Refreshing

Second worship service is over, it’s hot and I’m walking out to my car. When I get in, turn the key and fire up the AC, I quickly check my email, just to see if there’s anyone I need to get in touch with that afternoon. There is an email from someone I don’t know that begins, “My family and I worshiped with you this morning at your 8:15 service.” Hmm. I don’t remember meeting any guests this morning. In my mind survey the morning crowd and no one stands out.

The email continued, “How refreshing it was to hear the Gospel this morning.” I can’t think of any other sentence someone could write to me that would touch my heart in such a powerful way. The words of Paul to Christians in Corinth popped into my mind: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16)

There are far too many afternoons when I wonder if I preached the gospel clearly enough. Did I take my listeners to the cross? Did I get them to the empty tomb? Did I faithfully proclaim the death and resurrection of my Lord? Is that what people heard?

When someone comes out of church and says, “Thank you for preaching the gospel,” I am relieved, affirmed, encouraged and thankful. That’s my task. That’s my goal. In fact, That’s all I’ve got. I can’t convince people to trust God. I can’t move them to change their behavior. I can’t answer all their questions or objections. All I have is the gospel, filled with the power of God to inspire faith, create new hearts in us, and calm our worried souls. All I can do is tell them about Jesus.

I wasn’t especially thrilled about my sermon this morning. I think I tried too hard to say too many things. I think I could have done better. Most of the people coming out of church wanted me to have a safe trip to Israel this week or offered consolation because my father died three weeks ago. But this one little bit of feedback reminded me that God can work through someone like me to bring the best news of all to people like me who need to hear it early and often.

I didn’t feel like preaching today

You read that title right. I really didn’t feel like preaching today. For some reason, I just got up and felt like a blend of Jonah and Jeremiah. My sermon was ready, it spoke to me when I practiced it on Saturday, and I slept well. But frankly, I just didn’t feel like getting up and going to work.

But…but…Pastor Bill, you’re called and ordained and inspired and privileged to preach God’s Word every week. I know. I’ve been doing it weekly for over thirty-three years. Some days I can’t wait to get there. Other days I just wish it were over and it was afternoon nap time. Some days it’s a joy. Some days it’s a job.

Maybe the congregation could tell. Maybe not. Some know me pretty well and can tell it’s one of those days. I’m OK with that. The guys who run out on the field for 162 regular season baseball games aren’t always pumped. the football players who are still aching from last Sunday’s game line up at the line of scrimmage on a Thursday night because that’s what they do. The cast of a successful Broadway show do their singing and dancing over and over again, week in and week out, whether they feel like it or not.

I’ve recently been reminding myself that those who come to worship each week are hungry for God’s Word. They desperately need His words of forgiveness and grace. They are like the people of Israel wandering out of their tents each morning to gather manna from the ground. My job is to preach the word, essentially feeding them. It’s not about me. It’s about them. It’s my task to fill their plates, if you will, with some good news and food for their souls. It’s my job to speak to the bones, like Ezekiel, so that the Spirit of God might blow and bring dead bones to life.

I still have to thank a dear old friend and pastor, Roy Bohrer, for some of this wisdom. He was my pastor for the few months I lived in Austin, TX, when I was considering studying for pastoral ministry. When I asked him what he thought about me becoming a pastor, he said, “Remember, this is a job. Your job. Every week. Day in and day out.”

Noah spent many days, weeks, months and years building an ark. Moses led a nation on a trek through a desert for forty years. David got up day after day and went into battle against Philistines. Paul made tents six days a week. Were they excited about their job every day? I don’t know. Oh, yes I do. They had their good days and bad days. We all do. Even pastors.

I give thanks for both. Hey, I have a job. I have a job I enjoy. Most of the time.

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!

The blessing of being dispensable

In the sermon this morning, I talked a little about being “indispensable.” It came up in the context of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he writes, “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12:22).

Who is indispensable in the life of the church? One might be tempted to say, “the pastor.” I would disagree. I am blessed to have a number of retired pastors worshiping with our congregation. I asked them, “When you retired, did they shut the doors of the church? Did the ministry fold?” Of course not. That church called another pastor. The ministry continued. Rather than being indispensable, we pastors are quite replaceable.

I think this is an important part of longevity in the ministry. The church was here before me. It will be here when I’m gone. What happens when you think of yourself as disposable, dispensable and replaceable? All kinds of good things!

First, you value God and other people much more. As your importance decreases, theirs increases. God’s eternal. He’s always around. He’s the one you want to depend on.

