Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Problem with Shepherds in the Christmas Story


There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12)


In her preschool Christmas play last week, my four-year-old granddaughter Emmie was a sheep. I may be biased, but I think it was one of the more demanding roles: it required crawling to the manger on all fours and then sitting perfectly still while scriptures were read by an infinitely patient teacher.

Of course, every cell phone was in video mode. The Christmas story with kids dressed as animals is guaranteed a five star review.

But the truth is, shepherds were at the bottom of the food chain. The book of Genesis tells us that the highly-cultured Egyptians considered shepherds “detestable.” But think about this: the most important event in human history happens and who learns about it first? The guys on the third shift sidestepping sheep poop.

How about that for some cosmic irony?

I’m not sure anything has changed much. Don’t get me wrong, but sometimes I look around the “Big C” Church and I think, “God, is this really the best you can do?” And I’m well aware of my own history. For heaven’s sake, I’m a drummer…and I’ve heard every drummer joke in the cosmos.

One of the earliest non-canonical Christian writings we have is the Epistle to Diognetes, possibly as early as 130 A.D. The author gives a powerful picture of the early Christians:

“They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum it all up in one word -- what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.”

Interestingly, the apostle Paul reflects this in 1 Corinthians:

Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of ‘the brightest and the best’ among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these ‘nobodies’ to expose the hollow pretensions of the ‘somebodies’? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:26-30 Message Bible)

Maybe that’s what I like best about the story of the God who slips into the world as an infant and sends His press release to sheep herders first: it’s upside down and “last-shall-be-first”-type craziness that somehow seems right to me.

So come on in, you losers. You outcasts. You thieves. You whores and pimps. You scammers. Come on in, you corporate cast-offs. You overlooked and underrated. Come on in and be seen, all you who are invisible.

Come on in, you drummers.
Come and bend your knee.

Merry Christmas to all! And may this be your brightest.



--> [I don’t normally blog here, but instead at www.elementalchurches.com…though posts there are typically geared toward church leadership.]

Friday, January 05, 2018

questions





There are times when I’ve wondered why God doesn’t perform some cosmic CGI and simply write his name in fire across the sky to prove his existence. Or why he wouldn’t just unzip the fabric of the universe and show humanity a glimpse of his alternative cosmos. Or, at the very least, why Jesus didn’t simply fly around the globe and visit each country with his new post-resurrection body if he was who he said he was.

Show me.

But I’ve come to believe something much simpler is required. Perhaps the most remarkable attribute of God is his humility: the “humble-ness” of the Father. After Jesus had said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls,” he would later stun his management team (again) to remind them, “Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”

Wouldn’t it be interesting if God were revealed to us not by us begging for Spielberg-type expressions of power, but rather by us adopting a spirit of humility—that maybe, just maybe, we’re not as clever and sophisticated as we think? That maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do? That, oddly, the doorway into his presence is simpler and smaller and requires us to stoop, perhaps in order to touch his real nature?

And maybe the idea that he might visit us via a backwoods town in an oppressed tribe and bedded down in a feeding trough for farm animals says more about how we might understand him than any fiery parade across the sky? Just maybe?

Let me offer a suggestion from a rational pragmatist and former agnostic: it works.

Merry Christmas, my friends. And may 2018 be your best year yet.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

a parable of honor and dishonor

Supposed a wealthy man had a son whom he loved.


He nurtured his son and raised him to be self-reliant and told him he was special. He took him hunting, gave him an allowance for chores, co-signed for a car loan when he turned sixteen, and connected him with people who might be able to further his career as he grew older. And even though the son didn’t always see eye-to-eye with his father, he knew deep down he was loved and safe in his father’s house.

When his son was in the second grade, the father contracted with a foster-child program and brought home a seven-year old to live in the home. But it was not an altruistic act; as a matter of fact, the father mistreated the child and taught him early on that he was not as bright and clever as his son. He kept him out of school and forced him to work long days in his factory without paying a penny.

The boy ate and slept on the floor of the tool shed in the backyard and could see the television flickering through the curtains of the house and hear the father and son laughing over the latest sitcom. Often the father beat him with a leather belt for the slightest infractions. He was promised nothing as he grew older and for many years after he was old enough to leave home, the father made arrangements with employers in the city to not hire the young man…or at the very least, limit his choices to the least of jobs. He even ensured that city council pass laws to keep the foster son from appealing for any change that might assist him. Deep down, the father was fearful of anything that might encroach on his own son’s benefits.

When the father died, his bereaved son had a large shiny plaque placed in the town square boasting of his father’s generosity and kindness. And because the father was well-known and well-connected, the son petitioned the city council to celebrate his father’s birthday each year, with special songs sung about him along with beer and whiskey toasts.

And though the foster child was invited to sing praises, he declined. The many years of abuse, neglect and shame had obviously not engendered the same warmth or gratefulness. The men of the town were appalled at the foster son’s shunning of the special day and how unappreciative he was. And when the foster son was brought before the council, he brashly told them that passing by the town square on the bus each day to work only reminded him of the suffering he had endured at the hands of a cruel and abusive man. There was no memory of generosity or kindness, only scars and remembrances of lonely nights. The plaque served only as a reminder of pain and degradation.

