Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sermonizing


               Well, I delivered my very first sermon this morning! For those of you who may not know, I go to a non-denominational Christian church with an attendance of about 150 people every Sunday. I had the privilege of doing this, because I am engaged in an internship at the church all summer. While my biggest role is to do the teaching for youth group each week, my Pastor decided to let me have a go at the big time and scheduled me for two church-wide sermons during my time here. With my first one behind me, I'd like to reflect on the process and practice of sermonizing
             I had anticipated the date of my delivery for a few weeks but didn't actually settle on a topic until about a week and a half ago. The selection and preparation process is by far the hardest part of what pastors do, and the past few weeks have been a crash course on how to find, create, and deliver a life-changing message to people from God's Word.  It turns out that it's both an art and a science, and my brain has suffered some serious exertion with these first few baby steps. I won't go into all the details, but I'll say that I'm still discovering what method works best for me, and I'm sure that it will evolve with experience. The most difficult part for me is notes. You see, I am used to writing essays, where you have a general idea, then you write it out, taking people on a journey of discovery as you discover yourself. When it comes to teaching, however, you can't just write something and read it to people, you have to format your notes in such a way as to memorize the material and take cues from single words or short phrases. That is definitely the most difficult thing for me - speaking from the notes. I am fine with speaking in front of people, but I want to be sure that I know what I have to say. In the end, the message notes came together in a way that I was satisfied with. You can read about what I spoke on in the post below, entitled "Living in Anticipation,"
OR you can listen to it here: http://jpbible.com/sermons-mp3.asp?xml=216&loadfile=true&TS=1340980387000
              Part of Saturday night was spent tossing and turning in anticipation. In the morning, I woke up with a slight case of nerves, which fluctuated in intensity throughout the morning. Sometimes, I felt great. Other times, I was wracked with fear. My greatest desire was just to block out negative thoughts and maintain a manageable level of anxiety. I definitely spent a lot of time in prayer.
              I arrived early to the church itself, apart from my family, so that I could get my wireless microphone set up, verify that the PowerPoint was what I wanted, and pray with my pastor. People kept telling me that I would do great, because God was on my side. This kind of freaked me out a bit. Really, it hurt my pride. "What about my abilities?" I subtly thought to myself. It suggested that I had to be trusting God to an uncomfortable degree. Novel idea, eh? But faith is hard. In the end, I kept returning to the fact that this was God’s message, for his glory, prayers would be answered, and no matter how it came out, God’s will would be done. I am so thankful that I get to be in fellowship with a body of believers who encouraged me in love and truth, and these thoughts gave me peace as I sat with my family through worship, announcements, and communion and anticipated delivering my message.
               The preaching itself was not what I had envisioned during my mental practice in the days previous. I found, as always, that actually having an audience with faces, and eyes, and opinions sitting before me made clear-thinking significantly more difficult. And you know what? Preaching to older people is daunting. For me, there’s always the looming fear of what Paul warns Timothy about in 1 Timothy 4:12, “Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.” While I've never doubted my ability to be an example in these ways, it seems to me that receptivity to teaching requires respect, and age difference has a big effect upon respect. Being younger than the majority of listeners, even if I preached with wisdom, clarity, and conviction, it would take time for me to be confident that they trusted me as a teacher and that I had earned their respect. These are just some psychological considerations that I love to study, understand, and work through.
               The first thing out of my mouth made everyone laugh, which is, fortunately, what I intended. Starting with humor is always a good way to break the ice, alleviate nerves, and make the audience more comfortable with you. Throughout the message, my main goal was to take as much time as I needed to look at, and think through, each point on my notes. I had to be calm, not overly expressive, and just say what I knew I needed to say. No need trying to get elaborate or carried off in theatrical antics. My personality leans towards that kind of thing when I’m in front of people, but that stuff can get distracting and can detract from the message if it isn’t sincere. It was encouraging that a few heads nodded in agreement at times, but people were mostly straight-faced and still. Maybe that's how they always are, even in front of our pastor, but I was not happy about it. I guess I wanted people throwing up their hands and saying "Amen!" Even a few tears would have been nice. Of course, I'm only joking.
                 Afterwards, most everyone said that it was a good message, that it had blessed them, and that I did a good job. I tried with all of my might not to read into anyone’s good wishes, wondering if they were sincere or just being nice. I knew I could have said more, and I could have said it better. It was brief. People say I don’t look nervous at all when I’m up front, but I was, and I knew that it had an effect. In the end, I was most proud of my alliterative points, because they seemed to be catchy and memorable. I repeated them often, but my mom assured me that I didn’t sound redundant. I was most disappointed with the same thing I struggle with at youth group: sticking a toe into too many new realms that, though relevant, could probably use more elaboration. The vein of my discussions tend to be webby, fibrous, and expansive, but not very deep. Oh, and I didn't ask enough questions. Though I opened with a question, I forgot to include more thought-provoking questions throughout my sermon, which are good for getting listeners engaged and thinking about your topic.
            Is sermonizing for me? Is it something I see myself doing for the rest of my life? At this point, I'd have to say no. Preaching does not suit my personality or temperament, and the whole process is quite frustrating and draining for me. On occasion, I would love to speak in front of crowds, but I want to speak on something that I get to be an expert about, and it's hard to become an expert on something new each week. I'll be a shepherd to my family, but for now, sermonizing for a whole church has just been a great learning experience. I praise God for answering prayer and seeing me through this wonderful opportunity I've been given to learn, grow, and be used by him. May I be active, ardent, and armored in my anticipation for you, Lord! Come again quickly!

