Saturday, January 27, 2018

Why Johnny Can't Preach

The average American spends seventeen times more time watching television than reading.  This includes magazines and newspapers.  This statistic reflected the huge cultural change that has happened in America over the past decades.  We are consumers of information through video and media, rather than in written form as never before. This reality affects not just how we learn, but how we communicate.

T. David Gordon has written a book addressing the impact of video on our culture and how it has negatively affected preaching in America, and he recommends some important remedies. Dr. Gordon is a college professor and for 14 years served on the New Testament faculty at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.  When Mr. Gordon was struck with cancer and given a short time to live, he sought to write his life work on something that he felt very strongly about, preaching.  In his book, Why Johnny Can't Preach, he laments the problem of bad preaching and talks about how media and video has changed not just people, but communicators that preach God's Word.

In the era of video and cell phone usage, careful reading of a text for clear meaning and content has taken a back seat to entertainment because of the shortening of our attention span.  As Americans increasingly obtain information through media, Americans also do not read carefully or don't read at all.  Preachers have been affected by these changes in that sermons that are not just boring, but fail to represent the underlying text that they ostensibly represent, because the preacher is not reading the text carefully and seeking to communicate a clear, singular point. One of the helpful illustrations Gordon gives from preaching relates to the topic of preaching on love. Romans 5:8 and John 3:16 both talk about love, but sadly when love is preached from these texts, it is often glossed over without digging into the intricacies of the text.  Love is spoken of in both texts, but a careful reading yields two different audiences and two different truths about love that the preacher must address and apply.

Additionally, Mr. Gordon laments the demise of reading.  In the past, reading was careful and wide spread, yet now people get their content through video and short text messages.  This emphasis on video has blurred the difference between significant and insignificant.  We think of something as significant if we see it on television, but sadly most of television is filled with the insignificant.  Conversely, spiritual truths and Scripture are of enormous significance, yet the video age has shortened our attention span and given us the perspective of diminishing the importance of that which is not video.

This book is strong medicine for preachers, Christians and anyone who teaches or is involved in education.  Gordon gives many practical examples of how good preaching is developed and encourages Christians to reading, the medium that God choose to give us his Scriptures.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

What is the liturgy of your life?

Within the past year, the pastor of my church encouraged me to have a formal 'date night' with my wife each week.  This was a pipe dream for my wife and I for several years, and we never implemented this idea because of three young children below the age of 9.  Baby sitters are hard to find and expensive, kids require constant attention and soccer commitments.  It is hard to carve out time for a "date night" because of the ever pressing needs of our kids and money commitments. Yet his excellent suggestion directed us to have a "date night" at our dining room table at home.  Now each week, we put the kids in the basement with their favorite video and a bowl of popcorn, and my wife and I enjoy a candle lit dinner with a store bought dessert and peace and quiet together for a couple of hours.  In a planned and formal way, it is a practice that cultivates love and relationship in our marriage that we both look forward to and cherish.  You could say that this is one of our life "liturgys".  A liturgy is a habit or practice that cultivates your love for something.

James Smith in his book, "You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit", begins his book by asking the question, "What do you really want?"  In the deep recesses of your heart, what is your deepest longing and desire? Is it comfort?  Is it the stability that money brings?  Is it the love and respect of others?  Smith makes the point that our check books and personal calendar reflect the deepest love and longing of our hearts.

Love is a choice that is either cultivated or neglected.  Love is either protected or neglected.  Love "takes practice".  In many often unintentional ways, we built our lives around what we truly love.  The unspoken "liturgy" of our lives cultivates and deepens around some central idea.  The book challenges us to build routines and habits in our life that cultivates a deeper love for God.

It also exposes the emptiness of our rituals.  Are we worshipping and spending time with God because we desire more of Him, or because we want more of what he gives.  You can say "you are what you worship", but also say "you are what you love".  The question is, am I building my life habits on what I say is my greatest love?

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Sufficiency of Jesus Christ

John Newton was a great hymn writer of the 1700's world renowned for his authorship of "Amazing Grace", but many do not know that he was a wonderful letter writer. Although his sermons were not widely published, his letters to friends and congregants are full of pastoral wisdom and insight.  Tony Reinke recently published a compilation of Newton's writing that are pure gold.

Newton writes, "Every step along the path of life is a battle for the Christian to keep two eyes on Christ"-the eyes of the heart. "If I may speak my own experience," he said, "I find that to keep my eye simply upon Christ, as my peace, and my life, is by far the hardest part of my calling."