Is it any wonder that our brothers and sisters of color don’t have the same visceral enjoyment of the symbols that bring remembrances of forefathers and freedoms that they never experienced in century-after-century of slavery and ill-intentioned “separate-but-equal” laws? If slavery is America’s original sin, how is it that the privileged fail to see any disconnect between unabashed patriotism and the abusive parent? And when there is talk of “taking America back”, what do you think they feel? Even the days of “Leave It To Beaver” were not a great era for people of color. Empathy demands that we wrestle with that instead of simply dismissing it as unpatriotic.

So help me understand how a statue glorifying a rebellion—a traitorous movement resulting in a bloody war that killed more Americans than both World Wars in order to protect a state’s right to legally own black people—was ever a step in the right moral direction? Do we really want to honor that?

I’m no theologian, but I don’t think our current reluctance or even denial to honestly deal with our history resonates with the Founder of the movement I belong to who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”



[I don’t normally blog here, but instead at www.elementalchurches.com…though posts there are typically geared toward church leadership.]

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

the pain of dismissal


Imagine you have a daughter who is the light of your life.

And then comes the day you drop her off at a college two time zones away; you sit in her empty room and feel as though a part of you has been torn off as you stare at fading pop star posters, pictures of high school friends pinned to corkboard and a dresser with a few remaining clothes that were “so last year.”

At 4:15 a.m. on a Sunday morning during her second semester, you get a phone call that shatters your world. In between heaving sobs, your daughter sputters that someone slipped something in her drink at a fraternity party and while in a near stupor, several inebriated frat boys raped her.

The following months are a blur for you.

The university does an internal investigation that finds little leads beyond “he said, she said” and offers in-school counseling, eventually dropping the matter all together. Now moving beyond the fellow student-staring shame, your daughter grows angry at not just the young men who raped her, but a system that bears little semblance to the justice she thought the world should afford. And when she discovers multiple other women who were abused and ignored, she began a grassroots student movement via a website called College Girls Are Important Too.

There is, of course, a counter resistance when the president of the University, who has a son on campus as well, felt the group was creating a divisive spirit and drawing too much attention to an infrequent issue that was finding its way on national news programs. In a press release, he stated the university strongly believes that all college students are important…and suddenly frat houses all over campus began displaying posters that decried in bold red letters: All College Students Are Important.

How dismissed do you think your daughter would feel? How misunderstood, ignored and marginalized in her pain? Of course all students are important, but that wasn’t the point she was making. She needed the university, school officials and the student body to understand there was a critical issue unrecognized and the people in power seemed unfazed and apparently not interested in addressing it at a practical level. She wasn’t placing herself “above” anyone else; she simply wanted a wrong acknowledged. Instead of any simple effort of empathy from the school, she was met with a dismissive counter-slogan that refused to even consider her pain.

And how would you feel as her parent?

That, my friends, is how it would be experienced by the young people who first launched the Black Lives Matter movement. In looking for simple acknowledgement and justice from long, simmering systemic racism with roots in three-hundred years of slavery and a hundred years of Jim Crow laws that shattered family systems, emasculated black men, marginalized black women, and created a shadow system of everyday, subtle discrimination, a plea for recognition was simply dismissed with “All Lives Matter.” And when people with power refuse to empathize or at least listen instead of offering defensive dismissals, we miss out on potentially redemptive and reconciliatory moments. Instead, we retreat to our own resentments.

How does that possibly reflect the One who let go of all power to become the servant of all?


Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. ~Philippians 2:5-7



[I don’t normally blog here, but instead at www.elementalchurches.com…though posts there are typically geared toward church leadership.]

Monday, July 24, 2017

do you like what you're doing now?

Though a fairly faithful blogger since 2006, you may have noticed I haven't posted anything here for quite awhile. Fact is, several months ago I launched a new blog with my comrade Tom Thatcher that's connected with our Elemental Churches website. Though geared toward church leaders, I think most folks will find something helpful there. Please come visit and let's catch upas a matter of fact, this post explains what I'm spending my time on these days

Boatloads of grace, my friends.






ps. And check out this little video that describes what Elemental Churches is all about...



Saturday, November 12, 2016

can we heal?

As this particularly rancorous, gutter-level and extraordinary election season finally culminated with a bang and not a whimper, both contenders in their concession and acceptance speeches stressed the need for a “unified” country. Let’s be honest: the depth of the charges and name-calling lobbed at each other and even within their own respective parties make it difficult for these fresh wounds to simply be band-aided over. And let’s not even mention the tweets and posts from their supporters that leveled every dark and dirty crime against the other. A simmering Civil War has boiled over, but instead of muskets and powder, social media is the weapon of choice.

But heal we must.

The question is, of course, how? As a former pastor, I’ve sat many times with two people who would rather be in a galaxy far, far away from each other than in the same uncomfortable office with me, whether it be a fractured marriage, family or even staff. But as any counselor knows, the process gets ugly before it gets better, because real healing only happens as we dig into the wound to pull the bullets out. The way that works at a spiritual and emotional level is by the lost art of empathy, cultivated by an even more vanishing process: listening.

So as someone who follows the Jewish carpenter who proclaimed, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” please let me suggest a look at the primary entrance wounds on both sides of the divide. With the flip of a coin, I’ll begin with the red states.

