Yes, I write my own sermons

I stumbled across this blog post the other day: “So, do you write your own sermons?”

I felt compelled to mention here that yes, for better or worse, I write all my own sermons. (I wonder how many think I don’t?) I once ordered a kit for some midweek Lent worship services that included bulletin covers, liturgies, and sermons. Even though I liked the themes and some of the ideas, I had to rewrite all of them. They just didn’t sound like me and needed to be adapted for my specific audience. I didn’t waste my money on any more kits.

It never occurred to me that pastors wouldn’t write their own sermons. My seminary professors — from the historical, exegetical and systematic departments as well as homiletics — spent a lot of time preparing us for the pulpit. Then again, I did have a colleague when I was of several pastors at another church who received some kind of subscription of sermon resources. He never shared them with us, so I don’t know how much he drew from them.

I may pick up some ideas, themes, titles or illustrations from stuff I read, but I have to shape them into my own words. Otherwise, it just doesn’t feel natural. I don’t even go back and use sermons I’ve written in the past. Although I have copies of just about everything I’ve written, I never like them as much as the new material I write.

Yes, I write my own sermons. And just in case you’re curious, here’s the process I generally follow each week as I prepare for a Sunday morning. It’s not a hard and fast schedule, just a routine that works for me.

Monday On Monday morning, I read through the texts for that day (Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel) and decide which one I will preach on that week. I’ll work through that passage mostly in English to come up with a title and basic outline of what I want to say. I usually use the “Lowry Loop” to accomplish this, since it moves my thoughts towards a goal or a “so what” for the week.

From time to time may preach a topical series of sermons, for which I pick the biblical texts. In the past I’ve preached series on the Great Commission, Tearing Down our Idols, Watching Your Mouth, Stewardship, Witnessing and lots and lots of Lenten series.

Tuesday On Tuesday, I’ll work on the passage again, checking other English translations and looking at the Greek or Hebrew to see if there are any interesting words or phrases that catch my attention. I try to anticipate any questions the hearer might have, too. I may look at a commentary to learn more about the passage’s context and interpretation, too. I like to have my introduction and conclusion figured out, too.

Wednesday On Wednesday, I put the sermon onto Keynote slides which will help me remember. I don’t write out the whole sermon but use bullet lists on each slide. My sermons will generally be eight to twelve slides. I style each slide to be more of a story at this point, and put a picture with it, reminding me to show not just tell. It’s also a great mnemonic device.

Thursday Thursday is practice day. The pictures on each slide will be mentally slotted into rooms in my house, which easily helps me remember each one. Then I practice the sermon out loud several times in the sanctuary as if it were Sunday morning.

Friday Friday is my day off, so I try not to work on church stuff at all.

Saturday (and Sunday) Sometimes I’m off on Saturday, sometimes I have stuff to do. But I will always practice the sermon once before bed and then once more early Sunday morning before anyone else arrives at church.

Granted, that’s an ideal week. Some weeks the sermon comes easily and is done early. Other times I feel like I’m Jacob trying to wrestle blessing from God and I’m actually still working on it on Saturday. But it’s always worth the effort. Most days I’ll block out a couple of hours to work on my sermon. Sometimes I have less; sometimes it takes more. Bottom line: it’s not really a message worth preaching unless it has touched my own heart. Then it’s ready.

And actually, the sermon isn’t ever done until I’ve preached it to the congregation. It’s always a little different in front of a live audience. The sermon writing task is rewarding, frustrating, stimulating, agonizing, frightening and exciting all at the same time. Sometimes I hate my sermons. Other times I love them. I can put people to sleep. Other times I can wake them up. Such is the preaching task and the power of God’s Word!

Lunch with my dad and his friends

At the end of last month, I got to spend a few day with my dad. If you’ve read any of my blog posts, you know he lives on a memory care floor in a very nice assisted living facility in Springfield, VA. I not only got to visit with him for a couple o days, but also got to have lunch with him and some of his friends.

I flew up early on a Tuesday morning, took the Metro to Springfield and walked up the hill to his residence. On my way in, I mentioned to the front desk that I wanted to eat lunch with dad. Eight bucks. No problem; I had a little cash in my pocket. I was all set. That evening, my brother was surprised that I had to pay. They usually offered him lunch when he sat next to dad. Sure enough, the next day, I simply sat there and they brought me lunch. Sweet.

Dad wasn’t awake much the first day and only ate soup and ice cream on the second day. I, one the other hand, had a nice grilled ham and cheese sandwich on my first day there, and some really good lasagna on day two, plus much of dad’s turkey reuben.

