Why Preparing Sermons Takes Me So Long

I once heard John Bisagno, veteran pastor of Houston’s First Baptist Church at the time, say he did not understand why many pastors require so long to prepare a message. “Give me some privacy, my Bible and a note pad and in two hours without interruptions, I have the sermon.”

That, I might say, is just one of the five hundred reasons most of us who know Dr. Bisagno have envied this gifted servant of the Lord. To put it bluntly, few of us can produce the kind of sermon we ought to be preaching in that brief a time.

In my case, the preparation time is not measured in hours, but in days or even weeks.

Here’s what I mean.

Perhaps it has something to do with limited intellect, but a sermon has to grow in my mind. Marinate as opposed to microwave, I sometimes put it. It just takes time for me to grasp the thrust of what the Lord is saying, how it pertains to the various scriptures on that subject, how it all relates to the Lord Jesus Christ and the cross, what it means to the average guy in the pew, and what we want to accomplish in the sermon.

Case in point.

Next Sunday, as I write, I’m bringing a message to a congregation about an hour from home. A group I’m a member of will be having its annual retreat in that area and a local pastor asked me to bring the morning message in his church. As I prayed for direction, eventually I decided the Lord would have me to bring a sermon from Romans 12 on the subject of “what the healthy church looks like.”

Now, I’m strongly convicted on the subject of healthy churches. In my last pastorate, we did a church health study over a couple of months and ended my nearly 14-year tenure with a reasonably healthy congregation. I taught a semester-long seminary course on the subject of healthy churches, and have taught the Epistle to the Romans a number of times.

So, it’s not like the subject was new to me. That, however, made the task more difficult for coming up with one message of 25 or so minutes in length. I have far too much information on the subject to put into one sermon.

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Things That Plague Us

Oh great. All we needed was a plague.

We have worldwide economic meltdown, wars and famines and pestilence, crime and corruption. Now, we have an epidemic: swine flu. Look for the panic to occur any moment now.

One thing about it, we are better set up for plagues than we were in the 14th century when the Black Plague ravaged Europe. Back then, that thing silently moved in on ships and was carried from town to town by fleas, riding on humans and animals. These days, we put people on planes, they sneeze into the air, and by nightfall, the flu is being enjoyed by people all over North America. Next day, Europe.

A Washington Post article of a few days ago says, “(This is) the latest example of how diseases, from influenza to tuberculosis to cholera, are spreading ever more quickly in an increasingly globalized world.” The good news, reporters Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan write, is that “so, too, are the tools necessary to combat sudden outbreaks of disease: expertise, medicine, money, and information.”

By an odd coincidence, I’ve just been reading Geraldine Brooks’ novel on the black plague of the 17th century. “Year of Wonders” is the strange title for this fascinating book. Brooks is a veteran correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and the author of “March,” a Pulitzer Prize winner, which several in my family found fascinating.

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Raconteuring, Provocateuring

A reporter interviewing me for an article concerning my retirement said, “I’ve been to your website and read a lot of your stuff. You impress me as something of a provocateur.”

That was a first. No one had ever accused me of that, but the more I reflect on it, I like it. A “provocateur,” as the name implies, is someone who provokes you. “An agitator,” the dictionary says. Hmmm. Don’t want to be one of those. But I do love the idea of provoking people to do something good and right.

“Provoke one another to good works,” instructs Paul in Hebrews 10:24.

In his commentary on Hebrews, Kent Hughes picks up on that thought. The Greek word, “paroxysmos,” is the root of our word “paroxysm,” a sudden convulsion or a violent emotion. In most cases in the Bible, this is not a positive word. For instance, used in Acts 15:39, it indicates a sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas.

We are to be “positive irritants,” Hughes says. Ah, now that I like!

Hughes mentions several ways by which we can irritate people productively: by praying for them, serving as a good example to them, letting God’s Word work in and through us, and encouraging them.

