Archive for December, 2007

Christmas vacation or Christmas break is a loaded term when you are a pastor.  I work on Sunday.  I work on Monday.  Finally Christmas and some time off gets here on Tuesday of next week.  THIS IS NOT a complain.  I love my calling and my work.

This is, however, my last post until after the New Year.  I won’t be in my office with regularity again until January 2.  We’ll be doing Christmas here in Kentucky and then going to spend some time with family in West Virginia.

 Merry Christmas to everyone and “Glory to God in the highest heaven and peace among those whom he favors!”


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An Indian Slum . . .

A West Virginia Coal Camp . . .

The Streets of a Large City . . .

A farm in South Central Los Angeles being taken by the city government . . .

 All of these places remind us of the poverty, the corruption and the darker side of life in the world.  These do not seem to be places that inspire praise.

In Luke 2.11 the angels make this statement:  “This will be a sign for you:  you wil find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  We have heard this verse so often that it has lost its impact on we modern readers.  This is a poor baby.  He is not swaddled in knitted blankets or royal robes.  He is swaddled up in loose pieces of cloth; maybe ripped from Joseph and Mary’s garments.  He is sleeping in a feeding trough.  If you have trouble envisioning it:  picture Jesus having been born into any of the four pictures above.  Like a manger in a stable, they are not necessarily places that inspire praise.

And yet, royal language surrounds Luke 2.12.  Luke 2.13 says, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  This is a royal coronation hymn.

And in Luke 2.10-11 the angels say this:  “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The places that seem least possible of inspiring praise become the most praiseworthy of places when they are invaded by the light of Christ.  And Jesus has come to invade places of abject poverty, cruel injustice and entrenched sin.

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Before I proceed, a reminder:  this blog relfects my opinions and not necessarily the opinions of the church that I serve or those who attend.

Illegal Immigration.

I don’t usually address political issues but – as of late – polls are showing that we Americans just might make immigration one of our top three concerns for the 2008 Presidential Election.  I am highly concerned at much of the “hyper-opinionizing” I hear on the radio these days in regards to illegal immigration.  If we – as a nation – are not careful as we move forward with this issue then we just might fall prey to a horrible repetition of some of the worst parts of our American history (think the Cherokee Trail of Tears or the Navajo Long Walk).

Some questions and thoughts . . .

1.  “Illegal” Immigration is illegal.  There is a legal process for becoming a citizen of the United States.  Those who flout this process are – without question – violating the laws of the land.  We must conceive of better ways to enforce our laws; or maybe we need to conceive of better laws.

2.  Most immigrants to the United States are of a Latino/Latina cultural background.  Because most of our immigrants are from these cultural backgrounds we are now developing a dangerous national conscious:  hispanic = illegal.  This is not healthy.

3.  None of the ideas that our government and policy “wonks” have tossed about so far seem to be very good ideas.  Let’s address three of them.  Some have suggested that we build a wall between the US and Mexico.  Many people do not have a problem with this but – for me – it conjurs up images of Berlin and a by-gone era.  Doesn’t this put us in company with the Soviets and the ancient Chineses?  Others have suggested a mass round-up of illegal immigrants so that they can be sent home.  Hmmm . . . images of mass hoards of folks from Mexico, Central America and South America appearing on our television screens in detention areas awaiting their deportation back to their home countries.  Something tells me that despite our best intentions to be “humane” that such a process would helplessly resemble some quite disturbing historical footage from, say, the 1940’s.  Or, we allow everyone who has come here illegally to become a citizen.  Something tells me that “flouting” the law and sanctioning illegal activity and behavior is also not healthy for a society.  Although, I would certainly prefer this third option to either of the first two.

4.  Many people have tied the illegal immigration issue to national security and the War on Terror.  Yes, our laxity in enforcing immigration laws (even as they are written) is a bit of a national security issue.  Although we need to remember that several of the 9/11 hijackers were here legally! 

5.  One of the most common claims made on talk radio here in Kentucky is that the low-wage, illegal workers are taking jobs away from honest, hard-working, mostly white Americans.  Baahhh.  I’ve never seen out-of-work, white Americans lining up to take jobs at car washes or cleaning horse stalls. 