But the best part was sitting there with all the other people at dad’s table. Across the way from me was Joe, who didn’t eat much, but often looked and me and smiled. Next to him was Irene, who kept trying to get Joe to eat some of her food. On the second day, she poured her soup into her juice glass and drank it. When one of the caregivers asked, “What are you drinking?” I explained that it was her soup. Both of them just smiled. Hey, when you’re that old and in a place like that, why not?

To my right was Bob, who though most of the food was so-so, even though he ate all of it. Next to him was Millie, who ate her lunch very slowly and deliberately. I must have looked young to her. She asked me, “So how do you like your classes?” At the end of the table was Glenn, who I later found out had been there as long as my dad, close to two years. It took a while, but he ate every bit of his lunch.

In many ways it is an alternate reality. These beautiful, sweet and wonderful folks welcomed me into their world. They graciously made room for me at their table, shared their food with me and accepted me with no reservations. It was a liberating moment, for no expectations were thrust upon me. All I had to do was enjoy my lunch.

I needed that moment. Not just to be with my dad, but to be with them. Life is so much more than all the stuff I have on my mind. Sometimes it’s just about lunch.

Thirty-three

My son turns thirty-three next week. What do I remember about being thirty-three?

Wow, it’s a stretch. That was 1990. We were living in Connecticut, where I had received my first call as pastor of a small rural church, Prince of Peace, in Coventry, about an hour east of Hartford. Our kids, four and three, were attending the preschool. We had two labs, Gabriel and Rachel, yellow and chocolate, respectively. A big parsonage, probably 3,000 sq. ft. on four acres of land next door to the church. No AC. Only really got hot about 2 weeks each summer. I’m sure my wife had started her nursing classes at UConn by then.

The world wide web was brand new in 1990. No internet for us. No cell phones. No cable TV. We got all our news from TV and the Hartford Courant. Other than the bible, I only had a books I accumulated at seminary for my sermon and bible class preparation. What a contrast with the almost infinite resources available to me now!

I had a computer that I used for word processing, with a 5-1/4″ floppy drive, that I got from my brother, I think. I had a dot matrix printer, too. The church had a stencil duplicator to make weekly worship folders and monthly newsletters. We didn’t have to make too many though. About seventy gathered for worship each week.

I remember getting up very early on a Sunday morning and walking across the yard to the church, where I would practice my sermon a number of times. I would then come back home to help get everyone ready for church at 9:00, followed by bible class and Sunday School at 10:30. I think I taught a midweek bible class, too, but I can’t remember.

It was a very stable community. Not too many people moved to Coventry. Occasional visitors at church. New families joined from time to time. I still remember many of the families who welcomed us and helped me learn how to be a pastor those first few years: Jeram, Sans, Thurber, Garay, Dollock, Ausberger, Hamernik.

I still did quite a bit of running back then, but didn’t race much. I remember hitting softballs out into the yard for the labs to chase. I always wore out before they did. We let them run wherever. When I whistled in the evening, you could see them coming through the field from a half mile away. We had two cats for a while, Fred and Ginger, who also spent a lot of time outside. I’d yell, “Kittykittykittykittykittykitty” and they would come scrambling in from a tree.

We burned a lot of wood in a wood burning stove in the winter. I’d get people to bring over parts of fallen oak trees, and I would split and stack it in the summer time. I absolutely loved swinging the axe through those logs.

The kids and I would often walk down the road where a very small farm had goats and horses near the fence that we could pet. A short drive would bring us to the UConn barns, where we would walk through and visit cows, goats, sheep and horses.

I don’t know if I have any journals from back then. I have to rummage through the box of notebooks I have at church. I don’t even remember if or how much I was journaling at that time. Not as much as I do now. The memories are mostly in my head and in our photographs. But if I find some, I’ll let you know.

A beginning and an end in a moment

It was a beautiful afternoon wedding. Slightly overcast skies kept it from getting too hot as the young couple took their vows just a few steps away from a blooming rose garden. Friends and family watched from all sides, witnessing two becoming one.

Some remained for the vast array of pictures while others, including myself, headed towards the small community center for the reception. I helped put the beer on ice as the BBQ caterers carried in the food and the DJ set up his sound equipment. Just a few minutes later the wedding party entered. Who knew how good ribs and champaign paired? Soon the dancing began.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. I glanced at it, recognized the name, and felt like I needed to answer. The voice told me that Jack (not his real name) had just been taken to the hospital. I confirmed which hospital it was, and thought, “I’ll head down there a little later on my way home.” I also thought, “I better start drinking ice tea and lemonade.”

