Sermon killers

My friend Dave, who used to pastor a church in my New Orleans neighborhood, reminded me of a story that used to show up in sermons from time to time.

After the war, a soldier who was severely wounded was returning home. As soon as he entered the states, he phoned his parents to say he was bringing with him a buddy who had lost (fill in the blank–an eye, a leg, both legs, etc) and was confined to a wheel chair.  He wanted the guy to live with the family and promised that he would take care of him. The mother said, “Now, honey, we appreciate your compassion and your dedication to your friend. But this would be too heavy a burden on your family. This is not a good idea.”  A few days later, the family got word that their son, the one just home from the war, had taken his own life in a hotel in a distant city.  When the remains were shipped home, the family discovered he had one eye, one leg (or no legs), etc.   In the phone call, he had been describing himself.

Dave and I agreed that such a story, whether true or untrue–it’s impossible to know–is a show-stopper. A sermon killer.

Let the preacher insert such a story in his sermon and no one will hear a word he says afterwards.  The congregation will be sitting there reflecting on that story, grieving and imagining and reflecting.

The wise preacher will never tell a story that clobbers his sermon and destroys the point he was trying to make.

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Why pastors and counselors bang their heads against the wall

Michelle Singletary writes a financial advice column for the Washington Post.

Some years back, a fellow wrote Ms. Singletary asking for advice. He was planning to marry his fiancee of 18 months as soon as they dealt with her spending habits which were clearly out of control. Her closet contained 400 pairs of shoes, many still new, and was overflowing with clothing. She justified her spendthrift ways by saying she works two jobs and looks for bargains.

The man asked Michelle Singletary, “What can I do to help her curb her spending habits without making her feel bad or as though I am putting her down?”

Ms. Singletary urged him to postpone this marriage. They were not close to being ready until this was solved. She suggested pulling credit reports, seeing what that revealed and then finding a credit counselor.

A full ten years later, Michelle Singletary received an email from that guy telling what happened.  The news was not good.

He did none of the things Ms. Singletary had suggested.

After marrying the woman, he learned his bride owed $30,000 to the IRS and $15,000 in back taxes to the city.  He took out a second mortgage on his house to cover her debts, and now stands a good chance of losing his home.  He said, “I am on the brink of financial ruin and a failed marriage.”

That is why advisors quit and walk away.

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Perhaps the most profound thing our Lord ever said

“Except you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

What’s lacking in the great majority of religious experts–of all tribes, all beliefs, all everything!–is a childlike humility.

I’ve sat across from the salespeople hawking Jehovah’s Witness and Mormon doctrine door to door and been amazed at the sheer gall and arrogance of these know-it-alls.

I’ve sat in the auditoriums and classrooms when prophecy teachers were spreading out their charts and telling far more than they could ever know, pronouncing their anathema upon anyone daring to believe otherwise and taking no prisoners in the process.

I’ve sat in massive conferences among thousands of my peers and heard ignorance spouted as truth but camouflaged with alliteration and pious phrases and encouraged and affirmed by thundering echoes of “amens” and “hallelujahs”.

In every case, I longed to hear someone say, “We see through a glass darkly….”  (I Corinthians 13:12).

To hear someone say, “I have not arrived. I press toward the mark….” (Philippians 3:12-13).

To hear someone say, “We do not know how to pray as we should….” (Romans 8:26)

To hear someone say, “That which I am doing, I do not understand.  I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

Where is the childlike spirit we hear so much of in the Word?

1) I can hear someone say, “Well, we enter the kingdom by that spirit, but thereafter, as we learn and grow, we become teachers and instructors and gain confidence and are allowed to become more bombastic.”

Rubbish.

We are expected to be of a childlike spirit all our lives.  We are to remain teachable all the way to the end. We are instructed to grow in the fruit of the Spirit, and that includes such traits as gentleness, humility, self-control, and faithfulness (Galatians 5:22-23).

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Why your good sermon turned out to be a dud

Pastor, if you are like the rest of us, you’ve had this happen….

You brought a sermon on an important scriptural passage which you knew beyond a doubt was from the Lord and inspired of God.  You had a great time studying and praying for this sermon, and you knew this was cutting edge stuff. So, why was the sermon itself so poorly received?  Halfway through, you could sense the congregation’s collective minds wandering.  How could this happen?

Clearly, the problem could be any of one thousand things. But if I may, I will share a strong conviction on the number one reason your excellent sermon was so poorly received.

You failed to lay the foundation for it.

That is, you preached the event without setting the stage and placing the context for it before the congregation.  For instance….

–You preach Matthew 1:18ff and Luke 1:26ff, the Mary and Joseph event.  This beloved story needs you to point out how the world had lain in darkness for centuries, with no word from God, no prophets appearing, no fresh revelation.  And then the angel Gabriel showed up.  Bingo!

