In My 92nd Year, I Heard the Gospel Afresh This Morning!

Ninety-one years is a long time to be a regular church attender.

When I was only two weeks old, my parents carried me into church in a wicker bassinet. It was the start of a long history. Growing up, I was expected to attend church faithfully so long as I lived in my parents’ home. It was the same when I spent three winter seasons of my teen years in a residential Bible School where regular chapels were just that — regular.

Later, as an ordained minister, evenings or weekends often found me ministering to a gathered congregation. And later, as a church overseer, special needs could draw me toward a congregation of believers during the week.

It all represents a great amount of church exposure.

I’ll admit, however, that across a long life of intensive church involvement there have been times when weariness whispered in my ear to take a pass. And there have also been church events that were without spiritual energy, thus refreshing to neither mind or spirit.

I tell you all this for a reason: I am just home from a Good Friday service at Wesley Chapel Free Methodist Church across Toronto 30 miles to the east of where I live. At least once a year, Wesley Chapel Free Methodist Church joins with the congregation of Briarwood Presbyterian church nearby for a Good Friday service. They alternate locations and participants.

I listened as the two congregations worshiped together, and in every part of the service I heard the gospel ring out afresh. It fed my faith and reminded me why all the evil of that dark and despairing first Friday turned out to be in a special sense Good Friday.

Near the beginning of the service this morning, a woman from Bridlewood read slowly and thoughtfully from Isaiah 53: 1-12. She used the New Living Translation. I recalled that verses 4 and 5 were part of a prophecy about Jesus written nearly 800 years before his birth. Here are those verses:

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried, our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God for his own sins! But he was wounded and crushed for our sins. He was beaten that we might have peace. He was whipped and we were healed.

All week long I had been pondering the doctrine of substitution described here — the idea that Jesus took the punishment for our sins to relieve us of that burden and set us free.

I heard the same assurance when the congregation stood to sing one of my wife Kathleen’s favorite hymns: Hallelujah, What a Savior. Again, the lines filled the sanctuary, igniting faith and warming the soul:

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned he stood;
Sealed my pardon with his blood.
Hallelujah, what a Savior!

In my place! In my place! I heard that resonant note in the Gospel so clearly today, and rejoiced.

The pastor of the Bridlewood church, Reverend Joseph Choi, preached from John 18. He explained Pilate’s political maneuvering to escape condemning a man he knew to be innocent, but despite his innocence, eventually had Jesus flogged to placate the crowds.

In this flogging, Jesus took my place, which he did again when he dragged his own cross toward Calvary, and when he suffered the harrowing treatment on Calvary’s cross. He was an innocent man and at the same time Creator God of the universe, dying for others.

When he bore the wrath of God for the sins of humanity he suffered so that I — and all other confessed sinners — would not need to suffer endless torment for our sin.

So, with Good Friday fading I face Easter Sunday with a renewed conviction that he who died to bear the burden of my sins lives to assure me of eternal life, bought for Christ-believers and followers at so great a price. This Good News, reiterated this morning, washes over me and I ponder it still.

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Photo credit: Koshy Koshy (via flickr.com)

The Call To Preach

Arrows_2420989165_0ec11e57c2_nDuring my boyhood days in Saskatchewan I heard the following saying often enough for it to stick in my mind: “Don’t preach unless you can’t get to heaven any other way.”

It was a homespun saying. It implied that the preacher’s life was hard and one should only accept God’s call to full time service if following any other course would be an act of radical disobedience. The saying seemed a call more to dutiful than joyful ministry.

It’s true that during the thirties of the last century, the preacher’s life in the West was hard. Preachers were largely self-taught, by studying such as Ralston’s Divinity, sometimes after a day’s work.

Incomes were tight. Reassignments were frequent. In our denomination Preachers were moved every two or three years. And preaching a radical gospel of sin, repentance, salvation through Christ, and holy living often brought resistance if not persecution.

