Using the text as a pretext: Even the best sometimes do it

Sit in a preaching class in any seminary or divinity school in the land and eventually you’ll hear a professor stress the importance of context. “Context is king,” someone will say.

The “context” of a Scripture means the setting for that text. This would answer the questions: What was the occasion of the event? Who was speaking?  Who was listening?  How did they interpret the meaning?

It’s about integrity in scripture interpretation and there is no more serious subject for a servant of Christ, a minister of the Gospel.

A text without the context is a pretext. That’s another of those cliches preachers toss around to one another. It’s pretty much the case. But as with most rules, there are exceptions…

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God’s faithfulness during difficult times

Just once I want to read where someone says, “I lost my job. God is good.”  Or, “The doctor said it’s cancer.  God is good.”  Or, “My loved one died. God is good.”  

His faithfulness is everlasting.  He is good no matter what.

A pastor friend sent me a note reporting on his church. He had baptized several that year and had twice that number to join in other ways. I replied that God is using him to turn around that old church and, “Good for you, friend!”

He came back: “The curmudgeons are still there, though, still lurking.”

I answered, “They always will be. But let me tell you what I’ve finally learned about that. These detractors are doing you a favor. They motivate you to greater faithfulness, to do your best work, to keep the focus on the Lord.”

He said, “I call them ‘Holy Sandpaper.’”

The Lord uses them to get the rough edges off His servant.

Interesting how the notes I get from pastors–some are questions regarding ministry–turn out to be the very thing the Lord was talking with me about earlier.

Case in point. I was going through some old correspondence files, trying to decide what could be discarded. I ran across the most critical (i.e., life-changing) exchange of letters I ever had with a church member in a long lifetime of ministry.

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How to read faster, better

“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 many 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.)

An editor for a Christian news service suggested that, since I’m a constant reader, I should write on how to read faster and better.  Editors, she says, tend to read critically and thus slowly.

I remembered the time another editor asked me for an article on gluttony.  The timing was perfect for I had consumed three large meals that day.  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.

Before starting the article, I decided to ask Facebook friends for tips on reading faster, better. The answers were many, some helpful and several delightfully goofy.

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Helping a child through the first faith crisis

And when your children shall say, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’ you shall say….  (Exodus 12:26)

Parents, you’d better be prepared. That day will come.

More than likely, the way children will ask this question will not be with upraised hand and respectful tone.  They will sound more like: “Why do we have to do this?  It’s so boring! I don’t get anything out of it!”  The word griping comes to mind.

Anyone heard that from your little ones?

But count on it.  They will ask that question, however they phrase it.  You’d better be ready with an answer, parents.

Six-year-old Matthew believed his mother totally, and that’s what caused the problem. He had heard and loved all her stories of Santa and elves and the North Pole . Now, he’s a bright child and he listens to the other kids. That’s how he heard that not only Santa and the elves, but also the Easter bunny and Rudolph and the entire galaxy of holiday characters were all figments of someone’s imagination. Fictions. Fantasies.

Remember, he’s six years old.  He was devastated.

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Mountain-climbing: “He makes me walk on my high places”

He causes me to walk on my high places. (Habakkuk 3:19)

Monica Kalozdi is a New Orleans resident with a passion for climbing mountains.  For some reason, years ago after the birth of her third child, she developed a yen to climb things.  First she was climbing hills and mountains.  Then she got ambitious. She decided to climb the highest mountains on the seven continents of the world.

According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune (Wednesday, July 13, 2005), Monica Kalozdi scaled Kilimanjaro in 2000, Aconcagua in South America in 2001, McKinley in 2003, and then in the summer of 2005 she reached Everest.  And that’s what I wanted to tell you about.  (Btw, typing her name into search blanks will bring up videos of her interview on New Orleans television.)

Here is Monica’s story…

For 55 days, she and her team lived in the frozen regions of Everest, eating dried food out of bags, living inside tents that were sometimes shredded by hurricane-strength winds. The final 1500 feet of this 29,035 ft mountain, she said, is called the death zone. Monica says, “You’re exhausted. You feel your body giving out. You can’t see where you are stepping, and you know one misstep can kill you. You’re terrified to take another step because you know you could die. But you also know you can’t stop, because if you do, you’ll die.” Pretty terrifying, but it gets worse. “We knew we had not drunk enough water and hadn’t eaten any food. Those were mistakes.” She says, “It was the scariest, most terrifying thing I have ever experienced. It is a death zone.”

Just 1500 feet? A breeze, right? Monica says the path is not particularly steep, except for three places…where it’s straight up for anywhere from 50 to 200 feet. Sheer rock wall. Through snow and ice, the climbers walk with steel claws called crampons attached to their boots for traction. But in rock? Well, good luck. This is where people die.

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Eight open secrets of leadership from Nelson Mandela

The cover of TIME for July 21, 2008, featured Nelson Mandela at age 90 beaming that sweet smile out to the world. Inside were his Secrets of Leadership: Eight lessons from one of history’s icons.

