Grace For Bad Preaching

I found this story from one of the news articles about the move of God at Asbury encouraging:

It all started on Wednesday, February 8, when Zach Meerkreebs, a volunteer soccer coach who had addressed the student body only twice before, gave an improvised sermon about love.

“Some of you guys have experienced radically poor love,” Meerkreebs, a tattooed 32-year-old with a penchant for kombucha, told the crowd. “Some of you guys have experienced that love in the church. Maybe it’s not violent, maybe it’s not molestation, it’s not taken advantage of—but it feels like someone has pulled a fast one on you.”

Then he uttered the invitation that ignited a movement: “If you need to hear the voice of God—the Father in Heaven who will never love you that way, that is perfect in love, gentle and kind—you come up here and experience his love. Don’t waste this opportunity.”

In a final, kind of corny throwaway line, he said: “I pray that this sits on you guys like an itchy sweater, and you gotta itch, you gotta take care of it.”

Meerkreebs told me he was certain that he had “totally whiffed” the sermon, and immediately got off stage and texted his wife, “Latest stinker. I’ll be home soon.”

Why Students in Kentucky Have Been Praying for 250 Hours (The Free Press)

I don’t know whether his preaching was actually bad that day or not — I haven’t seen the video. But I know he thought it went badly.

And here’s the encouraging thing for preachers: the move of God is not contingent on our rhetorical skills. Do your best to bless God’s people, but don’t despair if you “totally whiff” and lay your “latest stinker.” An amazing outpouring might follow!

Why? Because grace is as fundamental a principle as you can find in Christianity. It is well-known that God offers forgiveness to sinners, freedom for captives, and joy in place of mourning. Moreover, His power is made perfect in our weakness! Why should we be surprised when God pours out His Spirit generously in response to mediocre preaching?

Happy Thanksgiving!

At Thanksgiving I often think of Corrie Ten Boom and her fleas. 

If you don’t know the reference, Corrie and her sister Betsie were Christians who were thrown into a Nazi concentration camp and placed in a barracks infested with fleas. Straightaway Betsie said that the only way to respond to such a place was with Scripture and reminded Corrie of the Bible passage they had read that morning from 1st Thessalonians 5, especially verses 16–18.

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

1 Thess 5:16–18

So Betsie led Corrie in prayer, giving thanks that at least they were together, that they had a Bible with them, and then Betsie began to give thanks for the fleas which had bitten their legs. Corrie thought that was silly and said, “Betsie, there’s no way even God could make me grateful for a flea.” But Betsie insisted.

Later they learned that the fleas which afflicted them also protected them. The guards wouldn’t enter the barracks because they didn’t want to get fleas. Corrie realized that Betsie had been right to be thankful for the fleas — the fleas prevented assaults by the guards and the fleas also gave them a measure of privacy allowing them to lead a Bible study in a concentration camp.

This story and many others are told in Corrie Ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place and I highly recommend it to you (the story of the fleas unfolds from pages 218–231 in the edition I consulted to get Corrie’s quote right).

Even in challenging situations there are occasions for gratitude. I don’t know all you’re going through right now (I barely know all I’m going through right now!) , but I’m sure there’s at least one part of your life that you wish was different than it is. Whatever the hardship, I pray it passes quickly. I also pray that while it lasts God opens your heart to experience genuine gratitude in the midst of it. 

May you have a delightful Thanksgiving — and remember the fleas!

An Easter Ballad

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “When I was a kid what I
needed for Easter was a basket filled with candy. But what do I need
for Easter now that I’m all grown up?”

And the answer is: you need a ballad. You didn’t know you needed a
ballad until just now, but you do.

Happy Easter!