By comparison, the pastor’s life today is less demanding in that radical way. College and seminary provide better education for the task; a parsonage family is usually settled in a community for much longer periods; in most cases optional housing is provided by a given choice between a parsonage and a housing allowance; and incomes are not so near the edge as they were.

But for today’s pastor who takes the calling seriously, responding to “the call to preach” still leads to a demanding life that tests and stretches. Preaching credible sermons in an internet- and DVD-saturated age requires rigorous discipline. Warm-overs from the internet will not refresh the church. Parishioner expectations regarding sermons, pastoral care, and church administration are high and disapproval is sometimes expressed roughly; expenses for children’s activities or medicines may press the margins.

Even more importantly, serving the Lord whether during economic depression or days of abundance involves spiritual warfare. As Paul wrote long ago, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood….” (Eph. 6:9). In other words, any struggle in the pastoral life is not so much with people as with powerful spiritual influences that create resistance to the gospel. To carry out this warfare successfully requires the daily disciplines of prayer both private and communal.

The scarcity of young promising and gifted pastoral prospects today is, in my opinion, related very much to the materialism of our times. I recall one young man who showed all the signs of being called to the ministry but who turned aside to another path influenced, it seemed to me, by a family that could not see adequate material rewards and prestige offered in the pastoral life.

Admittedly the rewards are not usually “material,” but they are surprisingly great. Jesus said to his disciples: anyone who leaves all for me and the gospel will receive a hundred times as much in this present age (with persecutions) “and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:29-31).

The pastoral life is not a job, it is a “calling.” A job is a defined task (like clerking in a store eight hours a day, or mowing lawns) that may be completed so one can turn elsewhere. A calling is a divine summons which should be answered and is only lifted when the Master himself lifts it. The minister who called his work a “career” did not understand this.

Pastors who have given a lifetime to this calling can report the numerous rewards with joy — the trust reflected in the church’s ordination; the challenge to deliver the word of God regularly through preaching and teaching; the privilege of sharing deeply in the lives of parishioners and adherents; close involvement in the rites of passage with all ages — birth, conversion, marriage, anniversaries, retirement, and death.

Who can measure the deep spiritual satisfaction of celebrating a quiet fiftieth anniversary dinner with a couple whom one had married a half century earlier? Or talking by long distance with another man whom he had led to the Lord at his dining room table forty years before? Or the e-mails, notes and calls that come regularly from Christians (and even unbelievers) who say they were influenced for the Lord even though the pastor did not know it at the time?

There’s a quiet joy that is nourished regularly in the hearts of those who heard the call while young and who responded wholeheartedly.

(If you want to read more about pastoring, get my new book on Amazon.com, THE PASTOR’S FIRST LOVE: And Other Essays on a High and Holy Calling)

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But Can He Preach?

“But can he preach?” I heard that question often during my 19 years as an elected bishop of the church. Here was the context:

In the Free Methodist Church, every annual conference has a ministerial appointments committee. It is this committee’s duty after careful consultation to appoint all ordained personnel to their places of service.

In doing their work the committee usually interviewed one or more representatives from a local congregation. In this interview, the representatives had opportunity to explain the needs of their church and to ask questions regarding the suitability of a particular candidate.

From time to time I was in on those interviews. At other times I had private conversations with the lay persons involved. With a certain regularity I heard the following question: “But can this person preach?”

There were other questions too: does this candidate have skills in giving pastoral care to individuals? Or does he have ability to administer a congregation? Or will she offer visionary leadership?

But the question that came up most often as I recall was, “Can this person preach?”

It seemed clear that lay leaders had an instinct about the pastoral task that made their question perceptive. It wasn’t that other aspects of the work were unimportant. Those speaking for a local congregation usually wanted a well rounded pastor. But, whatever other gifts the prospect might have, if it surfaced that the gift of preaching didn’t exist in some degree of development, interest flagged.

Where did this insight come from? One might say from the Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. The power of the Scriptures was rediscovered in that mighty awakening and with it the importance of proclamation and teaching as the minister’s primary tasks.

