What a Grateful Student Wrote to a Caring Teacher

A retired schoolteacher received an unexpected Facebook message recently, I have the teacher’s permission to print the note here.

Good afternoon, Mrs._________.

This may seem a little strange (and I apologize for the slight randomness of this message over Facebook – I couldn’t seem to find an email of yours anywhere) but I was one of your grade 1 students back at ______________Public School in 2001.

I was a student who struggled with English, and through your support and guidance, was able to not simply grasp the language, but eventually fall in love with literature and poetry. You were the first (and arguably the only) teacher who has made such an impact on my life, and lit the desire to pursue my aspirations, and take on obstacles in my life.

You took me under your wing and showed me what I could do when I put my mind to something. And although that seems a little silly, for a first grader who really struggled with fitting in, it was profoundly significant. Today I finished my first semester as an undergraduate student at McMaster’s Health Sciences program (Canada’s top premedical program), and in a year and a half, I plan to embark into medical school.

I have reflected a lot about the people that have helped to guide me to where I am today, and aside from the support of my parents, you were the teacher who stood out. Although you were my first grade teacher, I can’t explain how much of a positive impact you’ve made on my life. You were part of the reason why I firmly developed a passion for pursuing education, and I wanted to thank you for that once-in-a-lifetime gift.

My parents and I still remember your endearing presence in the classroom and we frequently recall your kind and caring, almost motherly, kindness towards me. I called the school board to see if I could find you in a classroom, but was delighted to hear about your retirement, and I wish you all the best in this chapter of your life.

With the holiday season upon us, I wish you and your family the very best of health, happiness and memories.

Your student _________________

Although, contrary to what some might say today, life works best when we understand and affirm that we are all the products of our own decisions. Even so, our good decisions are often prompted or restrained by the thoughtful influence of a mentor during moments of crisis or opportunity.

In response to this grateful student’s note, I have resolved to reflect today on the people in my life who played the role of “angels unawares”, speaking words of encouragement or correction to me that in important ways moved me to change my course. Because of my age, many of them – but not all – have gone before.

I will thank someone with a note before sunset, and for those I can’t reach and even for those I can, I will thank God profoundly. What John Donne said centuries ago is true: “No man is an island.”

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Photo credit: Ilmicrofono Oggiono (via flickr.com)

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What Book Should Come Next to the Bible?

Classic catechismHere’s a vote for the catechism!

A catechism is a summary of the doctrines of the Christian faith. It is usually set down in questions and answers, presented as simply as possible. The questions and answers are meant for memorization and cover the major doctrines of the church.

Throughout history catechisms have been used to instruct children of believers and in new fields new converts as well.

Catechisms have always been a part of the Christian Church from its earliest days. The Reformation produced Luther’s Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Larger Westminster Catechism, and on and on. I call catechisms embryonic theology.

Here are two examples of catechetical questions:

Question: “What is the first truth found in the Bible?”
Answer: “That there is a God.” (Genesis 1:1)

Here’s another: “If God is everywhere, why don’t we see Him?”
Answer: “Because God is pure Spirit and cannot be seen with bodily eyes.” (Exodus 33:20; John 4:24)

The Reverend Russell Veldman, pastor of the Free Methodist Church in Lawrenceville, Illinois, had an unusual reason for setting about to produce a catechism. Back in 2004 when he and his wife, Jennifer, were awaiting the birth of their daughter, Kiran, he was looking ahead to be sure there would be such a booklet to use for basic instruction in Christian doctrine when she was old enough.

Reverend Veldman had been raised in a congregation of the Reformed Church of America and had been “catechized” as a young boy. Though he is now a Wesleyan in theology, the importance of this catechizing had left a permanent impression on him.

The catechism he began developing was intended only for family use. But he found starting with a blank page made for a heavy task. Investigating, he discovered an original Free Methodist Catechism had been prepared for the young denomination by the four bishops serving the church in 1902.

He also found that this catechism had been republished in 1952, and for the next nearly half century had been a part of the curriculum for children and young people.

Working from the 1952 Free Methodist catechism as a base he updated certain words and replaced King James language with New International Version language. He also included a few further questions that seemed to him necessary.

When he tested his family project on adult Sunday School classes the interest this generated surprised him. Eventually the project was approved for use by the Free Methodist Church-USA, and published as the Classic Catechism.

Based on experiences in his own church he recommends that it be used for special Sunday School classes that encompass ages from early youth into adulthood. Or, taking three questions at a time, it can be used in Sunday evening services. Once the learners experience its value, he reports, they receive it with enthusiasm.

This valuable resource has not yet been fully discovered by North American pastors but churches in Asia are receiving it with enthusiasm. Bishop Narendra John from India came upon a copy and said, “This is what we need”.

Bishop John noted that in some places in India the only book a pastor has is the Bible, and he reported that he has been able to translate and publish 2000 copies of this catechism for a mere $700.

The Classic Catechism now exists in six languages in the Free Methodist denomination in Asia and more are being added.

How important is all this to an evangelical body of the 21st century?

