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Friday, November 9, 2007

Give Me Prosperity or Give Me Something Really Important!

This past Tuesday (11/6/07) my friend Jim Gilbert posted on his weblog opinion and insight on the current investigation of the spending practices of six prominent charismatic ministries by Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.

For more information J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine, addresses this issue in his current “
Fire in My Bones” editorial.  You can also read Senator Grassley’s letters to these ministers at the Senator’s website.

[Note: You can click on the yellow-colored text to go directly to these sites]

As to the point of Jim’s post I have no problem with investigations into the individuals. But it shouldn’t need to be done by our federal government. It should have already been done on a regular basis by the Board of Directors of these organizations. Then, when a member of the federal or state or whatever government gets a burr under their saddle about abuse of donations to churches or charities, the work is already done, the corrective action already taken, the documentation readily available and thereby the intended reproach remains far below the actions.

So I’d like to address two of these topics: prosperity teaching & excess and taxation.

One difficult aspect of the prosperity argument is defining excess. Should Benny Hinn have a $3 million mansion? Does Joyce Meyer need a $23,000 toilet with a marble lid? Is flying a ministry plane to the Fiji Islands an appropriate use of this resource? My responses: why not, what for, probably not. But then I have no idea whether or not these expenses were paid from the specific accounts of these individuals who are entitled to spend their earned income as they please.

My opinion on taxes: As both a business owner (for profit) and president & senior pastor of a non-profit church, I believe individuals should be taxed, not organizations. And then, only once. Either tax my income (no more than 10%; as Jim observes that would be a relief) or tax my spending. Tax both? How does that make sense to anyone except those who want to spend my taxes?

My church receives donations (tithes, offerings, etc.) from members and friends who have already paid taxes on their income. They also pay taxes when they spend their money. To date, there is no ‘offering’ tax but I’m certain it’s on some government employee’s to do list. To argue that my church should pay tax on our receipts is scripturally, morally and logically indefensible. But then so is our current income tax. And while I’m on the subject I’m of the opinion we should close the doors on the IRS, an organization whose only purpose is enforcing laws that shouldn’t exist (sorry, nephew, but with your law degree I know you’ll get another job).

As for prosperity I teach it because the Bible teaches it. However, teaching biblical prosperity properly requires defining biblical prosperity properly, that is, according to Biblical examples.

Prosperity can include material possessions:

Deuteronomy 28:11 (NIV) The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity — in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground — in the land he swore to your forefathers to give you.

Prosperity can also include professional success:

1 Chronicles 29:23 (NIV) So Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king in place of his father David. He prospered and all Israel obeyed him.

By most standards possessions and success are the essential earmarks of prosperity. But Solomon – arguably the most prosperous man in history (Bill Gates only has one wife) – shares this insight:

Ecclesiastes 2:10-11 (NIV) I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.

To better understand what the Bible says about prosperity let’s look at an Old Testament example:

Acts 13:17 (NIV) The God of the people of Israel chose our fathers; he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt, with mighty power he led them out of that country…

“Prosper during their stay in Egypt?” I thought they were slaves. Maybe we need a different example.

How about the apostle Paul?

Philippians 4:11-13 (NIV) I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

The secret of being content in want? How is that prosperity? Actually, it’s not. That’s contentment. I know a lot of prosperous people who aren’t content. Contentment is better.

When we teach prosperity with a focus only on material possessions we rob our listeners of the vast riches that God has available to us. Riches that can’t be spent at Best Buy. Riches that can’t be washed and waxed. Riches that can’t be lived in, dined at, hung on a wall, dusted on a shelf, pulled from a pocket, stored in a vault, or flown to an island.

So if material possessions and success aren’t the epitome of prosperity, what is? Affluence aside, there are family, children, friends, the blessing of the Lord that makes us rich (don’t you know?) in ways that material possessions cannot. And above all things the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ and the assurance of our eternal salvation:

2 Peter 1:3 (NIV) His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

Can you say as Job did, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised?” It’s not easy. Especially just after the “taken away” part. But that attitude is a prosperity that defies rust, inflation, devaluation, market plunges, strikes, layoffs, traffic jams, late checks, loan defaults, expired coupons and no refills.

