Wednesday, January 23, 2019

How Long Should A Sermon Be?

Dear Friends,

On an Easter Sunday we had 58 people at the 9:30 service and 21 people in the 11:30 service. Attributable to the grace of God and not to my own abilities, all 79 of those were able to stay awake during the sermon! I admit to being completely incompetent when it comes to judging the level of interest in my sermons. On many occasions, I have labored long and hard over what I believed to be a brilliantly-crafted sermon with spot-on exegesis of the biblical text, animating illustrations and a surefire, come-to-Jesus, life-changing application guaranteed to bring people to their knees in repentance and change their lives. Then on that Sunday morning, as I watch eyes close and chins sink slowly to chests, I am once again delighted to be able to facilitate the congregation’s much needed rest. On just as many occasions, I can knock out a sermon that has me bored as I write it and embarrassed to deliver it only to do so and see an alert and interested congregation with smiling faces, heads nodding in agreement and people taking notes. Not only that, but after listening to thousands of sermons and delivering over 600 of my own, I still have no idea of what the perfect length of a sermon should be.

According to the Vatican, a sermon (Catholics call it a homily) should be a maximum of eight minutes and a seven minute sermon is the ideal. Their “8 Minute Rule” is based on the amount of time they say that the average person can concentrate and they believe that any homily over fifteen minutes is “liturgical abuse.” It’s different in the Protestant non-liturgical church. In the days of the Puritans, sermon length was close to two hours, but today the longest sermons are in the range of an hour or more and are preached in the Baptist and Pentecostal churches. 

The Pope decries “useless chatter” in sermons and even us non-Catholic pastors might want to say “yes and amen” to that. Sermons can focus too much on cute stories, politics, and the pastor’s family life or they can be so theologically dense that they are of interest only to seminary students. I attended a church once where the extemporaneous sermons were so rambling, shallow and boring that as soon as the pastor started to preach, heads would drop down toward each person’s lap. They’d brought magazines and books to read during the sermon. At another church, I asked the congregation president why there were no visible clocks in their church. She told me, “We had one in the back but the pastor took it down because people kept turning around to look at it during his sermon.”

Is it true that our attention span is only eight minutes long? Only if you’re bored. Consider that American adults spend an average of 5.5 hours per day glued to their television. Many senior adults spend an average of three hours a day on social media. Then on Sunday, people get restless after a 15 minute sermon and can’t wait to get outside to enjoy an hour of hospitality and fellowship time. They then go home and watch a three hour football game or a four hour golf tournament on television. 

The interest level in worldly things is often determined by their entertainment value and many church-goers today expect to be entertained by their church. An on-line newsletter for pastors reported last week that many who are shopping for a church say they are looking for positive, humorous, “feel-good” messages by a charismatic pastor. But a sermon is not meant to entertain us–it’s to change us. The sermon should take the relevant Word of God and apply it to our lives in a manner that is transforming. Jesus said that the job of the church is to save souls and change lives. Matthew 28:19 It is through the grace of God and the preached Word of God that we do that and while you should find a “gem” in every sermon, not every sermon is about you. One Sunday you may hear a sermon that penetrates your heart and scores a direct hit and the next Sunday you may be bored to tears by a sermon that’s the life-changing message for someone else.

How long should a sermon be? The longest described sermon in the Bible was given by Paul who preached all night and bored a person to the point that he fell asleep and tumbled out an open window to his death. Acts 20:7-9 The longest sermon given by Jesus was the “Sermon on the Mount” Matthew 5:1-7:29 that is 2,551 words and would have taken Him about 20-25 minutes to deliver. Interestingly enough, in polls taken today, the majority of Protestant church-goers say that 20-25 minutes is the ideal sermon length, but the average length of a sermon in a Protestant church is 30-45 minutes.

