Pastor, you’ve been invited to preach in an unfamiliar setting (and you’re trying not to panic)

A preacher friend whom I know only from Facebook sent out a panicky plea. He’s been invited to preach in a church known to be rather loose regarding some basic Christian doctrines.  The friend is a Bible-preaching conservative.

Uh oh.

He is anxious and eager at the same time.

He asked a number of us:  “What should I preach? What text should I use?  Suggest some good ones! Some of the people in that church are probably unsaved.”

The answers piled in. One minister urged him to preach the entire story of redemption beginning with Creation and the fall and going forward.

That advice strikes me as highly questionable, although I’m confident it was well-intended.

I said: “My brother, do not try to reverse the history of this church in one 25-minute sermon. Just preach a text the Holy Spirit gives you and leave the results to Him.”

Then, I sent this personal, private note.  “This is no time to reinvent the wheel and attempt something you’ve never preached before. Take a lesson from grandma in the kitchen. When guests are coming, you do not test new recipes. Serve something you’ve prepared before and know your way around.  Ask the Lord to lay on your heart one of the time-tested messages He has taught you in the crucible of life.”

Preach what you know.

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What I told her when she said her prayers were so weak

“It’s not all up to you.”

She had given me a burdensome list of prayer needs.  Her husband was battling a terminal illness, her daughter was in a bad situation, the grandchildren were at risk, and she herself felt so far away from the Lord.

I’m breaking no confidence in sharing this.  First, she gave permission, and second, her needs are not unlike a dozen people whom I know. There is a lot of this going around.  A few minutes ago, a mother whom I do not know, but who found us on the internet, wrote with a similar list of prayer needs.

She asked me to pray for her. She did not ask for advice. However, while I am indeed lifting her needs in prayer, the next best gift I can give is to encourage her own praying.’

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Humor and grief in ministry…hand in hand

“There is….a time to weep and a time to laugh” (Ecclesiastes 3:4).

The doctors at Houston’s M. D. Anderson Medical Center confirmed to Ted that the lung cancer had indeed metasticized to his brain.  “Perhaps six months, more or less,” said the doctor when Ted asked how long he had.  The worst news imaginable.

However, that night the doctor called his room.

“I’ve been studying the brain scans,” he said. “And I believe yours is Primary Lung Cancer which has moved to the brain.”  He went on to say that Primary Brain Cancer is not treatable, but a metasticized Primary Lung Cancer behaves differently in the brain and is often treatable.

There was hope, after all.

When he got off the phone, Ted explained this to his family. He was quiet a minute, then said, “Well, you know it’s your basic bad situation when you’re praying for lung cancer!”

And they laughed.

Can you weep and laugh at the same time?

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When we backslide, a dozen things happen, all of them bad

“The way of the transgressor is hard” (Proverbs 13:15)  

What started this was a note from a fellow who took issue with something I said about the church.  He had no use for the church, he said. Every church he’d ever attended preached a shallow message, the sermons were mind-numbingly boring, and the people were dull and listless.  After venting, he wondered if I’d be interested in some essays he’d written about the church.  I declined.

In our exchange, I said, “Could I tell you something that happened to me?  IEven though ‘ve been preaching for over half a century, at least twice during that time, I have gotten out of fellowship with the Lord.  What we call “backsliding.”

And when that happened, I noticed something surprising.  I became negative about my fellow church members and critical of the other ministers.  Then, when I humbled myself and repented, I saw them in a new light and found myself loving them. That was a fascinating thing to learn.

This was as gentle a way as I could find to tell the man that my money is on his being in rebellion against God. In his backslidden state, he is down on the Lord’s people.

Backsliding.  Interesting term, isn’t it?  It says what it is, and needs little explanation.

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Preaching about America in the worst way

Preacher Driftwater told me, “I want to preach about America in the worst way.”

I told him it’s been done.

What he said is not what he meant, of course.

The worst way to preach about America is negatively.

“The world is going to hell.” “America is decaying from within.”  “The country is becoming socialist.”  “The president is our worst enemy.”  “The Supreme Court is ruining America.”  “The home is breaking down. Marriage is a thing of the past. You can’t get a good two-dollar steak any more.”

