Bird Life in the Church

There isn’t a single thing that the birds at my feeder do to deserve the largess that I bestow on them. I bought the feeders that contain the seed, I continue to buy seed to fill them. My grandson and I take turns filling the feeders. When a feeder needs repair, I repair it. Everything—everything is done for those birds; it’s pure grace! Yet, it’s interesting to see a Dove chasing four others away from the food that falls on the ground as the sloppy eaters (largely Finches) spill it in large quantities. He acts like he owns the territory. Perhaps he thinks he does!

And when it’s hummingbird time, and we hang out the sugar water feeder, you can be absolutely certain that one bird will claim it as his own and defend it to the end of the season. Indeed, you can see him sitting on a bare branch, watching it, daring any other to approach the jar. If they so much as get near, he’ll zoom down on them at mach speed and chase them away with his long, pointed beak. There are always star wars when the hummers return for the summer!

But think of it. How much like humans these birds are. God has provided all things for us freely to use. In grace He has provided even more for the believer in Christ Jesus. Yet, there we are fighting over things as if any of us deserved anything. It all is God’s. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills; indeed, He bought us with a price—we are His property, His slaves. Anything He gives us—the world, our finances, health—is a gift for sure. We have no claims on Him. And the salvation we enjoy in Christ as believers is, again, entirely of grace. Yet, are we not going about as brothers and sisters in Christ, claiming things for ourselves? “That part in the choir is mine; how dare she try to usurp it!” Or, “They’re our members; how dare you to invite them to a service at your church?” Thousands of similar sentences are uttered every Sunday by Christians who have taken possession of that which is owned and graciously provided by our Father in heaven. Isn’t it time we considered rising above bird life?

Ping Pong

A soft answer turns away wrath.
But a foolish word stirs up anger.
Proverbs 15:1

Every time I read that Proverb, I think of Ping Pong.

“How’s that?”

Oh . . . it just seems to illustrate the principle in the proverb so well!

“Don’t get it.”

You see, many Proverbs are pictured principles of portable truth.

“What about Ping Pong?”

Oh! Here’s what I meant. One player slams a ball as hard as he can. What happens after that?

“Dunno.”

The other guy has to move away in order to receive it. It drives them farther apart.

“Yeah? And……?”

And if he slams one back just as hard, or harder, that separates them all the more.

“Sure.”

But if he simply answers the slam with a gentle return by merely holding his paddle still in receiving it, the ball barely goes back over the net and . . .

“and that draws them closer together.”

Right! So what’s the principle in the picture?

“Don’t slam people?”

I give up.

Authority

All true authority comes from God (John 19:10, 11). That is a fundamental principle. Another is: God must be obeyed rather than man when the two conflict (Acts 5:28, 29). Rulers had no right to forbid what God had commanded (Acts 5:20). If a clear command of God is forbidden, it must not be obeyed regardless of consequences. But many commands are not clearly opposed to one another. What then?

First, recognize that there is a difference between Romans 12 and 13 (the former having to do with how individuals relate to one another and how Christians must relate to the government (see also 1 Peter 2:13, 17). Failing to recognize this distinction can cause confusion. New Testament Christians had to live in countries hostile to Christianity as many do today. Some went to the stake for living as God requires (martyrs). Others (confessors) stayed true to God but survived. Some of the latter did so by observing other biblical injunctions. They were conscientious in paying taxes, for instance (as Jesus was: Mark 12:14ff). They provoked no trouble if it was possible to avoid it (Proverbs 14:16; 27: 12). This warning is important to apply to many situations today.

Another principle can be deduced from Jesus’ command to his followers who were to serve Him. If you don’t have a sword, sell your coat and buy one. A coat was important—people slept in them (if taken as collateral, they had to be returned by night). Jesus’ command was to be prepared to defend yourself if attacked (Lk. 22:36). Rome had cleared some of the roads of thieves, but not all of them. Because of government failure, people had to take the law into their own hands when it was necessary to do so. This could be the most important principle of all in many situations—but it’s application must be thought through carefully (and no fudging is allowed!). The government is not the enemy unless it makes itself so—Paul often availed himself of its authority—and had friends in it (Acts 19:31). It would be interesting to hear what other believers faced with authority issues have done.

What Biblical Counseling Does for the Counselor

Under this general rubric I could suggest many things, but let me deal with only one: its effects on the counselor. The counselor, who is worth his salt (a phrase that comes from a time when soldiers were paid in salt), will never fail to recognize the sin, habitual remnants of sin, and temptations that affect his own life as he deals with the same in others. If a man doing counseling isn’t warned over and over again of the possibilities for denying His God by a lifestyle that besmirches His Name, then he ought not be counseling. A counselor sees not only a wide variety of sin, but the tragic consequences of it. If he isn’t wise enough to learn from what he sees, he has no right counseling others.

