Sermon Preparation

Sermon Preparation

Prayerfully planning, researching, writing and rehearsing a substantive, relevant, Truth-filled sermon requires a significant amount of time – MUCH more time than the average person-in-the-pew assumes.  Somewhere along the way, I learned a good sermon requires one hour of preparation for each minute of preaching.  In other words, a twenty-minute sermon should require twenty hours of prayer, study, reflection, writing, and rehearsal.  Though I’ve never actually timed my weekly preparation time, I suspect that’s about right.

This makes sense to me.  The sermon is the one time, each week, the pastor can have the most impactful contact with the most people.  That twenty minutes (or twenty-five, or thirty…) is an opportunity to teach, speak Truth, cast vision, offer hope, and draw a large number of people closer to God – all at the same time.  Though a pastor may be in contact with large numbers of people throughout the week – via meetings and visitation – nothing can compare to the potential impact of the sermon.

And, my personal conviction is, I owe my very best to my congregation.  If anyone – much less hundreds of “anyones” – is willing to sit quietly for twenty minutes, or so, listening to me preach, they deserve the best sermon I can give them.  My congregation deserves that respect.

The Word deserves that respect!  God deserves that respect!  My sermon, every week, ought to be the very best I can possibly offer!

The problem is, most pastors don’t have twenty hours, every week, to devote to a sermon.  A pastor’s week is filled with myriad other responsibilities:  supervising staff, hospital visitation, denominational responsibilities, committee meetings, reports, leading classes and Bible studies, responding to crises, pastoral care and counseling, funerals, weddings, Baptism meetings, letter writing, event planning, follow-up with visitors, etc., etc.  And, in any given week, unexpected needs, opportunities, and tragedies pop up, consuming time that might have otherwise been used for sermon preparation.  And, don’t forget, pastors need Sabbath and family time, too.

Often, the result is ill-prepared, shallow, half-baked sermons.  Some gifted preachers have sufficient oratory and/or storytelling skills to pull off a sermon, high on emotional impact and entertainment value, yet fairly low on substance. I hope we all agree that’s less than ideal.

It’s not the preacher’s fault.  It’s just reality.  Ministry is hard.  Adequate sermon prep is often more time consuming than the preacher has to commit.

I’m not ok with that reality.  Like every preacher, I’ve preached my share of half-baked sermons.  I strive for that to be the rare exception, and certainly not the norm.  But, it happens.

A number of years ago, I discovered the value of long-range sermon planning.  When I say “long-range,” I mean, more or less, a year of sermons in advance.  For those preachers, tired of struggling week-to-week, I offer you my method…

Every year, I take a full week to do nothing but sermon planning and research.  Taking a full week away from the church isn’t easy – but it’s important!  And, this isn’t vacation!  In fact, I’d argue it’s the most important work week you will have all year long!

I usually do this sometime between Easter and Labor Day.  Before that week, I prayerfully develop a list of topics and themes that could possibly become series and sermons.  Before my week arrives, I gather a stack of books relative to the ideas I am considering.  This process alone takes several months.

When my planning week arrives, I go to some isolated place, away from distractions.  More often than not, I’ve spent those weeks in monasteries, in silence.  But, cabins, condos, and beach houses work just as well.  Last week, I was blessed to use a beautiful house in Eleuthera, Bahamas!  There have also been times I’ve locked myself away in my own house – but, that’s less than ideal.

Then I read, and read, and read – Scripture, books, blogs, articles, commentaries.  Over a week, I can read five or six books.  And, as I read, I take notes, writing down ideas for specific sermons.  As I read, I highlight passages that speak to me, so they will be easy to find later.  At some point, the list I previously prepared, my scribbled notes, and all of those highlights begin to form actual ideas for future series and sermons.

I’ve developed this chart, for each Sunday of the coming year…

Date:
Series Name:
Scriptures:
Sermon Title:
Sermon Purpose Statement:
Sermon Resources:
Hymn/Songs:
Prayers/Liturgy:
Audio Visual:
Other:

Once I have a basic idea for every Sunday of the coming year, I create a Word Document, and start filling in a chart for each and every Sunday.  I don’t always fill in every box during my planning week.  But, I fill in as much as I can.  I do write a purpose statement for every sermon, even if I’m not sure about the title.  I choose a primary Scripture text, and several supporting texts.  Then, as I finish each book I read, I fill in the “resource” block with page numbers of every underline or highlighted sentence that might be relevant to that particular message.  By the end of the week, most of the charts have far more info than I can possibly use in a given sermon, which means I get to pick and choose the material that seems most relevant and insightful.

