Forget Feelings; Love is Something We Do

“But I say to you who hear, ‘Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27)

Put yourself in the place of the Lord. You want to get across to your people the importance of fellowship inside the body, how to keep relationships strong, and how to correct them when they get out of whack. So, what do you do?

Do you tell your people to love their children? to love their parents? their sweethearts?

They already do. Jesus said even bad people love their own.

Instead, Jesus tells us to love our enemies—the absolute last people on earth we would think of loving. We tend to think of our enemies as completely unlovable, the guy who did us wrong and is planning worse, the kind of people we want to hate or fear or resent and are thinking of getting back at.

Love my enemies? Are you kidding, Lord? I don’t even like them.

The good news is He does not tell us we have to like them. Some of them He doesn’t like very much either. ‘Like’ has nothing to do with it. It’s about love.

We have to love them.

This is not an option. The command to love our enemies is found three times in the gospels–Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:27 and 35. The principle, however, is planted all through Scripture. We’re stuck with it. This is something our Lord Jesus Christ fully expects from His disciples.

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Before the Sermon Preparation Begins

A friend who teaches seminary students the art and craft of sermon-building and delivery sent out an SOS the other day to a lot of his pastor friends. “What is the single most important piece of advice you would give to beginning preachers?”

What I said was important, but certainly not “the most important piece of advice.” What I said was that once he gets the sermon, he should go for a walk or a drive and preach it to himself. And not one time, but several times over several days.

The advantage of this is that by preaching it aloud, he is able to see where the message is weak, where it dies, where it needs strengthening, and where he has to close an exit because he was about to chase a rabbit down that dead-end lane.

The reason I chose that piece of advice, it should be clear, is that I wish someone had told me that when I was beginning to preach.

Instead, what I would do is labor over a scripture, hammer out an outline, work some subpoints into it, and then hope for the best. However “the best” never came along. It was always mediocre.

In the weeks since my friend asked and I gave that piece of advice, I’ve thought of something far more urgent in preparing a sermon. In fact, what I’m going to suggest comes before the sermon even begins to be prepared.

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The Pastor’s Secrets About Those Stories

Under the influence of the tabloids at the super market checkout, I toyed with the notion of calling this “What Pastors Don’t Tell You About Those Stories They Tell.”

It’s all of that. In fact, what I’m going to say about stories we pastors tell from the pulpit is not universally accepted as the right thing to do. Some might accuse us of dishonesty or worse. I beg to differ.

Read it, then give us your assessment at the end.

1) Some stories the pastor tells as happening to someone else actually occurred to him.

Case in point. Last Saturday morning, while leading a deacon retreat for a church I once pastored, one of the men volunteered a testimony that gave me far too much credit for his coming back to Christ and getting active in the church. He’s in insurance, and was the agent for the fellow who had hit me and injured me slightly. At one point, he said–I have no memory of this–I asked if he thought the insurance company would be willing to replace my broken glasses. Something about that, evidently, impressed him, that I was not greedily grabbing for all I could squeeze out of the insurance company, and God used it to get his attention.

As I say, I have no memory of any of it; I barely remember the accident.

When I arrived back home, my wife said, “You can’t tell that story, though.” I agreed. In a sermon, it would appear self-serving or self-promoting, as in “look how wonderful I am.” So I won’t tell it.

Oops. I just told it, didn’t I? But it was to make the point: if I ever put it into a sermon, the story would work better camouflaged. I would tell it as though it happened to “a good friend of mine.” It did, of course; I’m a good friend of me.

That little technique–relating a personal story in the third person–allows a minister to make excellent use of some of his best illustrations without appearing to be boasting.

2) Some stories are composites.

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Pastor, Leave the False Humility Behind

We’ve all seen it and some of us have done it.

The pastor strides to the pulpit, opens the Bible, reads his text, announces his subject, then begins with an apology. “I have no right to speak to you on this subject.” “Many of you know more about this subject than I do.” “I’m not sure why the Lord laid this on my heart, but I’m going to give it a try.”

That sort of thing.

It feels to the well-meaning pastor like transparency, like he’s leveling with his people, admitting what they already know–that he’s human and fallible. A fellow struggler. One of them.