Trump supporters must take a hard look at the racial pain their rhetoric has created. When conservatives make a point of “taking our country back” or “making America great again,” they must empathetically reflect how that must sound to a culture that drove the early economic engine of America’s prosperity via enslavement, ripping families apart, emasculating men of color, raping women and then creating Jim Crow laws that subjugated people of color with devilish precision. So what African-American would want to go back to that, particularly when they are still dealing with systemic and residual racism that decimated their families and culture for hundreds of years? Do we not think that has an effect far into the future? I’ve sat with middle-class suburbanites in their 40’s and 50’s abused as children and yet still dealing with deep dysfunctions, typically affecting their ability to build intimacy and trust in relationships. Try sowing that with an entire race for centuries; guess what the emotional, societal and familial harvest is? When fifty-one percent of Americans want to return to the nostalgic 1950’s, referenced by Trump himself, remember that’s an era when black Americans were banished from economic opportunities, sitting in the back of city buses, serving as suburban domestics, drinking from “colored only” water fountains, with no viable political or social voice and little hope of upward mobility.

I recently visited the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte that exhibited the racial past of North Carolina. It’s not pretty. But in the 70’s and early 80’s, Charlotte public schools walked out the challenging and resisted process of desegregation via busing, resulting in school scores and graduation rates that went through the roof for minorities: it was a complete win, one that the Charlotte Observer claimed was Charlotte’s “proudest achievement”.

But in 1984, President Reagan gave a speech in Charlotte calling school desegregation a failed “social experiment that nobody wants” to a stunned crowd. The next day, the Observer indignantly responded with the editorial headline: “You Were Wrong, Mr. President.” Minorities, of course, were affected dramatically, and now today children—and resources—suffer massive segregation. In 1989, only 1-in-50 black students attended a hyper-segregated school; two decades later, it’s an astonishing 1-in-3. Charlotte is now ranked 50th among the 50 largest cities in a child’s mobility to move up economically from poverty. Reagan’s war against desegregation and funding public education, for example, sliced the city of Buffalo’s yearly $7.4 million public school budget to a draconian cut of a mere $950,000.

And so, for instance, when conservatives hold up Reagan as a political hero, it depends on your cultural context and the things that affect you most directly. Or as the African proverb says, “Until the lion has his own storyteller, the hunter is always the hero.”

Okay, blue states, now it’s your turn.

If we are to seek healing by practicing empathy via listening (and not defaulting to defending), we have to confront the issue that divides Americans nearly fifty percent: abortion. Blue-staters must hear the pain that a segment of conservatives, particularly the religious, feel over it. I don’t think this country has the political will or should want to send a seventeen-year old to prison for having an abortion, but surely we have to admit that one million abortions a year in the U.S. alone reveal something about how we consider life or even the “potential of life” if biologists and doctors can’t agree on the moment it begins. In other words, shouldn’t we give as much latitude as we can because of the ambiguity and possibility?

Take religion out of it if that helps. Writing about abortion in Nation magazine decades ago, the late outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens opined, “anyone who has ever seen a sonogram or has spent even an hour with a textbook on embryology knows that emotions are not the deciding factor . . . . In order to terminate a pregnancy, you have to still a heartbeat, switch off a developing brain... break some bones and rupture some organs.”

During this recent election cycle, Hillary Clinton caught the ire of both sides of the abortion divide when she stumbled into the argument of when life begins. Questioned on Meet The Press about abortion restrictions and the rights of the unborn, she said matter-of-factly, “The unborn person doesn’t have constitutional rights.” She backpedaled and added, “That doesn’t mean that we don’t do everything we possibly can, in the vast majority of instances to, you know, help a mother who is carrying a child and wants to make sure that child will be healthy, to have appropriate medical support.” The problem was: she inadvertently referred to a fetus as a “person.”

You would think we could at least wrestle with some compromise: what does it really mean to be “safe, legal and rare”? In spite of Roe v. Wade, how do we all really work together to make it truly rare? Though abortion rates have dropped dramatically over the last fifteen years in developed countries, mostly due to the increased use of modern contraception, it is still overall an incredibly mindbending number.

Enough said.

To have a “unified country” as both parties have stressed requires admitting we have not only turned a deaf ear, but we’ve not made any attempt to confess our sins. Instead, we retreated to our sanctimonious corners while leaving a trail of editorial IEDs. I didn’t say it would be easy; I’m just making an appeal in behalf of the one who challenged us to be peacemakers.


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

paris, terrorists, christians...and politics

Last year my wife and I traveled to Paris. We walked a million miles around the City of Lights, met wonderfully friendly people who helped us with our pathetic expression of their beautiful language, traveled to the top of the Eiffel tower at midnight, spent an entire day running through every wing of the Louvre, hiked to the top of Montmartre Sacré-Cœur and watched the sun hide behind history, laughed at the tacky, touristy block with Moulin Rouge, marveled at cemetery graves above ground, shuffled through tiny, hidden shops on side streets, awed by the backside of the giant clock like the Hugo movie poster in the Musée d’Orsay, navigated the bustling crowds while staring at our Tripadvisor app, and wished we had another month to explore. I would have never guessed that we could have been the target of the multiple terrorist hits that happened in France this past year, culminating in the loss of one-hundred-and-thirty lives two weeks ago—the worst single attack in Paris since World War II.