             

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Living in Anticipation

What are you most looking forward to? Retirement? Getting your braces removed? Marriage? Anticipation of these things gives life a sense of hope and purpose - something to live for. I wonder, however, if there isn't something greater than these things for us to anticipate. Ultimately, we are all anticipating our death, which could come at any minute, but anticipating death only leaves us with an "Eat, drink, and be merry" worldview #ecclesiastes. As Christians, what are we anticipating, and how should it change the way we live?
Read 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Now, go back over verses 1-4. Here, we see that the Thessalonians knew very well of the impending return of Christ, their Savior. They were anticipating it. My first point is that Christians should actively anticipate Christ's return. The Thessalonians were aware that the Day of the Lord would come 'like a thief in the night' - an analogy that Jesus himself used when describing the end times to his disciples in Matthew 24. If you know that a thief is coming, do you just forget about it and go about your life? Of course not! Anticipating a thief means actively being on the alert, staying on your toes, making sure you're ready for his arrival. Do we anticipate Christ in this way? In the same passage in Matthew, Jesus also compares his return to the Flood. We're reminded that the people in Noah's time lived with an "Eat, drink, and be married" mentality (Matt. 24:38), while Noah, on the other hand, actively anticipated the impending flood. Because of this, he was able to actively engage himself in building an ark so that he and his family would be saved. If Noah's family had not been active in their anticipation, they would have been destroyed along with everyone else. Today, we ought to be anticipating the Day of the Lord as though it were a 2nd Flood, fearful of remaining idle and missing the boat. Though the idea of a thief and a Flood are rather frightening, active anticipation isn't just fearful - it is also wonderful. Think about what it's like to anticipate falling in love. It could happen at any time, so there is always a tension, a hope, an expectancy - and you do what you can to prepare yourself should you happen to encounter 'the one'. Without the anticipation of falling in love, you're free to look and behave however you want, but life becomes depressing and rather meaningless!  Therefore, anticipation is hopeful, and it gives us something to live for (1 Peter 1:13). To be forgetful of the thief, the flood, or the possibility of love will inevitably leave you in a bad spot, but being alert in anticipation should encourage purposeful activity.
Now, read 1 Thess. 5:5.
Here, Paul uses the words brother, sister, and children - titles of filial relation. I think this speaks to the idea that anticipation has something to do with relationship. When Christ returns, it will be sudden like a thief, but he will not be threatening to those who know him. Instead, his arrival should be like that of a welcome loved one. There's this song by Newworldson called "There is a Way," and in it, there's a line that says, 'Would you recognize His face if He came to bring you home?" This speaks to the idea that salvation opened up a pathway of relationship that is meant to be accessed now. We are children of the light now and can get to know our God and Savior through personal relationship. God has laid on my heart lately the idea that Christianity is much more about a relationship than it is a religion. Therefore, my second point is that Christians should ardently anticipate Christ's return. We talked in youth group last Wednesday about spending quality time with God on a regular basis. The more we know, and are known, by someone, the deeper that relationship becomes and the greater that love becomes. An intimate connection makes separation a difficult thing to bear! Ardent love creates a heightened sense of anticipation, infusing each day with meaning and hope. Anticipation loves its object, and that love deepens as knowledge increases (John 17:24-26).
Now, what's neat is that active and ardent anticipation armors you against sins of the heart and errors of the mind. Read 1 Thess. 5:8. Here, we see that Christians should be armored by anticipation. If active anticipation is hopeful, then it serves to guard our minds, as a helmet does. Active anticipation keeps our thoughts guarded and on track. If ardent anticipation loves its object, then it serves to guard the heart from other passions. If you anticipate the return of the one you love dearly at any moment, then there is little temptation to commit adultery. All that remains, then, is faith (1 Cor. 13:13; 1 Thess. 1:3), and anticipation fosters faith. Actively and ardently anticipating the return of our Lord Jesus Christ requires faith in him, first and foremost! We must clothe ourselves with faith, hope, and love for Christ if we are to truly escape the destruction spoken of in 1 Thess. 5:9-10 (Romans 13:11-14).  
I think it's really cool that while anticipation gives a sense of urgency to evangelism, it also bestows a sense of peace and confidence, because we know that we are armored. Plus, rather than just threatening people with a big, impersonal Flood you get to introduce them to a person whom you know, personally.
So how do we stay active, ardent, and armed in anticipation? What do we do?
            First, we can actively anticipate by praying (Eph 6:18; Matthew 26:41)
            Second, we can ardently anticipate by familiarizing (Matthew 7:21-13; John 17:24-26)
            And third, we can arm each other through regular fellowship (1 Thess 5:11; Heb 10:23-25)
            So anticipate the return of our Lord Jesus Christ! He could be here at any minute. This knowledge should give us joy, not fear, and we can remain on the alert by praying, being in the Word, and engaging in fellowship with other believers. Pray for sensitivity to the Spirit's leading, so that you can be active in the work of the Kingdom. Spend time getting to know God in His Word each day, so that your anticipation will be ardent. And encourage and build one another up in Christ continually, knowing that your anticipation puts you in a war zone where you need the support of your brothers and sisters.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Communion vs. Cannibalism