6.  The children.  Much is made about giving government benefits to illegal immigrants and their children.  OK, so I can understand and probably agree with the concept of not giving the benefits to adults or parents who know that they are violating the law when they come here.  BUT, there seems to be something terribly wrong with willingly forcing their children to suffer the consequences of the parent’s choices.  God forgive the nation that willingly forces young children to suffer sickness and disease in run-down houses and alley-ways; refusing to give them medical care or food because we are afraid that a handful of their parents just might be terrorists.  There is something “un-American” about denying basic care to children; no matter how their parents brought them here.  And, more importantly for we Jesus-followers, there is something terribly un-Biblical and un-Christian about such an idea.

God help us and teach us to walk in the ways of justice and mercy.  We are truly lost in a tangled web of sin and evil.

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My wife and I fixed dinner for another family in our church yesterday afternoon.  A recent surgery has the family a bit “strung out” and tired so we took them a “home-cooked” meal.  While taking the food to their home, I was listening to a radio talk show.  A woman called in to lament about Mike Huckabee.  She referred to him as the “glass jaw” of the Republican Party and used a few other similar images to describe Huckabee (a man she admittedly only knows from television sound bites, political commercials and newspaper articles).

She finished off her little tirade by asking the following question:  “Do we really want to elect a pastor to the Presidency?  Would we want to elect a Catholic Priest or a Muslim Imam?  Once you are a pastor that is always in your blood,” she said.

She is afraid of religious leaders.  Perhaps she has good reason to be afraid.  History has had its fair share of religious zealots who have done significant damage.  But – for the most part, I don’t find Huckabee “scary” as a Presidential candidate because he was at one time a “pastor”.  I don’t, in general, find most pastors, Catholic Priests or Imam’s scary.  And yes, I have known a few Catholic Priests and I have been to a local Mosque and Islamic Prayer Center to talk to the Imam and the leadership of that place of worship.  I needed to learn more about Islam and wanted a “hands-on” learning experience.

At any rate, I am not a Muslim.  And I am not Catholic.  Most of my experience has been lived in the Protestant Church – and most recently – as a Protestant Pastor.  I’ve never thought of myself – or most of my colleagues – as very scary.

Last week, for example:  I didn’t cut off anyone’s head or suck anyone’s blood.  I didn’t try to take over the government and set up a theocracy and I didn’t establish a cult.  What did I do?  I did what I think many other pastors probably did last week.

I wrote a sermon.  This may scare some people because the sermon did remind folks that we do have a choice to make about who Jesus is and – yes – I do believe that much of the future (in fact, all of it) hinges on that question and how we live in response to it.

I visited several people.  Two stand out.  I had coffee with one of our small group leaders to discuss how his group was going and to offer some encouragement.  I had lunch at the local retirement village with a very dear woman who attends our church.  I also made several phone calls to check in on some folks.  I also spent some time on the phone talking to a couple of other small group leaders about some “pastoral” issues they were facing as leaders in their groups.

I called the Director of the Family Resource Center at one of our local schools to find out how our church could become more involved in helping them achieve their goal of “removing the barriers so that every child can learn.”  I serve on the school’s “Site Based Decision Making Council” and had just met the FRC coordinator at the meeting on Tuesday of last week.

I sent out several e-mails that needed to be sent out to help “manage” the life of our church.

I worked on a wedding ceremony for a young couple that will be getting married this Friday.  They are absolutely terrific and I hope that I have blessed them as much as they have blessed me.

I went to Wal-mart with my daughter and bought the following:  markers, crayons, a little notebook, hair clips, a “My Little Pony” toy, bars of soap, a toothbrush, a container of toothpaste and some Life-Savers so that Sydney could put a shoe box together for “Operation Christmas Child”.  The box will be sent overseas to children living mostly in war-torn regions or in extreme poverty.  The boxes will include some materials on the Christian Faith . . . I suppose that might make this project kind of scary to some people.

And I helped my wife (who works as the church’s Children’s Pastor) with the Christmas Pageant.  I set up her refreshment table and made coffee and hot cider for her.

And like any normal father, we did a sixth birthday party for my daughter on Saturday.

I don’t know.  I just have never thought of myself as scary.  But for those of you who do find us “pastors” scary . . .


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In many ways, lunchtime of Friday of last week was definately one of the highlights of my week.  There is a retirement village and nursing home facility in the small town where I serve as a pastor.  It’s called Wesley Village.

One of our members just recently moved into one of the patio homes at Wesley Village.  I helped her move, but had not had a chance to visit with her since the move.  On Friday, I met her in her new home and we then went to the dining hall for lunch.  I was able to spend the hour around the table with six wonderful retired folks.  They were kind and gracious and the conversation was terrific!