Pastor and Christian author, Tony Campolo, tells of one time when he was speaking at a black church. He was rambling on and on to the point that a woman stood up in the back, waved a white handkerchief in surrender and began shouting, “Help him, Lord Jesus! Help him, Jesus!” Today my sermons are no more than 20-25 minutes, but back in my Pentecostal days I too could go on for over an hour. Thank God the windows were not able to be opened.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Practicing the Presence of God

Dear Friends,

I grew up in the Episcopal Church. That was when it looked like the conservative Anglican Church of England and not what the progressive Episcopal Church looks like today. Halfway between Luther’s and Calvin’s reformed Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, our “high church” liturgical service was in English but otherwise almost indistinguishable from a Roman Catholic service in Latin. All prayer was read by the priest from the prayer book with appropriate responses by the congregation. Prayer was a ritual and any prayer outside of the church walls was usually the recitation of a written prayer that had been memorized. I faithfully recited the Lord’s Prayer every night before falling asleep. Six decades later, I still do. I’ll never forget the first time I went to a non-liturgical, Pentecostal service and we gathered in prayer groups to pray for one another. I was terrified. It wasn’t just the heart-pounding thought of praying out loud in front of others. How in heaven’s name can a person pray without a prayer book to read from?

But in the early church, prayer was as natural as breathing. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 Pray without ceasing? But Paul wasn’t asking the impossible! He was encouraging them to keep on doing what they’d always done! There are those today who follow a regimented prayer time and are much blessed by a prayer ritual that they have made a commitment to follow. That used to be me but I found that I had compartmentalized my life into my (much too short) prayer time with God and then for the other sixteen waking hours my time was spent in work and in the world. My entire spiritual life turned upside down when I came across THE PRACTICE OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD by Brother Lawrence who was a 17th century monk. Brother Lawrence said: “He does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him. One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.”

I start and end everyday in prayer, but prayer is no longer limited to a specific time of my day. It’s become a lifestyle and, like Brother Lawrence, my own constant prayers– that little act of adoration throughout the day –have become the background music of my life. I’ll stop in the middle of what I’m doing and pray: Lord God, here I am, all devoted to Thee; make me according to the desires of Thy heart.

Oswald Chambers was an early twentieth-century Scottish Baptist and Holiness Movement teacher and evangelist, best known for the devotional MY UTMOST FOR HIS HIGHEST. He wrote, “Think of prayer as the breath in our lungs and the blood from our hearts. Our blood flows and our breathing continues ‘without ceasing’; we are not even conscious of it, but it never stops...Prayer is not an exercise; it is the life of the saint. It is coming into perfect fellowship and oneness with God.”

German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that true prayer originates in the heart of God, is revealed in His Word and is inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit. God also uses the prayers of the saints and “prayer warriors” who have gone before us to inspire us and enrich our prayer language.

British novelist and theologian, C.S. Lewis was a devoted member of the Anglican Church of England and he treasured the church’s BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER. So do I. I also use THE DAILY OFFICE of the Anglican Franciscan Monks. The CELTIC DAILY PRAYER from the Northumbria Community in Ireland is a wealth of prayers. The GLENSTAL BOOK OF PRAYER from an Irish Benedictine monastery is written in the earthy Celtic tradition. I deeply appreciate the prayer books of the Eastern Orthodox Church which so beautifully reflect the majesty and mystery of the earliest liturgies in the ancient church. As we are inspired by hearing well-articulated prayers spoken by a person, we are inspired by reading well-written prayers from deep within our Christian history. If your tastes run to the contemporary and charismatic, you might like Sarah Young’s: JESUS CALLING - ENJOYING PEACE IN HIS PRESENCE.

Some of us have been in churches that harshly denounced the use of written prayers as being ritualistic and shallow but we must remember that Jesus prayed extemporaneous prayers and He also prayed the prayers written by King David and others. Jesus and the earliest Christians read and sang from their “worship book,” that contains 150 prayers which cover every conceivable emotion and circumstance. When our own prayers fail. When the darkness closes in and we find it difficult to even find the words to pray, Jesus’ prayer book will always be our best resource. You already have one of those ancient prayer books of course. It’s located in the center of your Bible to make it easy to find and it’s called the BOOK OF PSALMS.

Find a favorite prayer book to enhance your prayer times and then let your prayers become the ambient background in your journey through life. Turn your thoughts and your prayers to God throughout each day and remember, “One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.”

