How to read well and fast, and maybe smart

Or, if you don’t like the title above, try this one: How to read a 500 page book in 30 minutes! And retain 90 percent of what you read!

That’s the come-on which led some of us to pay for the Evelyn Wood speed-reading course some years back.  It was not money well spent in my judgement, although I did discover how a few people in this world manage to pull that off.  (If your experience with that course was better than mine, congratulations.)

A friend who is an editor for a Christian news service suggested that, since I’m a constant reader, I should blog about how to read better and faster.  As a trained editor, she tends to read critically and thus slower than she’d like.

That hit me like the time another editor asked for an article on gluttony.  I had consumed three large meals that day.  But I thought, “Who better than me, who knows the subject so well?”  I wrote the article and it’s still circulating the globe in cyberspace.

So, I opened the laptop with the intention of pontificating on reading.  But first, I decided to put the question to my friends on Facebook.  How to read faster and more effectively.  The answers were many, some helpful and several silly.  For instance, the latter…

–Bob recommended the Jeff Foxworthy method of “reading more gooder fastly.”

–Ken suggested, “Rd onl fw ltrs, dnt dwl on evy wd.  Dnt gv u!”   Someone needs to buy Ken a vowel.

–Luther learned to cut his reading time in one-half, he says, by turning two pages at a time.

–Danny said, “Read just the opening topical sentence of each paragraph.”

–Ted: “Read the first two sentences and last sentence of each paragraph, and move on.”  (He may have been serious, I don’t know.)

Okay.  Back to the real world.  Here are my thoughts on the subject, followed by a few insights from my son Marty which I found helpful….

One.  Just get started.  Read something every day. I suspect that most people who read poorly or slowly simply aren’t reading, period.  As with everything else in the world, what we do rarely we necessarily do poorly.

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Pastoring with the personal touch

“I just called to say I love you…” –Stevie Wonder

This week I received a note from a pastor friend.  “When you were here three years ago, you encouraged me to send hand-written notes to my church members.  I have done that–not as much as I should have–and it has been a very beneficial part of my ministry, even if performed imperfectly.”

I replied that he may be the first pastor who has ever done something I suggested. And that it will take a little getting-used to.

I was smiling.  I love to see a pastor–any pastor–making a discovery that works for him.

My journal for the 1990s records something I never want to forget.

Our other ministers and I were trying to line up 15 freezers of homemade ice cream for a church fellowship the following Sunday evening.  My assistant always had trouble getting enough freezers because he tried to do it simply by promotion from the pulpit.   A mass appeal like that makes it far too easy for people to ignore.

The best way to do this is by asking the people personally.

Profound, huh? (Another smile.)

So, in order to prove the point to my assistant, I made the phone calls.  I was going to line up fifteen freezers of ice cream.  And I did, I’m happy to say.  But in the process, I ended up making a huge discovery.  Or possibly a re-discovery.

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The pastor’s pain known only to God

“I have nourished and brought up children and they have rebelled against me….” (Isaiah 1:2)

The pastor loves that family and longs for them to do well. Their children are so fine and exhibit incredible potential. He knows their names.  He prays for them, encourages them, and goes out of his way to support them.  And they seem to respond. They flourish spiritually and seem to love the Lord, love their church, and love him. And then…

One day, they up and leave.

The pastor is told, “They’ve joined that new startup church down the highway.  The one where the pastor is so critical of us and our denomination.”

He never hears a word. They just disappear from his radar and he never sees them again.

It’s not that they stabbed him in the back. They did not pull a Judas and betray him.  They just walked away with nary a word.

No one but another pastor knows how that hurts.

My son and his family moved to Mobile from the New Orleans area home where they lived for the previous 22 years.  They loved their church and their Sunday School class.  Neil had coached the men’s softball team for nearly a quarter century.  So, a few weeks after getting into their new home, their Sunday School class drove over to visit one Saturday afternoon.  Bear in mind that it’s 150 miles each way and the entire class made the trip.  Then, a few weekends after, Neil and Julie returned the favor and attended a backyard cookout with their old Sunday School class.  On Sunday morning, they sat in their class and attended worship before returning home.