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Three Big Things I Believe — and One Greater

Sooner or later, one ought to be able to narrow down his major theological (i.e., true life) beliefs to just a few. The only way to do this, it appears to me, is to have lived long enough on this sod as to know oneself thoroughly, to have studied enough of the Word to know the Scriptures intimately, and to have interacted with others over decades as to know the alternatives sufficiently.

Here then are my big three, three non-negotiables I believe with everything in me. The discussion is closed on these, my conviction is rock solid.


As a young adult, I struggled with the concept of deity and tried to satisfy my youthful-but-inquiring mind that God is no figment of my imagination, but a genuine Person in back of the universe and the One whom we read about in the Scriptures. The more I read and contemplated atheism, the clearer I saw how all it had to offer was despair and meaninglessness.

Back from that brink — and glad to be — I had to admit that everything inside me resonated with the message of God in Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. It was more than comforting, because much of it is disturbing. It was rock solid, like I was dealing with reality. The teachings of Scripture fit the real world I was living in.

Ravi Zacharias has written, “If life is random, then the inescapable consequence, first and foremost, is that there can be no ultimate meaning and purpose to existence.” That fact, he says in “The End of Reason,” is the “Achilles’ heel of atheistic belief.” In spite of the fact that modern writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris like to promote moral values outside of a belief in God, it does not work. If there is no God, there is no ultimate meaning, and the child molester, the serial killer, Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Dr. Billy Graham or Mother Teresa, all come to a common end of nothingness.

Everyone seeks meaning and purpose. Movie script-writer Leonard Mlodinow (Newsweek, May 4, 2009) tells how he found himself at a Hollywood party chatting with a successful model when an attorney came up and usurped her attention. It turned out they were both Trekkies, devotees of the Star Trek saga, and knowledgeable about the most minute of details. He writes, “I stood there with a blank look, obviously over my head. Too much detail for my taste…. I was in awe that he remembered all that arcane stuff. Then, somewhere in the middle of his Vulcan dissertation, I realized something.”

What Mlodinow realized was that the stuff the Trekkies were quoting as Bible, the material they were memorizing and spouting as their gospel, he had written.

Mlodinow says, “The situation felt surreal. Not just because I’d forgotten my own dialogue — you’d be surprised how easy it is to blank on entire scenes — but that they had remembered it, and in such detail.”

It’s truly amazing what some people will grab hold of in order to give meaning to their lives.

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Blurred Reality in New Orleans

The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune has long since quit trying to maintain an objectivity about some of our community’s leaders. Concerning Mayor C. Ray Nagin, the paper has lost patience with his posturing, his evasions and his lack of transparency (the very quality he promised would distinguish his administration).

Several times a week, the paper gives a little more detail of an expensive vacation trip the mayor and his family took at the expense of one of the city’s contractors a few weeks following Hurricane Katrina. The trip to Montego Bay would have been impressive to most of us, but Hizzoner says he remembers almost nothing of it, that it was “just a blur.” The contractor, who usually palmed himself off to outsiders as “deputy mayor,” a position that does not exist, had intimate contacts with other companies with deep pockets which he engaged to work for the city. Turns out the trip was paid by one of those companies.

Were there shenanigans involved? Especially when you consider that this company was paid huge bucks to install the traffic-light-cameras, most of which ended up not working? Hard to tell. To my knowledge, nothing has been pinned on the mayor. However, he’s not helping the investigation and says he has forgotten all about the trip.

I’m leading up to something, so bear with me a moment.

Dr. Ed Blakely has resigned. We’ve written about him before. Mayor Nagin brought him in to be something of a savior for New Orleans, to work with our city’s departments and come up with a master plan for the redevelopment of the flooded city. Blakely, owning a resume most people would drool over, arrived with grandiose promises of “cranes in the sky” within a few months. In time, when almost nothing was accomplished under his leadership, and when it became apparent that Blakely’s primary job was drawing a big salary while jetting around the world to appear as expert spokesman on this or that program, always at huge fees, Blakely found another way to get the job done: take credit for what others have done.

