Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Don’t Read Your Bible!

Most Christians have been taught to culture a daily devotional time consisting of Bible reading and personal prayer. In order for them to accomplish this task more effectively, they should have a Bible-reading plan and a prayer list. Or something like that. Right? 

“What’s wrong with that?” you might ask. And, for the record, my short answer would be, “Nothing.”
 
But.

But it is relatively easy and subtly dangerous to systematize one’s approach to fellowshipping with the Lord. Indeed, if we are not careful, He will become little more than the aggregate of line items we check off before we embark upon our real life day.

Would it surprise you if I told you that the Bible contains no direct command for a person to read it? Pretty shocking, huh? What are we to make of that? Does that mean we can lay the Bible aside and pick up the remote control? Is the Bible less important than we’ve claimed it to be? Should we read it?  

Of course.

The point is that reading the Bible is assumed within the context of the much more important ways by which we should be related to it. Get the idea? Essentially we disesteem the Bible when we merely read it.

Its truth must be digested in thoughtful meditation. Its validity must be demonstrated through faithful obedience. Its message must be propagated through ongoing communication. Its transforming power must be experienced by a humble submission to it.

Unwisely we often make the Bible an end in itself. It is not an end. It is the revelation of our wonderful God! It is a supernatural resource by which we may know Jesus Christ and partake of His divine nature.

Don’t be guilty of simply reading the Bible. Mine its pages to discover the treasures of God’s character. Search its contents for the mind-transforming truths it contains. Study its words. Insert yourself into its narrative. Dig. Memorize. Apply. Consider.

Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly!


So go ahead and read a novel. Read the newspaper. Read another blog or two. But when it comes to the Word of God, don’t just read it. Discover truth. Experience God!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Quit Preaching! (Part 2)

I hope that you’ve already read the first part of this series in which we answered the question, “Who am I preaching for?” Of the three questions we will have answered, the first is by far the most important. It deals with motive. In some ways, so does the second question. But what I have found is that sometimes preachers with the very best of intentions end up striking out when they step up to communication’s plate. They need to answer carefully this question:

Who am I preaching to?

Have you noticed that most restaurants are noisy? You tend to notice it most when you first walk in. But then something subtly happens. After you’ve been seated and begin your conversation, all of the other noise begins to wash away. White noise. Blah, blah, blah. Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Sometimes preaching is white noise.

And it’s not necessarily that the sermon or the lesson is particularly bad, it’s a disconnect between speaker and listener. The onus of communication is upon the speaker. If people are not listening—or listening without understanding—the speaker must figure out why and make the necessary adjustments.

So why aren’t they listening?

Because you’re not speaking to them on their spiritual level.

Sometimes preachers view sermons like little works of art to be admired. “Look at what I know,” they seem to imply. “Be impressed with my eloquence,” becomes the dominant subtheme. Don’t misread me, I certainly think that a preacher ought to possess an intellectual handle on what he says and should communicate the message with verbal precision—I’m merely suggesting that these become superfluous without an understanding on the part of the hearers. Simply put, “If Johnny hasn’t learned, teacher hasn’t taught.”

Paul refused to speak to the Corinthians on a level they could not understand. To be sure, he wanted to speak to them as spiritual, he simply couldn’t. They weren’t. They were carnal. And the writer of Hebrews would have loved to set the sermonic table with the meat of the word. He couldn’t either. They could only handle milk.      

Because you’re not speaking to them, you’re speaking at them.

When you read through the Gospels, pay attention to how Jesus connected with audience members. You’ll find that He met them right where they were, spoke to them on their spiritual level, illustrated His points using universally understood object lessons, and asked a lot of questions. His aim was their understanding. And although many stubbornly refused to hear, His questions pierced their consciences and His words made weighty impressions.

When teaching the Bible, interpretations do not change. By applying sound hermeneutic principles, the preacher of God’s Word should strive to ascertain the main idea of the given passage. Then he should endeavor to explain that idea using—if applicable—the same rationale as the biblical author. I hope we all agree on this.

