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!

 

 

 

 

 

“What are you talking about?”

marcos-luiz-photograph-292698In the introduction to my sermon yesterday, I referred the HGTV show “Fixer Upper.” I knew that many in attendance were fans or had at least seen or heard of the show. Of course, you never hit the bull’s eye every time. There were some there who leaned over the person next to them asking, “What’s he talking about?”

It is so energizing to make a pop culture reference and watch as faces light up with familiarity. It is equally nauseating to see puzzled looks on faces who have no idea what you are referring to. It is humbling to either take the time to explain it, or discard what was a wonderfully powerful way to illustrate your point.

When you are speaking to an audience that ranges in age from two months to ninety-two years, with different experiences, tastes and interests, it is very hard to find that idea or image that everyone is familiar with. There are some who have never seen a Star Wars movie, don’t know anything about Jerry Seinfeld’s defective girlfriends, don’t read the newspaper, own flip phones, don’t Instagram, got a D in world history, only order wine by it’s color, and can’t name any of the Paw Patrol. I’m not saying that’s bad, I’m just saying you better remember that dynamic when you’re speaking.

So what’s a preacher to do? First of all, it helps to know your audience. When I preach, it is almost always to a congregation I know well. I know many of their interests, tastes, occupations, hobbies and families. I’ve been to their homes, talked over coffee, taught them in classes, and have a pretty good idea of what they are familiar with.

Second, you can’t just depend on one illustration or example. You need to throw out a bunch to catch the attention of pre-adolescents, young parents, millennial, baby-boomers and those of the greatest generation. It helps to hang out with and get to know people from all walks of life.

Finally, a lot of it is just trial and error. Thankfully, a swing and a miss one week can be redeemed the next, because Sunday and the next sermon comes around at least once every seven days. I got on base yesterday. We’ll see what happens next week.

Just be there.

IMG_3022It’s early. Really early. It’s dark. Really dark. It’s quiet. Really quiet.

It’s about 6:20 am on a Sunday morning as I pull into the church parking lot to open up, turn off the alarm, turn on a few lights, and get my head and heart into the worship that day. I hear the AC units kick on, and I am thankful they are working today. I unlock all the doors, thankful for all who will enter that day. I turn on all the lights, but quickly dim them all except for those in the chancel. And then in front of an empty room, I preach. I preach my sermon for the first time that day.

I’ve been working on the sermon all week. But it doesn’t come alive until I speak it aloud. My words echo through an empty sanctuary, but in my mind I see all of you who will soon be sitting in those pews. I know where you sit. I know where to look for you. And I am hoping that the word will touch you in the same way it has touched me in the past week.

It’s good to prepare. It’s good to practice. But it’s not really preaching until you are there. It’s so different when I see your face and watch your reaction. It’s not really a sermon until I see you struggle to hold back a tear. Or a giggle. Or look and me wondering, “How did you know?” Or glare at me thinking, “Oh yeah?” Or shake your head in disbelief: “I can’t believe you just said that!”

It’s a sermon when I can tell I’ve touched a nerve. Or pushed a button. Or put my foot in my mouth. Or given you something to hold on to when you thought you were going to fall. Or made you laugh and realize that you’ve been taking it all much too seriously.

I can prep, I can practice and I can preach. But it’s nothing unless you are there. That’s probably the best gift you could ever give your pastor. Just be there. React, respond, repent and rejoice with him (me) because God’s Word is just as amazing, powerful and life-changing as ever!