Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Tonic for Tired Preachers

One of the things I remember about preaching Sunday in, Sunday out was the grind.  Not that I ever would have talked about it much, because preachers are supposed to love the fact and the act of preaching.  

And I did, . . . . whenever it felt good to me, or when people said genuinely-nice things about my preaching.  But anytime my sermons felt like big, fat zeros, or whenever it seemed like I was disconnected from everything and everyone important to me, it was natural to wonder if preaching was what I was supposed to be doing.  Most weeks, I didn’t have much opportunity to dwell on those kinds of questions; I had to start working on my next two sermons.  

(I know, I know, dubious assumptions, failure to acknowledge the biblical preachers who had it much rougher, etc., etc.  But it still happens.  Just ask your preacher in private).

I think it was my teacher Phil Slate who told me that the great Batsell Barrett Baxter used to say, “The tyranny of preaching is that Sunday comes every seven days.”  I always took some comfort in knowing I wasn’t the only one.

Now, if you’re a preacher and any of this is sounding familiar to you, I have a book recommendation.  And, no, this isn’t one of those books that you’re supposed to read because you’re supposed to have read it, and you won’t be considered a real preacher by the hot shots until you do.  Instead, this is one of those books that will send you right back into the Word and will change the perspective from which you see it.  J. I. Packer called it “A powerful tonic for tired preachers—a book that digs deep into the theology, strategy, and spirituality of pulpit preaching.”  Years ago, I discovered it to be all that and more.  

The book is The Supremacy of God in Preaching, by John Piper.   It’s out in a revised edition now.  Mine’s a copy of the original which, after I had first discovered it--I don’t remember how or when--I would pull it off the shelf about twice each year.  It never failed to lift my eyes so that I could see again the center of the universe and source of my help.  A few snippets:

On the job of the preacher:

“It is not the job of the Christian preacher to give people moral or psychological pep talks about how to get along in the world; someone else can do that.  But most of our people have no one in the world to tell them, week in and week out, about the supreme beauty and majesty of God” (p. 12).

On the goal of preaching:

“The wonder of the gospel and the most freeing discovery this sinner has ever made is that God’s deepest commitment to be glorified and my deepest longing to be satisfied are not in conflict but in fact find simultaneous consummation in his display of and my delight in the glory of God.  Therefore the goal of preaching is the glory of God reflected in the glad submission of the human heart.  And the supremacy of God in preaching is secured by this fact:  The one who satisfies gets the glory; the one who gives the pleasure is the treasure” (p. 26).

On sappy sermons :

“He [Charles Spurgeon] said to his students: ‘We must conquer—some of us especially—our tendency to levity.  A great distinction exists between holy cheerfulness, which is a virtue, and that general levity, which is a vice.  There is a levity that has not enough heart to laugh, but trifles in everything; it is flippant, hollow, unreal.  A hearty laugh is no more levity than a hearty cry’.”  (p. 58).

So preachers, once you know what you’re going to preach next Sunday, and have spent some time with the text, I think you’d be wise to spend, say, a Thursday afternoon with Piper’s book.  Trust me on this one.

Oh, if you want to get a free sample of where Piper’s coming from and what the book is like, read his sermon by the same title here.  Good stuff!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Scary Movies

When I went home for lunch today, I saw this re-run on “Bravo” about the “100 Scariest Moments in Movie History” or some such.  

Now, I’m not one (usually) to incite fear or suggest that people watch something or go somewhere that’s going to really scare them.  However, . . . .  the show started me thinking about movies I’ve seen through the years that really “got” me.  Off the cuff, and in no particular order, here are ten from the thriller-horror genre that made an impression on me and that I’ve watched, most of them, more than one time.

1.  Jacob’s Ladder (ripped off from “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”?)

2.  Don’t Look Now

3.  The Silence of the Lambs

4.  Halloween

5.  The Hitcher

6.  The Dead Zone

7.  Phantasm

8.  The Sixth Sense

9.  The Exorcist

10.  The Shining (i.e., 1980, Stanley Kubrick’s)

Seen ‘em?  Commentary?  Additions?  Subtractions?  For Christians, what is the upshot of horror films, assuming there is one or more?  How do you interpret human fascination with thoughts and images that cause us to lose sleep, bladder control, etc.?  Are you a fan of the genre?  Or do you advocate distance?  Why?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

2 Thessalonians 2

This morning’s New Testament class is set to do a survey of 1 and 2 Thessalonians.  Of course, in a very short time, we can re-read Acts 17:1-10 and also read both of the letters.