Paris captured our headlines (although Nigeria’s weekly terrorist losses outstrip everyone and get little western attention). Even stranger is the reality that Muslims themselves suffer the majority of fatalities from terrorist attacks worldwide, mostly due to terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But what we really grapple with is simply this: what is going on in the head and heart of someone who cries, “God is great!” while unloading AK47’s magazine after magazine into the bodies of strangers and then detonating bombs strapped to their own torsos to incur the maximum damage a single human being can do? No wonder atheists decry religion and pump their fists in the air: witness for yourself the danger and instability of the religionists of the world. Who wants—or needs—a god of violence in an already fragile world? How can someone coldly execute another while calling of the name of God, the father of compassion?

In the first century, James wrote a generic letter to people who were scattered throughout the Mideast and Asia because of religious persecution:

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? James 3:9-11 (New International Version)

I certainly don’t have a good answer. I understand resentment and pain, but I’ve never been hurt at a level that caused me to inflict physical pain or torture on another. But let’s be honest: I live in a comfortable first-world culture. ISIS and its grand scheme for an end-of-the-world, apocalyptic unfolding of a caliphate as they believe prophesied, is a complicated mess to undo; no matter what bombs are dropped on their strongholds, it’s much harder to destroy an ideology.

As a Christian, though, I am accountable to God for my own stuff as well as the people that I am in community with. And here’s where it gets weird.

We are quick to take umbrage with the idea—and rightfully so—that it’s morally okay to shout, “God is great!” with our mouths and then blow someone away with a Kalashnikov. And we would disparage the religion of anyone who implies that it is okay to do that. Of course that’s heinous. But what’s puzzling to me is how Christians can forward emails and post on Facebook the most hateful, disparaging things about a government leader, about a celebrity, about a Muslim, about someone we disagree with politically or culturally, and then an hour later post a picture of a scripture about God’s goodness. We seem to forget that Jesus equated the thoughts and intents of our hearts to actual physical activity:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28 (New International Version)

“You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder.”  Matthew 5:21-22 (The Message)


A few days ago I was tagged by a fellow Christ-follower who posted a picture of President Obama at the podium with a soldier standing next to him holding a Photoshopped gun to the president’s head. The comments basically read: please, put us out of our misery.

Really? Is that our best expression of our Christianity—of our relationship to the God of the universe who loved us when we were going under for the third time in our sins? Is that really what we, the Church, want to shout from the rooftops? Under a corrupt, persecutorial government, the apostle Peter tellingly wrote: Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:17 New International Version). Think about that as you forward your next un-Snope-reviewed email of “ressentiment” on your laptop from your comfy recliner while sucking down Diet Cokes and Doritos.

And yet we continue to think and verbalize hateful and vengeful things because we believe we are righteous, truthful and defending God’s honor. Under the probing code of Jesus, do we really think that’s any different than the terrorist chanting “Allahu Akbar” while blowing away a stranger? Frankly, it doesn’t seem to be any different according to how Jesus reads us.

In this long, dry political season ahead, please, Christian, think twice what you publish.

Jesus is watching you. And reading your posts.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

the challenge of writing weekly sermons (part 2)

In the last post (please read that first!), I talked about the connection between our yearly strategic initiatives and our teaching calendar along with the filters through which we developed our series. But when it came time for me to actually assemble a message for the weekend (after meeting with a team of folks some 3-4 weeks earlier and gathering ideas (references, texts, creative ideas), I now have the tough work to do: write the message.

I’ve discovered there are as many different preparation styles as there are pastors. I think it was after Rob Bell gave his famous scapegoat message—with a live goat by his side—at a preaching seminar years ago that John Ortberg followed with a funny, pithy comment along the lines of: “Pastors, don’t try that unless you’re Rob Bell.” Pastors/teachers are wonderfully unique both in speaking and preparation.

My personal style was simply to get in my car on Friday morning, go for a long drive away from the office, listen to a podcast that typically had nothing to do with my topic, grab a lunch while reading, then begin to write furiously after looking at the notes from the teaching team meeting, oftentimes in a park. Drive home about 5:30pm or so.

The next morning I would go to my office, lock the door and write for the next seven hours, often creating my own Powerpoint/ProPresenter visuals myself (as an artist, graphics help me think), reading my talk out loud as I go, send the word-for-word transcript (with slides highlighted) and graphics to the tech team, walk down to the auditorium and speak at the Saturday celebration at 5:30. After meeting with new people after the service at our “Ten-Minute Meetup” (and sometimes having dinner with someone new), I’d drive home and typically edit my message for another hour or two. It may not have drastically needed it, but it made me feel better and more confident. Then Sunday morning I’d speak at the three celebrations: 9, 10:30am and noon. For a number of years, I’d also connect with someone that I trusted with a very different personality than me who would critique my message.

When I once mentioned my process with my friend Rich Nathan (pastor of the Columbus Vineyard), he looked at me and said, “Wow. We could not be more different…”! Everyone does it differently, but it always helped me to hear how folks constructed their messages.