Since I am a pastor, “pastors” became one of the topics of conversation.  One of the ladies at the table recounted an encounter that she and her husband had experienced in the last church they had attended before moving to our small town.  The pastor – in his early 30’s – was asked if he could start doing a bit more visitation.  He responded by saying, “If you want a chaplain or an undertaker, hire someone else.”  It was obvious that the pastor’s remark had definately wounded the woman I was talking to.  I am certain that it wounded many others who may have heard it.

Her comments coincided with some of my own “soul-transitions” that have been going on over the last couple of months.  I have been back in pastoral work for about 18 months and it has taken me a while to get used to being called “Pastor Jason.”  Several weeks ago I realized that my discomfort was being caused by my own unsurety about what it means to be called “pastor” or to be a “pastor.”  Don’t get me wrong.  I know what it means (theoretically) and I have been doing my job but it seemed to me that I was missing out on something.

While the “pastor” and “clinical counselor” in me would never have made a comment like the other young pastor I quoted earlier, it is true that I have viewed being a “pastor” too much through the lens of being a CEO.  I had six years of valuable leadership experience prior to becoming a pastor again.  Much of that experience and much of the “leadership” stuff that I read during those years has been beneficial over the last 18 months.

But being a pastor IS NOT, and I repeat, IS NOT about being a Chief Executive Officer.  It is about living the excellencies of the resurrected Jesus in the midst of the body of Christ and the community around it and leading that body further and further into His excellencies.

I want to use the remainder of my posts this week to unpack what all of this is meaning for me and how it is transforming my life as a “pastor”.

I think that this is important because the pastorate is diseased.  Here are just a few of the evidences of just how “sickly” we pastors are as a profession and a calling . . .

1.  While there are many shining examples of large, rapidly growing mega-churches, the church – for the most part – continues in a drastic state of decline in the postmodern West.  Pastoral leadership is largely responsible for this trend.

2.  Many mega-church pastors (including Mike Slaughter, Bill Hybels and Rick Warren) seem to be realizing that while the mega-churches have grown at unprecedented, Acts 2, kind of rates they do not seem to have had the kind of sociological and cultural impact that you would expect such large groups of Jesus-followers to have on their communities and the world around them.  For more on this, check out www.asburyseminary.edu.  Locate the chapel section of Asbury’s website and listen to the lecture from Mike Slaughter, pastor of Ginghamsburg UMC, from back, I believe, in October.

3.  Pastors are burning out and dropping out at increasingly greater levels.

4.  Fewer and fewer people consider work in the church or parish for their “ministerial” calls.  Positions with para-church organizations are becoming increasingly popular.  “Pastors” seem to be a dying breed.

Is it fair to say that “as goes the pastorate, so goes the church”?

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Some Basic Explanations (and maybe advice?)

1.  Make use of the lectionary.  Over the last 30 years there has been a trend toward “series” based messages that look at practical issues.  I’ve done some of this, but it is not my gift.  I love preaching from the word and this is what God has gifted me to do.  Sure, I sometimes hit a “topical series” but I have also learned that there is much to be said for submitting my life (and the life of the church) to the lectionary.  I read the lectionary cautiously.  They often leave out verses from a reading because they are not “politically correct” or “popular”.  I usually add those verses back in.

2.  A sermon notebook.  I keep a 3-ring binder.  In this binder I print out the lectionary readings for the next five to six Sundays.  Logos Bible software has a great lectionary component that I use to do this.  After each section of readings, I put five to six sheets of legal pad paper or filler paper which I use to jot down questions and possible answers.

3.  Questions and answers.  Act like you know absolutely nothing about the text or the Bible.  It is good to start from ignorance.  Ask the questions and then write down any answers that seem to make sense.  I like to jot down any potential answers that come to mind.

4.  Begin formulating a main idea from the passage.  The main idea should not focus on human sin, evil or failing but on the grace and mercy of God.  Main points work best when they begin in a basic formula of “Jesus gave sight to the blind man” or “God raised Jesus from the dead.”  You can add “flesh” to these main ideas as you continue to work.  In the end, they may not sound that simple – and, then again, in the end you may find that the main points need to be that simple.  Explore human sin, evil or failing as you move toward or explore the main point which focuses on God’s gracious action in the world.

5.  Use good resources.  Buy a copy of David Bauer’s Biblical Resources for Ministry and purchase commentaries based on his recommendations.  The New Oxford Annotated Bible is one of the best scholarly study Bibles out there.  Use study Bibles such as the NIV Study Bible or the Life Application Study Bible as secondary resources.  Purchase good Bible software.  Many people use BibleWorks but I have found that any of the software packages from Libronix – called Logos Bible Software – are better suited to work in a church or parish setting.