When I did this with the Life of Paul class a few weeks ago, we had a good give-and-take on 2 Thessalonians 2, especially verses 6-9.  Of course, I can go and read what Abe Malherbe has to say about this.  I’ve already gotten F. F. Bruce’s take.

What say you?  What’s going on in this passage?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

This-n-That

Interesting, isn’t it? For fundraising events, folks like Regis Philbin and Walter Cronkite are invited to speak at Freed-Hardeman University.

But when Lubbock Christian University hosts the World Mission Workshop? Freed-Hardeman withholds its support because a member of the Independent Christian Church is one of the keynote speakers.

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For those interested in learning a lot more about faith, ethics, and the environment, “the first comprehensive account of religious environmentalism,” can be found in a June 2006 release from Oxford Press, A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future. I’ve yet to read it. But it looks interesting.

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When it comes to classes, sermons, lectures, etc. there are times when, in spite of any real preparation, something just clicks and the whole thing goes very well. There are other times when, in spite of having worked and prayed and fretted and worked, the presentation turns out to be a big fat zero.

Having experienced the former, some people conclude, “I guess this means I’ve gotten to that point where I don’t have to work so hard anymore.” This is always followed by a major meltdown, pride going before a fall and all that sort of thing.

After an experience with the latter, some people conclude, “Why try?” This is also followed by a catastrophe, because no work and all play makes Jack a clueless boy.

So, preachers and teachers and other sorts of presenters, I advocate preparing as well as you can every time. That way, you can shrug off the strike outs and take satisfaction in the homeruns, not to mention that your long-term batting average will be higher.

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Yes, that last metaphor was a set up: GO CARDS!!!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Statement from Freed-Hardeman

A news article from the on-line edition of the Christian Chronicle got my attention. The title? “Unity discussion takes center stage at Freed-Hardeman.”

Earlier, I had seen ads for this event. But the article was the first report I’d come across about the “Contemporary Discussion” that took place at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee, back on October 14th.

The article notes that the organizers and participants of the “Discussion” were focused not only on what unites the Independent Christian Churches and the Churches of Christ, but on what still divides them, namely, the Independents’ continued use of musical instruments in worship, contrasted with the a cappella practice of the Churches of Christ.

I was struck by one of the leading quotes in the article. Representing Freed-Hardeman, moderator Earl Edwards reportedly said, “Now, some have seemed to think, and sincerely so, that it takes nothing but exchanging Bibles and embracing one another [to create unity].”

This is simply wrong. The fact is, many genuine, spiritual leaders among the Churches of Christ and the Independent Christian Churches today do not think that exchanging Bibles and embracing one another is what establishes unity between the two groups.

Instead, what they believe--if I may say so--is that Jesus Christ, into whom we were all baptized by one Spirit, united us by his blood and his new life; and, furthermore, it is foreign to the Spirit of Jesus to tolerate a wall in the territory that belongs to Christ.

Speaking first as a Christian, but second as one who was schooled at Freed-Hardeman, those are my own convictions. Thoughts?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Love Thy Neighbor, Conservatively

From a sermon by Myron S. Augsburger, “Love Thy Neighbor.”

“In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth” (Isaiah 42:3-4).

As Jesus’ disciples, his ministers of reconciliation, we are involved in a mission of justice to provide equal opportunity to all, opportunity to come into God’s family. We should love our local and global neighborhood enough to promote the kingdom of God and its values worldwide! We do this through the many Christian disciples who carry this expression of love and justice outside the four walls of our churches, into the orders of the common life. George MacLeod expresses this most effectively:

“I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap, at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write his name in Hebrew, and in Latin, and in Greek, at the kind of place where cynics talk smut and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died. And that is what he died about. And this is where [the church] should be and what [the church] should be about.”

Many evangelical Christians are very reluctant to accept the fact that poverty for the millions is directly linked to injustice, to power struggles that increase the gap between the haves and the nave-nots.

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Too, it seems clear enough that increasingly one facet of the distance between the haves and have-nots of the world is “environmental,” related to the use and stewardship of natural resources which must be managed wisely.

