And now a special word to you who love to read. And you who do not!

“Write this down,” said God to Moses and various prophets, as recorded in Holy Scripture.  If He wanted His story written, God surely intended it to be read.

The sharpest people you know are readers; the dullest never crack a book.  My parents both read constantly. There was never a time in my growing up years when we did not take the newspaper, and sometimes more than one. In 2007, when God took our Dad the family had to cancel a half dozen subscriptions to magazines he was taking.  He was nearly 96.

At the moment, my bedside table holds books on history, politics, music, and westerns.  Every couple of weeks I go through those I’ve read and ship some off to family or make a delivery to Goodwill.  Otherwise, we would be running over with books around here.

And I love it.

In her book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tells how several presidents came to develop their gifts for influencing others and leading the nation.  Early on, with Abraham Lincoln, there was a love for books.

Left on his own, Abraham had to educate himself.  He had to take the initiative, assume responsibility for securing books, decide what to study, become his own teacher.  He made things happen instead of waiting for them to happen. Gaining access to reading material proved nearly insurmountable.  Relatives and neighbors recalled that Lincoln scoured the countryside to borrow books and read every volume “he could lay his hands on.” A book was his steadfast companion.  Every respite from the daily manual tasks was a time to read a page or two from Pilgrim’s Progress or Aesop’s Fables, pausing while resting his horse at the end of a long row of planting. 

Then, Goodwin says about his technique:

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Ten pointers for God’s people asked to pray in public

In a typical Southern Baptist church–if there is any such animal!–the ministers handle most of the pulpit duties. The times when deacons lead in public prayer are more likely to come prior to the offering and inside the Lord’s Supper.

When an inexperienced layman approaches the pulpit to lead in prayer, there is no telling what will happen. If it’s true that most pastors have never had training in public praying, it’s ten times as sure that the laypeople haven’t.

What we get when the typical layman leads a prayer in the worship service is often some or all of the following:

–trite statements he has heard other people pray again and again

–vain repetitions

–awkward attempts to be genuine and fresh

–uncomfortable attempts to admonish the congregation about some issue, usually their laxity in giving

–a complete unawareness of the time element. He/she may be too brief or go on and on and on.

The typical layman feels out of place doing this. There are exceptions, thankfully, and some wonderful ones. But in most churches, the deacons and other lay leadership would rather take a beating than to pray in public.

When a pastor friend announced to his deacons that they would no longer be leading offertory prayers, he expected resistance and was prepared to respond to it. Instead, without exception, they cheered the news. “They felt like a burden had been lifted off their shoulders,” he told me.

I understand that. But I regret it. In truth, this could be a wonderful time for a man or woman of the Lord to render service of an unusual nature to the congregation and indirectly to the Lord.

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Playing our little games with Holy Scripture

“I did not send these prophets, yet they ran with a message; I did not speak to them, but they prophesied” (Jeremiah 23:21).

What if we sliced off a bit of scripture here, pasted it in there, omitted a reference over yonder, and pretended the result is what Jesus actually said?

That happens.

Fortunately–in my opinion–it happens rarely.  But it is done often enough to make it a concern to those who value God’s word and our integrity.

Here’s my story….

At a preachers’ conference, we heard a stem-winding brother drive the several hundred of us to our feet in a shouting, hand-clapping final eruption of praise and joy.  He was good, I’ll give him that.

His text was Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever.”  His theme was that God’s people today have no trouble with Jesus Christ being “the same yesterday”–His birth in Bethlehem, His miracle-working ministry across Galilee and Judea, followed by His sacrificial death and His divine resurrection–and no trouble with Jesus Christ being “the same forever”–as we proclaim His return to earth, the judgment, and His forever reign.

The problem present-day Christians have, said the preacher, is with “Jesus Christ today.”

Okay.  So far, so good.

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Envy: The sneakiest sin of all

Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another. (Galatians 5:26)

I find it funny how the Old Testament’s references to envy focus on God’s people looking outward to the world (“sinners”). They were not to envy wrongdoers, those on the outside.