Every human is born a cannibal. Our flesh has a ravenous need to sustain itself, and to survive it must selfishly feed upon those around it, gaining for itself what it can. In this world, it’s survival of the fittest. Not only do we want to survive, we want to thrive, and to do so we have to be the biggest, the brightest, and the strongest. So we consume those around us in an attempt to meet our needs, eliminate competition, and grow. Sometimes, it seems harmless enough. We gossip a little bit to feel better about ourselves. We get upset when people don't meet our expectations or give us what we want. We let our parents take care of all the chores, while we play video games or hang out with friends (I mean, it’s their job, right?). Even 'love' can be a form of cannibalism. The highs of infatuation make us feel good, important, and valued, but they are often sought selfishly. Many of us are in parasitic relationships, scarcely aware that we will ultimately suck one another dry. Cannibalism is our native condition, and it is destroying us.
                    One day, however, a Man appeared on the earth who, rather than joining in the cannibalism and feeding upon those around him said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” He offered himself as a sacrifice to the world – the whole world. Hard to believe there was enough to go around? One who can make 5 loaves and 2 fish satisfy 5,000 people is clearly capable of meeting the demand. What an amazing thing that Christ would come and give up his life in this way. Though this analogy is gruesome, it is an accurate representation of the atrocity of our sin. It was our sin that tore into his flesh. It was because of our sin that he was “swallowed up” by the grave. We had a great need, yes – a void left by sin. And in our twistedness we found satiation in consuming one another. But we are now free from exploiting our neighbors! Galatians 5:13-15 says, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” Rather than constantly taking, we are now able to meet OTHERS' needs in love, because we have been given a new source of food – a source that lasts indefinitely, if we would only remember to refuse the flesh and eat of this spiritual food. Communion - a ceremony in which we partake of Christ's body together - is a reminder of salvation from our savage ways (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Through it we are broken by the gravity of our abominations, yet through it we also find cause to rejoice. The Great Paradox is that in his victimhood, Christ became our conquering Savior, defeating death and setting us free from our native, cannibal condition.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Piano Master