So here are the details…and a few tips:
  • 12-14 hours uninterrupted think/writing time; 7 pages of 12pt / 1.5 line spacing allows for a 30-35 minute message.
  • 8-10 of those hours were writing on my Macbook, researching the internet, perusing my Kindle library, using my Wordsearch bibles/commentaries, wordsmithing, etc.
  • Another 1-2 hours editing Saturday night
  • I transcript the entire talk word-for-word and have learned to write like I talk.
  • I read it aloud as I write it, and usually once before I give it.
  • I format the talk to a Word template that I created for my iPad, save it as a pdf in Dropbox, download it to my iPad and open it up in iBooks where it lives in perpetuity.
  • I often try to work on the finish first; this is what people tend to remember…and especially when it leads into a time of prayer or ministry. Many of us spend too much time on the opening setup and miss the critical close.
  • Be aware of the need for a “commercial break” every 5-7 minutes (personal story, humor element, a chance to exhale, etc…).
  • Typically, new preachers use too many scripture texts. It’s overload for the listener and dangerously close to cherry-picking.
  • If you’re a good storyteller, exploit it. But make sure there’s a very clear connecting point. Jesus was the master.
  • Find a critic…but not your spouse…unless you’re really, really secure. (Wounds from a friend can be trusted… Proverbs 27:6)
  • Be authentically transparent; people will apply the message if they trust the messenger.
  • Study other good speakers. Watch for context and continuity.

I started transcripting word-for-word in the nineties when we were doing seven services each weekend and I would space out and couldn’t remember if I made a particular point. Plus, I’m pathetic at memorization, so I felt more comfortable with every word transcripted. Additionally, I work very hard on specific phrases I want to use; wordsmithing is critically important to me—words are powerful and I never want to take them for granted.

Other teachers on my team had radically different approaches. Some only used an outline, others sketched it out with simple doodles on one page, some mind-mapped it, others had near photographic memories after reading it once, and on and on.

The great evangelist Jonathan Edwards dispassionately read his sermons word-for-word, close to his face since he was so nearsighted. When you read his most famous message, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, it’s worth remembering that he would read with conviction but like an academic. Or as one observer noted, “He scarcely gestured or even moved, and he made no attempt by the elegance of his style or the beauty of his pictures to gratify the taste and fascinate the imagination.”

George Whitefield was quite the opposite. This remarkable preacher presented his sermons extemporaneously with no notes. It’s estimated he preached easily 18,000 times to millions of people (but I’m sure there were a lot of repeats…). Benjamin Franklin once described the sheer power of Whitefield’s voice: “He had a loud and clear Voice, and articulated his Words and Sentences so perfectly that he might be heard and understood at a great Distance . . . I computed that he might well be heard by more than Thirty Thousand.”

Sheesh. And pre-subwoofers.

In our day, Andy Stanley is a no-notes guy. Bill Hybels carefully scripts each word and reads it. Different strokes.

There are obvious pros and cons to transcripting:
  • Pro: you have a good record of your talks
  • Pro: you can create pivotal phrases
  • Pro: you see how much redundancy, repetition and cliché you use. Unless you watch videos of yourself speaking (which every communicator should regularly do), you have no idea how you come off. Remember the first time you heard your voice and were shocked at what you sounded like? Yeah. You should see you.
  • Con: you can sound scripted
  • Con: you can lose spontaneity
  • Con: you can miss critical eye-contact with audience
Last, a few important overall things to remember:
  • Know your Bible. People are depending on your wide understanding of scripture. Because of the different genres within those sixty-sixty books, it’s easy to get tangential on a single verse. James 3:1 ought to make us circumspect.
  • Know what you don’t know. Don’t try to impress. I’ve been bitten trying to interpret a Greek or Hebrew word based solely on a single commentary or Strong’s. Let’s not try to pretend to be language scholars if we’re not. You might think it sounds impressive, but it’s not.
  • Let’s not try to be theologians if we’re not one. Of course we have to have a solid theology (2 Timothy 2:15) and know what we believe, but we are shepherds first…and shepherds are sheep-centered and always looking for the one that’s wandered off. Yes, I know by default every believer is a theologian, but you’re a pastor first, a theologian second. At its heart, the gospel is deep, but not complicated.
  • Know your message. Read several translations and paraphrases to get a larger meaning of the text.
  • Know thyself. You can really only take people as far as you’ve been experientially. Don’t fake it. Integrity, integrity, integrity. I’ve noticed this about myself: When I’m spiritually and emotionally healthy, my tone is full of grace and truth; when I’m unhealthy, I tend to get preachy and harsh.
There you go. That’s my approach for better-or-for-worse (I feel naked now), but regardless of yours, it’s our responsibility to sharpen our calling and get better at what we do. Find your rhythm and master it.

And at the risk of sounding over-dramatic, lives are depending on it.


Friday, August 14, 2015

the challenge of writing weekly sermons (part 1)

Over the last thirty years, I’ve spoken in some capacity—whether teaching or worship leading—in well over four-thousand church services because of multiple services on the weekends. Seriously. It actually sounds a bit unbelievable (uh, crazy?) when I think about it.

Prior to that, for ten years I traveled coast to coast in bands of various configurations as a vocalist, guitarist and drummer, communicating in widely (and wildly) different settings, from small coffeehouses to festivals, in front of a handful to thousands. That’s not to mention workshops, seminars and conferences, both nationally and internationally.

To say that I’ve spent the bulk of my life trying to learn to communicate in different mediums the ridiculously good news of Jesus and the Kingdom is an understatement. Please note: “trying to learn.” You’d think I’d have this down, but I get nervous every time I speak and I’m still addicted to notes. And still learning, even now in my sixties. I feel like a neophyte at this communication-thing…despite Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” theory of mastery.