By the end of my planning week, I have a solid plan for the coming year, and pages and pages of materials.  Of course, when the week of a particular sermon arrives, the sermon manuscript still has to be written, and practiced.  But, I find that task is, though still time consuming, SO much easier, since I already have abundant materials gathered.

The two greatest benefits to me, as the preacher, are…

  1. Planning allows me to relax.  If my schedule in a particular week becomes overly squeezed, I don’t have to panic about what I will preach, or when I I’ll pull a sermon together.  It might still be a challenge to get it finished.  But, that’s WAY better than starting from scratch!
  2. Because I read five or six books during my planning week, I generally have a sufficient “chunk” of materials to work with for the entire year. Then, as I read more throughout the year, I can just read for my own personal enjoyment and fulfillment.  When I, inevitably, find something in my ongoing reading related to an upcoming sermon or series, I just open my Word Doc and make a reference.  I do the same when I get a new idea, or see something in Social Media, etc.  Throughout the year, my Word Doc gets fuller and fuller, richer and richer, both with info I’ve gathered from research AND materials that have spoken to me personally.

PLEASE HEAR THIS:  reading for pleasure and personal edification is MUCH richer sermon fodder than scrambling week by week to find another sermon topic, idea or illustration!

When I tell people about my process, many find it hard to believe a sermon planned a year in advance could still be relevant, pertinent, or Spirit-filled, a year later.

First of all, let’s never forget that God is omniscient.  If I approach this process prayerfully, and I do, then the Holy Spirit is fully capable of helping plan a year in advance.

Second, since I’m not actually writing the sermon until the week of, there’s still opportunity to make tweaks and adjustments to make certain the sermon is relevant to the moment.

Thirdly, just because I have a plan doesn’t mean I can’t toss it in the garbage if the Spirit leads me to preach something else.  This happens.  It happened on the Sunday following the Parkland shooting, last February.  But, thankfully, it doesn’t happen often.

My personal conviction is, planning does NOT inhibit the Spirit.  Instead, planning allows more room for the Spirit to lead and guide me to explore, process, and deepen my understanding of a particular topic or text, long before a particular sermon needs to be written.

So, preachers, raise the standard of your preaching!  How?  My advice is planning and preparation.  You may not like MY process.  But, you do need a process.  Plan as far ahead as you possibly can.  Take time – big chunks of time – to study and prepare.  Yes, your spiritual life if enormously important as well – there’s no substituting for that!  But, while I DON’T believe you can preach effectively, for long, with a shallow soul, I DO believe you can be deeply spiritual and still preach lousy sermons, due to lack of time, attention, and effort.  So yes, take care of your soul!  AND, take the time you need to prepare your sermons!

If you would like more details about my process, don’t hesitate to ask!

Blogging silence, hard questions, passive aggression, and the Jesus-litmus test

Blogging silence, hard questions, passive aggression, and the Jesus-litmus test

If you follow my blogging, you may have noticed my recent absence from the blogosphere.  Following daily blogging through Lent 2018, I intended to continue blogging weekly.  But, a couple months back, I hit the proverbial “writer’s block,” and simply couldn’t think of anything worth blogging.  Or, perhaps, if I’m honest, I haven’t been in the right mental/emotional/spiritual “state” to write much worthy of public consumption.  Though I’ve opened my blog-site, attempting to write numerous times, words I was comfortable expressing just wouldn’t come.

Why?

As I’ve shared in previous blogs, the February 14th tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School deeply affected me.  Though I’ve worked through most of my theological angst, I think, I’m still wrestling with thoughts, ideas, and questions I haven’t before.  I’ve never believed in easy answers.  But, my previous questions – ABOUT EVERYTHING – haven’t usually been this complicated.

Then there’s the daily news coming out of Washington D.C.  Though I’ve never been a fan of our current President, and doubted his competency for office from the start, I’m increasingly shocked and outraged by his words and actions, on a daily basis.  I don’t understand how he gets away with saying the things he says, and doing the things he does.  I’m especially shocked by how so many “Christians” are so quick to defend him, his words and his policies, and so quick to condemn those who question him.  In recent weeks, my shock has turned to anger.  Some days, my shock and anger gives way to doubt and despair.