Considering the special place catechisms have filled in a wide range of Christian communions across history, and the effectiveness with which they give understanding to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, the claim may well be true that the catechism is the second most important book to the church after the Sacred Scriptures.

Re-post: What Really Makes the Church Grow?

Photo credit: AdamSelwood (via flickr.com)I have believed for many years that the local church grows — when its growth is genuine — from the pulpit outward.

That does not mean that all a church needs is good preaching and the rest will care for itself. A local church is a complex body and there are many other standards that must be met for the church to increase both in spiritual depth and numerical strength.

Nor does it mean that the whole burden for the growth of a church is upon the pastors and if their performance in the pulpit is exceptional the church will thrive in every other respect. The growing church must also have a core of lay workers who bear the spiritual burden for growth and outreach along with the pastor.

It does not even mean that brilliant preaching is necessary for the church to grow. As G. Campbell Morgan so clearly summarized, real preaching must only meet three basic criteria: it must be true, clear and anointed.

What it does mean is that the center for spiritual nourishment for the congregation is the pulpit, and if the pulpit lacks authenticity either in content, clarity or unction, even an increase in numbers of people will not equal genuine congregational growth.

We have all seen hummingbirds hover in air, wings ablur, while they sip from feeders filled with a red liquid — sugar and water. I’m told that if the mixture is made up of saccharin and water they will continue to come and feed with equal thirst, but gradually they will become weak and unable to fly. The taste of saccharin is sweet enough to fool them, but it lacks the calories they need.

In a similar way, what is delivered from the pulpit must not only appeal to the ear of the listener; it must nourish the spirit. That is, it must speak the word of God to the deep hunger for soul-food that God puts in his people.

What can move pastors everywhere to come before their people with a well formed word from the Lord? I know of nothing but the commands of the Scriptures, and the best place to seek that prompting is in the Pastoral Epistles — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. These were first century pastors who were assigned to oversee young established congregations. And what did the Apostle Paul say to them in writing?

“…the overseer must be…able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2)” “Command and teach these things” (4:11). “Until I come, devote yourself…to preaching and teaching. Do not neglect your gift” (4:13,14). “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (4:16).

Also in Paul’s second letter to Timothy he writes, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). And, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2:15). We take such exhortations as Spirit-inspired also for us today.

I cannot write this way without remembering that on many occasions I have fallen far short of doing what I believe is so needed. But God is merciful. He forgives and keeps the passion alive. So, “forgetting what is behind,” I call any pastor who reads this to join me in seeking renewal in Spirit — anointed preaching to the pressing needs and hungers of today — for the edification of the Lord’s people and the genuine growth of Christ’s church everywhere.


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Photo credit: AdamSelwood (via flickr.com)

What Really Makes the Church Grow?

Photo credit: AdamSelwood (via flickr.com)I have believed for many years that the local church grows — when its growth is genuine — from the pulpit outward.

That does not mean that all a church needs is good preaching and the rest will care for itself. A local church is a complex body and there are many other standards that must be met for the church to increase both in spiritual depth and numerical strength.

Nor does it mean that the whole burden for the growth of a church is upon the pastors and if their performance in the pulpit is exceptional the church will thrive in every other respect. The growing church must also have a core of lay workers who bear the spiritual burden for growth and outreach along with the pastor.

It does not even mean that brilliant preaching is necessary for the church to grow. As G. Campbell Morgan so clearly summarized, real preaching must only meet three basic criteria: it must be true, clear and anointed.

What it does mean is that the center for spiritual nourishment for the congregation is the pulpit, and if the pulpit lacks authenticity either in content, clarity or unction, even an increase in numbers of people will not equal genuine congregational growth.

We have all seen hummingbirds hover in air, wings ablur, while they sip from feeders filled with a red liquid — sugar and water. I’m told that if the mixture is made up of saccharin and water they will continue to come and feed with equal thirst, but gradually they will become weak and unable to fly. The taste of saccharin is sweet enough to fool them, but it lacks the calories they need.

In a similar way, what is delivered from the pulpit must not only appeal to the ear of the listener; it must nourish the spirit. That is, it must speak the word of God to the deep hunger for soul-food that God puts in his people.

What can move pastors everywhere to come before their people with a well formed word from the Lord? I know of nothing but the commands of the Scriptures, and the best place to seek that prompting is in the Pastoral Epistles — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. These were first century pastors who were assigned to oversee young established congregations. And what did the Apostle Paul say to them in writing?

“…the overseer must be…able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2)” “Command and teach these things” (4:11). “Until I come, devote yourself…to preaching and teaching. Do not neglect your gift” (4:13,14). “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (4:16).

Also in Paul’s second letter to Timothy he writes, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). And, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2:15). We take such exhortations as Spirit-inspired also for us today.

I cannot write this way without remembering that on many occasions I have fallen far short of doing what I believe is so needed. But God is merciful. He forgives and keeps the passion alive. So, “forgetting what is behind,” I call any pastor who reads this to join me in seeking renewal in Spirit — anointed preaching to the pressing needs and hungers of today — for the edification of the Lord’s people and the genuine growth of Christ’s church everywhere.


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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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