But there are a few things I think make communicators better, especially those entrusted with preaching/teaching. Before I share a few techniques, paramount is a preparatory attitude: I’ve never taken lightly the honor of communicating before an audience the realities of the Kingdom and hopefully the heart of God. For what it’s worth, I have little respect for speakers who simply wing it without prior prayer, perspiration and thoughtfulness. And believe me, most people can spot them.

For pastors, I think it’s best to have an overview of an entire year of speaking. Most of the time at the Vineyard, we spoke topically, though at times we would tackle a book of the Bible. Regardless, looking out over twelve months is incredibly helpful. The way we (our leadership team) would determine the teaching calendar was preceded by uncovering what we called our yearly “strategic initiatives”—what we would want our entire staff and key volunteer leaders to be focused on for the next year, typically three-to-five initiatives.

Once those were determined, the team would sketch out a rough teaching calendar for the next year—series and themes would be mapped on a calendar. We would keep five things in focus in this process:
  • Our mission and vision (it would be posted on a wall)
  • Our core values (posted as well)
  • Our proposed new strategic initiatives
  • A gap analysis (where is there a problem of praxis at Vineyard Cincinnati? What are the felt needs? What needs to be corrected by teaching?)
  • And, of course, what God wants to specifically say to our church (hopefully determined by a guided prayer time with the team)

We would also balance and adjust our teaching calendar through this filter: “Army” talks (series that are mission-centered, “take-the-hill” focused), “School” talks (series that are doctrinal, creedal, or pure Biblical-literacy talks) and “Hospital” talks (growth-and-healing, soul care, self-awareness talks). Why? Because too much of one style can either (respectively) wear a church out, puff it up, or become too inward-focused. And most pastors will subconsciously default to one of these in their teaching style.

One ridiculously simple reason for planning twelve months in advance is simply this: other key ministries can plan events and seminars that match the topic. For instance, if we were doing a “Hospital” series—perhaps messages on developing authentic relationships—our Growth & Healing Ministry might plan small groups or classes at that time on that topic to tackle our relational dysfunctions. Anytime you can “preach” the announcements, your “extracurricular” events have more power, better response and provide a clear actionable point.

For years I had a team of people who would brainstorm creative ideas, references and texts for messages. It was always helpful to call up those notes when I was prepping for a message. But before crafting a message, I’d remind myself of a few questions:

1. What’s the form? If it’s topic-driven, I begin by thinking of as many scriptures as possible that relate to the subject…via memory, word searches and conversations with others. If its text-driven, I want the passage to preach itself, to really breathe. What did the author intend, what was the context, who was it written for, what’s our application? I’m primarily looking for a few things: what does it want me to do, or how does it expand my understanding and heart for God?

2. What is the one main action-oriented “take-away” I want the listener to get? I’m convinced that listeners can’t really assimilate multiple points into any actionable follow-up. So what is the One Thing I want them to leave with?—or in other words: what is God saying to you in this message and what are you going to do about it? We have to move beyond mere information, because most of us really only learn by ultimately doing it.

3. Who is my audience? I have to consider the wide spectrum of people listening to me, such as:
  • Demographics. How will the single mom, factory worker, executive, or college student hear this message? Those are actually the four people I imagine myself speaking to.
  • Political spectrum. Don’t ever assume a monolithic political view in your audience. Or as Andy Stanley says, “I’d rather make a difference than a point.”
  • Age. Consider the average age of your audience; what references will they understand and what’s their generational bias in terms of style.
  • Cultures. I once watched Tony Evans masterfully speak to a group of white people with their notepads and pens poised. He spoke in a style radically different than his own church, accurately reading the audience and how they would best hear him.
And even if your church isn’t very diverse, you’re probably podcasting or posting audio of your messages on your website. Please, please, please consider your potentially wider audience...and don’t embarrass the Body of Christ with an offhanded insensitive remark.

4. Last, during the writing of the message, I have to consciously slow down my brain and ask out loud, “Father, what do you really want to say this weekend?” It sounds simple, but that would calm my furious typing and spare me from many a rabbit trail.

In the next post, I’ll get into the actual mechanics of how I craft a message. But for now, slip off your shoes, look down and remember this:

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!" Isaiah 52:7 (New International Version)

You’ve either got a great podiatrist or a calling from God, my friend.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

why does it take a tragedy?

The powers-that-be in South Carolina absolutely puzzle me. I’ve tried to listen carefully to the people who revere the stars-and-bars flag as honoring their past, but for the life of me I can’t understand the inability to see the confederate flag as anything other than a symbol for white supremacy. The cancer of slavery has left scar tissue that still causes pain, structural inequalities and a festering racial divide—it was only a mere fifty years ago that Jim Crow laws were repealed by federal mandate.

Legitimate historians have never been able to support the revisionist stance that the civil war was primarily about states’ rights rather than slavery; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant article in the Atlantic Monthly clearly outlines that history. And if it was all about states rights, why did only slaveholding states secede? What’s more, slave-holding states pushed for federal involvement with the Fugitive Slave Act when northern states passed state laws granting sanctuary for fugitive slaves and their refusal to return them to their “owners”. So much for states rights.

Former governor and 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney tweeted “take down the #ConfederateFlag” last week, creating a media firestorm: Huckabee, Cruz, Rubio, Fiorina, Carson, Santorum all said it was an issue for South Carolina to resolve, apparently sidestepping the real issue for fear of upsetting potential support. And it’s not just politicians who have punted this issue. Only today did Walmart agree to stop selling merch with the confederate flag on it (come on, Amazon…).

