Archive for January, 2009

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Hearing God When Making Decisions – Part 4

January 27, 2009

Let me explain the situation. I helped to direct a church running out of money. A close friend in the church had resigned his membership and as he left  told me  I was an idiot. Two of my fellow staff members were threatening to quit. I could hardly get out of bed in the morning without shooting pain in my back and legs. A dear friend died of cancer even though we had prayed for her every day for months.

As hard as all those things were, the most life-sucking part went on inside my head. Several times a day, I replayed a mental loop composed of four parts:

1. Thinking of all the ways I had failed the previous five years.

2. Piecing together the ways my failures had affected others, like my children, wife, friends and church.

3. How much they all had a right to hate me and/or curse me.

4. Resenting them for feeling this way about me…after all, they had all failed too and I wasn’t the only one…perhaps I needed a fresh start where I could prove myself.

Thinking about a fresh start lead me to conclude that even if I launched into a new opportunity (and I received several offers during that season) I would probably screw those things up as badly as I had this one. Then the loop would start again.

If you know Prayer Counseling (Theophostic), you might recognize the roots of much lie-based thinking. I was feeling self-destructive and self-loathing. Those are always based upon some kind of lie. Not to say that making mistakes can’t launch these thoughts, but these thoughts don’t stay unless they draw upon past lies. In addition to self-destructive thoughts, I was unrealistic about the opinions of others. Unrealistic viewpoints like this are residue of childhood Universal fears, I was channeling leftover thinking that had dogged me for years. I could go on with the analysis, but suffice to say I wasn’t thinking straight.

That wasn’t the best season to make life-directing decisions.

I’m not alone fortunately (fortunate for readers of this account as well). Many Bible characters suffered through this kind of season while they were wrestling with personal decisions. John the Baptist can stand in for them all as an example. Near the end of his life, as he rotted in Herod’s personal jail, he began to bear the weight of his pain, loneliness and sense of failure. This caused him to doubt even his own prophecies. He was the one who spoke for God in telling the Jewish people that Jesus was the Messiah. But during the last days of his life, he sent a message to Jesus asking if he was indeed the Messiah or perhaps John needed to look for someone else. It was a crappy time in John’s mind.

But in this scene he shows us the way to the Light. The key here is that he didn’t give in to unbelief. He simply expressed his doubts to God. He asked questions and sought answers. He wasn’t budging from his beliefs unless God lead him on a different path.

I find that hearing God when your mind is wading through mental manure is not as hard as it sounds. Oh, it isn’t easy, but neither is it impossible. It begins by asking God questions. Have I really failed you? Is everyone against me? That one is better framed as a question. When Elijah made it a statement, God nailed him with the right answer. (Elijah, take a hint: When God asks “is that your final answer”, it is best to phone a friend. At least poll the audience).

One question I asked God during this season was whether I had created all the mess the church was facing. He assured me I had not created all of it. He also pointed out my role in the problems. That’s how I knew it was God. He rarely is as Universal and extreme as our minds would be. Also, God showed me things I could do to make amends. A few days later God also pointed out how He had started the church down the path to some healing (this later panned out as God said it would).

When listening to God during muddled mental days, ask a lot of the hardest questions. But don’t draw your own conclusions. Ask God frequently what you can begin doing. I took a lot of long walks and skipped a lot of stones on the river. I invited a lot more music and books into my mind and gave television and movies a rest for awhile.

In a month of this listening therapy, I was aware of joy returning. I could feel peace descending slowly but tangibly.

That’s when the idea of church planting began to grow. Even though it didn’t happen for three more years, the plan was already gestating. The main thing standing in the way had been my garbled thought-life. Once that mess got cleaned up, the future made more sense.

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Cultural Ineptness

January 14, 2009

Coming out of the hospital where I had a blood draw, I noticed these two guys. One had on a jacket with a full skeleton picture on the back. The other had a funky hairstyle and jeans hanging around his butt. This was 10 a.m. and they couldn’t be more than 16 years old. I watched them go down the parking row toward my car. They were looking in the back and side windows of each and every vehicle.

There is no doubt what they were doing or what they were after. They looked back at me several times but didn’t stop what they were doing. I arrived at my car and the only compensation they made to my presence  was to shift over to the next row. As I watched from inside the car, I saw one of them get into an unlocked car. Immediately his head disappeared below the level of sight. If he wasn’t jacking a car then I haven’t seen a single episode of CSI.

So let me summarize: Two young men who should have been in school, dressed like car thieves, casing a parking lot, only one of them enters an unlocked car and disappears. Do you have any clue what they’re doing? So did I.

Yet I sat there wondering what I should do. The first thought – probably my best one – was to call the police and let them know what was going down. But here is what stopped me. These two men were part of a particular racial group. I was worried that if by some chance they were not doing anything illegal, my call would give the police opportunity to harrass them.

So instead of following my first instinct, I tracked down what I thought was a security guy. It turned out he was someone who ferried patients from their car to the building. I told him what I thought was happening and he just shrugged his shoulders non-committally. I left the parking lot and wondered why I didn’t go any further with my civic duty.

My cultural sensibility trumped my real sensibility. I wonder how often that happens? I ponder if I would have appreciated this kind of hesitation by someone else if my car had been stolen? Therefore I am doing soul-searching to see how many of these artifacts of political correctness are gumming up my common sense. I imagine there are others. Details may follow.