Then there’s the state of the United Methodist Church – the denomination I serve.  For decades the UMC has been divided over issues related to human sexuality and how we relatedly understand, interpret, respect, and enforce Scripture.  Since 2016, a group called the “Commission on a Way Forward,” has sought to discern a way to keep the UMC united, and to find a “way” for us to avoid schism.  While I deeply respect many who served on the Commission, and appreciate their efforts, I’m deeply disappointed by the blunders and suspicion following their report to the Council of Bishops.  Though I’ve long believed in the biblical value of unity, as clearly espoused by Jesus, I’ve become increasingly doubtful – and sometimes despondent – that we’ll a find way to remain united.

I’m also wrestling with finding my prophetic voice.  As a pastor, I’ve mostly focused on “spiritual” things – church programming,  preaching, prayer, Bible study, “doing” missions – leaving prophetic speech to others.  Frankly, sometimes, I was just cowardly.  I’ve always respected prophets, but haven’t wanted to be one!  But, increasingly, I feel called to speak – for women, for immigrants, for people of color, for the LGBTQ community, for justice and fairness, for decency.  But, speaking out has consequences.  Learning how to deal with those consequences, without retaliation, is a test of patience and love.

And, I’m wrestling with the institutional Church.  There’s no secret the institutional Church in America is increasingly irrelevant and rapidly in decline.  I’m increasingly wondering how much the modern institutional Church has to do with the Church Jesus intended.  When I read the New Testament, I read about a family-like community, gathered around a living, risen Lord.  As diverse communities of mutual love, sharing, and service, they experienced the presence of the living Christ amongst them, and in each other.  Focused on the Lordship of Jesus, the early Church sought to be an alternative, radically-inclusive, counter-cultural society, equally welcoming and honoring men and women, rich and poor, young and old, saints and sinners, Jews and pagans, leaders and followers, converts and seekers.  In the early Church, lives were radically changed by the Holy Spirit.  The Church of the New Testament, as I read it, strived to love, in word and deed.  I don’t read about denominations, or institutional preservation, or building debt, or annual budgets, or advertising campaigns, or growth strategies, or music styles, or calendars, or church-management software, etc.  In the New Testament, I read far more about “being” the Church as a reflection of Jesus, and not so much about “doing” Church business.

In other words, during this blogging hiatus, I’ve been wrestling.  I’m still wrestling.

“How do we speak honestly, confidently, truthfully about who God is and what God does in this world of ugliness and violence?”

“What does it mean to be a faithful follower of Jesus?  What do we stand for?  Who do we stand for?  How?  What do we speak for, or against?”

“What does it mean to be the Church?  Who is the Church?

“What does it mean to hope, and what can we hope for?  Who, or what, do we entrust that hope?”

“What does it mean for followers of Jesus to be ‘in’ the world, but not ‘of’ the world?”

About the time I wrote my last blog, I realized how many of my posts have a negative, critical tone.  Over the last year, as I’ve learned about being an Enneagram 9, I’ve become painfully aware of my passive aggressive tendencies (a common trait of 9s, who tend to avoid face-to-face conflict like a plague!) – an ugly trait I was previously blind to.  Blogging became a forum for saying those things I’ve struggled to say, and allowed to internally fester.  Blogging became a place to express frustration and anger I’ve suppressed.  While I stand by everything I’ve written, I don’t want to be passive aggressive in any aspect of my life.  My blogging ought to be a healthy and accurate reflection of who I am in the pulpit, standing in line at the grocery home, at home in my boxer shorts, or chatting over coffee at Starbucks.

Though I’m wrestling with loads of hard questions (for me) these days, I don’t claim to have many answers.  Though I don’t claim to be absolutely “right” about much of anything, I’m increasingly convinced that we are wrong about MANY things.  The litmus test for me is Jesus…

“What did he say?  How did he say it?”

“What did he do?  Why did he do it?”

“Why did he come?  Who did he come for?”

“How did he love?  Who did he love?”

“Who did he welcome and who did he turn away?”

“What does he expect of me?”

“Where is he now?  How do I find him?  How do I see him, and hear him?”

“What does he feel about the current state of the Church and the world?  How do I find out, and what do I do about it?”

What does he think about our current political and cultural divides?”

“If he returned today, what would he affirm and what would be condemn?”