I wonder: What would it look like if, more and more, Christians, as an act of faith, were conservationists? What would we say to our children? What would we hear in church?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Best Preaching on Earth

I plan to highlight and ask for your reactions to/readings of a few more texts. But till then, I’m passing along my review of a book that has come to mean a lot to me. What follows is the piece as it appeared in the May 1997 issue of the Christian Chronicle.

Stan L. LeQuire, editor. The Best Preaching on Earth: Sermons on Caring for Creation. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1996.

According to Psalm 19, the wonders of creation give testimony to the glory of God. But what if we ravage and ruin such wonders? Polluted rivers. Strip-mined mountains. What kind of witness can these provide?

Galatians 5:14 says that the entire law is summed up in the single command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But what if my way of living damages and depletes my neighbor’s world? Can I honestly say that I’m loving him as myself?

Recently, a growing number of people who take the Bible seriously have been making such points in order to show that the environment is no mere social or political issue, but that it is first and foremost a biblical and theological issue. Out of this conviction comes a new book of 22 sermons under the clever title The Best Preaching on Earth. The editor, Stan LeQuire, is director of the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) based in Wynnewood, Pa.

The collection is divided into six parts, each dealing with a different element of the book’s basic theme. The sermons in Part One, for example, respond to the question, “Is caring for creation really a biblical agenda?” Part Two contains three sermons that answer a common objection: “Isn’t our primary calling to the fulfill the Great Commission?” At the end, Part Six reveals how some preachers have challenged their congregations to get involved.

The book closes with two appendices. The first provides additional sermon ideas; the second tells about the EEN, its mission and services.

Like any other collection from a variety of sources, this book has it highs and lows. A few of the sermons are severely weakened, if not fatally flawed, by skewed interpretation of the Bible. Some of the preaching seems to ask for little more than a flutter of the heart. By way of contrast, the sermon by John Stott, “The Works of the Lord,” presents a rich, biblical theology of the environment; and Ron Sider’s “Tending the Garden without Worshiping It,” both instructs and inspires us to respect and care for our world.

Concern for the environment is with us to stay. The church can be thankful for this condition. Because this is our Father’s world, environmental issues provide Christians with a broader platform on which to speak of the Creator and his creation, and to teach that caring for the earth is part of fulfilling the two greatest commands. The Best Preaching on Earth gives several good examples of how to go about doing just that.

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The Amazon page for this book is here.

Monday, October 16, 2006

So Very Good

“God saw that the light was good” (Genesis 1:4).  

As children many of us learned that from this point forward God frequently reflects on what he has created and declares it “good” (Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25), and at the end “very good” (v. 31).  

To you, what part of creation is so beautiful, so exquisite, so delicious, so magnificent, etc. . . . .  that it unmistakably tells you about the goodness of God?

By the way, if you haven’t read Genesis 1:1-2:3 in a while, read it again.  Slowly, drink it in.

Friday, October 13, 2006

On Preaching the God of Creation

Several years ago, while still one of those Sunday in, Sunday out preachers, I decided that each year I would completely dedicate at least one of my morning sermons to the biblical doctrine of Creation.

This was a bit of a surprise to me. For one thing, I’m not the outdoorsy type. I think that’s mainly because I’m way too wimpy, and never saw the connection between sleeping on the ground and fun.

Then there’s the fact that I grew up in Southwest Oklahoma. And with all of its wind and drought and hail, that place had never taught me much about growing things. My dad, who spent his wonder years on his grandparents’ farm in Iowa, had a hard time adapting to that part of our lives in Altus, a place that I love by the way.

So how had I come to my decision? I think it was mainly from my growing :-) appreciation that, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” And then, he shaped them and filled them with all sorts of delightful creatures and beautiful plants . . . I woke up to that. Of course, it probably helped that at the time I was living in Connecticut. What a beautiful place.

However it happened, something just clicked and all of a sudden, I “got” songs like Psalm 104 and “This is My Father’s World” and “Day is Dying in the West.” Ever since, one of my favorite things to pray has been the second verse from "Father of Mercies":

Father of mercies, God of love,
Whose gentle gifts all creatures share,
The rolling seasons as they move
Proclaim to all Thy constant care,
Proclaim to all Thy constant care.