Minutes later, my phone buzzed in my pocket. Same name and number. This time the voice said, “Jack just died.” What? I just saw him a few days ago. He seemed fine. I grabbed my coat, told my wife what happened, gave her a quick kiss and headed out to my car. I knew that his wife – now his widow – was alone with him. The rest of the family was not just out of town. They were out of state.

I didn’t turn on the radio right away, letting my mind transition from the first day of a married life together to the last day of a married life together. The last day of sixty-five years together. I never know when I will experience such extremes in just a few hours.

Another occasion from a few year ago flashed into my mind. One afternoon I baptized an infant just moments before I did a funeral for her great-grandmother. It was the one moment when all the family could be there, so we laughed and cried and celebrated the first and last pages of life.

Half-an-hour later I walked through the emergency room doors. Suspecting why I was there, a nurse in a mask at a desk asked, “Who are you here for?” After I answered she gave me a room number and clicked me in. I walked into the room where Jack’s body lay, still intubated and IV’d. His widow Marie sat there, head bowed, holding his hand. I touched her shoulder, she looked in my eyes, and reached up to hug me. My prayers joined hers as we commended Jack into the Lord’s hands, body and soul and all things. The words of the benediction spoke a powerful blessing.

I spent the next two hours with Marie. I certainly wasn’t going to leave her there alone as we waited for the staff to contact the funeral home. I also spoke with her daughter and a few dear friends to make sure Marie wouldn’t have to spend the night alone.

We sat there for a while, sometimes very quiet, sometimes talking about life and death. I thought to myself, “Sixty-five years ago, they took their vows, just like the young couple today.” And then I thought, “Imagine that young couple sixty-five years from now!” Time warped for me as six-and-a-half decades compressed into a moment. If you watch space science fiction TV and movies, you get to know the phrase “time-space continuum.” If you are in the ministry, sometimes you actually get to experience it!

“I’m going to have to come to church every week!”

Heard at confirmation class last night: “But Pastor, if I’m going to finish up my sermon reports this year, I’m going to have to go to church every week!” And yes, this comment was accompanied by a suitably horrified face, as if I had threatened to break their fingers.

Their comment wasn’t entirely correct. I pointed out that they needed ten more sermon reports, and that there were at least twenty-two more worship services between now and confirmation Sunday. For some reason, this did not provide them much comfort. They were still a bit disgusted.

The reason I require sermon reports is to stimulate worship attendance. I ask for twelve during the class which meets from September through April. For some reason, families had it in their head that their children could become confirmed members of the church without ever actually participating in the life of the congregation. This is actually the exact opposite of my goal: to equip them for a lifetime of involvement in the life of a congregation.

At the end of every sermon report, I leave a space for “What questions do you have about the sermon?” Ironically, the student who lamented going to church actually did a sermon report last week and wrote this question, “How can someone get closer to God and strengthen their faith?” Yes, I have an answer for them. It goes something like this: God gave you the gift of the church!

I wish I could connect some of these students and their families with those in our congregation who wish they could get to church. For any number of health and family reasons, they can’t be with us, and they would give anything to be able to come. They’d let someone break their fingers if they could come. Well, maybe. You know what I mean. What a contrast.

I’m not going to give up. I truly enjoy teaching this age group, we have a good time, and it keeps me young to hang out with the youth. The evil one keeps whispering, “Why bother?” But I hold on to the hope that maybe the brief time I have with them will be a seed that grows sometime in their life. They may not all get confirmed because some of them won’t actually do anything, but they will get the gospel each and every time I get to teach them. And that is powerful.

Some high ticket items at…Costco?

Clearly a power shopper

Not quite a power shopper

You don’t really know you need anything at Costco until you get there. Once you begin wandering the aisles, you suddenly realize you need socks, razors, many, many rolls of paper towels, croissants, berries and coffee pods.

And maybe even jewelry. Until yesterday’s trip, I had never thought to browse the jewelry counter at Costco. But on our way towards the registers, we stopped just to see what they had. I was impressed. An $8,000 watch. A $44,000 diamond ring in a platinum setting. Wow. Really? At Costco?

Would anyone really drop that much money on an item at Costco? Would anyone with that kind of money really be shopping at Costco in the first place? My gut reaction is, “Of course not.” But then again, would they really carry inventory that never sold?

There must be something psychological going on here. Maybe a $25,000 ring looks like a bargain when sitting next to one that costs twice as much. Maybe the $800 watch feels more affordable when next to one you never could afford. Maybe there are just there to make you laugh as you walk away with the $1,000 ring. A sale is a sale, right?

The power shoppers at Costco all push wagons stacked with so much stuff they cannot possible see where they are going. Better get out of the way. The real Costco members buy 30 rolls of paper towels at a time, stock up on twice that much toilet paper, fill their pantry with fifty pound bags of rice, and delight in checking out with a sofa-in-a-box.