However, the New Testament directs its instructions inwardly, warning believers against envying each other. For those of us who know the inner workings of church life, we fully understand the change.

Now, a confession first.

I have decided this “deadly sin” is not my problem, that envy is not a problem in my part of the world. I honestly don’t know anyone sitting around stewing over the neighbors having a car and wishing it was in their own driveway. I know of no preachers fuming because another pastor received a doctorate which he should have rightfully received. So, maybe envy is no longer a problem to moderns.

But hold on.  Not so fast.

Perhaps I’ve been defining envy too narrowly.

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Pride: The sin that looks most like me

God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. (I Peter 5:5)

When a British newspaper invited readers to submit their answers to the question “What’s Wrong With the World?” the inimitable G. K. Chesterton wrote: “Editors: I am. Sincerely, G. K. Chesterton.”

Whenever the so-called seven deadly sins are listed, pride invariably leads the parade. It’s the granddaddy of them all, the source of the other six. Consider how this is so—

–Lust is pride expressing itself sexually, as well as in other ways. It takes what it wants, uses it, and tosses it in the trash.

–Avarice is pride in the marketplace and in our culture. It wants more and more and is never satisfied.

–Anger is pride on the highway and in relationships. It didn’t get what it wants and wants revenge.

–Envy is pride casting an evil eye at its neighbor, wishing for what he has and that he had a wart on his nose. (An old childhood curse we would inflict in jest)

–Sloth is pride expressing its selfishness concerning work. None for him, thanks. He’ll sit this one out. Everyone owes him.

–Gluttony is pride at the dinner table.

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Humility: It looks so good on you!

“God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Submit therefore to God” (James 4:6).

“Clothe yourself with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (I Peter 5:5).  

“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time….” (5:6).

A Facebook friend said, “I’m very proud of my humility.”

I think he was teasing.

Humility is not a subject most of us would claim to know much about.  In fact, we would shy away from anyone claiming to be humble.  The very claim contradicts itself.

In fact, a truly humble person would probably be the last to know it.   So, when told that “You are a genuinely humble person,” the appropriate response might be something like “Who, me? I wish!”

Now, there are few traits more attractive in a leader than humility.  The Lord of Heaven and earth stooped to wash the feet of His disciples, in so doing forever disallowing His preachers from playing the royalty card (John 13).  “The Son of Man did not come to be ministered unto,” He said, “but to minister and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

Biblically.  Anecdotally.  And personally. The evidences of a truly humble person are no secret.

Seven traits of a humble person….

One.  An overwhelming sense of the blessings of God.  His generosity. His grace.  “Oh that men would praise the Lord for His goodness, and for HIs wonderful works to the children of men!” (That praise eruption of praise comes from Psalm 107 where it is repeated in verses 8, 15, 21, and 31.)

God is so good to me.  Far better than I deserve. “I feel like I’m God’s favorite child,” a friend says.  “My cup runneth over,” said King David (Psalm 23:5).

Words you will hear a lot from the truly humble: “Thank you!”

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How to set new records in ministry

What follows is a blend of the funny and the serious, what some call “peanut butter and jelly,” the PB for nourishment and the J for delight.  Please bring a sense of whimsy and expect to receive no sermon ideas from this! Thank you. –Joe

In the January/February 2015 issue of Preaching, executive editor Michael Duduit (and my longtime friend) tells of a fellow in Florida who carved out a slot in the Guinness Book of World Records with a sermon that lasted 53 hours and 18 minutes.  Well, actually, it was 45 of his old sermons stitched together, not just one.  Michael says the guy used 600 PowerPoint slides and basically covered the entire Bible, from Genesis to the concordance.

All of that tickled Editor Michael’s funny bone, as oddities in the ministry usually do.  This started him thinking, “What other record-breaking attempts could be made by preachers?” After relaying his suggestions–with some parenthetical notes from moi–we will have an idea or two of our own.