I told them, “One of many things I admire in you is how you keep your friends.”

A pastor cannot do what they did–visiting friends back and forth.  We stay at a church for years, and in the natural course of events have wonderful friends and close buddies. And when God sends us to another church, we move on.  If friends come to visit us, that’s one thing.  But we cannot keep running back to see them.

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What’s a pastor to do when ousted from his church?

An online preacher magazine says a pastor fired because of his alcoholism is bitter at his mistreatment by that congregation’s leaders.  Not good.

I’ll skip that article, thank you.  On the surface, I’d say he deserved what he got.  But then, I’m neither his judge nor their advisor.  But when a fired preacher exudes bitterness, that does concern me.

No one has a right to pastor the Lord’s church.

The bitterness feels like he no longer trusts the Lord.  Read Acts 16 again, preacher, and remind yourself how God loves to use setbacks and what appears to be defeats for His purposes. It’s sort of a divine alchemy.  But the one thing required for that to happen is trusting servants who know how to sing at midnight (Acts 16:25).

That God would allow any of us to preach to His people year after year, declaring Heaven’s message to the redeemed, without giving us what we truly deserve–the fires of hell come to mind, frankly–shows Him to be a God of grace.  Why don’t we see that?

Whenever I hear a Christian talking about not getting what he deserved, I run in the opposite direction, lest the Father suddenly decide to give the fellow what he’s asking for!

So, you were fired.  Okay.  Can we talk?

Call it whatever you will.  Perhaps they dressed up the terminology and told the congregation you were taking an extended leave, with pay for three months.  But you weren’t coming back.  Or, that you were taking a well-needed sabbatical for rest and study. But you weren’t coming back.  Or that you were going to the “wilderness” for some retraining and redirection for your ministry. But you weren’t coming back.

Here’s what you will do: You will hold your head up and go forward and look to the Lord who called you into this work in the first place, asking Him to do with it whatever pleases Him most. Period.

Repeat:  Hold your head up!  Look to the Lord.  Give this whole business to Him.  And keep on doing that until no trace of resentment can be found on your person.  Even if it takes years!

Sure, it’s hard.  No one is saying otherwise.

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What good does prayer do?

“And He was giving them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not faint” (Luke 18:1).

At all times we ought to pray.  We ought–that’s the imperative of prayer.  Not faint--that’s the alternative to prayer.

She knew I was praying for a certain family member who seems forever in some kind of predicament.  She asked, “Why do you pray?  I don’t see it doing any good.”

When I caught my breath–this was a believer asking such a question–I said, “Ask me why I breathe air.  It’s what I do to live.”

She did not let me off that easily. “Do you really think God is going to do what you ask? Is that why you pray?”

By now, I had settled down enough to try to verbalize a reasonable answer.

“That’s not up to me. How He chooses to answer my prayer is His business.”

“My job is to pray. To ask, intercede, to speak in faith what someone else needs. And so I ask for it.”

“How He answers is strictly up to Him. Or whether He even answers at all.”

Her question will not leave me alone. I imagine everyone who prays regularly–and keeps it up over the years, through good times and bad–has to answer this for themselves repeatedly, as well as for friends and skeptics alike.

It’s not as simple as it sounds. “Why pray?”

I certainly do not get all my prayers answered.

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The pastor says he intends to write a book. Here’s why he probably won’t.

The pastor said to me, “When I retire, I’m going to write a book.  I have all these great stories and experiences I’m itching to tell.  That’s what I’m going to do.”

I said, “No, you won’t.”

He was taken aback.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I’ve heard it too many times.  Preachers who have not written anything more than copy for the church sign think that when they hang it up, they’re suddenly going to transform themselves into authors. And it’s not going to happen.  It never happens.”

