Monday, January 28, 2008

Some Mean Preaching

With all our talk in Reformed circles about the importance of preaching, might not experience call that into question? Might not some disagree simply by observation?

Please understand. If you told me Reformed churches are concerned about the importance of teaching and I had to measure that by what takes place on Sunday morning, I would believe you. But preaching? It's not that we don't exegete the passages. We do. It's not that we don't have all our Westminster t's crossed and i's dotted. They are. It's not that the sermons are too short. They're not! So what's wrong?

Martin Lloyd-Jones in his book Preaching & Preachers reminds us that a sermon is not:

  • an essay (written to be read rather than proclaimed),
  • nor a lecture (a talk on a topic rather than a message from a text),
  • nor a commentary (a running explanation of each verse rather than a "burden of the Lord" on the heart of the preacher).
Yet experience shows that we Reformed pastors often can use the Scripture more like an encyclopedia than a sword; our podiums can seem more like lecterns than pulpits many times. Why do we Reformed preachers have this tendency to go for the head but not the heart? Looking at my own struggles in this area over the years, though many reasons exist, it fundamentally boils down to one issue. Fear. We are scared.

Scared of what? All sorts of thing. We are scared that begging people to be reconciled to God sounds Arminian. We are scared that emotion violates decency and order. We fear certain truths might offend some of our respectable members. And perhaps most of all we are scared of love, of open and passionate expressions of love for Christ and His people. Yet is that not to be the goal of all our instruction, especially preaching (I Timothy 1:5)?

Say what you will about the video below, call me what you will for highlighting it, but a little more of the type of love exemplified in it, seasoning sermons from Reformed pulpits, would go a long way in capturing hearts in this sleepy generation.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Fountain of Youth

"A willing people in Thy day of power shall come to Thee,
Thy youth arrayed in holiness like morning dew shall be."
Psalm 110, from The Book of Psalms for Singing

Over 150 students from at least twenty colleges and young professionals packed themselves into the facilities of the Sangralea Valley Camp January 18-21st for the annual Covenanter Young Adults (CYA) Winter Conference directed by pastors Dave Long and Jared Olivetti. Though the outside temperatures were near-zero with biting, frigid winds, indoors the warmth of God's Spirit overcame it all.

We enjoyed rich teachings from Pastor David Hanson as he spoke four times from the book of Job on the theme Triumph through Tragedy. His insights brought clarity to the structure of the book and discourses between Job and his friends, drew out helpful distinctions in the subtle yet profound nature of Job's complaints, and left us with the proper sense of awe over the Lord's absolute yet caring rule over His people as He responded to Job. David did a tremendous "job on Job."

Many other highlights could be noted. Touching testimonies of suffering and loss in our main meetings were given that made the subject more real (and tears flow). Workshops on a variety of topics from spiritual gifts to "Weird Worship?" touched on topics of interest to the young people. Feeding so many was handled superbly by Michelle Baumgardner, Heidi Larson & Co. at the camp, and at Sycamore RPC following worship by the ladies of our congregation. A "Stump the Pastors" session Sunday afternoon, where six pastors fielded questions from the conferees ranging from topics as diverse as birth control to video games, brought forth some solid answers, honest admissions, and good laughs.

Yet I want to point out the highlight for me (and I am sure the other pastors). It was the heart of the youth. An earnestness and passion for God and His truth were clearly evident.
  • They sang and sang throughout the weekend, not just when they were "supposed" to sing but asking to sing more psalms after we were done and spontaneously starting to sing on their own if a session started late. They expressed again and again their love for God's word sung.
  • When asked in our congregation's "Family Worship" following the Fellowship Lunch time to describe what the Lord is doing in the church in their region, one young person after another eagerly stood up to explain Christ's work. From old works to new, from local congregations to foreign missions, these young people know what is going on in the church and have a heart to see it strengthened and multiplying.
  • One fervent prayer followed on the heels of another during a time of prayer Sunday evening as they sought God's blessing on the church. Presiding over the meeting, I almost felt I had to break in to end it so we could proceed. Maybe I should not have!
  • During a time of sharing, there was nothing forced but insightful, excited expressions of lessons and new life the Lord had given to them.
  • In informal times, they enjoyed one another while exhibiting godliness, sought counsel and asked questions pertaining to godliness, and served one another in godliness. That can mean only one thing. God was there!
Yes, as Psalm 110 indicates above a fountain of youth has been discovered. It is in the church, where the living waters of Christ's Spirit are poured out on young people who serve Him gladly and willingly. How thankful I am that I was able to drink from it this weekend.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Cell Phone Etiquette 101

My father-in-law Ron likes to call himself Jethro on occasion. This is done in honor of Moses' father-in-law who (Ron is always glad to remind me) gave wise counsel to his needy son-in-law. As such, he delights in correcting me on matters of etiquette and grammar. If my elbows are on the table at mealtime or I say "The time went quick" instead of "quickly," I'm sure to hear about it. Though it has always been done in good humor, as a young man I have to admit it rather annoyed me. Yet these days I get a kick out of it and am even thankful for it, as I also have to admit that I now speak more deliberate. Or is that "deliberately?"

Anyway, call me Jethro if you must, but many of you need to learn some etiquette yourself when it comes to the cell phone, and I am here to offer it. For UCPS (Ubiquitous Cell Phone Syndrome) has changed our culture drastically. Everywhere you go people are interrupting conversations to yak to someone else on their cell phone, running into things as they try to walk and text (or worse yet driving into things!), or giving the appearance they belong in an insane asylum as they talk to an ear bud that only half the people observing them can see. So here's my small effort to correct the problem. In all seriousness I offer the following as some guidelines for proper cell phone etiquette.