But it goes deeper. Think of the prophets of the Old Testament – Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, to name only three of many. “The word of the Lord came to me,” they said, or they prefaced their messages with, “Thus says the Lord.” They believed they were proclaiming a divinely inspired word with authority.

This was only further amplified in the New Testament. Jesus came preaching. He sent his apostles out to preach the truth of his kingdom. Paul wrote to the younger Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). Later he wrote, “I give you this charge: Preach the word….” (2 Tim. 4:1,2). The primacy of preaching is inescapable in the Scriptures.

A young pastor just out of seminary once admitted to me — after I had done some probing — “I don’t believe preaching is where it’s at.” I asked him, “Where, then, is it at?” His response: “I think it’s in rapping with a few young people informally.” Only after he got the matter straightened out in keeping with the Scriptures did his preaching take on an energy that won him a hearing.

All this is not to say that preaching alone will assure pastoral success. Rapping may have its place, but the four-fold task of the modern pastor is: to preach and teach the word; to offer pastoral care to the flock of God’s people; as a shepherd, to seek the lost; and to administer the church so as to assure it is ordered and has clear purpose.

But it is my lifetime conviction that when the church is in a growth and outreach mode it grows from a Spirit-anointed pulpit outward.

The question, “Can this pastor preach?” doesn’t mean “Is he a brilliant orator?” Or “Does she wow the congregation with her scholarship?” It does mean, “Does this pastor give evidence of having prepared heart and mind to make some biblical truth clear and compelling to the people?” Or, “ Is it obvious that this truth is ordered for delivery and moves her own heart first?”

These are demanding times for pastors everywhere. Congregational expectations are high. Pastors who labor at the crossroads or in an urban enclave find their gifts are unfairly measured against colorful television preachers. Lay officers sometimes fail in that they don’t know how to support and encourage their leader. The drop-out rate is too high.

But the task of leading a congregation in our modern world is still a lofty calling. In spite of the pain and disappointments that sometimes make the road rough, its rewards over the long pull are immeasurably great. And those who pursue it well continue to make the preaching task a sort of lynchpin for all other pastoral duties.

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Further Thoughts About Truthfulness in the Pulpit

PlagiarismI have written previously about the importance of authenticity in the pulpit, and here are some further thoughts.

In a preaching class in seminary several decades ago, a classmate preached a trial sermon that had unusually good order and a fine treatment of the Greek text. Two weeks later his former college Greek professor came to campus and in chapel preached the identical sermon. There was a low buzz among his classmates.

What that seminarian did is called plagiarism. “To plagiarize,” according to Webster, is “to steal or purloin and pass off as one’s own (ideas, writings, etc., of another).” For sure, a pastor may preach another preacher’s sermon or use his illustrations if he gives credit to the source. But if he presents it in silence, as though it were his work, that’s regarded as below standard.

Not only churches take plagiarism seriously; universities do too. Here’s a doctoral student who hands in a final draft of her dissertation. Her faculty advisor discovers several portions of it are copied from another source but not credited. This is serious and the student may be denied the degree. The issue is truthfulness.

If something like this offence is committed in the pulpit during a Sunday morning worship service, should it be taken any less seriously?

It’s not that preachers must consider the sermons of others completely off limits. We read them, listen to them on CDs and DVDs, analyse them, discuss them, even imitate their style. We preachers learn from one another. But if we set forth someone else’s work as if it were our own, that puts our truthfulness under question.

So, in preaching truthfulness is a cardinal issue. But in addition, consider three other reasons why this sort of pretence has no place in the pulpit.

First, leaning so completely on the work of another for sermon content dampens the prophetic spirit. “Thus saith the Lord” should be evident in every sermon in the Protestant tradition. A real sermon is more than a lecture or an essay or even a religious talk. As Donald G. Miller once wrote, “Preaching is not a mere speech; it is an event.” It is an event in which the preacher delivers to the people a word from God received through diligent study and prayer.