It feels to most of the congregation like, “Well, if you don’t know, we sure don’t. Get it over with and let’s go home.”

I rise this evening, pastors, to say to you that this kind of false humility has no place in the Kingdom of God. It most certainly has no place in the pulpit where God expects His servant to be bold and His people expect their pastor to be faithful.

What it does is cut the ground out from under everything the minister is about to share. It diminishes the authority with which God fully intends him to proclaim His Word. He ties his own hands and weakens his effectiveness before he even begins.

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Teaching’s Habitual Vision of Greatness

One day in 1965, John Steinbeck sat at an outdoor cafe in San Francisco with Howard Gossage, a friend in the advertising business. He said, “Yesterday in Muir Woods, Charlie lifted his leg on a tree that was fifty feet across, a hundred feet high, and a thousand years old. What’s left in life for that dog after that supreme moment?”

Gossage was quiet for a moment, then he said in his slight stutter, “W-w-well, he could always t-t-teach.”

At this time of the year when school has resumed, half the people I know are talking about teaching and teachers. Some friends are themselves teachers and another large segment are the students, everything from pre-K to post-doctoral. Some are thrilled to be back in school, others feel they have been sentenced to Angola for another nine months. That period is ideally suited to bring forth new life in other realms, however in the classroom nothing is guaranteed.

It can be time well invested, life-changing even, or it can be a prison-sentence.

As a lifelong student with two full decades in classroom instruction and the rest in the laboratory of life, learning and teaching have been two of my most enjoyable pursuits.

In fact, I’m signing on to teach a couple of classes at our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 2010, one in worship leadership and the other in interpersonal relations, both skills absolutely required in those who would shepherd the Lord’s flocks. Both subjects are dear to my heart. Both classes will be shared with another professor–a real one, I’m tempted to say–to give the students two perspectives and, since the classes are several hours long, to give the teachers some rest.

I’m excited. But I’ve done this before, actually–taught seminary students–and know that it’s real work.

If you think being a student is hard, and my grandchildren do, the teacher’s assignment is far more difficult.

No one lives by faith to the extent teachers do. If they judged the value of their work and the effect of their teaching by what they see sitting before them in the classroom, many would slip quietly into the faculty lounge and slit their throats.

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Front-Page Sermons

Cruising down the bayous of lower St. Bernard Parish, Jason Melerine had his crab boat up to 20 mph. Suddenly the vessel caught a piece of sunken hurricane debris, jerking the outboard motor off and giving Jason and his helper the jolt of their lives.

A front-page article in today’s Times-Picayune says there are 6,000 underwater snags in the waterways of our part of the world, remnants from August 2005′s Hurricane Katrina.

It’s a sermon illustration in the making.

The other headline that catches the attention of readers is part of the continuing saga of Michael Jackson’s doctor’s legal predicament. “Coroner: Array of drugs killed Jackson.”

Imagine the prestige MJ’s doctor–Conrad Murray, cardiologist from Las Vegas–must have sported when potential patients learned who his celebrity client was. Wow. Doubtless he had a long waiting list of people wanting him as their doctor. Anything to be that close to their favorite celeb. I expect there’s something inside all of us who are insecure about going to doctors in the first place that says, “If he’s Michael Jackson’s doctor, he has to be the best!”

Preachers, this one has your name all over it.

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Your Idea of Heaven

My friend Bob has been dealing with a difficult family situation. It’s not as though he needs the grief, because Bob is getting up in years and his health is bad.

Bob said to me, “I can’t wait for heaven.”

I said, “They don’t call it ‘rest’ for no reason.”

That’s a reference to Revelation 14:13. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on….that they may rest from their labors.”

When I was a kid, a song we’d hear occasionally was called “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” We heard it, smiled at it, hummed along and thought nothing more of it.

Turns out that was the hobo’s national anthem during the Depression. And it gives us his idealized picture of paradise.

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Foolishness in the Leadership

The absolute most foolish thing the lay leadership of a church will ever do is to bring in a new pastor, turn everything over to him, and abandon him.

“You’re God’s man; it’s in your hands now.”

Sounds good. But it overlooks one massive fact: he’s a sinner and you have just handed him a temptation he may not be able to resist. You have endangered your church and put his entire future ministry at risk.

Take just the area of finances, for instance.