A second benefit of biblical counseling is that to improve his counseling ability he is able to study the Bible as His guide. What a rich blessing! Contrast that with those, who in order to gain further information about their counseling, must study the wearisome works of psychologists. Not only are the concepts of such men frequently base and unedifying, but often even their language is disgusting. While a biblical counselor who studies regularly, in contrast, is afforded an opportunity to grow by grace through his biblical studies; the one who is not biblical fills his head and heart with the errors of men that can only be detrimental in their effects.

So, why not do biblical counseling? There is every advantage for a Christian himself, not to mention the benefits that his counselees derive from it. But, beyond that—think how the one glorifies God and the other glorifies man.

Equivocation

I’d like to say something about equivocal language. It was interesting when in graduate school, I had to read some of Tillich’s writings. As you know, Tillich was nothing more than an atheist hiding under an ecclesiastical garb. His definition of God: “the ground of our being.”

In one class I was forced to read his massive two-volume theology. It was torture wading through pages of intricately convoluted thinking, paradox, and reams of equivocal language. It was written in a style that was nothing short of planned obfuscation. By many, therefore, it was thought profound! Their unspoken (also unthought-of?) presupposition being that whatever is obtuse is, therefore, profound.

Coincidentally during the same semester, in a preaching class, I was required to study Tillich’s sermons. So, I was able to compare and contrast the one with the other. I found the sermons lucid, as clear as the water on which you ride in a glass-bottomed boat in Florida. It is so clear that you can see fish swimming many feet below, who look as though they were close enough to grasp with your hand. There wasn’t anything in the sermons that I found difficult to understand (That’s one reason why I can confidently assert he was an atheist).

Now, I have one question to ask: Why did he write so differently in one place from the way he did in the other? He was capable of doing both.

I cannot read his heart, of course. But I may venture a thought or two about why a person might do such a thing. In one context he might want to be understood; in the other he might not want to be. Why would a person not want to be understood? Because he might not want people to know what he really believes. Also, because obscurity is often kin to supposed profundity. And, because an academic atmosphere in which obfuscation and equivocation is the style of the day almost demands such writing.

Christians ought not give in to such pressures that prohibit clarity and simplicity of writing on the basis that people maintain if plain, it must be puerile. We ought to write clearly, but trenchantly, since we have something to say that is authentically profound. It is, therefore, incumbent upon Christians to set a new standard for writing that is consistent with the simple, inspired writings of the apostles. In doing so, we may not always be considered worth reading by those academics who live and write by the standards of the time, but the common people will hear us gladly.

Everyone Evangelizing Everywhere

Even before he was converted on the Damascus Rd. the apostle Paul was used to evangelize the lost. ”What?” you say; “how could that be? I thought only Christians could do so.” Well, it’s true; in the providence of God the unexpected often takes place.  We must not limit God. Listen to what Luke wrote:

On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of  Judea and Samaria . . . So, those who were scattered went on their way preaching the message of good news (Acts  8:1,4, HCSB).

In the original, verse 4 reads “those who were scattered abroad went everywhere announcing the message of good news. (or “evangelizing;” the Greek is euaggeliezomenoi). And, as the context shows, Paul was a part of those who did the scattering. One way God evangelizes is through persecution.

Today, there is persecution of the church throughout the world.  Andrew Brunson is an example.  We prayed for his release (as we should) but also prayed that God would enable him to win some Turks to Christ. Remember how God used Paul and his companions to reach the Philippian jailer and his family for Christ and how the Praetorian Guard heard the message because of Paul’s trial in Rome (Acts 16: 31-34; Philippians 1:12. 13).

Notice, in the text of Acts 8:41-4 how it was “all except the apostles” who went everywhere evangelizing.  Up until then the church had been bottled up in Judea. But God scattered the laymen who were part of the church to evangelize in all of those places where they went. The task was not left to the apostles alone, although they were the ones to whom the Great Commission was given (Matthew 28: 16-20).

Should persecution come to America, scattering believers, they know that God is providentially providing opportunities to evangelize. And they should seize them. But they (you) should not wait for such an “opportunity”—you and the members  of your congregation should not have to be driven to do evangelism—it should be the desire of everyone to evangelize as the result of the present freedom that they enjoy. Your task is for everyone to evangelize everywhere!

Remember Aunt Minnie!