This sermon may come forth like “the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” or it may be uttered with tears like the messages of the weeping prophet, Jeremiah, or it may be given as a passionately reasoned discourse such as the Apostle Paul gave in Jewish synagogues he visited.

Whatever the style, a sermon plagiarized from a book or the Internet or a CD can never have such a prophetic ring, and in our hearts we will know that to be true.

Second, plagiarizing in the pulpit very quickly dampens the passion to study the Scriptures in depth and to keep a growing edge on our understanding of the Bible. In the plagiarized sermon, someone else has already done the work and this becomes a convenient substitute for our exertion.

There’s a cost for such shortcuts in any creative work. The artist who decides to paint by numbers will dull her creative edge and her keen eye for blending colors. Or the cabinet maker who decides to make life easier by assembling do-it-yourself cabinets from Ikea will gradually blunt the fine mastery of lathe and plane.

Pastors who begin to trust pre-packaged material as their source can’t help but lose the impulses to pray and study required in getting a word from the Lord. They will quickly succumb to something equivalent to painting-by-numbers.

But the third reason is that some people in the congregations will detect what we are doing. Like the seminary class above there may be a buzz without any open challenge. Or worse still, there may be a conspiracy of silence between pulpit and pew, a sure sign that something is missing in the life of the congregation. In either case the pastor will lose the trust of the congregation – a serious loss!

In the free church tradition, we have never had towering cathedrals or colorful vestments or awesome liturgies to rely on. But in our best hours we have believed our calling is to offer our people fresh, impassioned, Bible-wrought preaching. Is not the morally soft era we are now living through an excellent time to renew the preaching commitments of Protestantism’s better days?


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One More Appeal for Bible-Based Preaching

Bible_1167176_54598022A few weeks ago we sat under the ministry of Walter C. Kaiser Jr., at Wesley Acres, about 140 miles east of Toronto and little more than shouting distance from Lake Ontario. Dr. Kaiser is a Bible scholar of note and former president of Gordon Conwell Seminary near Boston.

The congregations relished his rich Biblical insights as he preached from 1 Kings and Ecclesiastes — the latter a mysterious book, no longer quite so mysterious. What he had to teach was served up with little touches of humor that kept everyone alert and at the ready.

Listening to him, one came away with a keen sense that he has an unflinching concern that seminary-trained pastors give careful attention to the text of the Bible for every sermon. To make this clear, in one aside he placed his index finger on his text and raised the other arm high in the air, saying, “Preach with one finger on the text and the other arm in the air to make gestures. Then when that arm gets tired, move its index finger to the text and raise the other arm to make gestures.”

On another occasion, he said, somewhat wryly, “I recommend that pastors preach one topical sermon — every five years.” His point was clear that every sermon should at least be an effort at good, clear expository preaching. That is, it should assure that by study and prayer the sermon grows out of the text, rather than simply being imposed on the text, or worse still, not even having a text. A congregation deserves better!

On this continent, there are good Bible-grounded preachers aplenty but there needs to be more of them. And whenever a pulpit serves up thin gruel, it is not entirely the preacher’s fault. Congregations usually get what they will settle for. A congregation shows its values on this matter by the quality of study facilities it provides, the prayers it prays for the pastor through the week, the commendations it gives when sermons connect, and message it gives to the sending body at times of pastoral change: Send us someone who is serious about the preaching task as well as gifted in other aspects of pastoring.

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Critiquing Your Own Sermons – Part 6 of 6

Continued from Part 5

Photo credit: oksidor (via flicker.com)DOES MY SERMON HAVE A BITE?

You’ll not find the term “bite” in a homiletics text. It was coined by my wife, Kathleen. She is a quiet person but there are times when she holds an idea with conviction and is moved to share it. One of those times came when she was serving breakfast to three or four ministers who were attending a Christian education seminar in a church nearby.

During the meal in our dining room that morning, the conversation turned to sermons. “The trouble with most sermons,” she told the visiting ministers, “is that they lack a bite.” The men were taken with the term and asked for an explanation.

