Let’s Talk about Talks

When I was growing up they were called sermons and pastors preached them. That’s changed.

One Wednesday night during my time as a youth pastor, a young girl asked me if I was giving “the talk” that night. No, not THE talk. She meant the sermon…or message…or the talk that night. Was I the guy that was talking? If so, I was giving the talk.

I soon learned that all types of churches call all types of sermons all types of things. Message. Lesson. Discussion. And pastors didn’t preach any more, they just spoke. “Who’s speaking this weekend?”

And with that, I want you to think about this.

It was so simple when I was younger. Pastors preached sermons. But now, directors conduct discussions, ministers present messages, or leaders lead lessons.

But what is it that we mean when we talk about all these…talks? What is a sermon? And is it any different than a message or a lesson?

I think one reason the waters have been so muddied is because the church, in seeking to be relevant, has stirred them up. The word “sermon” may make some feel uncomfortable, so let’s change the word. But if only the words change, the comfort level won’t. And if the content changes so that those who wouldn’t normally listen now do (and their lives are changed!), then why change the word?

Another reason this gets so muddy is our use of technology. Now, I love technology – especially videos and funny pictures and great graphics. But if that’s the hallmark of a sermon is technology, if people only remember that you showed a Dumb and Dumber clip, then what impact did your words have?

The goal of a sermon is to change lives! The content of a sermon is the person of Jesus living among us! That’s a simple enough idea that often gets murkier and murkier as we add lights and sounds. And it’s not that lights and sounds are bad – they’re great! But if that’s the only way to be creative, then we’re not being all that creative. The greatest speakers of the human race never knew PowerPoint. But they sculpted great words together into sermons that moved the hands of nations.

One more reason – and then I’ll get to answering that question about what a sermon really is. Speakers run the risk of becoming idols to their audience. And that makes perfect sense, I get it. We put them on a stage, elevated above everyone else, give them a microphone, and put a spotlight on them. All those things are so that it’s easier to see and hear them. But the result oftentimes is that their egos enlarge. And why not? If you have a mic and a spotlight and everyone is hanging on your every word, wouldn’t you get a big head? It takes a great level of humility to do that and not let your ego run wild. But it also takes a fair bit of ego to even stand up on the stage in the first place.

So, how does that balance even work? It’s a constant struggle that ministers must navigate all the time. Confident enough in their own God-given abilities, yet humble enough in their man-made faults to understand “it’s not about you”…even when it is all about you. Even when everyone is watching and listening and laughing and clapping. It’s not about you. It’s about Jesus. And a minister’s number one job is to point people to Jesus.

Ministers should not be so arrogant as to believe that their sermons are more than mere suggestions of what Jesus looked like. That’s what a sermon is – a clear representation of Jesus Christ. Sermons should be windows not walls. They are a way to view God through the incarnation of Jesus – the God who became flesh and lives with us (John 1:14). When we hear the words of a minister, can we see through their words to see Jesus? A minister’s sermon is only effective as it is transparent.

So, as a pastor/minister/leader who preaches/talks/leads, here’s what I have to ask myself: When I speak, can you see Jesus?

But what do you think? How would you define “sermon”? Is it more than – or less than – just showing people Jesus?

Peace Among the Pieces

My son loves Legos, which is great for me because I loved Legos when I was a kid. So, that means I get to play with my son’s Legos now. What? I paid for them. It’s only right.

When I was a kid, I played with G.I. Joes, too. That was my go to toy. When we went to the store, I went straight to the G.I. Joe aisle. No stopping to take in the Transformers, no pausing to peruse the Hotwheels. It was just straight to G.I. Joe. And the best part – for me at least – about getting a brand new G.I. Joe was putting it together! There were instructions and decals and all these different parts! I loved when everything was done and it all fit together. And truth be told, I enjoyed putting them together almost as much as playing with them.

I’ve realized something recently, and this is a little hard to talk about, but I’m a bit of an instructions Nazi. Whether it’s toys or a new gadget or the grill my wife bought me for Father’s Day last summer. The instructions are the holy text, and thou shalt not build without first reading the instructions! But man, have I come to realize how wrong I am.

And with that, I’d like you to think about this.

My overemphasis on instructions has affected my son when it comes to Legos. We open the box and I immediately go to the instructions and lay it out. “Okay, step one: Sorting! No, don’t start putting them together, we have to sort according to color and size, son. See, there’s a little picture of the Lego man doing just that.”

Of course it only gets worse later when I see him taking apart his Legos to make other stuff, stuff that’s not in the instructions and stuff that simply shouldn’t be! These creations are anti-Lego, I tell you. They have twenty wheels and five wings and three seats and four steering wheels and…

And then I stop and I realize that I’m being an instructions Nazi.