I’m fully aware that you might have a different litmus test for right and wrong.  I’m fully aware that you may conclude different answers to my questions than I have or will.  But, here’s my challenge.  If you claim to believe in Jesus – and claim to follow him as Lord – make sure you actually do.  It may be a lot harder than you think.  Study what he said in the Gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount.  Rather than drawing your own conclusions about what is right and wrong, find out what Jesus said is right and wrong.  Before you take a stand, study what Jesus stood for.  Before you condemn or criticize, find out what Jesus condemned and criticized.  Imitate him, as authentically as you possibly can.  Until you’ve thoroughly read, studied, prayed, and meditated on the words, teachings, and actions of Jesus, assume you might be wrong.  There are no easy, simplistic answers with Jesus!  And, after fully submitting everything to Jesus and concluding you might be right, be humble enough to know you might still be wrong.

So, perhaps that explains my blogging silence.

Am I back?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Only time will tell.  If and when I do write – as with every other aspect of my life and ministry – I intend to do so as faithfully as I can to who I believe Jesus to be, and who I believe he is calling me to to be, and to say and do.  One thing I can guarantee – I won’t do it perfectly.  It’s hard to keep my flawed humanity out of Jesus’ way.  May I suggest the same is true for you?

 

 

I choose love…

I choose love…

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

Ephesians 3:14-21

Every now and then, throughout my 24+ years of ministry, I’m told that I preach and teach about love TOO much.  For the most part, the critique is based in a desire to hear more explicit condemnation of sin from the pastor and the pulpit.  And, for the most part, I suspect they want me to preach about other’s sins, and not necessarily their own.

I believe their critique is based in the false notion that preaching about sin is more truthful, while preaching about love just implies God loves everyone – which is true – and that sin doesn’t really matter, which is false.  Sin does matter.  And, God’s response to sin is love.

“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Romans 5:8

Over, and over, and over, despite the naysayers, I’m drawn back to love.

God’s love is THE primary theme of the Bible.  Jesus identified love as the greatest commandment.  God’s own self-definition is love, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

As Moses received the Ten Commandments, the Lord said, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands,and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”  Exodus 34:6-7

The Psalms speak of the Lord’s love over 125 times, repeating over and over, The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”  Psalm 145:8

Even in the Prophets, where you find the most judgment and condemnation of sin, God’s desire is to love and be loved by his people, “‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”  Isaiah 54:10

Of course, Jesus, and his sacrificial death, is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think God is soft on sin.  Neither Christ’s death or an authentic life of Christian discipleship is easy.  Personally speaking, the Lord certainly hasn’t been soft on the sin in my life, as he continues the difficult work of conviction, refinement, and growth to maturity.  It would be SO much easier if God would just love me, and leave me as I am!  But, God doesn’t work that way!

Here’s what I know.  The more I love God, the closer I’m drawn to him.  The closer I’m drawn to God, the more I see the work still left to be done in me.  But, when I feel guilty or ashamed, I tend to hide from God, hiding my sin in the shadows, even from myself.

I suspect – no, I know – the same is true for others.

“Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?”  Romans 2:4

Scripture affirms it.  Jesus embodies it.  The Lord commands it.  The saints cherish it.  God is love.  In all that God is and all that God does, God is love.

My only desire, as a pastor, is for people to know God’s love as deeply and as personally as possible.  My theory is that love draws, judgement shuns.  Love embraces, judgement pushes away.  Love accepts, judgement condemns.  Love pursues, judgment turns it’s back.  Love is unconditional, judgement only sees conditions.  Love is warm, judgement is cold.  Love is truth, judgement is a lie.  Love extends, judgement narrows.

I don’t intend to use guilt, or fear, or condemnation to draw people to God, or to turn them away from God, God forbid!  I choose love.

And, I suppose, I share this because I’m increasingly convinced we all could use a lot more love – for God, for one another, for our enemies, and even for ourselves.

The apostle Paul, often referenced by those too quick to condemn, wrote that his prayer for the Christians in Ephesus was, “…to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”  Perhaps you see the same “contradiction” I do.  Paul says God’s love for us “surpasses knowledge,” and yet he prays for the power to grasp its width, length, height, and depth.  In other words, when we’re spiritually stretched beyond any capacity we can imagine to comprehend the vastness of God’s love, we’re still only scratching the surface.

God’s love is greater still.

Perhaps it’s too obvious and unnecessary to point out that Paul does NOT pray for us to know the vastness of our sinful depravity!  Paul teaches about sin.  Certainly.  But, not nearly as much as he emphasizes love.

So, I commit myself again, today, here and now, more and more and more, to the boundless, endless, fathomless love of God; to teach, to preach it, to write about it, and to hopefully – with God’s help – live it and give it.

And, if you don’t like it… well, God loves you anyway.

I’ll try to love you too.