Okay.  Michael suggests the Guinness people might want to look at:

–The most fried chicken consumed at a church supper. (As a growing teen, I was perturbed by the way the church women would put the food away before I finished eating. So, determining to eat nothing but fried chicken–true story–I consumed 14 pieces by the time they were closing up shop.  We never did learn my actual capacity.)

– The most irrelevant stories packed into a single sermon.  (I’ve done this. Once I used a story from a granddaughter who is a twin.  Then, I said, “As you all know, Abby and Erin are sitting here listening to this. I’ve told a story about Abby, and now need to tell a story about her sister Erin. So the following story has nothing to do with this sermon…..”)

–The most “and finally” references included in a message before actually stopping. (I plead not guilty on this one.)

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Why Christians need traffic cops, umpires, authorities

Someone has to be in charge.  Don’t they?

On the highway, in the classroom, at the factory, during the ball game, and in the Christian life, nothing works without someone present being empowered to say, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21).  Right?  Or not?

Let’s think about the subject of authority….

In “The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published,” David Skinner describes the hostile reaction that greeted the release of “Webster’s Third Edition” in 1961.  The incident makes a great point for church folk.

First, a few words about the book.

Skinner’s book traces the development of dictionaries in this country and their struggles to determine what goes in and what stays out. Secondly, it chronicles the work of G. and C. Merriam Company to produce a new kind of dictionary this time around.  (The book is not easy reading and I admit to having read it off and on over several months.)

What made “Webster’s Third” different is that the editors came to the interesting conclusion that no one had made them the authority over the English language.  No one had put them in charge of English as spoken and written in America.  In fact, they decided there is no authority.

No authority on the English language.  Imagine that.

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What the carnal mind will never get about worship

Can we talk about worship?

I’d like to start each section with a fascinating quote.  I can’t vouch for the integrity of any of the quotes since they were lifted from the internet.  But they are good discussion starters…

1) From actor Brad Pitt: “I didn’t understand this idea of a God who says, ‘You have to acknowledge me. You have to say that I’m the best, and then I’ll give you eternal happiness. If you won’t, then you don’t get it!’ It seemed to be about ego. I can’t see God operating from ego, so it made no sense to me.”

There is a reason this makes no sense to you, Mr. Pitt.  The Apostle Paul put it this way: “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him.  Nor can he understand them, for they are spiritually appraised” (I Corinthians 2:14).

I don’t mean to be harsh in that assessment, but it explains why so many on the outside look at Christian worship and shake their heads. They just don’t get it.

Let me repeat that: They. Do. Not. Get. It.

2) From a blog in which this guy talks about religion. Someone asked him why God wants us to worship Him.  He answered, “Everyone likes being praised. It’s a huge ego bump, after all. But why does God need it? I mean, what kind of egomaniac needs millions of people all over the world praising his name? Isn’t that a little arrogant?”

Short answer: Yes, it is.

He then proceeded to make a case for God being egotistical.  The funny thing is he thought he was being supportive of God.

He should spare God the compliment.

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Help, I’m a pastor!

“In a multitude of counselors there is victory.” (Proverbs 11:14 and 24:6)

I said to Pastor Marion, “I’m glad to exchange notes with you like this. But you need a couple of mentors–older guys with long histories in the ministry–whom you can sit across the table from and talk about these things.”

He named two such, a seminary professor and a retired pastor.

Pastors often find themselves in tough situations.  At the moment, Pastor Marion is leading his church in a massive building campaign, while working night and day to minister to his growing flock.  In the five years he has been there, his church has doubled or more in attendance. And then, this happens….

A deacon who is used to getting his way in the church called a meeting of the key leadership. He was upset about some of what Marion has been preaching, he says. Furthermore–it will not surprise you if you have ever been the target of this kind of abuse–-“many others in the church feel the same way.”

He threatened that steps may be taken to remove the pastor from the pulpit.

What is a pastor to do?

I mentioned a few possibilities, but with the caveat that “these are just some thoughts.” No way do I want to take responsibility for whatever he decides.

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