Thursday, April 14, 2016

Preaching as Book Report

My mom and I occasionally talk about her experiences of churches. She has bounced around a lot in finding a church home since she became an empty nest parent. These days she is living in Phoenix, and attending a nationally known non-denominational mega church. It seems to work well for her and her boyfriend, who recently made a commitment to Christ followed by being baptized in this church.

Mom and Hal go to church on Saturday nights most of the time. Then they go out and socialize after church. I giggle when they say they show up late on purpose so they don't have to listen to the "rock concert" style of musical worship.

They really enjoy the messages of this nationally renowned preacher and leader. When they first began attending this church, the church was working through "The Story", which is a large-scale campaign based out of what used to be Max Lucado's church in Texas and a mainstream publisher. My mom's boyfriend especially enjoyed becoming grounded in the basics of the Bible's narrative arc.

A couple of months ago, mom told me about another sermon series that they were concluding. They were excited because the author of the book that the pastor was preaching on was attending their worship service. I asked, "Mom, does this guy basically preach book reports?" She laughed.

"I suppose," she said, "well, not always," she went on, "I really enjoy the way he speaks and what he has to say, I think you would too."

I have mixed feelings about book report sermons. I have done sermons, generally one or two short series' a year, based upon the content of a book. This is most common with our stewardship campaign. This year I also borrowed from a book for Advent. However, mostly when I do this, I just borrow a few chapter titles, and maybe one or two good stories from the book in a two week span.

Good reading informs preaching, but should not be the foundation of it. That is my opinion anyway. What is yours?

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Sympathy for the Pharisees

I lead two bible studies on Wednesday afternoon. The first place I lead Bible Study is at the Brookside Apartments. They are a part of the Hot Springs Housing Authority, and that organization receives funding to rent to tenants on a sliding scale based upon their income. The second place I teach at is at Pine Hills Retirement Community, which is a little less than two miles away, up on top of the hill overlooking the town. Pine Hills is privately owned, and provides independent living and assisted living apartments for seniors, as well as housing an Alzheimer's unit. They are both fun groups, although the Pine Hills group has been more exciting for me the last few months. Both groups are now in different stages of studying the gospel of John.

One of the unique characteristics I have noticed among my Pine Hills group is that as we have studied the gospel of John, they have developed a sympathy for the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the religious leaders of their day. They were at one time, leaders of the church and political leaders of the Ancient Israelites, who were at the time occupied by the Roman army. They were the Moral Majority leaders of their days, calling the people to a renewal of holiness in the private and public spheres.

This sympathy began to develop in John 6, where after feeding the 5000, when Jesus begins to engage in a series of confrontations with the Pharisees regarding Jesus' moral authority. Jesus says things like "I am the Bread from Heaven" (John 6:52) and later goes on to say, "before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58). The ladies assure me that their faith is not in doubt, but also assert that if they had heard what the Pharisees had heard from some fellow claiming to be the Messiah, they would have had their reservations about believing in his claims as well.

This Wednesday we discussed John 9. In John 9, a man born blind is healed. The Pharisees are still threatened by Jesus, this time by his healing on the Sabbath, They are also concerned in making sense of what Jesus is doing. What are the implications of a healing of a man born blind? Does this demand our opposition of him, or our support of his ministry? It is a fascinating chapter in Scripture.

We discussed for a while why the Pharisees might be concerned about this fellow that was healed. I explained that the Pharisees had put a lot of time and effort in organizing and controlling the behavior of the Israelites, and that Jesus, both by his teaching and his miracles, was beginning to unravel that sense of forward direction and control of religious practices and authority.

Then it was time for me to confess my sympathy for the Pharisees.

I told them this story. "It is like this in a way, " I said, "there was this gentleman that visited our church on Easter...."

William was the name of our visitor. He had first visited our Bible Study that meets before church. Then, he made his way into the sanctuary. I was setting up on the platform before the service. William called to me. We spoke. It was about 20 minutes before the service started. He engaged me in an empassioned, franetic, and difficult to track conversation for about 10 minutes. He used to live here in town nearly 20 years ago he told me. He was up at the VA Hospital in Sturgis, and after running several tests on him, they sought to admit him to the psych ward. He refused to go. "I am just full of the Holy Spirit," he said jumping up and down, shaking, a bandage over his head, and wires attached to monitors on his body. "I am pastor of the Universal Church of (something), I am a shepherd of about 2 million souls."

I smiled and visited and attempted to disengage from the conversation several time. Eventually I got him comfortably seated, and then went to the back of the sanctuary. "Jerry, we have an adventure for you today," I said to our usher for the day, "there is a rather interesting fellow sitting up front that appears to mentally ill. I may need your help with him."

"What do you want me to do?," Jerry asked.

"I don't know. You guys will know how to handle the situation right if it comes to needing to ministering with him in other ways. Just wanted to give you a heads up."


My anxiety level was pretty high by the time the service started. We began with singing. No problem. We had a responsive call to worship. He began to shout out the "leader" portion after the leader, instead of reading the response in the responsive reading. All the while, I am at one time trying to lead with enthusiasm, but also saying to myself, "How am I going to manage this problem?"

I like to love people as unique people made by God, and brought into my life for a reason. This man was beginning to be a "problem to be managed." I don't like that attitude. But I wanted to have at least a few people return after their annual Easter visit. I had sympathy for the Pharisees.

Somehow, as he began to shout out his need for an apartment during announcements, I had to move along to the next song, and then sit down behind him, and tell him that I could introduce him to people in the rental business after the service. "Thank you. And ok, preacher, I will try and be quieter." I felt bad. But I was doing what I had to do.

Later in the service he threw bread at my object lesson with the children, among other things. I tried to be understand and tried to be open to how the Spirit was working among us with this curveball that had been sent our way. But I was not about to let go of control of the service. I had an event to manage, constituents to serve, a sermon to preach. Instead of leaving the 99 sheep for the one lost sheep, I had sympathy for the Pharisees. I did my religious duty, I managed the problem.

But that does not mean I don't wonder whether I did the wrong thing or the right one.....

New Beginnings: A little devotional YouTube I do for our church

Friday, April 01, 2016

Lost and Found: A Poem

It is in the confusion
of a lost moment
where your habits
are stripped
like threads from a screw
that you might find the new you
that went missing
in the chaos
of the human zoo

It is in the dark room
of fumbling confusion
where the beautiful
glimmers of light
begin to form a picture
that can shape
the rest of your life
reborn in the
everyday world
of light

Despise not the dark
or the lost times
that may
bring you home
or beyond home
to that place
you are determined
destined to go
a mystery made
for you to abide in