If I wasn’t a pastor…

If I wasn’t a pastor…

As a United Methodist pastor, I’ve been assigned to the churches I’ve served.  While I’ve been very fortunate to serve very fine churches and ministries, from time to time I wonder, if I wasn’t a pastor, what kind of church I might choose to attend (Some days, this thought is a bit more tempting than others!  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve quit being a pastor.  I’ve just never actually turned in my letter of resignation!).

If I wasn’t a pastor, and could choose any church I wanted…

I’d want to be part of a close-knit, loving, Christ-centered community, where I can truly know and be known.

I’d want worship that’s a genuine, heart-felt, impassioned offering to God.

I’d want to be challenged to grow and expected to become the human God intends me to be.

I’d want to fall deeper, and deeper, and deeper in love with Jesus.

I’d look for a “thin place.”

I’d want to find a church community that’s open and honoring of all kinds of people, embracing and celebrating diversity in every form.

I’d want to find a church that literally drips, oozes, and overflows with God’s love.

I’d hope to find a place I could really be myself, knowing I’ll be loved and accepted, with no reason to fear judgement or rejection.

I’d look for a church that’s a “saint-incubator.”

I’d seek a church that always asks, “What should we try next?”

I’d look for church that was perfectly imperfect – whatever that means!

I’d want to find a church that embraces the unfathomable, ineffable mysteries of the Spirit and rejects sterile, overly-simplistic, formulaic religion.

I’d want to be part of a church membership that tithes generously, and gives more to missions than it keeps for itself.

I’d look for a pastor who knows and love Jesus.

I’d look for a church where the Spirit moves equally freely in worship, and business meetings, and shared meals, and acts of service.

I’d want to be part of a church that feels less like a business, and more like a spiritually organic network of friends.

I’d seek a church that boldly dreams God-sized dreams.

I’d love to be part of a creative church, that embraces the arts as expressions of worship and service.

I’d seek a church where each and every person is treated with utmost honor and respect.

I’d want to be part of a church where my friends are hearing and responding to God’s call to attempt outrageous kingdom experiments.

I’d look for a church that actively cares for and cultivates God’s good creation.

I’d want a church that never, ever settles for status quo, or the way things have always been done.

I’d look for a church that reads the Bible as a grand story to be part of, not just as a rule book to obey.

I’d join a church led by deeply-spiritual, God-seeking, wise, inspired, godly men and women.

I’d want to be part of church that is deeply committed to a particular people and place – loving it, serving it, healing it, shining a light on it, embracing it, nurturing it, caring for it, changing it.

I’d want to be part of a church family that equally embraces seekers and skeptics, long-timers and short-timers, saints and sinners, masters and novices.

I’d seek a church that believes ANYTHING is possible, if it honors Christ.

I’d hope to find Christ-followers who could easily say, “I’m sorry,” and “I forgive you.”

I’d look for a church that prayed and taught people how to pray.

I’d seek a church relentlessly committed to justice and mercy.

I’d look for a church that graciously expects people to act like Jesus.

I’d seek brothers and sisters in Christ who are equally comfortable singing passionately, laughing uproariously, shouting riotously, applauding wildly, lamenting defiantly, and crying unashamedly.

I’d want to find a church equally committed to excellence and exceedingly gracious with short-comings.

I’d seek a church that primarily exists beyond it’s walls.

I would look for a church where EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING is about Jesus.  EVERYTHING!

I know, I know.  I’d never find such a church.  Such churches don’t exist.  There’s no such thing as a “perfect church,” whatever that means, according to anyone’s hopes, standards, or expectations.  Every church has its gifts and graces, it’s strengths and weaknesses.

But…

If the Church is the Bride of Christ…

If the Church is the Body of Christ…

If the Church is the visible manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven, on the earth…

If the Church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”…

If the Church is Spirit-filled and Spirit-led…

If the Church exists for God, and God’s mission…

If the Church is God’s family…

If the Church is where saints become saints…

If the Church is where heaven touches earth…

If the Church is where the Holy Sacraments are blessed and served…

If the Church is where believers worship the most high God…

If the Church is salt and light…

If the Church is where God’s story is remembered, retold, and relived, over and over and over…

If the Church is where saints are baptized, confirmed, confessed, communed, married, ordained, consecrated, annointed, commissioned, healed, and memorialized…

If… then, perhaps, someone could explain to me why we would ever settle for a church that is less?

Maybe the point isn’t to find the perfect church.  Maybe the point is to BE the Church we know we’re supposed to be.  Why do we settle for so much less?