Now on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women went to the tomb, taking the aromatic spices they had prepared. They found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men stood beside them in dazzling attire. The women were terribly frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has been raised! Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Luke 24:1–7, NET

True Contentment Comes From Wanting Too Much

Puritan StatueI was skimming through the old Puritan book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs when a passage caught my attention:

Godliness teaches us this mystery, Not to be satisfied with all the world for our portion, and yet to be content with the meanest condition in which we are. When Luther was sent great gifts by Dukes and Princes, he refused them, and he says, ‘I did vehemently protest that God should not put me off so; ’tis not that which will content me.’ A little in the world will content a Christian for his passage. Mark, here lies the mystery of it, A little in the world will content a Christian for his passage, but all the world, and ten thousand times more, will not content a Christian for his portion. A carnal heart will be content with these things of the world for his portion; and that is the difference between a carnal heart and a gracious heart. But a gracious heart says, ‘Lord, do with me what you will for my passage through this world; I will be content with that, but I cannot be content with all the world for my portion.’ So there is the mystery of true contentment. A contented man, though he is most contented with the least things in the world, yet he is the most dissatisfied man that lives in the world.

Emphasis mine. Wow.

A little before this, Burroughs said:

A man who has learned the art of contentment is the most contented with any low condition that he has in the world, and yet he cannot be satisfied with the enjoyment of all the world. He is contented if he has but a crust, but bread and water, that is, if God disposes of him, for the things of the world, to have but bread and water for his present condition, he can be satisfied with God’s disposal in that; yet if God should give unto him Kingdoms and Empires, all the world to rule, if he should give it him for his portion, he would not be satisfied with that. Here is the mystery of it: though his heart is so enlarged that the enjoyment of all the world and ten thousand worlds cannot satisfy him for his portion; yet he has a heart quieted under God’s disposal, if he gives him but bread and water.

You can see more here.

What Does The Bible Require of a Church?

Agios NikolaosAn alumna of my ministry recently sent me an email asking what the Biblical requirements of a church were. I thought about it for a bit, and this is what I came up with. I’m sure the list of requirements that I have below is incomplete, and I welcome suggestions for improvement.

But if you, like my former student, are looking for a church home then meditate on these points.

Here’s the email I sent her.

What does the Bible require of a church? Probably not the things you expect. The Bible doesn’t require that a church meets on Sunday morning (although it does set that as the pattern: Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2), nor does it require that a sermon be the centerpiece of the meeting (although that is certainly one way of fulfilling the criteria of Biblical teaching below).

The most important thing that God requires of a church is that it be built upon the confession of Jesus as God’s Son and Christ (Matthew 16:16–18; 1 Cor 3:10–11). What this means practically is that Christ is the center of the church and is the focus of its activities.

The church should be engaged in persuading unbelievers to become disciples of Jesus (Matthew 28:18–20; 2 Timothy 2:2; 2 Timothy 4:5), which the Great Commission defines as baptizing them and teaching them to obey Christ. Disciplemaking also includes taking sin seriously and disciplining impenitent believers (Matthew 18:15–20; 1 Corinthians 5:1–13; 1 Timothy 5:19–20; Titus 3:9–11).

The church should meet regularly and the meetings should be encouraging (Hebrews 10:24–25). The encouragement should not come just from the ministry leaders – the community as a whole should be one that strengthens you. Here is a representative list of passages describing how those in the church ought to treat one another.

  • Greet one another 2 Corinthians 13:12
  • Show hospitality to one another 1 Peter 4:9
  • Honor one another Romans 12:10
  • Live in harmony with one another Romans 12:16
  • Serve one another Galatians 5:13–14
  • Comfort one another 2 Corinthians 1:3–4
  • Encourage one another Hebrews 3:12–13
  • Teach and admonish one another Colossians 3:16
  • Be forbearing with one another Ephesians 4:1–3
  • Forgive one another Colossians 3:13
  • Confess sin to one another James 5:16
  • Bear one another’s burdens Galatians 6:2
  • Love one another 1st John 4:7–21
  • Search for the phrase “one another” to find more.

There should be singing motivated by gratitude to God (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19–20). Gratitude for who God is and what God has done (both on the cross and in our lives) is what I believe is in mind here. As part of its worship, churches should also celebrate communion on a regular basis (1 Corinthians 11:17–34).