Okay, strike that last one.

The U. S. Supreme Court has just ruled that homosexuals can marry in any state in the union, forever changing the character of this country.

We are justifiably concerned. And we are stuck with their decision.

Does this mean the United States is through? Will God write ‘Ichabod’ over what used to be a great country?  Should we preachers deliver its eulogy from our pulpits?

Not so fast.

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The most amazing thing we do when reading Scripture

Whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17).

Whosoever surely meaneth me.”  — Gospel song by James E. McConnell, 1910.   

“He included me.”  — Gospel song by Johnson Oatman. 1909.

Every Christian I know does this and I do it too.  And yet there seems to be no easy explanation for it.

In Scripture, we will be reading where God is telling Israel how much He loves them, how He has loved them from the first, how His love is endless and that He has big plans for them, and what do we do?  We copy off those words and plaster them around the house, memorize them, and write them into songs of inspiration. We put them on bumper stickers and coffee mugs and t-shirts, and we build sermons around them.

We revel in those words.

We do this not because we are so impressed by God’s love of Israel nor touched by their closeness.  We do it for another overwhelming reason.

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Back into the pastorate: What I would do differently

“Keep a clear head about everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5).

The editor’s last question was “What would you do differently if you were going back into the pastorate today?”

After responding to his other seven questions at length (see the previous article on our website), I felt this one needed more reflection and its own space.  So, this is my attempt to answer that good question….

Well, first,  I’m highly tempted to say….

–I would wonder about that church.  Why in the world does it want a 75-year-old has-been as its shepherd?  They must be really hard up.

–I would have my head examined.  (If Margaret were still living, she might say, “And you’d have to find yourself another wife!” lol)

But seriously.

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“Looking Back” — Joe is interviewed by an editor

“…that the generation to come might know….” (Psalm 78:6)

It was baseball great Satchel Paige who said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

At the age of 75, it’s probably safe for me to look back, at least for a few moments. I’m not racing anyone any more, if I ever was. And the only thing gaining on me is Father Time. (He can afford to pace himself, not having lost a race yet.)

Perhaps now is a good time to pull over into a rest area for a brief retrospective.

The editor of a Christian magazine posed eight questions to jog my thinking.  He mostly wondered if I see the pastoral ministry any differently now from “way back when.”

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The most misused text in the Bible?

“Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God will come, He answered them, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with something observable;  no one will say, ‘Look here!’ or ‘There!’ For you see, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:20-21).

You’d be surprised who all loves to quote our Lord Jesus.

A lot of people who believe almost nothing Jesus said about Himself–about salvation or heaven or hell or marriage or a faith or a thousand other subjects–will quote Him when it suits their purpose.

Google Luke 17:20-21 and pull up a chair.  Those citing these two verses run the gamut from Leo Tolstoy to your favorite Indian guru to the atheists.

Taken completely out of context and given the speaker’s own spin, this malleable verse can be made to say whatever they choose.

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Rescue your life from bondage to your emotions

“Walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh”. ” (Galatians 5:16)

Brothers and sisters.  If you would be spiritually mature and successful in the Christian life, you must rescue your spiritual life from bondage to your emotions.”  –J. Sidlow Baxter, speaking to Mississippi Baptists in the mid-1970s.

She said to me. “If I don’t feel like doing something, my heart would not be in it, and the Lord said we are to serve Him with all our heart. I don’t want to be a hypocrite.”

I said, “So, if you don’t feel like reading your Bible or going to church or apologizing to a neighbor, you don’t do it.  Right?”

She: “Right.  It would be hypocritical.”

Me: “Well. May I ask you, do you ever wake up on Monday morning and not feel like going to work?  Or, when you were a teen, were there early mornings when you did not feel like getting up and going to school?”

She: “That’s different.”

Me: “How is it different?”

She: “It just is.”

Her name is legion.  A million clones believe as she does.  And the most telling thing about her lazy philosophy is how she refuses to examine it to see if it might be flawed.

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