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Turning sarcasm into “sic ’em!”

“Jesus said, ‘No doubt you will quote this proverb to me, “Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” No prophet is welcome in his own hometown’” (Luke 4:24). 

John Fogerty’s group Creedence Clearwater Revival is unforgettable to anyone who has owned a radio in the last 50 years.  Several years ago, in an interview with newsman Dan Rather, Fogerty was remembering a key moment in the 1960s.

The group was one of many bands to perform at a particular event.  As the final group to warm up, and thus the first band to appear on stage, suddenly CCR found they had been unplugged.  John Fogerty yelled to the sound man to plug them back up, that they weren’t through.  The technician did so reluctantly, then added, “You not going anywhere anyway, man.”  Fogerty said, “Okay.  Give me one year.  I’ll show you.”

One year later, the group was so hot with hit record after hit record (“Proud Mary,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Bad Moon Rising”) that “we were too big to play in that place any more!”

Turning sarcasm into a healthy sic ’em!  Something to spur you onward instead of allowing it to crush your spirit and keep you down.

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What if the Lord should ever forget me?

“The righteous will be remembered forever” (Psalm 112:6).

What do you suppose would happen if the Father in Heaven ever got Alzheimer’s?

After all, He’s really, really old, right?

Okay. Not going to happen, of course. My whimsy gene is just asserting itself today.  Scripture makes it plain that “He knows those who are His” (2 Timothy 2:19).

But it did start me to thinking….

What if the Lord really ever were in danger of forgetting me?

Well, the good news is He has these memory aids, mnemonic devices they are called, to guarantee that He doesn’t lose track of any of us.  And no, I do not mean God ties a string around His finger.  Something far better.

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20 reasons why I pray

“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.

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–I could not believe a Christian 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?”

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The world into which the gospel came

Robert Harris is surely one of the most effective historical novelists on the scene. Everything he writes is so readable.

Conspirata is a sequel to Harris’ novel Imperium, which chronicles the rise of Cicero in ancient Rome.  He sticks to the facts and to the actual speeches of Cicero as much as possible, which is what make this so valuable.  You feel you know these people afterwards.

Conspirata  tells of Cicero’s consulship in which he ruled over the Roman Empire for a brief period, his work as a senator, and his brilliance as a lawyer and orator.  It’s impossible to recommend this novel too highly; I loved it.

I was struck by the conditions in Rome at this time (the story begins in 63 B.C.). This was the most civilized and progressive society known to western man at the time.  We still speak of “the glory that was Rome.”  It was glorious, to a point and depending on the strata of society you occupied.

Into this world, Jesus Christ was born. Into this culture the gospel came.  To these people, God sent a Savior.

Read what follows and ask yourself, “Man, did these people ever need a Savior?”

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Pretend you are omniscient. Here’s how that looks.

General George Patton of World War 2 fame lived in the grip of a strong sense of destiny.  At times, he felt he might be the reincarnation of some ancient Roman general.  There was a daring and innovative spirit about him, a combination, some said, of past generals such as the Confederacy’s Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jeb Stuart, and the Union’s George Custer.

Patton knew he was special and felt “the gods” had ordained him for something dramatic in life.

According to LIFE magazine for November 30, 1942, he expected his death to be spectacular.

He has a date with history, but the date, he thinks, will be brief.  He expects to be killed in battle, not bombed out of headquarters somewhere to the rear, but blown up, bit by bit, in a tank advancing at the head of a victorious attack through the enemy’s strongest lines.

This premonition that he will be killed in battle is not something new. He had it in 1917; he had it during all the years between World War I and World War II, when even the Army seemed to believe there would be no more wars. He often described his premonition to his wife, until today she too believes it.  Of course, it may not come in the present desert campaign, but Patton’s friends now take his word for it: it will come sometime and it will be glorious. (p.116)

That’s what he expected about his death.  It was not to be.

Four months after the war ended he was killed in an automobile accident.

He must have been so disappointed.

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How religious cults operate

After a few days of trying in vain to get Russians to talk with her, Cowles found out why they were afraid. Stalin had just killed untold millions of his own people for what he called anti-Communistic actions. Some of those actions were nothing more than studying a foreign language or befriending a foreigner. Consequently, people were afraid to speak to any stranger.

Cowles then gives us her analysis of life in that sad country:

The chief distinction between man and animal is the critical faculty of the human mind. In the Soviet Union–just as in Germany–the critical faculty was carefully exterminated, so that the mass might sweat out their existence as uncomplainingly as oxen, obedient to the tyranny of the day. Truth was a lost word. Minds were doped with distorted information until they became so sluggish they had not even the power to protest against their miserable conditions. The ‘Pravda’ never tired of revealing to its readers the iniquities of the outside world, always pointing (out) how blessed were the people of the Soviet Union.