      It can be said that loving well is like a beautiful melody. The music of love is, in fact, life itself. Loving well, therefore, can be likened to the playing of a piano.
      We were designed to be masterful pianists, creating and playing rapturous pieces of music in harmony with our God, the Piano Master himself. After the Fall, however, all of mankind lost its ability to play. With nothing but sheet music (Ex. 20:3-17) to go by, we were told to play the music of love flawlessly. If we failed, by just one note, we would be doomed - eternally cut off from the life-giving music of God's love. So, in a spirit of fear and trembling, we tried to play what was written on the page before us with no guidance, no example to follow, and an utter lack of natural skill. We did our best and got some of the notes right, but inevitably, we failed (Rom. 3:19-20). We were then doomed to be severed from God's music of love - the music of life (Rom. 6:23a).
      One day, however, a Man came before the Piano Master and said that he wanted to perform the piece for us. With approval, he sat before the judge and played the composition perfectly, its beautiful tune echoing throughout eternity (Jn. 19:30). His success released us from the pressure of performance (Rom. 6:14).
    Turning to us, the Man now says, "I want to teach you how to play again, but you must first receive my Spirit, which you'll need to succeed" (Rom. 8:15). We accept this Man's offer to learn, thankful that he took our place and desiring participation in love's harmony. Our focus, however, goes right to the sheet music once again (Gal. 3:1-3). We briefly study the notes, then fearfully and pathetically pound out a discordant mess, afraid of the criticism and judgment we first experienced. "No. Follow after me," the Man says. "The notes are there for you to consult, but let me lead you by example first. And remember, I've played this song for you already. You won't be perfect right away, but you have my Spirit. There's no need to fear." With that, he walks through the song with us. We have peace, knowing that we are loved and accepted, even when we mess up. It is hard at times (Ja. 1:2-4), but what a joy it is that we get to participate in the Piano Master's glorious and enchanting love song! (Gal. 5:22-25)
    Some of us, unfortunately, remained fixated on the sheet music, refusing to accept the Man's performance in our place and striving to be better by our own ability (Gal. 5:7-12; 1 Pet. 5:6).
    Some, after seeing that our piece has been played for us, decide to press the keys however we want, boldly rejecting the composition originally given. This is a spit in the Piano Master's face, and it deeply wounds the Man who subjected his own self to suffering and discipline in order to play the piece so perfectly. Intentionally going against the written order shows a lack of love and respect, pushing the Man completely off of the piano bench along with the music itself. In doing this, the player once again subjects himself to the judgment of the Piano Master (Heb. 6:4-8).
    One day we will clearly see that the Piano Master and the Man who played his piece on our behalf are one in the same. Let us strive to play his music beautifully. It's what we were made for. Though we will share some of the suffering that the Man experienced  in his performance (Rom. 8:17), we will always be strengthened by his Spirit, grace, and love. We are sons and daughters being guided and taught by our Father. What a joy it is to make music with him! Haste the day when we will perfectly harmonize with the Piano Master once again, eternally enjoying the bliss of his Great Love Song.
    
   

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Principles of Optometry

There are times when I get distracted by life. I easily get caught up in talking to friends, listening to music, playing video games, watching movies, admiring girls, checking Facebook...I like to do these things, and they make me happy. I treasure them. After a while, though, they tend to take center stage, taking the place of time in God's Word. My thoughts become consumed by this stuff, and I neglect setting my heart and mind on God until someone or something convicts me of my distractedness. It's usually uncomfortable when this happens. I feel exposed and guilty. Why is that? Why is a transition from 'Christian stuff' so easy, yet the returning to it so difficult? Has anyone else ever felt like the Christian stuff is a burden, while everything else is the real thing that makes you feel good and happy? Well, Scripture actually says that this is a matter of eye health - optometry! My eyes become adjusted to darkness and the light comes to hurt my eyes after a while. Walking in the light requires eyes focused on God's Word.