Why? Why do I do this to myself? Why do I do this to my kids? Why do I get so anxious when I see that toy or grill or whatever not put together the right way?

I’m sure a psychologist could have a field day with my neurosis. But I won’t let them. Because I think I’ve figured it out. Or at least, I’ve figured out why I’ve had such a hard time kicking this habit in my later years. It all comes down to peace.

When the Bible talks about peace, it uses two words from the Hebrew and Greek: Shalom and Eirene. Those words don’t mean “a state of mutual harmony” or “the absence of conflict” like our English word means. Both of those words mean pretty much the same thing – Wholeness; Completeness; Put together the right way.

Whenever I learned this, a light bulb went off in my head. *DING* “Oh! Now I get it. To have peace means that everything has to fit together just right.” And since I was an instructions Nazi, it made perfect sense to me. If all the pieces fit, then I can have peace.

How many of you know that when a light bulb goes off it doesn’t always equate to a good idea? Yeah, I’m learning that.

So, my misunderstanding of this whole Shalom/Wholeness thing only served to reinforce my neurosis about instructions.

“No! You need to make sure all your Legos are put together the right way, son. Don’t you understand Shalom?

“No! I need to make sure this assignment is perfect before I turn it in. Don’t you understand Shalom?

“No! I won’t feel fulfilled until all the boxes in my life are checked off. Don’t you understand Shalom?

Well, guess what…I was the one that didn’t understand Shalom. And I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to scream it like that.

The peace of God is not about having all the pieces fit together. The Apostle Paul says as much when he tells us, “Hey, it’s not like I’ve arrived or anything, guys. I’m banging around on this planet just like you, trying to figure all of this stuff out.” (Philippians 3:12)

That’s a paraphrase, but it’s a good paraphrase. And that’s an Apostle! Capital “A” Apostle! Like, wrote down the words of God and we’ve been reading them for 2000 years, Apostle. And all the pieces didn’t fit for him. What makes me think that I’ll have it all put together?

Now, I’m not sure if he ever struggled with the whole Shalom thing too, but I bet he did. He was big into following the Law – which is basically just instructions – before he started following Jesus. But then grace took over big time. And this is how he defined peace:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:4-7

So, what is Shalom if it’s not having everything together? I guess the key is that it only comes from God. We look at our lives – at least I do – and I think, “Man, I’m so off track from where I thought I would be. I’m not in the shape I want to be in. My bank account isn’t as full as I want it to be. I don’t meditate, pray, and read my Bible as much as I want to.” And I look at all that and come to the conclusion that Shalom is a long way off.

But then I look at my kids. Put together? HA! My son combs his own hair. You should see it! It’s all messed up and sticking up and flat in the front and a rat’s nest in the back. And he puts the comb down and smiles real big and gives me a thumbs up. And I give him one right back. You know why? Because he’s figured out Shalom. And I haven’t. But I’m trying.

Here’s the deal – I look at his hair and I would never say, “Son, that’s a complete mess!” Even if it is, it’s perfect to me because he’s my son. I wouldn’t want him to be filled with anxiety over something like his hair, or his bed being messed up, or his Legos not being put together the right way. And I don’t think God wants us filled with anxiety over those little things either. Just like I’m my son’s dad, God is my dad. And when he looks down and sees how messed up I am, he still gives me a thumbs up. I don’t know why. He probably shouldn’t. I wouldn’t give me a thumbs up. I guess that’s why Paul said that the peace of God surpasses our understanding.

Put together? HA! I’ve got more Lego pieces missing than I care to admit. But I’m working on it. And my life may end up with twelve wheels and three doors and the blocks are all different colors.

But God gives me a lot of slack. I need to start giving my son a bit more when it comes to his Legos. And I probably need to give myself some more slack when it comes to having all the pieces fit. After all, peace isn’t pieces that fit together perfectly. Peace is being thankful that God gives us a thumbs up anyway.

“I’m Blessed” to be So Lucky

Last week, you probably saw someone post on social media a neat little article entitled The One Thing Christians Should Stop Saying. It’s a Huffpost Religion article and that often means it comes with a mixed bag. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I loved mixed bags. I usually end up agreeing with more than I disagree with. Except in this case. The author, Scott Dannemiller is wrong. Or at least I think he’s wrong.

I clicked on the article assuming I’d see something about tolerance or hypocrisy or legalism. But Dannemiller’s one thing Christians should stop saying is “I’m blessed.” Now, Dannemiller was admittedly splitting semantic hairs. But again, he’s wrong. All the way to the end of the article, he’s wrong.

And with that, I want you to think about this.