At the time I had my "conversion" I was also studying passages like Romans 8:18-25, where Paul goes out of his way to insist that the scope of God’s redemptive plan is cosmic, that all dogs do go to heaven as it were.

Then, and on top of all that, I was getting tired of my congregation hearing about our Father’s world from no one besides Rush Limbaugh and his rants on environmental issues. How much of that could they take and still think Christianly about flowers and grass and trees?

So I decided to do what I could; to say out loud what I had heard in a whisper.

Next time or two, I’ll talk about some passages and maybe mention a book that helped me along the way. But before then, I want to take a long walk.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

From the "Life of Paul" Class

Among the many Roman gods and goddesses was Diana. The twin sister of Apollo, Diana was thought to care for the countryside and for wild animals. She also presided over childbirth.

Among the Greeks, Diana took on some of the characteristics of the goddess Cybele. She also went by a different name, Artemis.

In New Testament times, Artemis was worshipped in places like Ephesus where the massive temple dedicated to her was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

According to Acts 19, when Christianity began to grow and radiate from Ephesus, the silversmiths and artisans of the city were disturbed. According to their spokesman, Demetrius, their concerns were based on two facts.

First, their income depended on the ability to sell statues devoted to the worship of Artemis. Second, there in Ephesus the Apostle Paul was convincing people that "man-made gods are no gods at all" (Acts 19:26). Christianity was eliminating jobs!

No doubt, the take-home trinkets sold by the artisans looked much like the large-scale statue of Artemis shown here. This example is housed in the Ephesus Museum in modern-day Turkey.

Of course, everyone wants to know: Are those eggs or breasts? I don't think anyone knows for certain. Most often, they're called breasts. However, if so, they are . . . how to say . . . anatomically incorrect.

Either way, they're even more provocative than tatoos and piercings, which makes you wonder if there's something written across the back side of her shorts: "Artemis Rules!"

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Website for American Studies

American History buffs, check it out. 9 million individual items arranged in more than 100 collections. The materials come from the Library of Congress and other institutions, and include writings, sound recordings, prints, even sheet music that document the American experience.

Major headings for the collections include, African American History, Maps, Native American History, Presidents, Religion, and Women’s History.

I haven’t had a chance to do much exploring yet, but this looks to be terrific: www.memory.loc.gov

Monday, October 09, 2006

U.S. Population Growth

It will likely happen sometime later this month. The population clock at the website for the U.S. Census Bureau will pass 300,000,000. For the numerically-challenged, that’s 300 million. . . . people.

To get a feel for the recent population growth in the United States, consider: In 1967, that figure was 200 million. In less than 40 years, the number of people in this country has increased by 100 million, the fastest rate of growth among the world’s “developed” countries.

For mission-minded Christians in the United States, at least two facts associated with these numbers are significant.

First, about 40% of the current increase is due to immigration. And, no, they’re not all from Mexico. The world is arriving on American shores, in U.S. airports--and, yes, from across this country's borders--every day. Living anywhere around a major population center in the United States provides plenty of anecdotal evidence.

Second, of course, births account for the rest of the increase. And of those, nearly half are Hispanic. Nearly half, with Spanish as a first language.

The world is changing. And if, in the style of “the ugly American,” the world to us is U.S., even (or especially) that world is changing.

Dear God, as servants of Christ, as those entrusted with divine mystery now revealed, please help your church to be faithful and full of courage. In Jesus' name, amen.

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U.S and World population clocks are located in the upper right part of the homepage for the United States Census Bureau, here.

Information Source: Kenneth J. Cooper, "300 Million and Counting," AARP Bulletin (October 2006) pp. 3-4.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Stone-Campbell Encyclopedia, 2

Picking up my copy of The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement for the first time in months, I remembered how I had first searched in vain for two entries that must have been there, but aren’t:

1. There’s no article on The Spiritual Sword. This is one of those glaring omissions, especially in a reference work that includes entries for journals like “Integrity” and “Mission.” Putting aside one’s religious persuasions and sensibilities, objective assessment would conclude that “The Spiritual Sword” has carried as great or greater an influence--albeit in the opposite direction--than the other two journals. Not to mention that of the three, the Sword is the only one still being published. (“Mission” last appeared in 1987. “Integrity” was last published in 2002).

2. Nor is there an article for Thomas B. Warren (1920-2000). I never met “Brother Warren,” as he’s often been called. But I’ve heard a lot about him.