“Why do you think that is?” he asked.

“No one can go a lifetime without writing and suddenly flip a switch and write an entire book. Especially one worth reading.”

He agreed to give that some thought.

Let me say up front that I’m no authority on this subject.  I’ve written hundreds of articles but only a few books (seven actually).

For thirty years, I’ve written for Christian magazines.  A few of my articles have made it into seminary textbooks.  And I’ve published books of my cartoons, one series of which sold over 300,000 copies.  But only late in life have I written what Dad once called “an actual book,” meaning a volume of only words and no cartoons.

All my life, I have written. As a seminarian in my mid-20s, while pastoring a small church on Alligator Bayou some 25 miles west of New Orleans, I wrote a devotional column for our weekly newspaper.  That was exactly 50 years ago, and I’m still typing away. I write for this blog, have a page in each issue of Lifeway’s Deacon Magazine (“My Favorite Deacon”), and am always working on the next book.

To all the pastors who want to write that all-important book of memoirs when they retire, I have a few words of counsel:

1) Read constantly. The point is, this is how you learn what good writing looks like.  And just as importantly, you learn to recognize terrible writing.

The would-be writer who does not read much will turn out material amateurish to an embarrassing degree. Teachers of music and poetry speak of amateurs with no knowledge of the basics showing them compositions which “God gave me.”

A few years back, when someone sent me several cassette tapes of songs they had written direct from the throne of God, I passed them along to my favorite music professor (who happened also to be our minister of music).  Later, I asked, “What did you think of my friend’s music?”  He was quiet a moment, then said, “Joe, it’s junk.  Trash.  It’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

Yikes.  My problem then was going back to my friend and giving him the bad news as tactfully as possible.

There is no substitute for learning the basics of writing. And nothing accomplishes this more than reading a great deal of excellent writing.

2) Write a great deal.

“I don’t have time now,” the pastor says. “But after I retire, I’ll have lots of time.”

“I beg to differ,” I say.  “You have plenty of time now.”

Pause. No response.

“You have the same amount of time everyone else does–168 hours a week.  It’s a matter of priorities, of deciding what to do with your time.”

I once asked Pastor Larry Kennedy how he found the time to write books. We were neighboring pastors, he at Amory and I in Columbus, Mississippi.  He said, “I get up early and write an hour every morning.”

That’s how it’s done. You find slivers of time wherever you can, and you write. And if you cannot “find” them, you create them.

If nothing else, Pastor, open your Word program and write for that, things you never intend anyone else to see. You’re practicing, trying to learn the craft, to “find your voice,” as they say.

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Making a difficult subject more enjoyable: What good writers do

Winston Groom, known to most as the author of Forrest Gump, was a well-respected writer of historical stuff including Shrouds of Glory, Shiloh 1862, and Vicksburg 1863.  What makes Groom’s Civil War books different from most is the stuff he inserted into the narrative. Like these, for instance….

ONE. Rebel General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a case study in a hundred things–ego, confidence, brilliance, foolhardiness–caught up with Union Colonel Abel Streight near the Georgia line. Flying a flag of truce, Forrest invited Streight to surrender.  Now, bear in mind that Forrest was out-numbered over three to one.

General Streight agreed to surrender if Forrest could convince him that he had a completely superior force.

Forrest was ready.

He had arranged for his soldiers to haul the only two pieces of artillery they possessed around in a circle, across and behind a high cut in the road, so that it would appear to Streight that whole batteries were being brought up to the front.

Finally, Streight gave in. “How many guns have you got? There’s fifteen I’ve counted already!”  Forrest said, “I reckon that’s all that’s kept up.”

Sensing the futility of his position, the Yankee colonel handed over his 1,466 troops with all their horses, artillery, and equipment. When he learned that Forrest had only 400 men and two guns, he demanded that his men and arms should be returned and that they should fight it out.  Forrest laughed, patted him on the shoulder, and said, “Ah Colonel, all is fair in love and war, you know.”