This is precisely how religous cults operate. They cannot stand for their people to think for themselves, have independent opinions, or ask troublesome questions. Dissension is treated as rebellion and rebellion gets you ousted.


By the word “cult,” I do not mean bad people. In fact, personally, in using the word I don’t mean all those off-beat groups that appear on the religious landscape from time to time. By “cult,” I mean variations of Christianity that claim they and they alone have the truth and all the rest of us are either deceived or deceitful.

The two groups that qualify more than any others in my mind are the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

 

Watchman Fellowship is an outstanding organization which seeks to inform people about modern cults. Their website is www.watchman.org. I recommend them highly.

Watchman Fellowship says on their blog, “Cults have shifted their theological point of authority away from God’s full and final written word, the Bible, to their own unique, self-promoting opinions about the Bible.”

These groups take one of three positions regarding the Bible, according to WF.

–1) The Bible is merely a good book. Groups taking this line include Hare Krishna and Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.

–2) The Bible is the Word of God but has mistakes. The Mormons (Church of Latter-Day Saints or LDS) and Christian Science take this position.

–3) The Bible is completely true and accurate, but only our group has the correct interpretation. Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unity School of Christianity fall into this group.

The primary thing to bear in mind about cults is this: each one has a central authority that sets all the rules, interprets the Bible, and allows no deviation from its “revelations.”

No independent thought. No criticism of its leadership. No dissent, no questioning, and therefore no sense of humor.

I’m old enough to recall when the Brooklyn headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses handed down a new rule prohibiting the open-book studying and teaching of the Bible. Until that time, members could gather in Kingdom Halls and study the Bible for themselves. But from that moment on, only official materials could be read with the Scriptures and counted on for the proper interpretation.

I’ve had more than a few run-ins with both groups–Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons–over the years. Nothing about it was fun. I’ve read the books of Christian writers with their insights and principles for witnessing to members of these movements, but I always came away feeling I had failed the members of the sects and done a poor job of representing the Truth of Christ.

As a seminary student and part-time pastor of a small church on a Louisiana bayou, I learned that two children who had started attending our church lived in that house on the highway. So one evening, a deacon and I called on the family. The father welcomed us in and proceeded to inform us he was a backslidden Jehovah’s Witness. For reasons long forgotten, he had fallen out of favor and had been ousted. But he could argue circles around me. I was so green and completely unacquainted with his religion.

That sent me to the library to start learning. The next time, I determined, I would be ready.

I was far from ready.

Several years later, a man in our town told me his teenage son was being pulled into the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He asked if I would talk to the boy. We set up a meeting for the next Monday night at my church.

It was a set-up all right. And I was the bait.

The man and his son were accompanied by the leader of the local Jehovah’s Witnesses hall and an apprentice or two. In no way was I expecting or prepared for this. I know now, I should have ended it right there and called off the meeting.

But I was young and this had never happened before.

The JW leader put on a show before his understudies. He gloated like a young Mussolini whenever he spotted an area where I had to say “I don’t know,” flaunted his arrogance with a smirk, and left me speechless.

One does not forget such an experience.

I have no further memory of anything coming out of that little confrontation other than a complete revulsion in my soul ever since for such people. Looking back, I wonder whether the man and his son were more revolted by my ignorance or by their leader’s arrogance. Both were pretty overwhelming.

Over the years since, I have made an in-depth study of both Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism. I’m no expert on either. I have found, however, that they share a disdain for one another. And no wonder, since they use so many of the same tactics: door-to-door work, we-alone-have-the-truth, the Bible-is-true-only-as-we-interpret-it, and policies are set by a small group of men who alone receive revelations from the Almighty. Everyone else is expected to tow the party line and leave their eternal destinies in the hands of the authorities.

As with Communist Russia, these groups exist only by squelching dissent. Raise embarrassing questions and you’ll get a come-to-Jesus (as we say) visit from your superiors. Question the authority and your standing is quickly in trouble.

There is a certain security in belonging to such a religion. It keeps you from having to think. Your salvation and eternal destiny are in the hands of other people.

If you like that sort of thing, that those are the religions for you, I suppose.

But mark it down in big letters: such cults will always have mass defections from people who were sucked in and then found out that they were expected to leave their critical faculties (their brains!) at the door.

The bad thing about those who leave such cults, I have sometimes found, is that many have been forever poisoned against belonging to a normal Christian church.

There is going to be some hard accountabilities at Judgment, friend. It’s not only the Hitlers and Stalins who have a lot to account for when they stand before the Almighty. The leaders of the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are in deep trouble.

Remember you heard it here.

Kate has given me permission to tell of her experience with the Mormons. She grew up in a town where I pastored for many years, and we’ve reconnected on Facebook recently.