But arriving at a sound understanding of the text is not the same as conveying that understanding to others. It’s really not. In order to promote understanding, he should apply the simple “E-I-A” principle to his presentation. Explain the text using audience-appropriate terminology. Illustrate the points using material that is interesting to the average audience member to whom you are speaking. Apply the teaching by thinking through the particular struggles/opportunities that your listening audience might confront. Think before you speak. Think of them. Ask God to help you. He will.    

Because you’re not sufficiently connected to them.

People want information, and they want it wrapped in love. Speak the truth that way. Jesus spoke to His disciples as friends. Their spiritual growth was His design. Everything He said and did promoted it.

By his own admission, Paul wasn’t the greatest orator. But nobody loved people more than he did. Self-deprivation, prayer, tears, and many long hours of co-laboring were the companions of his messages. Preachers are a dime a dozen. Preachers that labor in love for those to whom they preach are priceless.   


**Part 2 of 3**

Monday, March 17, 2014

Quit Preaching! (Until You Answer These Questions)

Too often the pulpit is a place where someone gets something off his chest or makes a tawdry effort for crowd adulation. Half-baked ideas, pet peeves, cute philosophies, or political diatribe might find an occasional place at the dinner table, but never belong behind the pulpit. Proclaiming truth is a sacred trust and must be exercised with extreme caution. 

Ask yourself these three questions:  Who am I preaching for? Who am I preaching to? Who am I preaching with? (And if you’re a Grammar Nazi, you can reposition those prepositions accordingly.)

Believe it or not, your answer to these three questions will determine much about what you say and how you say it.

Who are you preaching for?

Preach for an audience of one. We do what we do for the Lord. All of us. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Regardless of your life’s vocation, each of us ultimately serves the Lord. Such a thought ennobles literally all that we do!

Here’s the rub. We all know this, but somehow practically forget it. Without this revitalizing perspective, drudgery often sets in. Or mediocrity. Or, even worse, success.  Let me explain.

Faulty is any definition of success that excludes a fastidious obedience to God and a passionate desire for His glory. How quickly our lives can become an embodiment of this faulty definition!

Especially us preachers.  

Vocational ministry is at once a wonderful opportunity for service to God and a dangerous temptation for pride in that service. Like most people, we preachers want to be liked. Who doesn’t? And sometimes that desire can trump our willingness to preach unpalatable subjects. Instead of preaching for an audience of one (God), we preach for a chorus of “Amen’s” or for comments like, “Great message!”


Preaching for an audience of one provides the accountability for what I say and why I say it. In other words, my message better be His and my motive better be right! Preaching for an audience of one incentivizes me to preach with both courage and conviction. 

Perhaps most importantly, preaching for an audience of one reminds me of my simplicity of purpose—to please Him.  



**Part One of Three**

Thursday, March 6, 2014

3 Questions That Will (Almost) Eliminate Gossip

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  Perhaps you were taught this as a child. It’s a catchy little memorable line, isn’t it? Problem is, it’s not true! As a matter of fact, words have the potential to inflict major damage, and they often do.

Solomon said that a gossip’s words can wound us in deep ways, and James reminds us that the tongue is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. At times, we’ve all felt those wounds and dealt with the toxicity of those poisonous words. Although the gossip's word can be regretted, it cannot be reclaimed.

Gossip is a dangerously serious matter indeed.  

If we will culture the habit of asking three simple questions, we can make major headway in the elimination of this dangerous vice. Each question is important, and each question should be directed toward a different person. A certain measure of courage is necessary to ask them, especially the last one. Here they are:

Ask yourself this: “Who are the gossips in my life?”

You will immediately envision the answer. There are certain people in your life who tend to feed you the dirt on other people. They are all too ready to relay to you some new juicy tidbit. It seems that every conversation with these people devolves into verbal assassination of somebody’s character.

In an odd way, gossip gives these people an inflated sense of themselves, as if the denigration of another somehow elevates them. By airing someone else’s dirty laundry, they derive some kind of a cruel emotional pleasure. And the thing is, you know the people in your life that do this.