If you want to corrupt a preacher–not all of them, but it will work with a strong percentage–give him the say-so over the checks that will be written from the church. Do not build in any kind of oversight.

Hand the minister a credit card and pay the bills when they arrive with no questions asked. I can almost guarantee that fully one-third or more of ministers will cross that invisible line into questionable territory.

The news out of Compton, California, this week reports another pastor arrested for abusing the church’s trust. This minister took as much as $800,000 from the church, according to the FBI.

The FBI? They call the feds in on these things? They do. This is not a private little matter between a pastor and the mayor or the police chief, who may even be a member of your church. This is serious stuff. The Compton pastor will spend several years in the federal penitentiary.

You might think all the members of that church would be upset at the preacher. You’d be wrong.

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Dear Pastor Search Committee

Every minister with any experience at all could write a book to pastor search committees. They would urge them to focus on one pastor at a time, always keep your word, do not sugar-coat how things are in your church, bring along a packet of material on your church and community to leave with the candidate, and give him names and contact information on past ministers who have served your church so he can do his own background checking.

It’s a scary thing, being selected for a pastor search team, what we used to call the “pulpit committee.” That title changed when it finally got through to some people that they were searching for more than someone to fill the pulpit; they were seeking God’s shepherd for their flock.

Over nearly a half-century in the ministry, I have dealt with at least an average of one such committee per year. In fact, during one three year period, I counted up the number of contacts I had had from pastor-searchers: 36, one per month.

I’ve seen them all, from the absolutely fantastic to the disastrously inept.

Personally, I can think of a-hundred-and-twenty-three things I’d like to say to this little group of folks entrusted with the future of their church.

I’ll confine myself to three words of counsel.

–Don’t fall in love too easily.

–Take your own sweet time.

–Run lots and lots of references, then run a few more.

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About That Church Fight

The headline in Saturday’s Times-Picayune read, “Feud simmers in Fla. church.” The story was one we hear so often and one which I dread with everything in me. This time, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale is ground zero.

When longtime pastor D. James Kennedy died in 2007, the church leadership set out to find God’s man to lead their church into the future. Some of us who have been around a while had observed the Kennedy era from start to finish. By his own testimony, he had been a mediocre preacher until God got hold of him and filled his life. Out of this came the “Evangelism Explosion” program for training laymen to share their faith. Soon, the church began to experience great growth and Dr. Kennedy was given celebrity status in preaching conferences across America. In the last few decades of his ministry, he was constantly on television. From that pulpit and in print, he preached a message of conservative Christian doctrine and conservative politics through which he called this nation to return to Christ.

Now, the new pastor is the grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham by their oldest daughter Gigi. His name is Tullian Tchividjian. The newspaper even tells how to pronounce his name: TUH’-lee-uhn chuh-VI-dee-uhn.

“But some Kennedy loyalists, including his daughter Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy, are upset with the direction Tchividjian is taking the church and have called for his ouster.” (T-P article)

So, what is this heretic doing that would provoke such a hostile reaction?

First, he looks different. “His hair is spiky, his beard sometimes scruffy, his skin tan. He has forgone wearing a choir robe at services.”

In other words, he looks like half the young pastors in America.

Second, “he has rejected politics as the most important way to change the country.”

A letter circulating through the church from the dissidents charges the young pastor with deceiving the leadership when they first considered him for their pulpit. And just how? They’re not saying.

Is it theology? Is Tchividjian preaching false doctrine? Nope. Apparently, they have no trouble with that.

There is the matter that the new pastor brought in the staff from his previous church (New City Presbyterian) and “they have taken complete control.”

The letter accuses the pastor and his staff of “violations of ethical standards that have guarded the purity of the church for decades.”

What violations, what standards? They’re not saying.

When invited to a meeting to discuss these matters, the dissidents did not show up.

Now, I’m tempted to say here “I don’t have a dog in this fight” and leave it there. But I do have one. Every disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ has something at stake every time a church goes through this kind of internal conflict.

If indeed there are important ethical or biblical standards being violated, then the plaintiffs–if they’re not to that point yet, it would appear they’re getting close–should speak up and say so.

If not, I have some counsel for them: walk away from this.

It ain’t your father’s church, dear.

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