A couple weeks ago, a friend forwarded me an article about “writing spaces” and wanted my feedback. The author of the article talked about where she likes to do her best writing and even included a picture of a nice desk set up by a back window overlooking trees and birds and nature stuff. I thought it was a pretty good article, so I responded to my friend about my “writing space” which is a little office behind the attached garage that is nice and isolated from the rest of the house. I can go down there and close the door and turn on my space heater and not be bothered by my five year old yelling at my seven year old or my dog barking at a squirrel or the postman. I really love it.

I started talking about my own little “writing space” and I got real excited about it because after fifteen years of marriage we finally bought a house with a nice office just for me. And then I felt a little guilty. Because not everyone has the chance to buy a house like mine (not that it’s anything special, but still). And not every writer has the chance to carve out a little “writing space.” So, I decided to tag on a little addendum to my message – “I’m blessed.” I wanted my friend to know that I don’t take the fact that I have my own office for granted. And the best way I knew to convey that was to say “I’m blessed to have a house like this.”

Of course Scott Dannemiller would disagree with me on that. The Huffpost article I linked above lays out some good points about why I was wrong to say “I’m blessed.” Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, he’s wrong.

The first point he makes is that saying “I’m blessed” reduces God to a divine wish-granter “randomly bestowing cash and cars” to the faithful few. But this is playing off the assumption that God blesses us as incentive for right living. There’s a certain amount of “Protestant Ethic” at play with that, sure. But that theory has suffered a lot lately. More and more, sociologists are seeing that what people do with their money is more important than what they do to get it. And what they do with it is often influenced by how they view it in the first place. When someone says “I’m blessed” when talking about how much they make, they usually don’t mean “Look at how much God loves me more than anyone else.” There usually follows a sense of gratitude that leads to some benevolent action.

His second point is that saying “I’m blessed” is somehow offensive to those who are less fortunate than us. While the Western World’s focus on material success is often a product of an unbalanced view of God and resources, it’s not completely far off from scripture. Many people like to point out that the famous (or infamous) passage in Philippians 4:13 doesn’t mean what people think it means. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” the passage reads. Does that mean I can play professional football, become an actor, run for governor, earn a million dollars…because Christ gives me the strength to do it? Probably not. In fact, the context sort of points to Paul saying, “I’m pretty much desolate here and dependant on others for financial aid, but through Christ’s power I can still accomplish God’s goal for my life.”

But is that what Paul is really saying? Look at Philippians 4:12:

I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. (emphasis added)

Paul admits to having “plenty” and being blessed with “abundance.” Don’t those help him accomplish God’s goals as well? Wouldn’t he say those are blessings?

Look at another passage of scripture that gets a lot of the “blessed” treatment. When Jesus preached his famous Sermon on the Mount, he began with the Beatitudes. He gives a shout out to the audience and says, “You guys are so blessed.” And everyone there probably said, “Really? Me? Blessed?” Because they weren’t rich landowners. They were farmers and peasants, poor and destitute, who brought their sick and dying to Jesus to be healed, looking to him to give them an answer to Roman oppression. And Jesus says, “You guys, you are truly blessed!”

The word for “blessed” there is makarios. There are many different ways to translate it. Most scholars decide on “blessed” as the best way. But I like a couple other ways: Happy and Lucky. Happy seems to indicate that you’re overjoyed by some great happenstance of life. And Jesus is really turning that on its head, because that list? Not really stuff you’d be happy about. And lucky? That’s even better. “You’re persecuted? Lucky you! You’re poor? Lucky you!”

What’s so lucky about that group? Well, they didn’t deserve to be blessed, to be given the kingdom, to have someone pull out a chair and say, “here, you can sit at the table of God now.” But they got it. And that’s grace. And our response to anything we ever own or possess should be similar to our response to grace. We didn’t do anything to earn our standing with God. But we got it. And now we acknowledge it as a blessing and we thank him and we let it spur us on to greater things.

And that leads me to my biggest problem with Dannemiller’s article.

In the last paragraph, after making a big case about how bad it is for us to say “I’m blessed,” the author says that he know says “I’m grateful.” Is there a difference between those two? Isn’t saying “I’m blessed” just saying “I’m nothing special, this was some really great extra for my life”?

So again, the author is splitting some semantic hairs here. But I think in our zeal to denounce a certain teaching that equates godliness with worldly riches, we may be overstepping an opportunity to give God credit for good stuff that happens to us too. It’s okay to be happy and to enjoy your stuff. It’s not okay to think that they somehow make you any special than any other of God’s children. And it’s definitely okay – in fact, I’d say its mandatory – to acknowledge that God is the source of all that, whether your material success is an extra million dollars or a clean pair of shoes.

And I can’t think of a better word to use than “blessed” to describe how God has bestowed that on us.