She told them that earlier in her life when she attended a liberally oriented church, there were many good features to the services and the preachers often said uplifting things, but the sermons didn’t come out anywhere. They were little more than nice talks, giving the hearers something to think about. There was no application. This sort of preaching, she said, could actually inoculate people against the gospel.

Kathleen had been trained as a teacher. She knew, for example, that a lesson must have a beginning designed to capture interest, a middle that gives the essence of the lesson, and an ending that calls the children to do something to show they had taken the lesson in. For example, after a teacher has taught a third-grade class on the perils of pollution, he may list four things the children can do around the home to reduce the problem of pollution, urging their commitment to this new regimen.

What was missing in many a sermon, my wife contended, was this calling for some sort of response to show comprehension and agreement or the willingness to change.

A few days later, Kathleen got a call from one of the ministers, who lived 165 miles away. He said that after that breakfast conversation, he had gone home and reworked his Sunday-morning sermon and four people had responded to the invitation publicly. Later, another minister met her and told her that his preaching had not been the same since that breakfast table discussion.

Every sermon doesn’t have to call for a public response. That could get predictable and perhaps tedious. But every sermon should call its hearers to do something about the truth. Recently via television we’ve been educated in the way lawyers plead with great seriousness for a verdict. We preachers should do no less, making certain our sermons call for response.

We have looked at the six questions that we should ask of every sermon we preach: Is my sermon Biblical? Does it say one thing? Does it say it concretely? Does it say it relevantly? Do I expect to preach it under an anointing? And does it have a “bite”?

If we learn to answer these questions courageously, two things are sure to happen. First, when we know that we have preached poorly, even the commendations of a score of worshippers will not comfort us. And second, if we know in our hearts that we have preached well, we’ll not be downcast even if no one offers a word of appreciation.

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Critiquing Your Own Sermons – Part 5 of 6

Continued from Part 4

Photo credit: hickory hardscrabble (via flickr.com)CAN MY SERMON BE PREACHED WITH UNCTION?

Unction is defined by Thomas Oden as “an intense awareness of the holy in the midst of our concrete life revealed through human speech.” This question, then, unlike the previous four, centers attention on the preacher. But that is appropriate if, as Phillips Brooks said, preaching is truth mediated through human personality. The spiritual state of the preacher matters and this raises the issue of unction or anointing in preaching. To quote Thomas Oden again, anointing is “this subtle, compassionate, firm, set-apart quality of blessed speech — when firmness is accompanied by tenderness, when awe is engendered in common worship, when moral commitment is bound with love.”

We ought not to surrender to charismatic television preachers the exclusive use of the language of anointing. It’s a Biblical word used in both Testaments to suggest a special divine endowment and it should apply to all preachers. The word is applied to kings (2 Sam. 2:4), prophets (1 Kgs. 19:16), and priests (Ex 28:41). Essentially, the anointing was seen as an act of God (1 Sam. 10:1), though human agents such as Samuel administered it. Thus anointing was held in awe. The ritual of anointing with sacred oil suggests the conferring of power or authority.

Jesus began his public ministry in the synagogue on a Sabbath day by reading from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me. . . .” (Is. 61:2; Lk. 4:18f). Later, after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the apostles, evangelists, and prophets spoke with compelling power. It was evident that the Spirit was anointing them for the task.

Given this breadth of references to anointing, both as a general bestowal on the church and as a particular bestowal for special ministries, we ought to expect that every time we preach we do so under an anointing, and to pray regularly to that end.

But this calls for further clarification. For one thing, the Spirit’s anointing is usually consistent with our personalities. It is more likely to be experienced as a heightening and intensification of who God created us to be, than as a radical change of our make-up. Extroverts will likely continue to be extroverts, introverts to be introverts; proclaimers will proclaim with extraordinary power; teachers will teach with fresh clarity and persuasiveness. Barnabas will still be Barnabas; Paul will be Paul; but each will work with a peculiar anointing as a servant of the Most High.

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