 

How the Birthday Cake Ruined the Church…

How the Birthday Cake Ruined the Church…

In my half-century of life, a lot has changed (and is constantly changing) in our world.  That’s, of course, a ridiculous understatement.  The world is changing more rapidly and more radically with every passing day.

Though many of those changes involve science and technology, let’s consider something a bit more basic – a birthday cake.

A century ago, or more, if you wanted a birthday cake, you ground the grain you grew and harvested, collected eggs from your own hen-house, milked the cow, and hoped you still had the ingredients you couldn’t produce, purchased on your last trip to the general store.  After mixing the ingredients, yourself, you might have needed to chop some wood to heat the stove to bake the cake.

A half-century ago, to celebrate a birthday, you went to the neighborhood grocer to buy the ingredients you needed – flour, sugar, eggs, milk, baking powder, etc.  You took those ingredients home, mixed the batter with an electric mixer, and baked a cake in your electric or gas oven.  I can still remember a particularly delicious chocolate cake my mom made, with thick, rich frosting.  It wasn’t pretty, but it was sooooooooo good!

Then came a simpler way.  Rather than buying individual ingredients, cake mixes and canned frosting could be purchased.  You still baked the cake yourself, but the process was so much simpler, less time-consuming, and required less knowledge or skill – just dump the mix in a bowl and follow the directions on the package.

Then came the grocery store bakery.  There have always been bakeries, of course.  But, grocery store bakeries were cheaper and move convenient.  Now, instead of baking, you could buy a ready-made, beautifully decorated cake, in the color and flavor of your choice, and even have a custom birthday greeting added for no additional charge.  No time, effort, or skill required.

But, the problem is, everyone doesn’t like the same flavor of cake.  Some people are on diets.  Some are vegan.  Some are lactose intolerant.  Some are avoiding gluten.  Some have food allergies.  Some prefer more basic flavors, while others desire something  more exotic.  And, aesthetics matter.  We don’t want to eat something that looks mass-produced.  We want a nice presentation.  So, we order designer cupcakes, on-line, catering to multiple wants and needs, packaged in special boxes, and have them delivered to our office or home.

We’ve shifted from creators, contributors and cultivators, to consumers (and, sometimes, critics and complainers).

This scenario is replayed over, and over, and over.  We used to make coffee, at home, in a percolator.  Now, we order ahead for a grande soy latte with whipped cream and an extra shot of espresso, hot and ready for pick-up in minutes.  We used to wait in line at movie theaters, hoping tickets were available when you got to the window, knowing you might not get great seats.  Now we order our movie tickets ahead, selecting from a variety of viewing and listening options, choosing our specific reclining, leather seats, with no waiting at the theater door, and with plenty of time to purchase a much wider variety of beverages and snacks than just basic popcorn and soda.

The list could go on and on and on.

Notice how we’ve moved from basic commodities – cake ingredients, coffee beans, general seating – to being served by others, with little-to-no personal effort, and much higher levels of expectation for personalization, specialization and convenience.

I suspect, when we made our own cakes and coffee, we accepted certain imperfections.  I remember sitting on the front rows of movie theaters, just glad to have a ticket, or settling for a different movie because the show I wanted was sold out.  I think, we used to be generally more accepting, and assumed the burden was on us to make things better if we weren’t satisfied.

If the cake didn’t turn out right, bake another one.  If you don’t know how to decorate a cake, ask your neighbor for help.  If you don’t like chocolate cake, hopefully you’ll get vanilla next year.  If you made the coffee too strong, add some milk.  If you want to get a ticket to the show, get in line earlier next time.

We don’t think that way any more.  We want it customized.  We want it perfect.  We want it pretty.  We want it easy.  We want it special.  We want it NOW!

We’ve become spoiled, critical, demanding, and impatient.

We’ve become consumers.

As a pastor, I see numerous ways this shift has negatively impacted the Church.

If you follow the same general timeline I shared about birthday cakes, there was once a time church consisted of the many and varied contributions of the members.  Repairs to the facilities were performed by member craftsmen.  Sanctuaries were cleaned and decorated with home-grown flowers collected and arranged, paraments sewn and embroidered, washed and starched, pews polished, holiday decorations made and displayed, all by the members.  The music was generally the best efforts of the church’s best musicians.  Some member typed the bulletin on a typewriter, usually including a few typos.  Somebody arrived early to turn on the furnace or open the windows.  An usher swept the front steps.  Somebody baked the communion bread.  Parents and grandparents took turns teaching Sunday School, leading and planning Vacation Bible School, and working in the nursery.  Members taught Sunday School classes, and took food to the sick and homebound.  Members gathered regularly for home-cooked, church-wide dinners.  “Elder” members made the decisions, prayed, and dreamed of starting new ministries and building new buildings.