The church should also be a community devoted to prayer (1 Timothy 2:8; Ephesians 6:18). We must remember that when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to pray together (it is, after all, “our” Father not “my” father – Matthew 6:9). These sorts of prayers ought to be emphasized:

  • The elements of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9–13, Luke 11:1–4) should always be central: for God to be glorified, for His will to be done, for provision, for forgiveness, and for holiness.
  • For effective evangelism (Colossians 4:2–4, Ephesians 6:19–20). Note the emphasis of the prayer: it is not for the lost to be saved so much as for us to be bold and wise witnesses.
  • For government leaders to not interfere with our faith, especially not our ability to evangelize (1 Timothy 2:1–2).
  • For the needs of the church (Ephesians 6:18). The prayers of the apostles serve as excellent examples of the sorts of prayers one could offer on behalf of the church (Rom 15:5–6, 13; Eph 1:17–19; Eph 3:16–19; Phi 1:9–11; Col 1:9–12; 1st Thess 3:12–13; 1st Thess 5:23–24; 2nd Thess 1:11–12; 2nd Thess 3:1–5).
  • The elders of the church are specifically instructed to make themselves available to pray for the sick (James 5:14–16).

All the spiritual gifts should be welcomed (1 Corinthians 14:26; 1st Corinthians 14:39, 1 Thessalonians 5:19–20), although they should be deployed in such a way as to attract and not repel unbelievers (1st Corinthians 14:24–25). Their effect on the church should not be chaotic (1st Corinthians 14:40).

A church should be led by Biblically qualified leaders:

  • Who teach Biblical truth (2 Timothy 1:13–14; 2 Timothy 3:16–17; 2 Timothy 4:2; 1 Timothy 4:13; Titus 1:9)
  • Who exercise appropriate authority (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Tim 4:11–12; 2nd Timothy 2:22–25; Titus 2:15)
  • Who are above reproach in both character and relationships (1 Tim 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–9)

The church ought to care for the poor, especially poor believers. (2nd Corinthians 8–9; James 1:27; 1st Timothy 5:16; Gal 2:9–10; Gal 6:10; Acts 6:1–4). And the poor should be welcomed into the life of the community (James 2:1–7).

The church ought to also pay ministers – both those who teach and lead within the church itself (1st Timothy 5:17–18; 1st Corinthians 9:3–14; Galatians 6:6) and those who are sent out as missionaries (3 John 5–8; Romans 16:1–2; Philippians 4:10–20)

In order to facilitate these latter two points the church should be receiving offerings (Acts 4:32–37; 1st Corinthians 16:1–2), although it does not appear that they must be received in any particular way.

There are probably other things churches should be doing as well, but these seem to me to be essential. No church will be perfect, of course. Give them the same grace that you give to fellow believers, but avoid churches that are not at least attempting to fulfill these mandates.

[January 23, 2010 update: after some feedback on my Facebook notes page, I decided to add the paragraph about prayer. I also made a few small changes.]

Cool Video From Joel 2/Acts 2

I just saw a cool video of Joel’s prophecy (the one quoted by Peter in Acts 2) made by The Work of the People. It’s definitely worth taking a minute and thirty-nine seconds to watch.

I just saw a cool video of Joel’s prophecy (the one quoted by Peter in Acts 2) made by The Work of the People

. It’s definitely worth taking a minute and thirty-nine seconds to watch.

Texts: Joel 2:28–32, Acts 2:16–21 zelnorm recall don t look now divx

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Dorothy Sayers on Work

Around 15 years ago, I heard Eric Treuil quote Dorothy Sayers to the effect that the carpenter from Nazareth never built any shoddy tables. It was fabulous. I’ve been thinking about that observation off and on ever since.

I recently stumbled upon it again, this time in its original form. It’s found in the essay “Why Work?” by Dorothy Sayers which appeared in her book Creed or Chaos

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Here’s one of my favorite passages:

over her dead body divx The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.