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

He's Your Good Shepherd!

Dear Friends,

If I were a prosperity preacher, I would tell you that 2019 will be our best year ever and our Nation will receive a double portion of happiness and prosperity! But God may not be pleased with what is taking place in our Country today. On Sunday night’s Golden Globes Awards show, actor Christian Bale gave all the glory to “Satan” for his Best Actor award win. In response, the Church of Satan ecstatically tweeted their appreciation for the shout-out that honored their deity on national television. Courts are ordering that the "offensive" cross be removed from all public memorials and many schools have prohibited children from bringing a Bible to school because it contains "hate speech." Most schools across the Nation banned any mention of Christmas this year while the liberal media reported a “yearly reminder that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a parable on racism & homophobia.” And then progressive liberals attacked the Bing Crosby song “White Christmas” for being about white supremacy. Of course the lyrics “I’m dreaming of a ‘white’ Christmas” are about snow – not people – but the media pounced on this as another example of a racist Christmas song!

Purity rings are worn by Christian teenage girls and young women as a pledge that “true love waits” and signifies their commitment to be chaste until marriage. The most prominent ELCA (Lutheran) pastor and author in America today is Nadia Bolz-Weber who said last month that the purity movement is “patriarchal theology that has harmed countless women.” Bolz-Weber has started a national movement for women to send her their purity rings to be melted down and recast into a statue of a “golden vagina.” This pastor says that “purity” isolates us from others, and the Bible teaches that true holiness is our connection with others that includes open sexual relationships. America is changing. Churches are changing. You may love and applaud the direction our Country is going and, if so, I’m going to prophesy that you will then like 2019 and receive a double portion of happiness in the new year!

But as for me, the words of Billy Graham come to mind. Five years ago he said, “When America’s leaders actively promote and legislate immorality, restrict the religious freedoms that our country was founded upon, and are openly hostile to men and women of faith, then I believe we are ripe for God’s judgement.” That can make us some of us believers wring our hands in despair until we remember that no matter what happens in 2019, we will still sing the words in that beloved hymn that: “all is well with my soul.”

Psalm 23 is so often read at memorial and funeral services, that seeing and hearing the familiar words can evoke a cloud of memories–some from long ago and perhaps some still painfully recent. And we may either get stuck on or gloss over the words: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Psalm 23:4 But the words “shadow of death” are translated from one compound Hebrew word meaning a place of “intensely thick darkness.” It means a place of discouragement and despair. We will walk through the valley of “death” just one time in our lives, but we walk through that dark and dreadful valley of “despair” many times. We walk through that valley when we have experienced personal loss. When we are worried and afraid about our future. 

Perhaps we even find ourselves in that valley of despair when we see the changes in our Country and in some of our churches today. Our values and beliefs may feel threatened and we worry about what a new year will bring for us. That’s when we need to remember that no matter how many times we walk through the valley, we walk not alone. “Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10

We have just celebrated Christmas. The Incarnation. God with us! Jesus is the Son of God – the Savior – the Word – the I AM. He is the Good Shepherd in Psalms 23 and yet that may be what is most difficult for us to really get! Psalm 23:1 says, “The Lord is my shepherd!” Jesus Christ is not just the Shepherd, He’s your Shepherd. This is just too big for us to wrap our brain around. God created the Universe and then He created our World. And He created you. And then He told you that He will be your Shepherd. The Almighty God who created the Heavens and Earth has made YOU the object of His concern and care!

Jesus has chosen you; He calls you by name; He knows you; He provides for you; He gives you rest while He protects you. He gives you eternal life and no one can snatch you out of His hand! John 10:27-30 And, He invites you to dwell in His house – in His presence – forever. The good Shepherd is YOUR good Shepherd! That’s the most amazing blessing for all of us in 2019, and that’s why we can say with trust and confidence that all is well with our soul!