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Yes, pastors sometimes say dumb things. Here’s why.

“Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers” (II Timothy 2:14).

The desire to be clever has tainted many a good minister, sabotaged many a fine sermon, and probably messed up a few marriages along the way.

I was listening to a radio preacher while driving home from somewhere. The preacher sounded “live,” and was clearly a biblical conservative, meaning I liked most of what he had to say.  Then, he spoiled it all and said something that “got my goat.”

He mentioned a well-known Southern Baptist evangelist who once preached in his church. “I asked him, ‘Brother, how long does it take you Baptists to disciple a new believer?’”

“He answered, ‘I don’t know. We’ve never done it.’”

Then he, the radio preacher, said, “Shameful!”

From that launching pad, he proceeded to disparage churches for not discipling people while tellling how it ought to be done.

I found myself wondering two things.

Why would the evangelist say such a patently dumb thing–that Baptists have never discipled anyone!–and then, why would the radio pastor repeat it?  Both are foolish statements, and unworthy.  They reflect poorly on everyone involved–the speakers, the churches, and mostly the Lord Jesus Christ.

I suspect I know why the evangelist said it and the radio preacher quoted it.

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How to write boring articles and preach dull sermons

My friends who read the title will think, “Well! Finally something Joe knows a little about!”

Every preacher, I imagine, knows about dull sermons. Anyone charged with turning out multiple sermons a week over decades will certainly produce his share of messages dead on arrival.

I’m thinking of a Christian leader/professor of past years who turned out book after book and built a reputation as a leader/writer/professor of note.  He was off the scene by the time I was thirty, so I never saw him when he was in his prime or I in mine. But, repeatedly, I came away from his writings thinking, “How dull. Why was he considered such a wonder?” My quick answer is that the standards were different in the mid-1900s. Denominational publishing houses turned out books not for their sharp content or even sales figures but for other reasons. In a word, he was “safe.”

Now! The challenge on penning something about dull writings and boring sermons is to keep from being dull myself. But, always one for a challenge, let’s see how this goes.

My recipe for articles and sermons that are DOA….

1. Spout platitudes.

Given a choice between a catchy turn of phrase and an old saying you’ve heard a thousand times, go for the latter. Faced with telling either something exciting you saw yesterday or an uninteresting rehashing of something Charles Spurgeon said 150 years ago, Spurgeon wins without a runoff.

Never meet a cliche you don’t like.  Pepper your sermons/writings with old bromides, common sayings, and everyday wisdom.  Likewise, shun (like the plague?) any expression that would challenge the reader/listener to question his presumptions, analyze his ways, reconsider his beliefs.

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Some things, my friend, you just do not want to know

“He leadeth me in paths of righteousness, for His name’s sake” (Psalm 23:3).

Pastor, you do not want to know why that committee turned you down for that position you wanted so badly.

I’m rereading my daily journals for the decade of the 1990s.  Much of it I’d long since forgotten, so in many respects, it’s fun.  One thing struck me, however, about the year 1992.

I was looking for a way out of this church!

By “this church” I mean the one I served as pastor nearly 14 years (1990-2004) and remained as a member through 2016.  It had come through a crisis 18 months before I arrived that almost resulted in its self-destruction.  The Lord sent me to half a congregation, millions of dollars in debt, an odd-shaped sanctuary that had had major problems from the beginning and constantly needed work, and a dysfunctional leadership team of some of the greatest souls in the kingdom mixed with some of the strangest birds ever.

My wife and I were hurting financially and it appeared to be getting worse.  We were living in rented quarters and were cutting into the small savings we kept from selling our house in North Carolina.

Some of the leaders were unhappy with us from the first and looked for ways to undercut everything we tried.

Nothing about this was fun.

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