First of all, get a grip. Too many people, especially young ones, act as if their cell phone is a hot line to the White House. Every single time the things rings, beeps or vibrates, they interrupt all conversation or forget anyone else is around to answer anyone who calls or to check the latest "HT" text message (that means "Hi There" in cell phone text language for my older readers). Get a grip! If you miss a call, you will live. Quit acting like you are having a seizure as you hurriedly try to get your phone out of your pocket or purse. Control the phone. Don't let it control you.

Honor the conversation you are already in. To text or answer your phone in the midst of conversation is to be rude, like letting a little kid burst in and interrupt a conversation every minute or two. Don't kid yourself into thinking the others with you do not see the frequent checking and semi-hidden texting you are doing. If you are in a conversation or group and the phone rings, you are not obligated to answer it. Is that not why you have voice mail? If you are expecting an important call, let those with you know and then ask permission or excuse yourself to answer it.

Turn it OFF in worship and important meetings. Yes, I know you can set it to vibrate so the ring does not disrupt everyone else in the sanctuary, office or classroom. But the vibration still disrupts you and your ability to concentrate. If you feel that buzz in your pocket while listening to a sermon, you are going to wonder who it is and struggle with the urge to check. How can you then do that and at the same time be loving God with all your heart in the sanctuary? How can you give your full attention to the lecture in the classroom while texting? Sure, if you are a doctor on call you need to answer. But so many of us are demonstrating with how we use our cell phones an empty self-importance (maybe we should call them "self phones"?).

Avoid godless chatter and endless gossip. The ability to communicate easily increases the temptation to justify ungodly behavior. God's command to "let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear it" may not be listed on your Verizon of Cingular bill, but it is still part of the package for you. If we were to take a recording of your last week's cell phone conversations and make them a public record for parents, elders and even the friends you were talking about to hear, would you be ashamed? Well, they may not be listening to your conversations, but God is and will judge you accordingly.

Parents, keep tab. And young people, welcome this. When I was young, and I wanted to communicate with friends, I had to call their home with the likelihood being great that my friend's parents would know we were on the phone. They often answered! Today, in too many cases young people can carry on secret conversations with who knows whom without parental knowledge. As a result, the immature are developing inappropriate intimacy at too young an age and too quickly. In some cases this has ended in tragedy. Waiting until the child has shown appropriate maturity before allowing them their own cell phone, discussing their conversations, asking them to show their call logs occasionally, scanning your phone records for strange or oft-repeated numbers, removing privileges over infractions, etc., are means parents must employ to train their children in this powerful technology. Young people, the Proverbs exhort you to give your heart to wisdom (1:4), counsel (8:32-33), and your parents (1:8; 2:1; 4:1). You should welcome rather than fight your parents' input into godly communication skills.

Before I even started writing this, I bet myself that someone had already written "The Ten Commandments of Cell Phone Etiquette," and lo and behold, Google proved me right. So you can go there for another's opinion. But remember, I'm acting here as Jethro giving counsel, not as Moses giving laws. And besides, I only gave five!

P.S. For a comprehensive essay on the impact of cell phones on our culture, read "Our Cell Phones, Ourselves" by Christine Rosen.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Hope for Eternity

After a three-month hiatus from the blogosphere, today marks my return. Lord willing, I hope to write Monday mornings and then post. So if you are interested in tuning into a weekly column with this shepherd's perspective on life, I hope to meet you here.

My absence from blogging was semi-intentional. I rambled around the countryside a bit last fall to speak at several churches and a college retreat . Ministry with young people, from a growing academy to a budding college ministry, with some coaching for my sons' basketball teams thrown in, has taken a great deal more time. Yet far and away the most time consuming activity (that caused me to set blogging aside for a while) has been planning for what we are calling Hope for Eternity.

On April 25-27 & 29th of this year, Irish pastor and author Ted Donnelly will be here at the Sycamore RPC sanctuary in Kokomo for a series of evangelistic meetings we are calling Hope for Eternity. Ted will speak three times on the subject of hell Wednesday-Friday, then on Sunday the 29th twice preach regarding the topic of heaven. God has blessed Ted with a wonderful ability to communicate eternal truth and we want many to hear him. So we have been spending the past year, and especially this fall, getting ready. How?

Well, first by praying people will come and think upon where they will spend eternity. Too often portrayals and comments about heaven and hell are cartoonish and glib, and people do not seriously consider their eternal destiny. To ask God to bring His knowledge and fear upon the people in this area, we have and will continue to host a series of prayer events leading up to this outreach.

Next, by making people feel welcome here. Our deacons and youth have been working on the building these past months to ready it for more people, with a new boiler a major, necessary project. Also, thanks to the help of Susan Spiegel, please notice we have spruced up our website to help make this event known. The Lord answered some long-standing prayers and an exciting new tutoring ministry by our own youth to the needy in the neighborhood of the building began this fall in order to serve them and build relationships. Several neighborhood events, such as a block party and game night, were held to do the same. We are developing a deeper love for the people around us and we hope the Lord will bring them to us and, more importantly, to Himself.

Finally, we are simply inviting people to this event. Again through Susan's artistry, we developed a newsletter called Hope for Today that features articles, testimonies and pictures of our congregation. We are distributing them to 2000 households every two months and they contain an invitation to the outreach. Word-of-mouth, billboards, invitation cards, and other media will be used, as we believe our whole community needs to hear these messages.

So please know our invitation is sincere and deliberate. Please come April 25-27 at 7:00 p.m. and April 29th at 10:30 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. to hear these life-changing messages.