UPDATE: My sons both told me it is more likely they were stealing car radios and technology. I guess it is too hard to jack cars any more. Still it was a moral and ethical dilemma for me.

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The State of Preaching Today

January 9, 2009

I listen to a half dozen preachers every week. I do this for the same reason football players watch game films or mothers watch what other mothers are doing with their kids: I want to improve. But I have another reason: I just really like good preaching. I thrill to listen to someone teach the Bible like a craftsman, combining the anointing of the Spirit with the skill of connecting to people.

The Internet has produced a Motherlode of preaching. Back when I was learning the skills that go with good public speaking, all the best preachers charged money for tape recordings of their sermons. Now most sermons are free for download and the ones who still charge will soon learn that no one is listening to them. As with all forms of media, the Internet has made free what used to cost a lot of money.

But when I consider what I hear in these sermons, I have to conclude I’m glad they are offering their sermons for free – because I certainly wouldn’t pay for them.

My real question is whether preaching is getting worse or if the Internet reveals the condition of preaching in our day. Either way, let me describe what I’m seeing. As I do that, it is with two understandings. First, some approaches to preaching I don’t like may be your favorites. Second, I like the way I preach and I don’t make any apologies for it. I wouldn’t preach the way I do if I didn’t completely agree with it. That said, here is what I observe.

  1. Verse-by-verse doggerel: So many preachers think good Expository preaching means to teach verse by verse through entire books, explaining the meaning of every word and essentially parroting a commentary. I defy anyone who preaches this way to find a single person in the Bible who did. Nothing is more annoying to me than someone teaching 8-10 Bible verses, explaining every greek verb, every nuance of the grammar and every single historical back story. When I prepare sermons I have to read commentaries and they are dry as dust. Why would I want to put people through all of that? Commentary preaching and Expository preaching are not the same thing. Expository preaching approaches the Bible in context, explores all the word meanings, grammar and historical background. But then, when all of that work is done, the sermon distills the results into essential truths that can be lived out in daily life. As I listen to so many verse-by-verse preachers I am hard pressed to apply any of it to my life. But perhaps my biggest beef is the false syllogism that says people can’t be trusted to do this kind of inductive bible study on their own. The best kind of preaching shows people how to study the Bible – it doesn’t do it all for them. One of America’s best-known preachers uses this technique and last week I heard him say this: “I’ll be using this approach all the way through the Bible for the next ten years, so that everyone who comes to our church can know what the Bible really says”. Perhaps he has forgotten 1 John 2:26 which warns “You have no need that any man teach you. For the anointing you have received from God will lead you into all truth.”
  2. Topic of the Day Preaching: A month ago, my Itunes downloaded over a dozen messages from preachers talking about how to survive the coming economic hard times. I can see you thinking “so what’s wrong with that?” The problem is, the time to preach this was last year – or five years ago – not now. Their advice was as helpful as CNN’s latest study or the current circular from the Brookings Institute. I swear you could give me a sampling of sermons from any given year in the past ten and I could tell you exactly what year it was by the topics covered. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be relevant. But great preaching is always ahead of the times, not keeping up with it. All sermons should be practical, but they have to have an undergirding of essential spiritual truth as well. As the old Scottish preacher, Alexander Whyte, said to his preaching students: “You have to go from Jerusalem to Edinburgh when you teach.” What he meant is we have to establish a foundational truth first before we can prescribe solutions. “Topic of the Day” preaching is more “how-to” than “why-to” and that turns me off completely.
  3. Where are the Failures?: I listen to the superstar church leaders and there is almost always something missing: They only tout their successes, not their failures. I learn better when someone talks about how they failed their wives or church and how God had to mess with them to get them back on track. Just once I want to listen to a Chief of Sinners and not the Best Selling author. I want to hear more Martin Luther, who lived transparently and told others how he struggled, and a lot less Norman Vincent Peale and his positive thinking.
  4. Reliance on gimmicks: When PowerPoint first started to be used in church services I had an uneasy feeling. (Disclaimer: I use PowerPoint when I preach). I feared that some guys would use this technology so much that it would replace their responsibility to hold people with their words. Nothing replaces good communication skills from the pulpit. You can make a sermon more interesting with Youtube, videotaped testimonies, clips of the latest movies, etc., but a steady diet of these technologies makes a preacher lazy. I have used all of these when the situation was perfect for it, but I am very wary of over-reliance. Several times last month I had to turn off a sermon because it was so full of media I couldn’t follow the point.
  5. More Prophetic, less Opinionated: No one is more opinionated than I am. At least, that’s my opinion. But when I prepare a sermon, I do one entire draft where I excise as much of my opinion as I can. And when I want to give my opinion, I label it as such. What I want more than anything is to live by Peter’s admonition: “When you speak, speak as if it were the very words of God.” Prophetic preaching sounds so different than Opinion preaching. When someone is speaking what God is saying to our generation it has a different sound and feel. It doesn’t even need to be interesting, for it grips the spirit of each listener. I haven’t been gripped very much lately.

There are some preachers still doing it well. I like listening to those who preach clearly and consistently, such as: Ravi Zacharias, Jack Hayford, Francis Frangipane, Erwin McManus, John Piper (sometimes), Dutch Sheets and Rick Joyner. Perhaps you have heard some other preachers that spoke clearly and consistently to you. I would love to hear about them.

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