6.  Choose some basic sermon formats that you like and mix them up.  I have three that I use most often.  They are called The Four Pages of the Sermon, “Puritan Plain Style” and a format based on suggestions by Andy Stanley.  You can find more information on The Four Pages in books by Paul Scott Wilson.  More than anyone else, Wilson has shaped how I think about and do preaching.  Puritan Plain Style is an old format that begins with an introduction, makes a statement of direction that gives rise to the sermon’s main point, exegetes the Bible passage, makes the pain point or theological statement and then applies that main point to living.  The final format I like is modified from some stuff by Andy Stanley.  It begins with a personal illustration, then broadens this illustration corporately (something that everyone can identify with), then exegetes and explains the Bible passage and then applies the Bible passage through a personal illustration and then a corporate illustration.  Choosing a few basic formats like this keeps things from becoming repetitive for your congregation and for you but it also lessens the challenge of trying to figure out how to arrange material each week.  You’ll have a handful of methods that you are comfortable with.  If you would like to know how I work with these, you can find some sample sermons at gcfi.com under downloads.  The sermon from 12.9.07 was done in the “Puritan Plain Style.”  The sermon from 12.2.07 used the format based off of suggestions by Andy Stanley.  There are several sermons there from late September and early October that were done in the “Four Pages” format.

7.  Become a student of culture, theology and Bible Scholarship.  To give the best of yourself to God and your congregation in your preaching you must become a humble student of culture, theology and Bible Scholarship.  You’ll need to read newspapers, blogs, magazines, and highly frequented websites (such as YouTube or GoogleNews).  Additionally, you should always have a New York Times bestseller (or another book by a New York Times bestselling author) by your bedside or your favorite chair.  Additionally, you should always be reading something theological or something that focuses on Bible scholarship.  Keep this kind of reading going at all times.

8.  Write a manuscript, revise and outline it.  The idea of writing four to five pages disappoints some people but I have found that refining a manuscript throughout the week keeps me from saying the kinds of “stupid” things I might say if I were to leave things at an outline.  This is not a slam to “outline” preachers.  Some people do quite well with this but it has been my experience that very few pastors are actually gifted in outline preaching.  For some, the outline can become an excuse to avoid the harder work of manuscript writing.  For others, it can be the source of ingorant, unintended remarks that can cause damage.  I outline the manuscript on Sunday morning and then preach from the outline.  I would also discourage carrying a manuscript into the “pulpit” (I don’t use a lectern or pulpit) or reading from a manuscript.

Finally, I want to draw us back to where we began on Tuesday.  If you wouldn’t trivialize a dying man or woman’s time by saying it to them, then you shouldn’t say it on Sunday mornings.

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A Week in the Life of this “Preacher”

Some pragmatics for the last two posts in this chain.  Today I want to give an outline of my “preaching” week.  Tomorrow, I want to shoot off a list of basics about arriving at a solid, Biblically-based, logical, sermon.

Monday Morning

I drop my daughter off at Kindergarten, stop by the church, pick up my laptop, my planner and my “sermon notebook” and head to Panera for the morning.  With bagel and Diet Pepsi not too far away, I lay out my week and then get my first look at the lectionary texts for the week.  I’ll discuss my “sermon notebook” and the lectionary in tomorrow’s post.

Monday Afternoon

With a good, scholarly study Bible by my side and blank sheets of note book paper, I start moving verse by verse through the text; asking questions and postulating possible answers to those questions.  I try to get through at least half of the verses in the passage before the end of the “work day” on Monday.


Day off!  I try not to think about the sermon as much as possible.  Hobbies can help with this.

Wednesday Morning

Finish studying through text.  Take any unanswered questions to good Commentaries, Bible software, etc.  Put together The Tool Kit.  This is an insert in our bulletin each week that outlines a few questions that people can talk about over lunch on Sundays and Bible readings and questions for the week that are based out of the lectionary and other texts I have studied.

Wednesday afternoon

Decide a format for the sermon and begin jotting down ideas.  If possible, get started on page one.

Thursday morning

Usually in meetings; not thinking about the sermon

Thursday afternoon

Finish page one and two.  Begin on page three.

Friday morning

Finish page three and page four.  Edit and revise.

Friday afternoon

Prepare Powerpoint/MediaShout slides for sermon.

Sunday morning – 7.30am

Outline manuscript so that outline can be used in preaching that morning.

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