Take a minute to read through Matthew 6:22-23
Perceiving light, of course, is the sole role of the eyes. So we must have healthy eyes to behold light. Now the Greek word for eyes in this passage - ophthalamos (sounds a bit like optometry, eh?) - can mean literal eyes and/or mental faculties ('the mind's eye). So the verse can be read: "If your mind is healthy, your whole body will be full of light." We're to set our mind on the right things if we're to walk in the light, right? Romans 12:2? We'll talk about what to set our minds on in a minute, but first, what does it mean to be in the light, and why is it important?

Take a minute to read through 1 John 1:5-7.
So walking in the light is the essence of the Christian Life! ONLY IN THE LIGHT do we find 1) Fellowship with God 2) Healthy relationship with others, and 3) Forgiveness of sins. Being in the light is a big deal. So how do we ensure that we're in the light? Remember that in Matthew we saw that it has to do with where we set our eyes/minds.
Do I set my eyes, my mind, my heart, my FOCUS on Facebook, girls, money, being comfortable? No. 1 John 2:15-17 says that leaves me in darkness. We're not to treasure things of earth, because they are things that don't last forever. Facebook, our identity as an athlete, money (v. 24), or pretty much anything that makes us temporarily comfortable/happy. These things are not inherently bad, and they DO make us happy (they're meant to!), but THEY DON'T LAST. So beware of giving too much of your love (your heart, mind, soul, and strength) to corruptible things. Instead, we're to set our hearts on heavenly things - things that don't decay and can't be taken away. What, specifically? Colossians 3:1-4 instead tells us that Christ intends for us to set our eyes on himself. And whaddaya know! Jesus is the Light of the world! How do we set our eyes on Him? Well, Jesus is also the Word of God. We are to set our hearts, eyes, and mind - first and foremost - on God's Word. It's interesting to note that when God created the universe through the Word (John 1:1-5), light was the first thing He created (Gen. 1:2). In Ps. 139:105, we see that God's Word is a 'lamp unto our feet; a light unto our path'. We need to be FOCUSED on the one thing that will never pass away (Matthew 24:35) in order to be in the light. To focus on the Word means to focus on the Light. Walking in the light requires eyes focused on God's Word.


Now, back to our original question: why can God's truth be so hard to focus on? Well, first of all, the path that God's Word illuminates (Ps. 139:105) is a narrow one (Matthew 7:13-14), and most people choose the 'dark' path that is currently quite wide and comfortable. Whenever we sojourn on this path, it's like we've crawled into a comfortable bed in a dark room. If we get woken up again, it's really hard to get out of bed, isn't it! The light hurts our eyes and we're just so comfortable...But isn't it worth it once we're up? We get to LIVE when we're up and at 'em. When our Way is lit up by the Light of God's Word, we experience fellowship with God (the ultimate Joy), fellowship with others (also, a great joy), and the assurance of the forgiveness of our sins (because we're putting our faith in - abiding in - Christ, the Word, our salvation!). Ask yourself: Am I really in the light? Or am I finding security in my dark, comfy bed? Know that you can't stay there forever, and you have to make a choice. Train your focus on the Word, treasuring eternal truths on a regular basis, and life in the light will become very freeing. Walking in the light requires eyes focused on God's Word.

If we were all to see temporary joys as good, but relatively less important than our incorruptible life in Christ, then our relationship with God would grow deeper (resulting in greater joy/happiness/life); healing and joy would come out of fellowship centered around a lasting love with other members of the Body of Christ; and we would be free, knowing that our sins have been exposed to Light, and yet the very Light that shines upon them is Jesus Christ who took them to the cross with himself - our sins are known and forgiven. Walking in the light means abiding in grace, and only when we walk in the light can we be lights to the world around us! Walking in the light requires eyes focused on God's Word.