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Journey Into 2019

Dear Friends,

Please don’t feel bad if you’ve already broken the New Year’s Resolutions you made only a few days ago! A Gallup poll revealed that 71% of people who make resolutions keep them for less than two weeks. And only 8% will actually keep them for a full year. The same poll also listed the most common resolutions that people make. Number one was to lose weight and number two was to exercise more. No surprise there. But the third most popular resolution people make was to “be a better person” and the sixth most popular one was to “get closer to God.” Those two stood out for me because they go hand in hand. The way to be a better person is to get closer to God. That’s because the more of God we have in our life, the more like Christ we become and the changes in our thoughts, words and behaviors take place without effort on our part. The Holy Spirit is the One doing the “work” on us. 

We end every service at the assisted living home by singing “Day By Day.” That’s an 18th century Anglican prayer put to music for the musical “Godspell” and goes: Day by Day.. Day by Day.. Oh dear Lord, Three things I pray. To see Thee more clearly. Love Thee more dearly. Follow Thee more nearly. Day by Day! That’s how we get closer to God; that’s the “resolution” that is guaranteed for you to keep, because that’s been God’s desire for you from the time that He hand-formed you in your mother’s womb. Mark 12:30; John 14:23; Psalm 139:13 And my prayer for all who made a resolution to get closer to God is that they will yield to the calling of the Holy Spirit who will enable and empower them to love God more and become more like Him in this new year than ever before.

On this journey toward knowing God, loving Him more than ever and following Him more closely, there may be things He wants us to leave behind. Things that may “sinful” and things that may not be sins but are just not helpful for us. 1 Corinthians 6:12 And that can change our whole idea of what a “New Years Resolution” should be. Resolutions are our commitment to change. We have a new year. New opportunities. New possibilities. A new season. There is a freshness of new beginnings. God wants to do new things in your life and so we say “yes and amen” and resolve to do better and then...nothing changes. We’re still stuck in the sameness and the problem is not God. 

The problem is that we’re holding onto the old so tightly that we don’t have room in our lives for anything new. Perhaps the secret to bringing about the changes we desire is not what we resolve to do but more about what we resolve to stop doing. It is so often our human tendency to cling to our past that prevents us from stepping out into our future, and yet it’s what we leave behind that will result in a changed life. 

This is exactly what God was telling the Israelites when they were in captivity. “Do not remember the former things, Nor consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing..!” Isaiah 43:18-19 The people of Israel were at their lowest point. Israel is focused on their past transgressions; they are possessed by those failures. God gave them the Temple and instead of worshiping God, the faithless Israelites worshiped idols. God gave them commandments and they lived as if they were optional suggestions. God gave them Himself and they rejected Him over and over again. And God in His goodness, says to them, “Do not remember the former things, Nor consider the things of old. Forget about your mess-ups. Don't obsess about your past mistakes and poor decisions, I am giving you an opportunity to start over. I will do a new thing..”

We speak of our Christian faith as “walking with Jesus.” We don’t talk about “standing around with Jesus.” Standing means we're still. Stagnant. Not moving. Walking means a forward motion. Walking with Jesus means moving forward with Him on the journey we call “life.” But Jesus gave us a warning about following Him. Jesus and His disciples were walking down the road when someone said to Him, “Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.” And Jesus said “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62 Jesus was saying that to follow Him we need to let go of the things that anchor us to our past and instead we must focus fully on Him. We need to be looking ahead at the One we are following.

Life is a journey and every new year God gives us a fresh start – a new beginning. His promise to the Israelites and Jesus’ warning to the disciple, applies to you and me because God is still the Creator of all things new and all things good. He is unchanging – the same yesterday, today and forever. If your resolution this year is to become a better person by being closer to God, “To see Thee more clearly. Love Thee more dearly. Follow Thee more nearly” here’s how that works. God is sovereign (all-powerful) and He can do anything He wants, but He has given us willpower and allows us to make choices. That means that you can’t do it without God and He won’t do it without you. 

Before God will do something new in your relationship with Him is there something(s) you must choose to give up? Something that comes between you and Him? Priorities? Habits? Lifestyles? People tell me they have no time to read the Bible or pray and I have to watch their discomfort when I ask them how many hours they watch TV or spend on Facebook. What are the things that distance you from God? Are you willing to let go of those things?