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.
“Jesus never preached without telling stories.” (Mark 4:34)
Pastor, your people love a good story. Listeners who have gone on vacation during the first ten minutes of your sermon will return home in a heartbeat the moment you begin, “A man went into a store….” or “I remember once when I was a child….”
Those who have died early in your message will suddenly spring to life when you say, “The other day, I saw something on the interstate…” or “Recently, when the governor and I were having lunch at a local cafe…” (smiley-face goes here)
We all love a good story. We’re so addicted to stories, our television brings us hundreds a day. Even on talk shows, the host wants guests to tell a story! Drop in on your local cinema and no matter which screen you’re watching, it’s all stories. And the book publishing business–well, you get the idea.
There are a thousand reasons for dropping the occasional story into your sermon, pastor. Here are three….
1) It makes the hard truth tastier, a little more palatable.
A good story sugar-coats the bitter pill you’re asking your audience to swallow.
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.
>“Return to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you” (Psalm 116:7).
Fears crop up from time to time.
They co-exist right alongside my faith, like tares among the wheat (referencing Matthew 13:30).
My faith and my fears are not friends, you understand, nor are they unknown to one another. They have fairly well existed alongside one another from the beginning, so they are well-acquainted, in the sense that competitors on the gridiron who do battle in repeated contests come to know one another intimately.
I identify with the fellow who, when told that all things are possible if he could believe, answered, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24).
What do I fear? Let me count the ways. (I do this knowing full well that fears love to be given room and attention and energies, all of which serve to feed this cancer, causing it to mushroom.)
I’m trying hard to answer this question with a straight face.
Short answer: No.
Longer answer: Absolutely not! Whatever are you thinking??
On the interstate I passed a billboard advertising some ministry that is focusing on biblical prophecy. Big letters: “THE USA IN BIBLE PROPHECY!” And a website.
My opinion–and that’s all this is; this is my website and I can freely post it; thank you very much–is that the people involved in this kind of “find the USA in the Bible ministry” fall into two groups:
–1) well-intentioned unthinking believers who love Jesus but were never grounded in the essentials of the Christian life, and are now being led seriously off-track;
–2) clones of Harold Camping (the guy who was in all the news some years back for predicting the end of the world) who spend all their time trying to unlock the Rubik’s cube of the Bible so they can know more than anyone else as to what the Lord is up to.
Both groups are in bad trouble.
Wellington, a pastor friend, and I were having lunch. I asked what he was preaching the following Sunday.
“Jude,” he said, “and it’s worrying me to death!”
I laughed. “Why?”
He said, “I’m doing a series through some of the shortest–and most overlooked–books of the Bible. I’ve done Philemon and II and III John, and so, locked myself in to do Jude this Sunday. I’m really having trouble finding a hold on it.”
Since I had not read Jude lately, my memory of what that book-of-one-chapter contained was fuzzy, so I had little assistance to offer him. What I said was, “As I recall, Jude quotes from the Apocrypha.”
Wellington said, “That’s what’s got me. I don’t know what to do with that.”
The Apocrypha is the name given to the books between the Old Testament and the New Testament in the Catholic Bible. Protestants do not consider these writings as authoritative primarily because the Jews didn’t either.
In vs. 9, Jude refers to a small book titled “The Assumption of Moses.” In vs. 14 he does the same from the apocryphal book of I Enoch.
Now, referring to these books is not the same as endorsing them. The Protestant world agrees that these do not belong in the New Testament.
I said to him, “When I get back to the office, I’ll read through Jude and let you know if I have anything worth sharing.”
So, you’re reading the Bible through in a year? Or, like a few people I’ve known, you read it through every year for the umpteenth time.
Fine. But after you have done it two or three times, that’s probably enough. I have a suggestion for what you will want to do next.
Reading the entire Bible in a year is like seeing Europe in a week: You will notice a lot of things you don’t see from ground level, but it’s no way to get to know a country.
After a few flyovers–two days in Genesis and one day in Romans, for instance–you will want to land the plane and get out and make yourself at home in Ephesians or Second Timothy. Move in with the locals and live with them a few weeks.
I urge you, brethren–you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints–that you also submit to such and to everyone who works and labors with us. I am glad about the coming of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, for what was lacking on your part they supplied. For they refreshed my spirit and yours. Therefore, acknowledge such men. (I Corinthians 16:15-18).
Refreshing others. What a wonderful ministry. As opposed to wearing them out and using them up. Leaving them stronger than how we found them.
I’m struck by Paul’s tribute to Stephanas at the end of his epistle to the Corinthians. Along with his family and friends, this brother in the Lord did three things which earned him an “honorable mention” in Holy Scripture—
1. They were addicted to ministry. That’s quite a tribute. In our day, when people see needs, they frequently imitate the Lord’s disciples in the early part of John 9 and get into debates over who is to blame. But there are among us a few who have no time for such pointless dilly-dallying. They jump in to see what they can do to alleviate the situation.
There are so many kinds of addictions, but surely this is the best.
Critics of the Scriptures want to have it both ways.
If they find an inconsistency in Scriptures–the numbers seem not to agree, or a story is told in two or more different ways–it proves the Bible is man-made, filled with errors, and not to be trusted. If however they could find no inconsistencies this would prove the church authorities in the distant past conspired to remove all the troublesome aspects of the Bible in order to claim it to be inspired of God.
Either it is or it is not.
When one is determined not to believe a thing, nothing gets in his way. He can always find a reason not to believe.
Take the matter of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar of Jericho. His account is told in three of the gospels, but he is named in only one (Mark 10:46).
I came by it honestly. My dad, a coal miner with a 7th grade education, was interested in everything. He read and learned and talked to us of all kinds of subjects.
In college, I changed my major from science (physics) to history because the professors in the science building were focusing more and more on tinier and tinier segments of the universe, whereas history deals with the entire sweep of life, every person who ever lived, every civilization, every lesson learned. Nothing is off limits to history.
That did it for me.
I’m remembering a life-changing trip to Southern Italy in 2012. After several days of ministering to pastors and spouses from churches of many countries, I was among a busload who spent several hours touring the ruins of Pompeii, the Italian city devastated by the eruption of Vesuvius in August of A.D. 79. It was truly unforgettable. So much so, that….
After my arrival home in New Orleans, the next afternoon I was in our public library reading up on Pompeii. I checked out a Robert Harris novel titled “Pompeii,” and finished it the next night.
I felt like I’ve been living in Pompeii all week.
On my next trip to the library, I read up on the Roman aqueducts, which was a major theme of the novel.
Why? Of what possible use is this in my ministry?