Are the young missionaries building wells in Peru and surviving on a few dollars a month prosperous? Is the couple ministering to the youth every Friday night while struggling to start a family prosperous? Is the retired widower living on a pension and showing up for church each week to worship with the young people who admire him prosperous? Is the single guy who doesn’t spend much on his clothes and car but gives proportionately more to missions than anyone else prosperous?

I guess that depends on how you define prosperity.

4:28 pm pst 

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Let's shoot the messenger!

“This summer, associate pastor Bae Hyung-kyu led his mostly female medical team from South Korea into Afghanistan. The plan was to alleviate physical and spiritual suffering. But Taliban terrorists had another agenda. On July 19, radical Islamic insurgents kidnapped the 23 South Koreans traveling by bus through southern Afghanistan.”

This is the opening paragraph to an article in the November 2007 Christianity Today magazine entitled Missions Isn’t Safe. The article goes on to describe how during more than 40 days of captivity team members from the South Korean church were repeatedly relocated, beaten and made to endure forced labor. They were also pressured to convert from Christianity to Islam. When pastor Bae Hyung-kyu refused he was shot 10 times in the head, chest and stomach. Another hostage was also murdered. Eventually the remaining hostages were released when the South Korean government agreed to pay a $20 million ransom.

So who did the Korean newspapers blame for this violence? The missionary team.

Not only were the missionaries publicly chastised for their “dangerous missionary and volunteer activities” but the church was forced to apologize for embarrassing the nation. And causing their fellow Koreans to suffer “a tremendous amount of duress.”

Just to summarize: South Korean missions workers are held hostage, tortured and murdered. South Koreans who remained home are stressed out over the whole thing. So, let’s shoot the messengers. That way we won’t have to think about what they suffered. How thoughtless of them!

As outrageous as this point of view is it pales in comparison to that of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Religious Liberty Commission’s statement: “We suggest that organizations with workers in other countries should pay careful regard to security warnings issued by their government.”

No statement of support. No outrage at the violence against these workers who sought only to provide aid and comfort to those in need. And no discussion of the ramifications of paying off a ransom that will only encourage terrorists to engage in the profitable business of kidnapping future missions workers.

The Christianity Today article does get it right when it says that foreign missions is a dangerous calling, quoting Jesus’ opening comments to the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

But what about the obvious: what does it say about a religion that cannot get past dogmatic differences to welcome those of different belief who would come to bring aid and comfort with no expectations other than acceptance? What would happen in the United States if an Islamic organization from Iraq sent friendly emissaries with supplies and medical prowess to help the victims of the recent Southern California fires? Would they be kidnapped, tortured, murdered, and held for ransom?

If a group purporting to be Christians engaged in this type of activity within our borders they would not only be condemned by our nation’s laws but also loudly and internationally condemned by Christian organizations as well. Yet in the incident described above it is the church supporting the relief workers that received the brunt of the condemnation. Why is that?

It’s because we’re afraid of the bully. The bully beats up our friends, takes their lunch money and makes their life miserable. Our advice? Don’t antagonize the bully. Stay away from him.

This past Thursday night I watched ABC’s 20/20, John Stossel’s report on “Hate in America.” The source of the hate? Westboro Baptist Church in Nebraska.

If you did not see the broadcast consider yourself fortunate. I can somewhat understand the actions of the Taliban. Their Islamic teachings foster and encourage their violent behavior. But I cannot understand how the Westboro Baptist Church can support their rabid hatred with the Holy Bible.

Yet our nation’s laws and our Christian Scriptures – the same Scriptures the Westboro Baptist Church followers pervert – tolerate this radical group’s behavior. We do not torture them. We do not behead them (though I will admit that while watching Westborough Baptist Church representative and lawyer Shirley Phelps-Roper spout her vile condemnation of all things American the thought crossed my mind...).

Thankfully, Westboro Baptist Church is being prosecuted for violations of the law. But the action against them is legal and civil. That’s what a legal system based on Judeo-Christian ethics engenders.