She grew up Episcopalian. “I had no idea who Jesus was.” In college, “I went the Methodist route, but still didn’t connect.” She married Brad, they moved to another city, and one day the LDS missionaries knocked on the door. “At the time, they were a nice diversion for me.”

Brad was violent and abusive and Kate felt safe with the elders. “We became close friends, which is actually frowned on between male missionaries and female investigators.” She says, “When they were teaching the lessons, I thought they were crazy.”

“Even thought I did not have a connection with God at the time,” Kate explains, “I did have enough biblical foundation to know their teachings were out of line with that.”

So why did she join the Mormon church? “I felt pressured and I felt guilty because they were friends and needed this to happen. I remember being offended when they put me with other women to learn from. I wanted to hang out with the two elders and no one else. So joining was not about the doctrine at all.”

Kate was baptized in the Mormon ward on Mother’s Day of 1990. “I just never could accept the LDS faith, though. It was bizarre to me. I thought they were wonderful and delightful people, but doctrinally off the wall.”

“As strange as this seems, even though I wasn’t saved and did not have a relationship with Christ, I knew they were wrong. But I was so desperate to escape my bad marriage to Brad. The violence at home escalated over time. I cannot tell you how many times the missionaries would take me to the emergency room or comfort me when I went to their apartment with black eyes, cuts, bruises, or bloody lips.”

“Brad left me in 1990 over a private conversation I had with the LDS missionaries. I told them something about my marriage and they called him. He was humilated I had discussed our life with them, so he beat me again. He left me for dead this time, he cleaned out the house, and he moved out. I felt completely betrayed by the missionaries.”

“After I was released from the hospital, we set up a meeting with the Mormon bishop. He warned me to have a sweet spirit when I came in. He said if I had a spirit of dissension, Satan would enter the room with me.”

“The young missionaries told the bishop that they knew what was best for me and that God had told them to call my husband.”

Kate says, “That might have worked had Brad been a member of the church and not a sadistic lunatic.”

Eventually, Kate moved back home. Her mother rejected her. “You made your own bed, now lie in it.” From there, she moved to Florida.

There, Kate re-connected with the Mormon church. It was all she knew.

Eventually, a member of the ward who was a psychiatrist had her committed to a padded cell in a strait jacket. That’s when she moved once more.

In her new town, she met a guy. He said, “I’d love to date you but there’s something you need to know. I’m a Christian.”

“He brought over a Bible, some tacos, and a Keith Green CD (still my fav). He said, ‘Start reading in Matthew and call me after you get through John.’”

Long story short–and there is much more to Kate’s saga–the Lord used the witness of this friend to penetrate her heart and get her straight.

At a particularly low point when she thought about jumping off a bridge, God reminded her of Psalm 68:5 (A father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows, is God in His holy habitation). “It just blew my mind.”

“I said out loud to the Lord, ‘I will be your child if you will be my Father, but if you aren’t real, then I’m coming back to this bridge and I will jump off it and I don’t want you to stop me.’”

That did it.

“I had an overwhelming sense of peace right then, went home, burned all my ac/dc, black sabbath, secular music and said, ‘I trust you to provide what will help me grow as a Christian.’”

Two days later, at a get-together of Christians, Kate heard the testimony of a young woman who told how Jesus saved her from a life of drugs and partying.

Kate says, “I prayed the sinners prayer right then on their deck and started going to church.”

She wrote the LDS church, demanding that they remove her name from their rolls. “It only took them 8 years. I just got the letter that I have been officially removed. As for how I feel about the church right now, I still think they are lovely wonderful people. I live in a western city which is nothing short of little Salt Lake. I have many friends still in the church, but their doctrine is absolutely and totally incorrect and I don’t mind being quite vocal about it.”

“Their doctrine is dangerous,” Kate says, “I don’t allow them to pray with me or to pray anywhere in front of me or on my property. They are not praying to the same God I am. I know Mormon doctrine well. I have the Book of Mormon here, the pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants and I know them well.”

Kate says, “A Mormon will tell you in a heartbeat if you try and quote that last verse of the Bible (not to add to the Word of God) that Revelation was not meant to be the last book in the Bible. However, they don’t have much to say when I tell them that the God of Creation, the One who spoke this world into existence, He would know what order His Holy Word was supposed to be in.”

“I am extremely opinionated about the Mormon church, even angry about it sometimes. I pray every day for this deception to fall like a house of cards.”

I’m asking our readers to pray for Kate. She’s a precious young woman and even though she has joined a good church, she needs to be in a small group of believers who will encourage her.

She does not need anyone to dominate her life, however. She’s been there and done that. The Lord Jesus Christ has set her free. We give Him praise and glory for the peace and salvation she knows right now.

Kate is one of the Lord’s jewels. We rejoice in what the Lord has done in her and for the person she is in the process of becoming.