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Church by all means, and decent forms of amusement, certainly – but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth. No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie.

[The Church] has lost all sense of the fact that the living and eternal truth is expressed in work only so far as that work is true in itself, to itself, to the standards of its own technique. She has forgotten that the secular vocation is sacred. Forgotten that a building must be good architecture before it can be a good church; that a painting must be well painted before it can be a good sacred picture; that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work. purse brite

The whole essay is well worth reading and I commend it to you.

How To Listen To A Bad Sermon

Listening to a bad sermon is like eating crab legs. It’s a lot more trouble than it should be, but you can still get a lot of meat if you are diligent.

So how do you do it?

Here are some tips that I sometimes find helpful, in order of preference. I don’t want to make you too excited: nothing is going to make a bad sermon good. But these might help mitigate your suffering.

  1. Be merciful. Preaching consistently good sermons is a lot harder than it seems. Think about your worst day on the job and how you would like your coworkers and customers to respond with compassion and understanding. Now extend that same compassion to the preacher.
  2. Overlook the stupid stuff. Every once in a while even solid and reliable preachers will say something that’s completely ridiculous — usually when they venture outside their area of expertise. This is particularly true when preachers begin using stories to illustrate a point they are trying to make. It can really throw you for a loop. Tune it out the same way you tune out that one cousin at family reunions. Even your favorite book has some boring passages, but you judge the book on its highlights. Judge sermons likewise.
  3. Be randomly inspired. I learned this from Dary Northrop in a seminar: you should bring a notebook to sermons not because of how insightful and magnificent the preacher is going to be, but because the Holy Spirit will spark new and amazing insights in you which are only tangentially related to what is in the speaker’s notes. Few sermons are so bad that there is no goodness in them — even a three-year-old will say something profound and/or hilarious if you listen to them long enough. So wait for a clever turn of phrase, an obscure or unexpected Bible reference, or a fact that you were hitherto unaware of and begin writing furiously. Doodle as well. Repeat as necessary.
  4. Pretend it’s opposites day. don t look now free download

    secret diary of a call girl online Curt Harlow

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    had a tradition in his Chi Alpha ministry. Once a year he would preach opposite: “Why You Should Not Pray”, “Why God Is Untrustworthy”, etc. He did it deadpan (well — as deadpan as Harlow ever gets). The first time he did it he was worried his students wouldn’t catch on that he was merely exaggerating and then repeating their own doubts back to them in order to demonstrate how ridiculous their doubts were, but it was a huge success. Even the guests got it. It became an institution. Ever since he told me that story, I gamely pretend that a really bad sermon is merely the results of “opposites day”.

  5. Improve the sermon.

    This is risky because it can lead to pride and also can be disruptive if people around you notice what you’re doing, but there are times when it’s your only possible psychological defense. There are two fundamental kinds of badness. There’s bad delivery. That’s the best kind. The preacher has good things to say, but the inability to say them well. The whole sermon can be spent fruitfully paraphrasing and improving the solid content of the sermon. For example, you might reorder and reword the outline for greater impact or logical flow. There’s bad content. The preacher is distorting the text or not thinking things through. That’s harder, but can be even more diverting. You can compose your own outline from scratch on the same passage or topic that the preacher is endeavoring to address. One or two of my best sermons has come about this way.

Finally, my apologies to those who have had to endure a stinker from me. I know it has happened before and have no doubt it will happen again. It’s my job to be the best speaker I can be and it is your job to be the best listener that you can be. I’ll do my job whether or not you do yours, but if we work together this whole thing will go much more smoothly.

And a note to my pastor — relax, this was not inspired by your sermon this week. You didn’t even preach. We watched a movie, remember? 🙂

How Can There Be Only One Way?

I was recently thinking about 1st Timothy 2:5–6: “For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at his appointed time.” (New English Translation)

These verses highlight the aspect of Christianity that bothers Westerners most: its exclusivity. The notion that Jesus is the only way to God vexes many people.

