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!

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!

Day and night, night and day

It was as different as night and day. I preached to the big Christmas Eve crowd last night and to a much smaller gathering this morning, Christmas Day. I grew up always going to both, but most worshippers choose one or the other.

Those contrasting moments feel very different to a preacher. On the one hand, I hope for the “full house” on Christmas Eve. I accept the fact that worship on Christmas Day isn’t even on most people’s radar. The temptation is to be pumped up for the eve crowd, and not put as much effort into the day attendees.

But you can’t do that. Some of those folks came a long way and carved out time to be there. It’s been a long time since they’ve been together as a family. And they are because of the story. A story that remains the same, even though much has changed in the past year.

While the one feels exciting, the other is more intimate. At the one you look at a crowd, but at the other you can look into their eyes. At the one there are many strangers; at the other I’ve met everyone as they’ve arrived.

Which do I like better? It’s hard to say. I really like both. I like to tell the story and I like to hear it, too. It pumps me up and settles me down more than the size of the crowd.

I love the sea of candles in a dark sanctuary on Christmas Eve. I also love the rays of sunshine that stream through the windows first thing on Christmas morning.

Thank you, Lord, for the best of both worlds!

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!

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!

Practice. Practice. Practice.

kathy-hillacre-8240 (1)I’m often asked, “How do you preach without using a manuscript?” The answer is the same you’d give to the question, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice. Practice. Practice.”

My Sunday sermon is usually done sometime on Thursday. I run through it a few times, then set it aside till Saturday. On Saturday, I will practice it a few more times. Sometimes I practice at church, in front of an empty sanctuary. Other times I practice at home, in front of the dog. I might practice it while out for a walk. Or in front of a mirror. I practice one more time early Sunday morning, before anyone else arrives at church.

So by the time I preach for a worship service, I’ve already heard the sermon five or six times. Sometimes more. On the one hand, this is a good thing. Good speakers practice their talks. They practice their pace, silences, movement and gestures. On the other hand, I’ve already heard this sermon five or six times. It’s starting to get old. And sometimes I’m beginning to wish I didn’t have to preach it at all.

That’s when I need to remind myself that my audience hasn’t heard it yet. They haven’t thought about the text, the context, or the application. For them, it will be new. It will be something they will respond to. Maybe with a smile. Or a question. Or an argument. Perhaps with a prayer. Or with praise.

Over the past twenty years, some in the congregation have heard me preach over 1,000 times. And they keep coming. They keep listening. They keep learning. They keep growing.

Every Sunday morning, as I drive the three miles to church, I warm up my voice, I thank God for my voice, I thank him for the power of His word, and I thank Him for everyone who comes to hear. After all, you can’t be a preacher without a congregation.

Just a sticky note

“How do you do that?”

A first-time worshiper guest threw that question at me on their way out the door last Sunday. No, I didn’t know what they were talking about either. But I’ve become the master of the follow-up question.

“What do you mean by that?”

“You didn’t use any notes when you preached.”

“Oh, he had notes,” her husband quickly added.

I chimed in, “Yes, I did have a few notes.” But then they were out the door.

Honestly, I did have a few notes. I usually have a sticky note on the page opposite my sermon text with some words to jog my memory during the course of the sermon.

How do I do that? Good question. Maybe I should start from the beginning. Continue reading