The justification of slavery was an economically-driven choice that oddly enough only condemned dark-skinned people as property. The leaders of the confederacy clearly viewed blacks as an inferior race; South Carolina Senator James Hammond declared before the U.S. Senate in 1858 that “We do not think that whites should be slaves either by law or necessity. Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race.” The rallying symbol of the rebellion against the federal government was the Confederate flag; even at the very least it should be considered a symbol of treason.

Can you imagine Germany allowing one of its state governments to fly a swastika? Regardless of the German soldiers who had no knowledge of Auschwitz or were forced by conscription to serve and fought selflessly for their country, it still offers no grounds to fly the symbol of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The politicians there have worked hard to neither expunge that painful part of their history or deny it. But they certainly don’t want to honor it in any way.

The gazillion times I’ve driven I-71 north toward Columbus, it never fails to sadden me when I pass the old barn on the east side with the huge confederate flag painted on the roof. I always wonder why: why would someone want to take the time to reproduce an image of suffering and that causes so much pain to such a huge segment of humanity? What causes such a glaring lack of empathy?

As I Christian, I would say sin.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

grandfathers gone wild...

So my daughter Katie and her husband James welcomed their new baby into the universe last week: Lucas Everett Sizemore. Now with two kids under a year-and-a-half, their world is quickly changing.

But my world is as well...because the pressure is on to create another book. No, not the kind of book you shop to publishers. That’s hard enough—I’m still trying to finish up “Elemental Leaders” by the end of summer—but I’m talking about the in-house kind, the Shutterfly-type stuff that you do for your family.

Last year I went Photoshop-insane and created full-page graphics for Katie and James’ daughter Emmie. Yeah, I obsessed. For Christmas I gave them a copy and, of course, made one for our coffee table. Come on over and I’ll show it to you.

Anyway, here is some shameless grandfather craziness. From the front cover...to the two-page spreads...to the back cover. Click on the pictures to expand them.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

















Thursday, May 21, 2015

david letterman goes to church

Last night I watched the final episode of David Letterman’s thirty-three year run on the Late Show. Comedians have been paying homage for the last several weeks, sometimes tearfully. Jimmy Kimmel’s article in Time magazine about the impact Letterman had on comedy and the talk show format is worth a year’s subscription. As Kimmel summed up, “None of us who discovered Dave on our own and claimed him as our own will ever be able to satisfactorily explain to younger people what he did, what he meant and what he means.” Talk shows had become the Vegas-slick status-quo; Letterman was the garage band turned up to eleven.

It’s hard to put into context in this current millennium how revolutionary and seditious Letterman’s comedy was. His slyly snarky delivery was underscored by a midwestern self-deprecating persona that subversively upended the corporate protocol. He let everyone in on his obvious dysfunctions while remaining intensely private. Monday through Friday his feigned gap-toothed smile let his audience in on the most cerebral jokes. And who else would throw stuff off buildings to see what would happen, drive a steamroller over anything, dip himself in an Alka-Seltzer suit, make a Velcro leap, cut through Hollywood phoniness while calling his studio a dump? It was as if the inmates had taken over.

Baby boomers knew they had a rebel coup on the airwaves at 12:30am each night after Johnny Carson’s menthol-smooth delivery but tired format. Then he moved to the coveted 11:30 time slot on CBS opposite Jay Leno’s Tonight Show…who was given the show over Carson’s wishes. After his retirement, Carson would secretly send jokes to Letterman.

And during that same era, Vineyard Community Church in Cincinnati was birthed. We knew that humor was critical for tearing down the walls between churched and unchurched people. We knew that if people who were far from God would trust us to deliver the dangerous message of Jesus, it would take some cultural touch-points…poking fun at ourselves and laughing together. As C. S. Lewis penned in The Four Loves, “Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself.’”  When people laugh together, a unique bond is created. We knew that the Church, as it was, seemed hopelessly locked in a culture war that created a barrier before a conversation could even begin.

But there was more to it. Vineyards had a mantra: Everyone gets to play. That meant that ministry was not relegated to professional ministers…and that God wanted everyone to extend the Kingdom with the unique gifts He had given. The line between clergy and laity had to be blurred if we were to be effective with a “priesthood of all believers” approach. We took advantage of that by poking fun at our pastors and letting people see that pastors were just regular people with their own dysfunctions. We felt it was necessary to pull pastors down from pedestals. It was a tricky wire to walk; and as I told our “crack staff” of volunteers who shaped our celebrations, “Theology is easy. Comedy is hard.” But we knew it was important.

And so we cribbed from Letterman mercilessly. We winked our eye and brought everyone in on the joke that church people can be pretty ridiculous. We referenced “The World’s Most Dangerous Worship Band.” We created our own Top Ten lists with titles like:

Top 10 Ways You Know You’re In A Bad Church (#8 “The church bus has gun racks”. . .  #6 “Services are B.Y.O.S.—”Bring Your Own Snake” . . . #3 “Doctrine includes story of Xenu, a galactic ruler who brought billions of people to earth 75 million years ago, stacked them around volcanoes and blew them up with hydrogen bombs…oh wait, that’s Scientology.”)

Top 10 New Year’s Eve Predictions for 1997 that included: “Rapture happens. Vineyard cuts back to three services.”