For the past two centuries Christian missionaries have died in the service of our Lord. How can we expect otherwise when the Christ we follow did the same for us? But we of all people should not join in aiming our rebuke at the messenger.

11:00 pm pdt 

Saturday, October 20, 2007

How long does it take to write a sermon? part 2

Over the past ten years I’ve written about forty sermons a year. Occasionally I repeat, but most weeks they’re fresh new. And even the repeats undergo extensive rewrites.

My preference is sermon series, that is, several sermons on the same subject. That way I can hit one big idea each week and link them together under a common theme.

Each week’s big idea is essentially what I hope people will remember long after they’ve walked down the front steps, packed their family in the car and headed off to lunch.

Last year I did a four-part series called “Songs of Deliverance.” The first week’s message was from Psalm 91. The big idea was that God is a God of deliverance… but not always the deliverance we might expect.

The second week was “A Greater Promise,” which described a promise greater than deliverance. Week three – “The Power of Song” – was about the actual songs of deliverance and week four was “Whose Song Is It Anyway?” The title is an obvious riff on the comedy show. But the big idea is that the song promised to us in Psalm 40 belongs to the Lord. Our songs are new songs from Him, about Him and to Him.

Once I have the big idea I outline the message, noting key verses, writing a few specific lines that I want to say a certain way, and indicating where transitions, anecdotes, illustrations, etc. are needed.

Each big idea is based on a scripture so that becomes my starting point. Then I quickly introduce the main point in a way that hopefully provokes the listeners to wonder what will come next. I think of this as sinking the hook and then giving it a twist.

For example, in the “Whose Song Is It Anyway?” message I started with Psalm 149, emphasized the reference to "a new song" and then listed four complaints about new songs:

1.      The songs have too many words; too hard to remember.

2.      The music style is too much like popular secular music.

3.      Churches start singing the new songs and quit singing the Psalms.

4.      People prefer the older, familiar songs, not new ones all the time.

I could hear quiet comments agreeing with these sentiments. That was the hook: everyone could relate to one or more of these complaints. Then I twisted the hook: These complaints are from … 1742!

Recently I introduced a message on prayer by asking, “If there was something in your life that really bothered you, that distracted you from serving the Lord, how many times would you pray for that problem to be removed from you life?”

Most everyone would keep praying. But Paul prayed for the thorn in his flesh to be removed just three times. Why? For the answer listen to my message A Change of Heart part 4 – Raise Your Hands.

The reason for all of this effort is simple: If I get my audience hooked right way by arousing their curiosity I have a shot at keeping their attention all the way through.

To that end I like to keep things interesting. I love to tell stories to illustrate my points. Some personal anecdotes, some from other resources. I rarely use jokes, preferring the natural humor that arises from actual circumstances. I like to create a sense of expectation, of tension: Where’s he going with that? What’s going to happen next?

My goal is to engage the imagination of my audience, help them to visualize the truth of God’s word and how it relates to them. There is profound truth in scripture but if all you had to do was tell people what the Bible says and then tell them it’s important they do it, they would do it. But they don't. 

Throwing scripture at them doesn't work either. Ten years ago I crammed in as many scriptures as I could find to support my point. Over the years I’ve learned to simplify, to focus on one primary scripture with a few scriptures to support it and bring clarity. I’m always learning and hopefully improving.

I put a lot of effort into improving my sermon craft. I listen to at least three sermons a month by other preachers; Preaching Today audio is a great resource. Also many preachers have their sermons online in a downloadable format. So do I. I listen to my own sermons, too. Sometimes I cringe and sometimes I smile but always I learn how to improve.

I read books on sermons: Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching (absolutely essential; that’s where the ‘big idea’ terminology came from), Andy Stanley’s Communicating for a Change (practical, easy-to-read advice that I wished I’d known a long time ago), Charles Koller’s Preaching Without Notes (I rarely preach without notes but I can if I want to). These are just the tip of the iceberg of resources available to pastor-teachers. Why all this effort?