I’m always amused, when not disturbed, by the ways in which people misunderstand and, then, misrepresent biblical teaching. It’s interesting and instructive to study the phenomenon. In doing so, you discover there is one-short-of a zillion factors that might lead a person to do so.

Usually those factors are more-or-less unconscious. The person committing the “crime” doesn’t fully understand his own motivation.

Most frequently it seems, when that is the case, he remembers an incident from the past that he uses now to bolster his totally irrational reasoning. Something–you know–like what happened to Aunt Minnie fifteen years ago. He thinks that the reason for citing her case, I said, is to bolster his argument as an illustration for or against something, when all of the time, rather than an additional proof,” it is the very reason for his atrocious prejudice. All these years he’s been waiting to get at whoever might seem to agree with what happened to old “Aunti.”

Of course, he probably doesn’t even have a clue as to what really happened to her—or, if he does, it’s probably distorted. Nor does he have the inside dope on what someone else that he is now excoriating actually said, says, did, or is doing. But why should that matter? His ire is up again, and he has a convenient person or group to take it out on. Hurray!

So, be careful ABOUT WHAT YOU HEAR OR READ.

It may be nothing more than someone spouting off what has been building up inside. Stick with the Scriptures, and pay no attention to arguments built on experience.

Romans 8:28

“All things work together for good” is the part of the quotation usually given while omitting the words “to those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.” That is one fact to remember—when quoting the verse, include those words. The fact is, unless one has been called by God (through the Holy Spirit who then also “draws” him to God), the promise should not be made in counseling. Moreover, the promise is to those who “love God” as the verse teaches—a fact often not stressed even though quoted.

What is this promise? It is a statement about the providence of God.  He is not a God Who fails to care for His creation, but One Who plans His work, then works His plan. He is personally directing the circumstances involved in whatever a person’s situation may be at any given moment. That is why the promise makes sense, and can be relied upon.

The verse is one that should be used frequently in one’s counseling ministry. Why? Because it is reassuring to those who find themselves in situations that seem to indicate God has forgotten them. This verse indicates that God is in the problem (it is not a random occurrence), that He is up to something in it (there is a definite purpose to it) and that He is up to something good (to be learned, later, perhaps in the distant future or even after death).

Use the verse, stressing that one must be a believer (effectually “called”) who loves God, and that there is something that He has in mind (the difficulty is not without “purpose”). Use it often but explain it as you do so that your counselees will understand the facts about it which are often neglected. When these are neglected, the verse often loses its meaning and fails to bring its comfort—the very things for which it was given and which you quote it.

Dirty Faces

James talks about the man who looks into a mirror, sees his face is dirty, but then goes away and forgets all about it—as a result, he still has a dirty face. What was he talking about? People who look into (study) the Bible, find out what is wrong with them, but go away and do nothing about it. Dirt is one thing; for neatniks, possibly everything. But suppose he sees signs of skin cancer, and still walks away? That could be deadly.

Yet, people do what James describes all of the time. They read, they hear a sermon, they remember a Scripture verse—any one of which facts demonstrates the need for change—but no, they go on, unperturbed, just as if they hadn’t seen the spiritual dirt or signs of cancer evident in their lives.

In some ways, it’s more dangerous to hear and neglect (or refuse to obey) than not to have heard at all. The responsibility for continuing in sin is greater. When your preacher holds the Bible mirror to your face in a powerful message, do you immediately go the Lord in repentance for His washing? Or do you go home, have a good meal, turn on your HD wall mounted TV, and forget all about it?

If we Christians were more conscientious about this matter, the impact of the truth upon our lives and our testimony to the community would be greatly extended. How about it? Am I right, or wrong?

Become doers of the Word and not only hearers, fooling yourselves; whoever is a hearer of the Word and not a doer is like a man who sees the face he was born with in a mirror—he sees himself, and goes away and immediately forgets what he looked like. But whoever looks in to the perfect law of freedom and continues to do so, becoming not a hearer who forgets but a doer of deeds, will be made happy in the doing.
James 1:22-25

Preach! Don’t Construct Sermons

images4Sometimes preachers fail to distinguish between preaching a sermon and preaching to a congregation. For some, the two may be identical (preaching a sermon to a congregation) but, on the other hand, they may not be (and usually are not). What is the difference to which I allude, what are its consequences, and what can be done about it?