I guess I have a lot to learn about discount warehouse shopping.

Do more or pray more?

There’s a fork in the road when ministry heats up and life gets busy. Either you do more, or “you pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37). Guess which one I do more often?

If you haven’t guessed, I confess that I conclude I need to do more. I need to spend more time helping more people using my gifts in the service of God. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense. Spiritually, though, that’s not the path Christ blazed.

That’s the temptation, isn’t it? When you feel like you are in over your head, you should spend more time working harder to get more done and emulate those who do the same. Yeah, like those who brag that they work seventy or eighty hours a week.

Wait a minute. I’m not following them. I’m following Him. And when Jesus needed help, he enlisted the pray-ers around him. “You better pray that God sends some help.” He wasn’t going to put in overtime. He wasn’t going to make the ministry happen. Nope, his approach was different. “You guys better pray for some help.”

That’s my new mantra. When a can’t keep up, can’t carry the load, can’t possibly do it all, I’m going to come clean. “You guys better start praying for help.”

You know, it took me about thirty-five years of ministry to learn this lesson. I learned that I can do a lot. I can do more now than I could before. I can learn new skills, manage my time better, be more productive and optimize my time. But I’m also tired. I’m not the Christ. And not even he tried to do it all. He didn’t bear the burden of saying all the prayers.

Bottom line: “You guys better start praying for help.”

A moment I didn’t remember. But they did.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

I got an unexpected Christmas card/thank you note last week, along with a generous gift, from a person I didn’t know. Well, at least it was someone I didn’t think I knew.

Inside the card were some very nice words thanking me for performing their wedding at their home eight years ago, The person went on to explain some of the challenges they had faced, but also enumerated some recent blessings. They thanked me several times for the meaningful words I had spoken that afternoon.

OK, this was weird. I have a pretty good memory, especially with names. But these names just didn’t ring a bell. I brought up my Google calendar from October 10, 2010, and it was all there. It should have been a memorable day. Not only had I gone to their home that Sunday afternoon at 1:30 to do their wedding, but I then went to another home to do another wedding at 3 pm.

I’ve been keeping a daily journal for decades, so I rummaged through a box of old journals and found the one for the fall of 2010. Alas, I hadn’t written much about that day. I had only mentioned doing two weddings that afternoon before teaching confirmation class.

When I sat down to write a thank you note, I reflected at how an event can be both unforgettable and forgettable all at the same time. What was for me an insignificant task on my to-do list was a powerful, life-changing moment for someone else. A moment that had faded for me was even more vivid for them.

I was honest in my note about not remembering much about that day. But I also mentioned how something as insignificant as a baby in a manger is at the same time a vivid life-changing moment for us. So are the very simple words, “I do.”

When you are on the officiant side of a marriage ceremony, it’s easy to lose sight of the gravity of that moment. Because of moments just like the one above, I remind myself to give such moments my best. It may not mean that much to me, but it means the world to the couple taking their vows. If they long remember the commitment they make when they “repeat after me,” then I have done my job well.

Sorry, we’re closed.

A local fitness center closed its doors last week without any advance warning to employees or clients. Just a note on the door saying informing all they were out of business.

This got me thinking. What if you arrived at church one Sunday morning and found a note like that on the locked front doors? I’m not in any way suggesting that’s going to happen. I’m just curious. What would you do? What would I do?

Would you call someone? Who would you call? The pastor? Your elder (you know who your elder is, right?) The president of the congregation? The friends you usually sit with?

Would you stick around and wait for others to arrive? Maybe someone else will know what’s going on.

Would you find another worship service to attend that day? Or would you just shrug your shoulders and go to breakfast? I know that’s sounds kind of harsh. I’m just working through some of the possibilities, even the absurd ones.

Would you make an effort to find out what happened? Did something happen to the pastor? What happened to all the money? Would you contact the district or the synod offices to ask if they knew anything?

What would you do in the weeks or months to come? Would you find another church to attend? Would you band together with other members to reopen that ministry? Or would you feel betrayed and just give up on church altogether?

Even though the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church of Jesus Christ, local congregations do close. And I’ll bet some of them close suddenly, permanently and without notice. And we never even find out why. If you search the internet for info on church closings, you’ll learn that about 100 close their doors every week in our nation.

We all take it for granted each Sunday morning that when we arrive, we’ll walk through the doors and everything will be prepared for us to worship. Have you ever thought about your role in that reality? Or do you leave that for someone else to worry about? What part do you play in making sure that sign is never taped to the front door of your church?