You know Nelson Mandela (1918-2013).  A political activist against South Africa’s apartheid in the days when to speak out was to land in prison, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1964. In 1990, President of South Africa F. W. de Klerk released him. Then, three years later both men received the Nobel Peace Prize.  In 1994, Mandela was elected president of the country. His autobiography is Long Walk to Freedom.

Over the decades, Mandela became a mature voice for reconciliation, reason, and unity. He is championed by people worldwide who are inspired by that beneficent smile from one who suffered so much and so long.

Here are his eight secrets of leadership, some of which you might find surprising—

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Full-bodied, three-dimensional preaching

I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  (Galatians 5:21)

Grady Cook, a wonderful Mississippi artist, told me how he had improved his technique. “The picture you bought from me last time,” he said, “was all right. But I still had a lot to learn.” I assured him Margaret and I thought it was fine and that it was hanging in our living room.

“Since then, I’ve studied under a wonderful teacher,” he explained, “and have learned how to add darkness to my work.” He said, “Here. Look at this.” Pointing at the picture I would buy from him a few minutes later, he showed the shadows and the blackness of the undergrowth of the forest. It made the picture far more three-dimensional than the earlier one. The trees stood out. It looked like someplace I’d like to explore.

We still have both pieces of art on display in our home, but since he explained the difference, I’ve enjoyed the last one far more.

“There’s something missing in this sermon,” I said to myself. On the surface, it seemed to work just fine. The “fruit of the Spirit” passage of Galatians 5:22-23 is a familiar and well-loved one. I’d studied it numerous times over the years and had preached it on several occasions. I like what it says about the effect of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer who abides in the Lord, that as he/she grows in Christ, they will grow all nine qualities of this “fruit” in his life. The nine qualities are the “fruit,” not “fruits,” and we do not specialize on one or two, but the indwelling Spirit will be producing all of them. Full-bodied believers, I suppose we could say.

And yet, trying to put myself in the place of my people and listen to my own delivery of the message, it felt rather blah. It just lay there, boring me–and if I was bored, how much more the poor hearers would be.  Something was wrong.

Then I realized what it was.

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When people write you letters….

I’m a letter-writer.  That should surprise no one since I’m part of the last generation of Americans to have been birthed and brought up on letter-writing. As a child of the 1940s, I remember so well the joy of my mother as she opened letters from her sister and mother on the Alabama farm.  Living in the coal fields of far-off West Virginia, Mama missed her family so much.  Aunt Sis would often include a couple of sticks of Juicy Fruit gum in the envelope.  Mom would tear off a piece and make those two last a week.

When I went off to college, I wrote letters–to my parents and to my girlfriend.

Somewhere in my files now are personal letters to me from Dr. Billy Graham, Cartoonist Charles Schulz, and western author Louis L’Amour.

I’m 81 years old (don’t look it–ha–and certainly don’t feel it) and count it a privilege.  Five minutes ago, I put in the outside mailbox four envelopes: two of them paying bills, one to a minister in Alabama and one to a cousin who is battling cancer.

I believe in letter-writing. But it takes effort.

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Why churches love their former pastors so much

(Not every church loves its former pastors.  Of the six churches I served, exactly one has shown evidence of remembering my years with appreciation.  And I’m fine with that.) 

“Most churches are two pastors behind in their appreciation.”  –Ron Lewis 

A cartoon shows a weary, embattled pastor standing beside a statue of a man on a horse.  The sign at the base reads, “Our former pastor.”  The preacher is saying, “Most popular guy in town.”

The host pastor said to his guest preacher, a former pastor, “They sure do love you here.”

That former pastor was Dr. Landrum Leavell, at the time President of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and celebrated as a distinguished denominational leader.  They had invited him back for a special day, a homecoming or something.  Everyone was excited to see him and to hear him preach.  The attendance was good.

Dr. Leavell looked at the pastor and said, “Really?  Did they tell you that?”

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Waiting on the Lord may be the hardest thing we are asked to do

They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength….  (Isaiah 40:31)

I waited on the Lord and He inclined to me and heard my cry…. (Psalm 40:1)

So, wait on the Lord.  Be strong. Let your heart take courage.  Yes, wait on the Lord. (Psalm 27:14)

Are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour?  (Mark 14:37).

It takes time.

God has all the time in the universe.

Throw away your watch and your calendar, follower of Jesus.  You’re on heavenly time now and nothing happens on your schedule.

I suspect most of us are like the fellow who prayed, “Lord, give me patience–and give it to me right now!”

You’ve been praying for a loved one. And you don’t see an answer.  You keep praying.  For years, you pray and wait and hope.  Then the one you were praying for is in a traffic accident and killed.  Clearly, God never answered your prayer.  You are devastated. So disappointed.  Your faith in God wavers.  You’re so unsure any more.  What is the point in praying and in trusting?

And then one day, years later, something happens.

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