This morning a thought occurred to me: almost everyone who believes in God believes that there’s only one way. Most people just don’t realize it.

For most people I know, their “one way” is being nice. Unless you are nice/good/sincere/altruistic/empathetic/enlightened/adjective-of-choice enough, you fail.

The way of niceness is no less limiting than the way of faith in Christ: it excludes people just as surely and it is far more arbitrary.

This is counterintuitive to some people, so allow me to explain.

It is exclusive in that some people just aren’t nice enough. More on that later.

It is arbitrary in that the devil is in the details. How do you know if you’ve been nice enough? And what constitutes the right kind of niceness, anyway? After all, there’s no real reason to suppose that an infinitely smart Being would measure niceness in the way that makes the most sense to you.

The Christian principle of exclusivity makes more sense, for it flows from the simple belief that Jesus is God in the flesh.

Thinking about this for a second should make the reasoning clear.

If you believe that Jesus is God, then to say you can come to God apart from Jesus is as nonsensical as saying you can go to Los Angeles without going to California.

In other words, all that Christians are insisting is that you can’t come to God without coming to God. This hardly seems controversial. You may reject the premises of the argument (that God exists or that Jesus is God), but granted those two the belief can’t be categorized as extreme or bizarre. It’s just consistent.

The real problem most people seem to have isn’t that Christianity is exclusive. Their real problem is that Christianity appears to be unfairly exclusive. This is most often expressed as follows, “What about those who have never heard of Christ? How can God exclude them simply because they haven’t heard of Jesus?”

There are actually some very reasonable answers to those questions. Here’s one, here’s another

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, and here’s yet a third. There are more where those came from — if this question distresses you then dig into it. You won’t agree with everything you read. I certainly don’t agree with every argument in three articles I linked. Figure out what you believe for yourself.

But here’s the important thing to realize: the same problem confronts the niceness standard. What about those born in the wrong time or the wrong place? Some of your ancestors owned slaves in accordance with the customs of their culture (this is true regardless of your ethnicity) — did they fail a test they didn’t know they were taking?

Some of them likely burned cats to death for fun. Do they fail the niceness test merely because they were born in the wrong time or in the wrong place?

For that matter, what of you? Who knows which of our actions our grandchildren will deem immoral? Perhaps you have been born in the wrong time and place to achieve a reasonable standard of niceness.

You might object that we should judge people relative to the standards of their own culture, so we don’t need to worry about what standards our grandchildren will hold us up against. Perhaps. Believing that would require you to stop judging dictatorships, sweatshops, modern-day slave trafficking, and racism in other cultures. Also, you will need to let the Church off the hook for things like the Crusades and the Inquisition. This is just one the problems that emerges from the notion that moral standards are completely relative to culture or personality. There are several detailed critiques available: here’s one

, here’s another, and here is a third (that last one is a pdf written by Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Pope).

So if your main beef with Christianity is that it’s exclusive, examine your own beliefs carefully. You might be surprised to discover just how exclusionary they turn out to be.

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Jesus Wants Friends Not Fans

I was chatting with De Wen (a student in our ministry) yesterday and he made a comment that really resonated with me: “God wants friends, not fans.”

A lot of us settle for being fans. I often settle for being a fan. But there’s so much more available — like Abraham, we can be friends with God (Isaiah 41:8, James 2:23). As he did to the disciples, Jesus yearns to say to us, “I no longer call you servants but friends” (John 15:15).

But the temptation to be a mere fan is strong. In Jimmy Tate’s memorable phrase, we substitute praise for prayer. We allow the life of the church to displace our own spiritual journey and we live vicariously through the pastor’s insights or the worship leader’s zeal. Like a dutiful fan, we turn out for the game (Sunday morning) and cheer at all the appropriate places. But we don’t call the coach after the game to congratulate him or shoot the breeze. We don’t invite him over for a victory bbq. That’s the stuff a friend would do.

We’re just fans, so we go home and talk about how great the game was.

And we miss out on something wonderful.

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