So, now, Dr. Blakely gives himself an ‘A’ on his report card and flies back home to Australia.

Local columnists are not letting him depart without a few choice words.

James Gill, resident curmudgeon for the Times-Picayune, writes: “Mayor Ray Nagin and his Recovery Director Ed Blakely complement each other admirably. Nagin cannot remember things that did happen, while Blakely can effortlessly recall a bunch of things that didn’t.”

“Thus,” Gill continues, “Nagin can prostitute his office and promptly block the memory, while Blakely, as he announces he is getting out of town, continues to bask in the glow of imaginary accomplishments.”

They do have a lot in common, Gill says: “Hardly anyone believes a word either of them says.”

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Rescuing the Sermon (and the Worshipers) from Dead Outlines

Have you ever read something and all the bells went off inside you? “That’s it! That’s what I’ve been thinking!” The author has been reading your thoughts.

That happened to me this weekend.

Warren Wiersbe was the culprit, the reader of my mind. His book is titled “Preaching and Teaching with Imagination.” I notice that he autographed it to me, but have no memory of the occasion when that happened. Mostly, I wonder why I delayed reading this incredible book. (Published in 1994, it’s been around long enough for you to purchase it for a song at www.alibris.com or your favorite used book source.)

Dr. Wiersbe put this insight in the form of a story. I suspect it’s a parable, meaning he fictionalized it in order to make a point. (He has good precedent; our Lord did this.) Briefly, what he told was this:

Grandma Thatcher sits in church with a number of hurts and spiritual needs. Although she’s lovingly known throughout the congregation as a saint, she gets nothing but harassment and trials at home for her faith. When she gets to church, she needs a word from God.

On this particular morning, the pastor stood at the pulpit and preached from Genesis chapter 9, the main thrust of which was his outline, with all the points beginning with the same letters. The outline — pastors take note! — was excellent, as those things go:

Creation Presented — Genesis 9:1-3

Capital Punishment — Genesis 9:4-7

Covenant Promised — Genesis 9:8-17

Carnality Practiced — Genesis 9:18-23

Consequences Prophesied — Genesis 9:24-29

As she departs the sanctuary, Grandma mutters to herself, “Last week it was all S’s. Today it’s all CP’s.”

She walked out the church that day with her hunger unabated and returned home to face a hostile husband and another week of trials.

Not long after, the pastor had to be out of town and invited a missionary to fill the pulpit. Oddly, he preached from the same text, Genesis 9. But he took an entirely different approach. Here’s what happened.

“The speaker began his sermon by describing a rainstorm he’d experienced while on a missionary trip in the mountains. The congregation chuckled when he said, ‘I wish Noah had been with us. We could have used him!'”

“Then he started talking about the storms in human lives, and the compassion in his voice convinced the congregation that he’d been through more than one storm himself. ‘Storms are a part of life; God made it that way,’ he said. ‘But I’ve learned a secret that’s helped me all these years, and it’s still helping me: Always look for the rainbow. The world looks for the silver lining and sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but we Christians have something far better than that. Did you ever meet the three men in the Bible who saw rainbows?'”

His outline and the message that morning centered on Noah, who saw the rainbow AFTER the storm (Genesis 9), Ezekiel who saw the rainbow IN THE MIDST of the storm (Ezekiel 1), and John, who saw the rainbow BEFORE the storm (Revelation 4:1-3).

“He closed his Bible, smiling at the listening congregation, and said, ‘Dear friends, you and I will experience storms until we are called to heaven, and then all storms will cease. Expect the storms and don’t be afraid of them, because God is always faithful. Just remember God’s message to us today: Always look for the rainbows. Depend on the faithfulness of God. Sometimes He’ll show you the rainbow after the storm, sometimes during the storm, and sometimes before the storm. But He will never fail you.”