At different times in his career as an educator, Warren taught at Abilene Christian College, served as the chairman of the Bible Department at Freed-Hardeman College, and was a professor at Harding Graduate School of Religion, where he exerted a tremendous influence on the best and brightest Church of Christ preachers of the post-war generation. Among them was, for example, a young man named Rubel Shelley.

From 1969-1989, Warren was the editor of “The Spiritual Sword.” He was also a staff writer for “Gospel Advocate” magazine. He also wrote and edited a number of books that were widely circulated among people in the Church of Christ.

Warren was also a significant religious debater of the mid-20th century. Most notably, he debated the question of the existence of God against the well-known British philosopher and atheist Antony G. N. Flew.

I still think The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement is a fine reference work. I just think it would be even better if it included entries under the two omissions I’ve named here.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Stone-Campbell Encyclopedia

The latest issue of Restoration Quarterly (Volume 48, number 3) includes a review of the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, edited by Douglas A. Foster, Paul M. Blowers, Anthony L. Dunnavant, and D. Newell Williams, and published by Eerdmans in 2004.

One of the things that makes this review interesting to me is that it’s written by a non-Campbellite historian, James D. Bratt, who teaches at Calvin College. It’s not that often that you get to hear how others see you and your family. Not only that, the review is wise and well-written, a fair and candid assessment of what used to be called the American Restoration Movement, and this new encyclopedia about it. For a taste, here’s the opening paragraph:

“This is a monument to a movement. As a monument, it tells of persons great and small, the beliefs that animated them, the organizations they formed, the works they accomplished. It is also a monument in the other sense of the term, orienting the traveler to a landscape that, beneath its surface simplicity, hides no end of twisting paths. The movement it memorializes aimed to be the final and definitive reformation of the Christian church, clearing out the thick underbrush of creeds that had accumulated over eighteen hundred years of history with the blade of the Bible plainly read and rationally understood under the fair sun of American liberty. That, the movement’s prophets hoped, would open the door to the one house of Christian unity.”

Nice, huh? Anyway, reading the review sent me back to my copy of the Encyclopedia. I had spent a lot of time looking through it when it first arrived last year. But since then, I’ve busied myself with a million other things and had almost forgotten it.

Thumbing through it again made me want to read it from beginning to end. (Yeah, I guess Michele is right. I really am one of those geeky people who would enjoy reading an encyclopedia). But this one really is a fine piece of work and belongs in the library of any student of American religious history. Which is not to say that it’s perfect. In fact, there are a couple of omissions that I want to mention next time.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Just in Time for Halloween

And now for something entirely different:

To my knowledge, Jesus has yet to endorse “Frankly Speaking.”  And no, I’m not holding my breath.  

However, He does do advertising for a church website called Cross Rev Connect.  When Jesus gets through with his announcement, move your cursor around the frame and notice how his eyes follow it.  It’s like the incarnate Lord is one of the Brady kids lookin’ over at Alice.  This should get a few votes in the Creepy Website contest, which I just started.  Other nominations?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Learning How to Teach

This morning, the New Testament Survey class is getting better acquainted with the life and letters of Paul.  For their exercise in contextual thinking, the students are being asked to pair off and to read Romans 14:1-6 and Galatians 4:8-11.   The questions are: 

1.  Does a first-time (or “surface”) reading of these two passages suggest that Paul has a consistent view on whether it’s alright for Christians to observe special days? 

2.  Is it possible that, between the writing of Galatians and Romans, Paul has not changed his mind, and that his viewpoint on this topic is consistent? 

3.  If your answer to question 2 is “No,” then explain why the two passages cannot be reconciled.  And if your answer to question 2 is “Yes,” explain how these two apparently-inconsistent passages can be reconciled.

I’m passing this along as an example of how one teacher raises the issue of contextual interpretation.  It’s just one part of my attempt to develop and identify good models and strategies for changing the dynamics of class time from “my answers” to “their questions.”

It seems that the old and usually-inefficient model of “the sage on the stage” is dying.  (I say “usually-inefficient” because I’ve known a few fabulous lecturers).  The model that seems to work better for most teachers and which students increasingly expect and prefer is “the knowledgeable tour guide.”

Thoughts?  Suggestions?  Ideas?