EVERYONE gave what they could, as the Lord provided.  EVERYONE took turns, doing what needed to be done.  EVERYONE did their part.  And, when it was necessary, if a need or problem or deficiency became obvious, someone stepped up to do it.

Church was the gathered service, gifted-ness, creativity, and contributions of the members; sometimes as good as the delicious home-baked bread served at communion, and sometimes as terrible as grandma’s arthritic attempt to play the piano.  Every gift was given and appreciated with love, for what it was – an offering of service to the Lord.

Now, church has become a place to be served.  Though we still depend on volunteers, the message from many is, “Don’t ask or expect to much.”  The even-greater message is, “I come to church to be served.”  I want to sit where I want to sit.  I want to sing songs I know and like.  I want the volume set according to my tastes.  I want to hear messages relevant to my life, that fit neatly into what I already believe.  I want to attend when it’s convenient.  I want the temperature adjusted to my comfort.  I want to drop my children off at the nursery, or Sunday School, or VBS, or the youth group, and have others entertain them.  I want someone to make sure I am safe.  I want lots of programs offered for me and my family, so that I can pick and chose what fits into my schedule.  I want a good parking space.

Even serving often seems self-serving.

Rather than expecting church to be the place to serve and contribute, many expect church to serve them and contribute to their own needs, wants and desires.  If I don’t like something, I’ll complain, or at least grumble.  If I don’t like the current sermon series, I’ll just stay home.  If I don’t like the music, I’ll come late.  If I don’t want to give or volunteer, I’ll let others take up the slack for me.  If I’m not interested, I won’t show up.  If I hear another church has more to offer my family, without asking so much, I’ll just go there instead.

Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoy cupcakes and lattes.  I appreciate convenience.  I like to be served.  I, too, have high standards and expectations.  Even as the pastor, I want things at church to be done well.

I’m not questioning our appetite for excellence.  I’m challenging our consumeristic expectations and demands.  If you want something to be excellent, then YOU make it excellent.  And, just because the world is willing to cater to your demands for convenience and customization, don’t bring that expectation to church.

Church is a place to serve, not to be served.

Church is like a birthday cake, baked from scratch, from pure, fresh ingredients.  We are the ingredients – the flour, the sugar, the milk, the eggs – lovingly mixed together and baked by our heavenly maker.  The final product might not be everyone’s favorite flavor.  It might be a little lopsided.  The icing might be a little un-even.  “Hapy Birtday” written in frosting, might not be spelled exactly right. But all in all, the ingredients can potentially combine to create a delicious offering for the world.  An offering for the world – not us!

Church is a place to serve, not to be served.

Maybe we need to learn how to bake cakes, from scratch, again.

God is seldom in charge…

God is seldom in charge…

“I’ve got no strings
So I have fun
I’m not tied up to anyone
They’ve got strings
But you can see
There are no strings on me”

Pinocchio

Of course, God is in charge.  I know God is sovereign, in control of his creation, and his plans will ultimately prevail.

But, I also believe in free will and the freedom God gives us to make our own choices and decisions – either in alignment with his will, or not.  God is NOT a puppet master, controlling our every move.  God let’s us choose, even when our choices are catastrophic.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”

The primary question I’ve wrestled with, since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting has been, “How do I reconcile the belief that God seems to work in the lives of some (including myself), but didn’t get involved in the life of anyone who could have averted Nicholas Cruz from his murderous plans?”  Or, more personally, “How can I believe God leads me, if there’s no evidence of God leading the dozens of ‘authorities’ in Nicholas Cruz’s life, who failed to see his brokenness and intent to do harm?” 

The root of the word “question” is “quest” – “a long or arduous search for something.”  Sometimes, we’re content to just lazily pose questions, without bothering to find the answers.  Not me.  Not this time.  My questions have led me on a difficult, arduous quest for answers.  I’ve sought wise counsel from friends and mentors.  I’ve prayed.  I’ve searched Scripture.  I’ve wrestled with my own beliefs.  I’ve read.  I’ve written, you may have noticed, as a way of processing what I’m thinking and feeling.