The difference between preaching a sermon and preaching to a congregation is enormous. In the first, all, or nearly all, of the preacher’s effort has gone into preparing what he hopes will be THE SERMON. It is a masterpiece of style and artistry. People come just to hear and admire the sermon itself. Usually, such sermons are read or memorized. Almost always they are written out in full. In such preaching, the focus is on the sermon as such; it is a thing in-and-of-itself, and whether the particular congregation before whom (not to whom) it was performed (not preached) were to hear it, or another, is irrelevant. It can stand alone on its own two feet as a literary work. There are actually no such sermons in the New Testament. The Sermon on the Mount might be thought to be so. But although it is a fine piece of literature, Christ’s sermon was not designed to be wondered at or appraised for its artistic merits. And, as you read it, you soon recognize that it will not allow such treatment. With its second person approach, it constantly prods and pokes at you, by its direct simplicity it unmasks and convicts. The literary critic can find what he seeks only at the cost of hardening his heart to the message while attempting to concentrate solely on form. Even that is difficult: the form itself is testy and terse rather than smooth and elegant; critics, who know their stuff, cannot for long feel at home with it. It cannot be subjected to good criticism; it demands subjection instead. The so-called Sermon on the Mount, therefore, is not an instance of THE SERMON. Rather, it is a supreme example of preaching.

Preaching is an activity; sermon-making is an activity. But the product of the latter is a sermon (or, in some extraordinary cases, THE SERMON) while the product of the former is changed lives. The end or goal of sermon construction is literary; the end of preaching is moral and spiritual. In preaching, the focus is not on the sermon but on God and what He has to say to the congregation. When biblical preaching takes place, people do not think about the sermon or about the preacher; they think about Christ and in some way about their relationship to Him.

In the Scriptures we are commanded “Preach the Word”; nowhere are we told to prepare sermons. Too often, homileticians in seminaries have focused on the art and craft of sermon construction or the preparation and delivery of sermons. While there is need for instruction about how to gather, order and deliver the elements of the message one preaches, nevertheless, the difference in emphasis can make all the difference in outcome. We should talk more about the activity of preaching and less about the production of sermons. The two activities along with their goals and products differ substantially as we have seen already.

Congregations know the difference. Many members of a congregation may not be able to articulate that difference, but they know. “Our former pastor preached to us; I went out of the service every week knowing that I had received a message from God. Our present pastor works hard on his sermons—you can tell that—they are smooth, polished, but.…” Notice where the focus is in each instance: in the first comment it is on God, His message and my responsibility. In the second, on the pastor and his sermon. Under the former pastor’s preaching there will be life in the congregation, challenge to young people, conversions, breakthroughs, growth. Under the second man there will be dullness, deadness, stultification, dry professionalism and a growing churchianity.

“What can I do, if I have developed the bad practice of preparing sermons rather than preparing to preach? How can I change?” In some cases, the answer may be complex, in others more simple. But it will probably consist of at least the following changes:

  1. Stop writing out sermons. That means, of course, that you will neither read nor memorize them. Instead, prepare full preaching outlines, designed to be used as a help in preaching.
  2. Focus your thinking in preparation on God, on the message, and on the congregation—not on the sermon. Ask continually “how can I best bring this message from God to this congregation?” not “how can I best prepare a fine sermon?”
  3. Think about the congregation: Who will be there, what knowledge, prejudices, beliefs, etc., that they will have. Concern yourself with preparing to convey God’s message to this congregation, not with preparing a universal literary masterpiece that can stand apart on its own. Instead, particularize. Prepare to preach to one specific congregation on one occasion, not a sermon for the whole church for all time. When you preach, preach for results in this congregation, not as though you were addressing the entire world, or perhaps the church universal!
  4. Care about your people and adapt every story (or illustration, if you prefer) specifically to them. Prepare to preach to their needs, weaknesses, etc.; don’t address the ills of the planet. The planet isn’t there to hear!

Other solutions to the problem might be suggested but, frankly, I am convinced that the basic need is to become fully aware of the problem with its various ramifications. Once an earnest preacher recognizes that his concern has been about sermons rather than about God and His flock, he will repent and find a way to change. Those pulpit prima donnas who can see no problem will go on destroying congregations with abandon, and nothing short of dismissing them before it is too late will do. But for those who have unwittingly fallen into the trap, or who have been led into it by seminary academies, and who want to change, let me suggest one final solution to the problem. If for a period of three months you will prayerfully burn your sermon outlines, together with any and all preparatory notes, so that nothing remains, and allow no tape recordings to be made, and concentrate on the activity of preaching, you should be able to make the transition from writing sermons to preaching to people. During that period you will discover what it means to prepare to preach for the blessing of one congregation, on one occasion, instead of preparing to play to the grandstands of all time.