Now there, Grandma Thatcher thought, was a word from the Lord that nourished her soul.

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God Bless America, I said.

She was the checker at the grocery store and I was her next customer. Glancing at her name tag, I was stunned to see her first name: “America.” I smiled, “You are surely the most popular person in this store. After all, everyone loves America!” (Looking back, I realize she has heard every bad pun regarding her name and I shouldn’t have bored her with another.)

She said, “Unfortunately, not everyone.” I had to agree.

A couple of minutes later, as I was leaving, my arms loaded down with bags, I made eye contact and said, “God bless America.” She smiled, “Thank you.”

I walked out of the store thinking this was surely the first time I’ve ever had someone thank me for saying “God bless America.”

She is America; I have just blessed her.

Two days later — lessons have a hard time penetrating my cranium — it occurred to me that I am America, too. That you are and that guy is and the woman over there, she’s America, too. We’re all America.

And the best way to bless America is by blessing her and him and that one.

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Don’t Call Me a Retired Pastor

My friends email in this direction asking, “So what are you going to be doing now?”

The retired ones as a rule don’t ask that. They know. If you’re in the ministry, you keep on doing what you’ve been doing—serving the Lord, taking opportunities to preach or teach or lead or counsel or serve. The big change is they take away your office, your mileage allowance, and the regular paycheck. (Sounds like quite an adjustment, doesn’t it.)

I will now give an honest confession, which may or may not be good for my soul. For the most part, all I’ve done for the last 5 years has been: what I’ve wanted to do. And what has that been? Meeting with pastors, speaking whenever the opportunity arose, drawing for the Baptist Press, sketching people at block parties and church functions, and blogging. Once in a while, something of a denominational nature came up where my presence was expected and I attended or led or participated. But mostly, I did exactly what I wanted to do.

Tonight, on my way to the church where I’m preaching a revival, I called my wife back at home in River Ridge. I told her what I’d done today—speaking at the noon luncheon, sketching high school students at a local school, combing a used bookstore and coming away with a couple of gems, and I was then headed for the evening service where I would draw people before and after the worship times. Margaret listened to this and calmly said, “You’re in heaven, aren’t you.”

A wife knows.

Nothing much will change, except for the disappearance of the regular check. But I will look to the Lord and everything will be fine.

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Touch a Child; Change the Future

An eight-year-old child once wrote to Dr. Seuss whose real name was Theodore Geiss: “Dear Dr. Seuss, you sure thunk up a lot of funny books. You sure thunk up a million funny animals… who thunk you up, Dr. Seuss?”

Brian Upshaw has just re-directed my message for next Monday’s noon luncheon at the North Greenwood (Mississippi) Baptist Church on the subject of “how to love children”. Brian said, “Pastors who think of children as the church of the future instead of the church of TODAY will find themselves preaching to empty buildings.” When I thanked him for that insight, he admitted he heard those words from Andy Stanley earlier this morning in a conference.

Bob Anderson, longtime pastor in our state, once told a seminary audience, “We know Jesus was a happy person because children loved him. Children do not like to be around unhappy people.”

A little boy was playing in the yard when he saw a large Chow dog loping down the street, its heavy hair hanging out from its head. The boy ran into the house and breathlessly told his father he’d just seen a lion. The dad, well acquainted with his child’s tendency toward exaggeration, said, “Son, you had better be telling the truth.” “I am, Dad, I promise,” the little boy insisted.

Dad got up and walked to the window and came back. “Son, there is no lion outside. That’s just a big dog.” Then he said, “Now, I have warned you about telling things that aren’t true. I want you to go to your room and talk to the Lord about what you told me.”

A few minutes later, the boy was back. Dad said, “Did you talk to God about what you said to me?” The child said, “I did, Dad, and the Lord said the first time He saw that dog, He thought it was a lion, too!”

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