Or on Mother’s Day, the Top Ten Worst Mother’s Day Gifts included “Clairol Unibrow Waxer”.

And sometimes we got shut down and had a Top 10 pulled after a Saturday night celebration, as in Top 10 Things The Disciples Said After The Resurrection (#7 “Hey Pete, cock-a-doodle-do!”. . . #1 “Jesus Christ!”). There was uncomfortable laughter after that last one. I thought it was theologically perfect...pretty much what Thomas said. Oh well.

We followed our list of Favorite Christian Guys’ Pick-Up Lines (“Before tonight, I never believed in predestination...”) with Favorite Lines Christian Women Use To Break Up With Jerks Who Talk Like That (“God loves me and must have a better plan for my life.”)

Or the time we had two guys dressed up as Wayne & Garth on the heels of their popularity on SNL with the Top 10 Christian Babes…with Amy Grant on it twice. Poking fun at the American religious subculture seemed healthy to us.

We launched into videos in the early ‘90’s when all we had were VHS tapes in an “editing suite” of two VCRs. Letterman took his audience out on the streets with him; so would we. We regularly had a running video sketch where Steve Sjogren—our senior pastor—didn’t come up to speak after the announcements. While there was a minute of uncomfortable silence, I would run frantically out the side door to find him while a pre-recorded video picked up the outside action. In the very first one we taped, I ran all the way to a Burger King up the street to find him cleaning the toilets. That was a two-fer: we lifted up the value of servant evangelism while making ourselves look a bit remedial. As a matter of fact, when we filmed it earlier we failed to get permission and simply went in the bathroom with a camera to do some guerrilla filming. Suddenly the manager flung open the restroom door and found three of us jammed in a stall: Steve with yellow rubber gloves, myself and a guy with a video camera. Right. The shocked manager yelled, “What the hell are you guys doing in here?”…and threw us out. It was difficult to explain. And when we really got into trouble, we would tell people we were from nearby Landmark Baptist Church. I’m pretty sure my friend Matt Holman who pastors there has forgiven us.

From there the bits got stranger and more outrageous while our people relaxed, laughed more and more, and church became a not-so-scary-place to invite your unbelieving friends.

One Easter in the ‘90’s we produced a video (we had bought our first digital non-linear over-priced editing program) with Steve inserted into actual scenes from the perennial “Ten Commandments” movie with Charlton Heston. Walking with the Israelites between the walls of water in the Red Sea were some of us holding “Free Car Wash” signs with snorkels. An older religious couple reamed me out afterwards for doing something so disrespectful and irreverent…even though I attempted to explain we were poking fun at a movie, not the actual ten commandments. A movie with Edward G. Robinson as the rebelling Israelite Dathan. Seriously. They were unappeased.

Or the weekend we held our services at the Convention Center downtown and couldn’t find Steve. I ran out the side door to discover him at Cincinnati Gardens (where we had met the previous year for Easter). Steve was practicing figure skating (we had a double doing spins) while waiting for the service to start. When I told him we were at a different arena, we hopped into the PastorCopter (primitive CGI), flew him downtown where he promptly jumped out of the copter and through some fake open bay doors in the ceiling of the Convention Center…where we simultaneously dropped a dummy dressed up as Steve from the catwalks of the room that landed with a dull thud behind some equipment. Steve popped up from behind the equipment smiling amid cheers. Except for a small child crying who thought it was real.

When Steve almost died from a medical procedure gone horribly wrong, there was a heaviness over the church for weeks. On the weekend he finally returned to speak from a wheelchair, we knew we needed to lighten things up. We produced a video where he admits he’s tired of nothing exciting to do in a wheelchair, so we take him out for some “stunt riding”, substituting him again with a dummy dressed as him and holding on to a rope tied to a pickup truck that “accidentally” takes off in reverse and slams into him while Steve yells “Woohoo!”…followed by a series of Jackass-type stunts (before Jackass!). At one point, we attached a bunch of bungie cords to his wheelchair and throw “him” off a bridge to disastrous results. Laughter filled the room. When Steve was wheeled live into the auditorium, people were thrilled. During the service I noticed a young boy in a wheelchair in the last row with his mom. I was mortified when she approached me after the service, held my breath to expect the worse, when she said, “My son hasn’t walked since birth…and that was the funniest thing we’ve seen! He laughed and laughed!”

Whew. I felt like I dodged a bullet.

Even as tame as all those seem now, it was ridiculously radical in those days. And created an environment that screamed, “We don’t take ourselves very seriously. But we are very serious about introducing you to the Kingdom of God.”

And though he’ll never know it, Letterman helped us create a context where church would no longer look like your dad’s church, that stuffy, self-righteous, boring, religious, powerless, judgmental stereotype that most unchurched and dechurched people had jettisoned for all the right and wrong reasons. His anti-establishment comedy seemed mildly reflective of the attitude Jesus expressed when He was warned not to go to Jerusalem because the religious establishment of that day—the phony religious leader Herod—was out to kill Him. Jesus simply responded, “Go and tell that fox I’m coming anyway…” and went on about His business of healing and setting folks free.

We owe a debt of gratitude to a clever comedian whom I hope one day finds his true value and worth in a Father who loves him deeply despite his idiosyncrasies and brokenness...just like ours.

Thank you, Mr. Letterman. It was a good run.