Today, I stumbled across the best answer I’ve found thus far, in Richard Rohr’s, Job and the Mystery of Suffering“God is very seldom in charge, it seems to me.  Only in the lives of saints, only in people who know themselves and love the Lord and one another is God possibly in charge.  In the rest of us, God is in charge maybe a few moments a day.”

While I still believe God is ultimately in charge, is it possible God only controls the events of this world to the degree we align our wills to his’?  Is it possible, we can only align ourselves, collectively, with God if we are truly seeking to know his’ will, and live accordingly?  Is it possibly God only controls the events of this world to the degree we relinquish control to him?  Is it possible our individual and collective pride, self-determinism, pettiness, busy-ness, and self-interest make us deaf and blind to much of what God wants us to see, hear, and do?

Could it be the Church’s fault?  Is it possible the Church is failing to shape and form disciples who actively and intentionally “seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), through listening prayer, through self-surrender, and through sacrificial love and service?

Is it possible God was screaming in the ears of countless guardians, teachers, peers, mentors, investigators, neighbors, and law enforcement that Nickolas Cruz was a lethal bomb about to explode, but no one was listening?  Is it possible God is warning us about the next Nickolas Cruz, but no one is listening now, either?

Why did God allow this to happen?  Why did we allow this to happen!?!

“God is seldom in charge…”  How much more would God be in charge, if we actually wanted him to be?

Remember your baptism?

Remember your baptism?

Do you remember your baptism?  I do.

July 22, 1984 – around 11:00 pm.

I was at church camp, at Fall Creek Falls, Tennessee.  It was the summer between my junior and senior year of High School, and my last year as a camper.

Earlier in the evening, I accepted Jesus Christ, as my Lord and Savior, and was ready to be baptized.

After a night-time walk through the woods, the entire camp gathered by a mountain stream.  I stepped into the cold water, with a young pastor named Alex.  Alex asked me, “Do you believe Jesus Christ is the only son of God.  Do you accept him as Lord and Savior?”  As I said “Yes!,” Alex pushed me back into the water, baptizing me in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

I remember a lot of the details of that night.  The cold water.  My friends, standing by the river.  A hundred, or so, flashlights shining on the water.  More than anything, I remember thinking, “This changes everything.”  

I didn’t make the decision to be baptized lightly.  No one pressured me.  It was entirely my decision.  In fact, I had wrestled with the decision for at least a year.  I wanted to believe.  I wanted to be a Christian.  I wanted to live like a Christian.  I wanted to be baptized.  But, before I could, I had to work through my feelings and thoughts of uncertainty.  When I made the decision, I wanted to be sure.

And, I was.  I can’t say, for certain, how or why I was sure.  But, I was.

I feel fortunate to have such strong memories of my baptism.  But, when I ask, “Do you remember your baptism?” and say, “I do,” I’m not just talking about the event itself.  Whether, or not, we can recall the details of how or when we were baptized, baptism is more than a moment.

In many traditions, baptism is considered a sacrament.  The traditional definition of a sacrament, from St. Augustine, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”   The “outward and visible” sign of baptism is water, of course.  An “inward and spiritual grace,” is also at work.

Baptism is more than a religious ceremony.  Baptism is spiritual change.  Baptism is transformation.  Baptism is new life.  Baptism is an altered identity.  Baptism is a new affiliation.  Baptism is a new way of being and living.

I think of baptism this way…  When I was born, I was born into a physical body – male, caucasian, flat-footed, brown-haired and blue-eyed.  I was born into a particular family called “Rains,” with a certain history, values, rules, and expectations. I was born into particular culture – in my case, “Southern,” where I learned to say, “y’all.”  And, by birth, I became a legal citizen of the United States of America, and became subject to its particular laws and obligations.

But, when I was baptized, I was spiritually ‘born again.”  I became a member of a different family (God’s), and I became part of a different culture (the Church), and I became a citizen of a different kingdom (the Kingdom of Heaven).  And, my baptismal identity is my primary identity.  My baptismal allegiance is my primary allegiance.

Remembering your baptism isn’t about remembering the event.  Remembering your baptism is remembering who you are as a member of God’s family, as a member of the Church, and as a citizen of God’s kingdom.  Remembering your baptism is remembering you’ve been spiritually changed.  Remembering your baptism is remembering you’ve been called to be like Jesus.  Remembering your baptism ought to affect the way you treat people, the way you conduct business, the way you vote, the way you shop, the way you give, and the values you aspire to live by.  Remembering you baptism ought to affect EVERYTHING!

Pope Francis says, “We are called to live our baptism every day, as new creatures, clothed in Christ.”

Do you remember your baptism?