Avoid them. It will be difficult to do because they are typically manipulators. But avoid them anyway. You of course will become fodder for their future conversations with others. But avoid them still. Chalk it up to experience. Never forget, “People who will talk to you about others will talk about you to others.”   Let that one sink in.

Ask the gossip: “Why are you telling me this?”

You will eliminate much gossip in your life simply by avoiding the two or three people that feed it to you. But what does one do when he finds himself in the unpalatable position of having just heard it? Sometimes people unload the information before you have a chance to stop them. What then?

Ask her, “Why are you telling me this?” This question is sure to stop her right in her verbal tracks. After all, she can’t answer honestly! That would make her look bad, and the impairment of image is a horrible no-no for the gossip. I guess she could quickly feign concern and label it as a “prayer concern,” but the awkward pause will have already served rebuke’s purpose.

The “why” question is a masterfully rhetorical way to say, “You’re gossiping and I don’t appreciate it.”

Ask a true friend: “Do I have a tendency to gossip?”

If we honestly desire the elimination of gossip, we must look inward as well. Sometimes I am the gossip. How easily I share negative information. How quickly I publish my findings, sometimes without even a moment’s thought about fact checking.


Let’s face it, a good deal of gossip would be eliminated if each of us were to redouble his efforts to “be slow to speak and slow to wrath.” And while listening to gossip might not be the exact same as saying it, there is not much difference between planting the seed and watering it. By listening, I water the wild seeds of gossip.

Go ahead, ask the questions. You'll sleep better.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Advice to All My Future Teachers

I’m not quite sure how many classes I’ve taken, church services I’ve attended, or seminar lectures I’ve heard… too many to count, I’m afraid. Like you, I’ve sat in some great classes and heard some tremendous sermons. Sadly, the opposite is equally true. To be fair though, I don’t think I’ve ever actually told my teachers what I expect of them. So here it is. To all of my future teachers and preachers, I offer these three simple thoughts: 

Truth

Sometime soon I will be sitting in your classroom, attending your seminar, or visiting your church. Let me tell you right now what I’d like to hear. The truth. If you can add some personality spice to help me stay awake, that’s good too—but not necessary. Truth is necessary.

I know that you believe what you’re saying. That’s not enough for me though. I want you to give me good reasons why I should believe it. And you might be an eloquent teacher or preacher, but that’s not enough for me either. Saying it “good” doesn’t automatically make what you say good.

Teach me. Give me reasons. Cite your sources. If it’s a Bible lesson, carefully provide the context please. If it’s your opinion, that’s okay. Just tell me that it is, and I’ll still consider what you say. But keep in mind that what I really want is the truth, so keep the opinions to a minimum. 


Tone

Don’t speak down to me. Condescending speech is very difficult to hear, even if what you’re saying is true. Your job is not to change me. You couldn’t if you wanted to. Only God can truly change people, and He uses the truth to do so. Indeed, the truth can make us free.

Speak to me humbly. That doesn’t mean you can’t be dynamic or humorous, it just means that you shouldn’t act as if you invented the truth or that everyone in the world is stupid who doesn’t believe it at the exact moment you tell them to.

As a general rule, yelling at me will not accomplish much. I get the whole “volume for emphasis thing,” but shouting at me as if I’m in the first week of Marine boot camp is not going to work. Not with me. Not with most people.

Do you care about me? Or am I merely a nondescript tuition payer, offering giver, or seminar attender? Trite though it may be, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”    

Testimony

Important truths that are not practiced by the teacher end up coming across as unimportant ideas being peddled by the teacher. Everything you say will be assessed by the life you live. The importance of the truth you preach lies not in the volume of your words, but in the validity of your actions.

Every teacher’s life places a punctuation mark at the end of his words. Sadly, too many teachers place question marks at the end of beautifully worded lectures. Why? Because their lives don’t lend credibility to the words they have so carefully enunciated. Let your life be an exclamation mark. That’s the kind of volume I hear best.

Remember, I'm not only listening to what you say and how you say it, I'm watching too. 

Always watching.