurt someone who’s already in pain, someone I don’t know well but do respect greatly.

I can’t help wondering why I didn’t stop to pray about it. Just a moment, that’s all it would have taken, to slow down and pray abut my actions. I should have asked God if it was alright, asked him whether I ought to, and then, if I decided to do it, asked him to bless it and make me a source of help and encouragement to others.

But I didn’t do that. I heard an idea, I asked a friend if it was really a good idea, and then I easily accepted his response. So I did it. And I’ve been regretting it every moment since.

The next day, feeling mortified at what I finally realized I shouldn’t have done, I decided to write a letter of apology. I was ready to send it off. But I didn’t. This time I paused and prayed whether I should or not. On the one hand, I do feel I need to apologize. On the other, I don’t know the person well and I don’t want to add to their current pain by making a big deal out of something.

The result is: I’m still holding on to the letter, waiting for the right time to send it. I have a feeling it might be a bit of a wait. Yes, I need to apologize. But more than that, I need to be sensitive to their pain and God’s timing. He’ll know when they’ll best need it.

So the question I keep turning over is this: what happens if we pray before we act? Human wisdom and sensitivity can only go so far – only God knows when that other person needs to / wants to talk with you. A good example is evangelism. I think sometimes we get so excited about telling people about Christ, that we forget to pray and ask God how much they’re ready to hear. If we started praying before we act, I think we’d find God often restraining our intentions, and just as often motivating us to do what we never intended.

Manifest Presence

17 01 2010

At a prayer meeting tonight, the preacher told everyone to ask for God’s “manifest presence”. He defined this as charismatic outpourings, basically, and cited David, Daniel, and Acts for evidence. He then told us to pray for it to happen then and there.

Now, I have no real problem with his theology. I tend to have a more quiet approach, but can sit quietly in my own intimate space with God while others are yelling, speaking in tongues, or falling down around me. Occasionally I’ll join in, but even then, with more reservation than most.

However, at the end of the night, my friend said she has often prayed to experience God in real, physical ways, but that he mostly speaks to her through others. She seemed saddened, like she was missing out on some grand Christian experience. Now, there are those that would agree with her, but I’m not one.

The fact is, real faith runs deeper than crying when you pray. Really experiencing God has more to do with obedience, action, and daily choices than it does with emotions or supernatural manifestations. I’m not saying there’s no place for these things, just that when we speak too highly or too frequently of them, we lose our perspective. My concerns are twofold:

First, people (often pastors) telling people to ask for it, to seek it, to desire it, and to intercede for it. It’s not that that’s wrong; in some cases that’s exactly what’s needed. What concerns me is how often I hear people like my friend, talking about wanting to “experience” God, feeling left out of the “in crowd”. Which leads me to my second point.

Second, it’s too rare that we teach these things. We tell people to want them, to look for them, but not what they need to do. Of course, it all comes from God (when it’s real). But I suspect one reason people don’t hear an audible voice is because they don’t know what it sounds like. They ask to hear a voice, but when there’s no earth-shaking deep voice speaking a word of profound wisdom, they give up.

Sure, God can and will do anything. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. But mostly, those manifestations of God’s presence have nothing to do with daily life or with someone’s spiritual condition. In fact, I rather suspect that having those experiences too often are a sign of immaturity. God tends to pour out those manifestations as evidence of power, tests of trust, etc.

By all means, pray for them. If you really feel the need, search out someone who can teach you more deeply about them. But remember, all these things will pass away.

Elusive Prayer Time

8 01 2010

I intend to pray. I’ve even got a “prayer rug” since there are no comfortable seats in my apartment. I’ve got a list of things to prayer for: people, places, events, and organizations. I’ve even got a list of my own things to pray for: life, work, church, relationships. And there’s the books. I’ve got a slew of books telling me to pray, how to pray, why I should pray, how other people have prayed….

I’m ready to pray. And yet… the dog needs to be fed. And walked. The dishes are calling out for a little soap and water, while a distinctive odor suggests I should take out the trash. Then there’s groceries to buy, phone calls to make, and, well, it’s bed time now. So, I’ll pray in the morning. At least, that’s the plan until I oversleep and get to work late.

Don’t we all have times like that? It sure happens to me far more often that I care to admit. I find the days passing without really praying. Oh, there’s the occasional whisper in God’s direction, but mostly I’m just living life moment to moment.

Then there’s that one sweet hour, where the snow falls or the sun shines and all of life just seems to pause. God’s presence is so palpable that you’re forced to pause in prayer. Those are the moments that remind me why I pray and what I’m missing.

The snow fell here in Seoul, the biggest snowfall in 103 yrs. For me, it was pure prayer walking to and from work each day. I trudge through slush, praying I don’t fall. Then I look up and have to pause. Suddenly, all the gratitude and praise rise to my lips.

The challenge, for me, is to go home that night and say those words to God aloud. To thank and praise him. To tell him what a beautiful world it is and how very much I enjoy it. Then, somehow, prayer isn’t a burden, but an overflowing of a fulfilled heart.

Verse for the Week

7 01 2010

1 John 3:2

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed…”

Today, while in prayer, I asked God for a verse. I was looking for direction on a choice I need to make, and this is what he gave me.

First, it’s a clear that God’s not ready to give me a clear answer.

Second, (actually, this should be first, but I noticed it second). Second, it’s a reminder that I am simply God’s child in whom he delights and nothing I do (or choose) changes that.

Point is – I am God’s child. And it’s not time for an answer to my question just yet. That’s good enough for me.