Newton lived out what the ancients called "the beautific vision".  Through the eyes of faith, keeping our vision of Jesus Christ at the center of our lives. Keeping our eyes upon Jesus with a constant awareness of his presence, is the great goal and challenge of the Christian life.  "By fixing our eyes upon Christ, our lives are filled with holy affection and delight, and we go forth in joyful obedience to him" writes Newton.  While the song "Amazing Grace" may be what John Newton was most known for, his writings tell a fuller story.  Newton was always focused on the sufficiency of God's grace in Jesus to meet our every need.  His love is sufficient to meet the hunger of our hearts, his resources are sufficient to give us strength and guidance, his presence is sufficient to calm an anxious heart.

I am going through this book with a friend and it has within it treasures that abound.  This book speaks constantly of the beauty of Jesus. Let me encourage you to go through this book with a friend, you will not be disappointed.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The God You Can Know

Recently I was listening to an interview with a pastor named Louie Giglio on the radio and in this interview Giglio was talking about people that had impacted his life growing  up.  Giglio grew up in the Atlanta area as a child and came in contact with a Christian leader in Atlanta that impacted his life in his teens and early 20's.  This man's influence was so profound in Giglio's life, that it changed the trajectory of his future life and ministry.  The man that Giglio was talking about was named Dan DeHaan.  As Giglio spoke in this interview, he talked about how there was something special about DeHaan.  When Giglio was around Dan DeHaan, Giglio sensed that he seemed to know God in a way that was different than Giglio and in such a deep way, that it made Giglio want to know God more and pursue God more urgently.  Dan DeHaan was a man that was much with God and people that were around him could sense it.  After listening to this interview with Giglio, I went down to my basement and found a book that Dan DeHaan wrote called "The God You Can Know".  Since picking it up, it is a book that God has been really using in my life.  In his opening chapter on knowing God, DeHaan writes, "Mind-preoccupation will determine our goals, our enjoyment of reality and our ability to affect other people's lives for the better....It is the conscious worship of God's character that conforms us to what we worship....Some people brood over their past victories or failures.  They become past conscious.  Their day begins with the past.  As a result, they can never really be what they should be right now for this moment. ...We always become what we worship."

As I spend my day focusing on problems or media or the past, I reap instability.  As I focus on God's character and his presence, setting my heart "on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God" I reap steadfastness, confidence and assurance that comes from faith in Christ.

As I watch and listen to media, I am constantly struck by how quickly things are changing and the instability of the present. The world my kids will grow up in will be so different from the world that I grew up in. Yet even in the midst of this unstable world, in the present, my kids will be watching my faith.  My kids listen to my words (sometimes) watch what I do, but also and most importantly, watch my faith. In this quickly changing world, I am asking God to help me grow in "God confidence" that comes from filling my mind, imagination and heart with the reality of the enthroned Christ.  This is the God we are now able to know through the work of Jesus Christ. He is the God we can know and the revelation of God's glory found in Christ that should preoccupy our minds and imaginations.

The second chapter of DeHaan's book, The God You Can Know is all about the glory of God.  It is fun to read this chapter and see how it has influenced Louie Giglio's teaching and ministry even to this day.  When God's glory is big, the world and its problems are small.  Life always shrinks God's size, yet Scripture "right sizes" God. I highly recommend this book and know you will be blessed through it's reading, just as I have been blessed.  In our quickly changing world, knowing God and experiencing his glory in the person of Jesus Christ is the ballast that will hold us fast during the rapid changing times of the present.  

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Experiencing God Through Prayer

Every night when my wife and I put our kids to bed, we read them a Bible story and I say a prayer with them.  Friends have talked to me about how meaningless some bed time prayers were for them growing up. "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep..."  Recently, I have been spending some time each night, going through different parts of the Lord's Prayer with my kids.  The exercise has challenged me to pray more biblically, and forced me to get clear on praying biblically so I can teach my kids how to pray.  This whole initiative began for me through reading Tim Keller's new book on Prayer.

I highly recommend this book for many reasons.  Firstly, Keller anchors prayer so deeply into Scripture and explains why this is so important.  Many of the "prayer fads" around today talk about expressing ourselves, but Keller does a masterful job of teaching why prayer is "answering speech".  First we need to hear from God through His Word, immersing our thoughts with His thoughts and then respond to God's voice in prayer.  Keller teaches that our prayers need to address the God who reveals himself, not the God we construct through our own imagination and experiences.

One of my favorite parts of this book is the section on the Lord's Prayer.  Keller talks about how the Church has been catechizing it's members since the Reformation with the Lord's Prayer (Luther's Shorter Catechism), and by learning principles found in the Lord's Prayer, our prayers are anchored in God's character rather than our whims.

My prayers can be so rote and academic, this book challenges me to experience God's holiness and love as I persevere in prayer and seek to experience God's presence.  I highly commend Keller's book to you.  I read a library copy of this book, then bought my own copy and now I am using it in my small group.  We never outgrow our need to learn about prayer, and Keller's book takes my understanding about prayer to a new level.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Complaining or Praying?