And other people? They are the reason you get to be a pastor. They are the ones you’ve been called to shepherd. They are the ones who need to hear the voice of their shepherd. And you are the one called to preach the word. You wouldn’t have a job without them. I so enjoy preaching, teaching and administering the sacraments. But I wouldn’t get to do any of it were it not for our Lord’s sacrificial love for his people.

Second, you let others shine. You are not the main event. They are. They reach many more people than I ever will. I spend most of my time with those who believe, who are already saved. But the congregation is out there in the world, where they live and where they work. They are out there on the front lines, living out their faith. They know, talk to and witness to people I will never meet. I may help equip them for that task, but they are the ones who actually engage in it.

Finally, you marvel at the work of his hands. You appreciate all those who come to listen week after week. You thank God for all those who daily pray for you. You are grateful for those who make it possible for you to do what you do. And you are motivated to do your best – for their sake. They need to hear,; you get to preach. Actually, you need to preach. It’s a part of who you are. But you couldn’t do it without them. They are indispensable.

Live from our chapel

Preaching live from the chapel

This past Advent and Christmas, I experimented with setting my iPhone in front of the church so that the service and sermon could be on Facebook live. It certainly wasn’t an elegant solution, just easy. Those watching only saw me during the sermon, but they could hear the rest of the service. I figured there is always someone who can’t get out, who can watch and listen and worship with us. They can even watch later since the video is saved indefinitely.

Right after the first of the year, I did a memorial service in our chapel. Some who would have attended couldn’t, so I set up my phone and they got to join us virtually.

So I started setting my phone out on Sunday mornings, too. I discovered that I had an audience. Some were former members who had moved to Wisconsin. Other viewers’ worship service had been cancelled due to a big winter storm in the Midwest. There were some who were sick and stayed home to rest.

I’ve been to churches that had multiple television cameras in the sanctuary to broadcast their worship services. I never thought something like that would be possible with the phone I usually keep in my pocket. Yet here we are, broadcasting live.

They thought I was kidding

As I began preaching yesterday, I mentioned that there are some in the congregation who believe I should more confrontational, more aggressive, more direct in my preaching, along the lines of John the Baptist. JTB didn’t pull any punches calling his audience a “brood of vipers” who didn’t take repentance seriously, basically trees bearing nothing but rotten fruit that should be cut down and burned.

I said that maybe I should zero in on our smug self-righteousness, our neglect of the poor, and our failure to witness. Rather than children of God we look more like the descendants of the serpent himself.

After each of those examples, many in the congregation smiled, snickered and audibly chuckled. As I spoke, I felt personally convicted about each of those offenses, but they didn’t. Either they really didn’t take it seriously, or I didn’t preach the law clearly. And if they didn’t get the law, did they get the gospel? Did they think I was kidding about that, too?

Feedback after a sermon is valuable, but rare. It may come in the form of a comment or question after worship or later in the week. But it might also come in the moment, from a look in their eyes or an expression on their faces. The latter was true yesterday, and it was humbling.

I don’t want to get caught in the trap of believing I’ve got this down, that I know how to effectively reach an audience. As soon as I do, I let down my guard, I don’t work as hard as I should, and I’m nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. You can either humble yourself and work hard, or you can let God humble you so you can get back to work.

Either way, by his grace, there’s another Sunday coming up. Another chance. Thank you!

Taking another bag of idols to the curb

neonbrand-441844-unsplashI think I would do anything for the approval of others.

And I know I’m not alone. We Christians like to say we fear, love and trust God above all things. We think the first commandment “You shall have no other gods” is a piece of cake. The reality is that the god of approval has taken up residence and occupies a large space in our hearts.

Jacob, Joshua and Samuel had to tell God’s people to get rid of all their idols. Their tents were full of them. If they were going to be serious about God, everything has to go. I always imagine it’s bulk trash day, and piles of wood and metallic statues sit on the curb in front of everyone’s home.

I’ve never had anything like that. But the idol in my heart is much harder to extricate. It’s so much a part of who I am. I’m an oldest child, so I’m a follow the rules, color inside the lines, arrive on time, drive the speed limit, think inside the box kind of person. I thrive on being praised for being a good boy. I even like it when I’m teased for being too law-abiding.

Every “good sermon,” “great job,” and “thanks for doing that,” is another push on the bicycle tire pump that inflates my head a little bit more. It’s a shot of emotional adrenaline that I’ve come to crave. I don’t care if you’re just being polite or just telling me what you think I want to hear. I’ll consume whatever your serving. It all tastes delicious, and yes, I’ll have seconds, thank you.

