The Vorpal Sword

4 05 2010

So, Jabberwocky is nonsense. And yet, it’s perfectly clear. There’s a story: a father gives a warning, the son sets out, conquers the Jabberwock and brings its head home to a proud father.

On the other hand, I saw a group of people clearly know their instructions one moment, then confess they were confused about it the next. The instructions were simple and clear, but one person simply claimed they were not and suddenly the group was unable to understand simple English.

It’s terrifying to realize that what a person knows one minute can be un-known simply by suggestion. This is particularly true in a group mind.

Communication has nothing to do with language. It has everything to do with willingness and desire to understand.

It has almost nothing to do with a desire to be understood.


What It Isn’t

3 05 2010

A testimony isn’t preaching. Preaching isn’t a theological lecture. And a lecture isn’t teaching.

Too often we confuse these elements. They all have their place and time, but it’s important to remember what each one does and use it effectively. To do this, you first have to know:

  1. What your audience needs
  2. What your audience expects (cautious with your advertising)
  3. What your public speaking skills are (or your guest speaker’s)
  4. What God desires you to present to the audience

Then know exactly what each one does by nature:

A testimony is personal, private, and usually meant to inspire.

Preaching brings God’s word to God’s people.

A lecture presents academic ideas and debates.

Teaching is transformational.

A great speaker may not be appropriate for your particular event. That’s okay. Either change the speaker or change the event.

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.

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.

Preaching by the Spirit

4 01 2010

A recent Sunday was an unusual day at my church. The head pastor was not planning on preaching, which alone was rare. However, Sunday morning the head pastor walked onto the stage trembling.

He said he didn’t want to be there. He said he had a message and he was certain it was God’s word to us, but he didn’t want to preach it. The message prepared by the assistant pastor was put on hold, and the head pastor spoke. He didn’t look up the entire time, stating, “I’m afraid to look at you. I’ll cry and not be able to continue.”

The message was filled with tenderness and conviction. I heard many say afterwards that it was powerful, that it was moving. Most cried.

I could write a lengthy analysis of the words he spoke. Or I could give a theological discourse on the need to balance preparation and flexibility. I could exhort us all to be so sensitive and obedient to the Spirit.

Instead, I simply say, “Amen!” (And maybe I’d throw in a “Preach it, Brother!”)