My wife and I are in the throes of child raising seemingly every waking moment of our lives, and one of the things we spend time talking about and thinking about are the forces that shape our children.  My words shape my children, and what I emphasize and what I correct reveal what I value.  My actions shape my children, as they constantly watch my every move and call me out when I have a little ice cream and they are excluded.  The videos, entertainment and culture shapes my children too, as they watch images, see clothing and track with how people behave, often imitating what they see others do.  Recently, friends of mine visited our house and their 14 year old son was constantly wearing a pull over stocking cap as some teenagers are prone to do, even in the hot summer.  Well, my son Daniel was watching this teenager (Spencer) like a hawk, and this teenager quickly become a hero to my son Daniel.   A little while later, Daniel and a group of us traveled to the Taste of Madison, in hot 80 degree weather.  As we left for the event, Daniel insisted on wearing his winter stocking hat.  Why?  Because his hero, Spencer was hearing his stocking cap during the week.  This lesson was a great reminder to me that my son Daniel watches every move and every word of those around him.

As my wife and I watch a culture around us that is quickly changing, increasingly we see injustice and problems that causes us to complain.  As I think of my son Daniel, is he going to grow up watching his father complain or is he going to watch his father pray?  One of the things that the Psalms constantly emphasize is the bringing of  our complaints and burdens to God.  The Psalmist brings his complaints to God as he speaks, "I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me.  When I was in distress, I sought the Lord" (Ps 77:1-2a). If I spent as much time praying as I do on other less noble activities (like internet surfing), I think my attitude about many things would be different.  One book that I've been reading recently that has encouraged and motivated me to pray is the old classic by EM Bounds, Power Through Prayer. (His picture at right).

Prayer is one area where I never arrive, and always seeking to grow.  As my son watches me and I watch him grow up, one of the questions I have asked myself recently is, will my son Daniel watch me complain or watch me pray?  He is watching, but what will I model?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Nothing Greater, Nothing Better


 As a father of three young children, finding the balance of how to discipline in love is a great adventure.  As a friend mention to me at lunch today, kids go through stages of development and navigating their stage of development requires new GPS settings every day.  Both of my twin children are a hand full, but my son Daniel right now is really challenged when it comes to following instructions.  Yet it seems that his disregard of instructions is not really rebellion, often it is just curiosity.  Daniel is curious about everything and sometimes directions get lost when he is really focused on something he is curious about.  Yet during these times when he is lost in his own world, I can get impatient and my voice can have "an edge".  When I'm tired, the edge becomes particularly evident.  Sadly, sometimes I can have an edge with people too.  When travelling through life, I often project onto God my own moods and attitudes and often wonder if God "has an edge toward me". Which brings me back to my kids...I wonder what my kids see as the "main thing" as they see my life.  As they hear my tone of voice, listen to my words and see my actions, I wonder what they are catching as the "main thing". As they tear around our church building during the week and among the congregation on Sunday morning and look into the faces of people and overhear conversations, I wonder what they soak in as the "main thing"?

This past week, our staff started on a new book by David Jeremiah called "God Loves You, He always has-always will".   One of my  favorite stories in this book relates to theologian Karl Barth.  Karl Barth was a renowned theologian after WW II who wrote a 14 volume theological work called Church Dogmatics. During his lifetime, Barth was considered one of the world's most renowned  Christian theologians and thinkers.  His writings and books published were extensive.  Barth once travelled to America and during one of Barth's trips to America in the early 1960's, Barth visited the University of Chicago for a time of "question and answer" with students, faculty and the media.  University of Chicago is known for high academics and vigorous intellectual thinking, and a university student asked Barth, "of all the vast theological truths you have explored and the theological research you have engaged in, what is the most profound theological discovery you have unearthed?" Barth replied, "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so".  While I am paraphrasing the student's question, Barth's answer was crystal clear. The simple truth of God's love for sinners is one of the most profound truths of Scripture. It is life changing and the center of the Bible's storyline, "God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son".  When we understand this truth, it melts a heart of cynicism, it thaws a spirit of harshness, and it disassembles a spirit of self righteousness and pride.  This is the good news that Martin Luther said, "we should pound into our heads continually", this good news of the gospel.

Often in the Christian life, we can get so focused on behavior, that we forget about belief.  Yet at the center, Christianity is about what we believe.  Our behavior then flows out of our beliefs.  When we believe God loves us, we are secure and less anxious, harsh, and worried.  When we are secure that God Loves You (me), we are less controlling and more hopeful that actions of disobedience will subside as God's love melts the hardness of rebellion.  As I put my kids to bed each night, one thing I try to say to them every night is that "I love you and God loves you".  I hope that will be the legacy I leave my kids as they reflect on the main message of my life.