I’m a musician. I play guitar and bang on the piano. I know that practice is essential. You can’t maintain your current skill level without practice. And skill development is preferable to just maintaining the status quo. The best way to develop your skill is to learn from someone who has skills you don’t.

Why is teaching the word of God any different? To me, it’s not.

I look at it like this: each person sitting there on Sunday morning is expecting to hear from God. And I’m the one they’re expecting to hear from God from. Bad grammar, yes. But true nonetheless.

So the better I am at the mechanics of sermon preparation, sermon form, and delivery, the less they will notice me and the more they will receive from the words I speak. Piquing curiosity, using stories and illustrations to engage imagination, evoking emotions from laughter to tears... the elements that cause a novel or a film to be memorable are the same elements that enable a pastor-teacher to help his listeners understand the truth and power of God's Word. 

Of course, I also count on the Holy Spirit to be involved, to see to it that each person hears what they need to hear. That’s my ace-in-the-hole, if you will, the wild card that trumps the verbal gaffes, the (too often) weak humor and the (occasional) insipid imagery.

And as long as I realize it’s the Holy Spirit making it all work, I can relax just a little, knowing that I just need to do what I do best, give the glory to the Lord and let the rhema – the living word – do it’s thing.

How long does it take to write a sermon? A lifetime…

11:56 pm pdt 

Saturday, October 13, 2007

How long does it take to write a sermon?

Last Sunday a varied group gathered after church at Chile’s for lunch. In the course of casual conversation I was asked by one of the women, “Pastor, how long does it take you to write a sermon?”

My impulse was to make a joke, something like “too long” or “You think I write them? I just make them up at as I go along.” But instead I replied, “About twenty-five hours, if things go well.”

“I thought it only took you an hour or two.” It was obvious she was struggling to decide whether or not I was teasing her.

I spent a few minutes explaining about planning the message, doing research, putting it all together, letting some time pass and then ruthlessly editing (something I learned from my sister-in-law, Nicole) until the last minute. Knowing that what was fascinating to me was probably not as much so to her, I kept it brief.

But her question stayed with me through the week and led to this piece you’re now reading. It is true: I find the whole process of creating and delivering a sermon absolutely fascinating. So I’m going to share my thoughts with you. Not all at once. Blogs aren’t conducive to long discourse. And if you’re observant you’ll notice I haven’t been a frequent blogger. Hopefully that will change but writing my sermons is my first priority. Blogging comes in a distant second.

As for sermon preparation… it’s a lot of things: study, research, inspiration, craft, rehearsal. But what it’s not is easy. In fact it’s everything that isn’t easy.

I’m over fifty years old and I’ve worked a variety of jobs since I was twelve: picking apples, digging septic tank leech lines, working in an open pit mine in the Nevada desert, flipping burgers at McDonalds, cooking for the post-bar rush at a 24-hour diner, running a corporate purchasing department, field sales for hi-tech semiconductors, special projects for business process improvement, partner in a private post-secondary school, and selling speech recognition software. And pastoring a small start-up church.

Some of the work has been stressful, or physically demanding, or has kept me away from home when my kids were growing up. But nothing has been as difficult as ministering the word of God every Sunday. And nothing has been as rewarding, frustrating, exciting, headache-producing, exhilarating and tiring. I love it!

I don’t think of myself as a preacher, at least not in the clichéd “yell-and-say-yea-ah-thus-says-the-Lord” sense. I’m a pastor-teacher, hyphenated, no conjunction. Teaching is my gift and my joy.

My job is simple: every week for 30-45 minutes I stand in a front of an expectant group of followers of Christ and say fascinating new stuff about God, claiming it to be inspired and true. Some of them know little about the word, others know more than I do – a lot more. Some are really interested in hearing from God’s word; others are counting the seconds until lunch. Individually counting the seconds (I can see it in their eyes). And all I aim to do is relate the truth to them in a way they can understand, while keeping them completely engaged, and never, never, never misrepresent God’s word.

I'll be back with more. I just need to finish my sermon...

10:46 pm pdt 

Saturday, July 21, 2007

10:10 pm pdt 

2007.11.01 | 2007.10.01 | 2007.07.01

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