There is a down side to this god that isn’t the true God. They have a way of consuming you. You don’t reveal your struggles. You pretend you can handle everything. You rarely ask for help. You withdraw, lest someone see you not at your best. You exaggerate — not a lot, just a little bit – to get more mileage out of a compliment. “Vulnerable” and “transparent” aren’t part of your vocabulary. Are you nuts?

Like any idol, this god can obscure the approval of God. His approval is so different. His approval has nothing to do with my performance. His approval comes despite my performance. His approval is solely based on his love for me, a love revealed in Christ. No pressure, no pretending, no manipulation. Just the real thing.

Thank goodness God called me to be a preacher. Each week as I prepare to proclaim Christ and him crucified, I am reminded of his love, and I take another bag of idols out to the curb. His approval eclipses anything they promise or give, so why keep them around? It’s my spiritual version of minimalism. I only need one God, the real one.

Every week before I preach, I pray. I kneel during the last verse of the sermon hymn, take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and thank God for the opportunity to preach. I ask him to open hearts to hear exactly what he wants to tell them. And I picture two things. First, I imagine a cooler of water dumped on my head, a reminder of my baptism. I’m already a child of God. I don’t have to impress anyone. Second, I imagine having blood spattered on me, just like Moses sprinkled blood on the altar and then on the people, a reminder of God’s covenant with them. His blood covers me, and I don’t have to prove anything. I make the sign of the cross, and I’m ready to go. There’s just one God in the room and I’m not him. And just wait till you hear what he has to say!

 

 

 

 

My favorite thing about Christmas

me-preaching-at-cantata.jpgWhat do I like the most about Christmas? Preaching. The chance to get up in front of a congregation and preach the word. Tell the story, explain the implications of the story, invite my listeners into the story, and challenge them to be a part of that story.

Gifts, food, family, music, Santa, lights, Grinch, decorations, cookies, cards, trees, shopping, travel, candles, nativity — it’s all great. But nothing compares to preaching.

If you’ve never been a preacher, you might not understand. :”Oh, you have to work on Christmas Eve? And on Christmas Day? Too bad.” Yeah, you’re right. I don’t get to go away to be with family on Christmas.

But I get to preach! I like to preach anyway. That’s one of the reasons I pursued this vocation. Even though it’s hard work, I enjoy preaching the word, and I especially enjoy preaching the big days: Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and I guess you’d have to include Reformation. Those are high energy days at church anyway. The adrenaline is pumping, the music is moving, and the people are there.

Plus, for the most part, you don’t have to do that much. The story is compelling on its own. You don’t have to add much to the story of Christ’s birth to touch hearts with tidings of comfort and joy. God does all that for you on this and other big days in the church year.

I can’t speak for every pastor, but I’ll bet they share my sentiment. You can’t give me a greater gift than the chance to preach!

Talking to myself (again)

mariam-soliman-267316

Photo by Mariam Soliman on Unsplash

Ten minutes before the memorial service began today, someone came over and said, “We’re not going to fit.”

We had everything set up and ready to go in our chapel, which seats about fifth comfortably. It was obvious we were going to exceed that. “Ok,” I said, “Everyone grab something.” Every able pair of hands grabbed flower arrangements, candles, pictures, the urn, a TV and computer for the slide show, plus my bible. The organist quickly ended the piece she was on and we were on our way to the main sanctuary. With grace and aplomb, we got everything set and ready to go just a few minutes after our scheduled start time.

When someone asks, “So how did the funeral go?” it’s hard to give an objective answer. After all, it is a funeral. But it went well, with a wide variety of people there to support and encourage the bereaved family, great Advent songs, and courageous thoughts shared by family members.

I almost always keep my composure, but today was an exception. Nine minutes and 45 seconds into my ten minute message, I mentioned a few images of the promised new heavens and new earth, and said,

If God has something like that in store for us, we can confidently commend our dear ones into his care. And he will give us the faith to get there ourselves.

But then for a few seconds, which seemed like a whole minute, I paused as emotion swelled up in my throat and moisture began to cloud my vision. I had to take a few deep breaths before continuing,

Death is wrong. It’s not the end of the trail. Jesus was right. Nothing is going to separate us from his love.

It’s not like I was hearing those words for the first time. I wrote them. But in that moment, I realized that there would be times that I would have to commend those I love into his care, and I would have to hold on tightly to his promises. For a few seconds, it was like I was speaking to myself. Or maybe even more accurately, God was speaking to me.

That’s pretty good motivation to preach the word. You get to hear it, too!