Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Good Sermon

Professor J.R.R. Tolkien
In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, entry 63 is addressed to his son Christopher Tolkien and dated 24 April 1944. The letter begins with reports about what the Professor ate for breakfast (toast and home-made marmalade) and the warm weather. But after awhile, he gets around to a topic that any pastor or preacher of the gospel could benefit from: what constitutes a good sermon.

"But as for sermons! They are bad, aren't they! Most of them from any point of view."

Have you ever heard a bad sermon? They're tough to sit through.

Tolkien offers two reasons for the problem of bad sermons, and one comment about what makes a real sermon.

First, he explains that delivering a good sermon requires art, and a bit of virtue and knowledge. His critique is that most preachers lack these things. Ouch! In other words, they bore their listeners with unprepared and ignorant remarks while showing off. When I was young, I once heard someone describe an unskilled preacher like this: "He couldn't preach his way out of a wet paper bag." Tolkien compares the bad preacher with a pretender who sits down at a piano to play, yet doesn't know a thing about the piano or maybe even music for that matter.
  • A good sermon requires preparation and training, because it is partly a performance.
For many people, these comments alone would suffice and there would be no need for further explanation on the problem of a bad sermon. Yet, Tolkien goes deeper. He sees things beyond the performance:

"But preaching is complicated by the fact that we expect in it not only a performance, but truth and sincerity, and also at least no word, tone, or note that suggests the possession of vices (such as hypocrisy, vanity) or defects (such as folly, ignorance) in the preacher."

Now, he enters into the personal realm of the preacher. Not only should the message be delivered artfully, but the messenger who delivers it should be a person of Christ-like character (no suggestion of vices or defects).
  • A good sermon requires a good messenger, because it is partly a demonstration of truth.
I think that it is quite clear Tolkien's sermon satisfaction would have been at 99% if the preachers in his day had simply performed well and showed truth and sincerity. Sadly, that was not his observance. To describe the epitome of a good sermon, he offers one last comment that reaches beyond the natural realm.

"Real sermons require some special grace which does not transcend art but arrives at it by instinct or 'inspiration'; indeed the Holy Spirit seems sometimes to speak through a human mouth providing art, virtue and insight he does not himself possess: but the occasions are rare."

Art and virtue and insight are still part of the equation of a good sermon, but now enters the Holy Spirit who provides it all the more. This special grace leads to what Tolkien called a "real sermon." In other words, when God speaks through a human mouth, it carries a weight of truth and grace that is felt by all who listen. They know that something special is happening and that God is assisting the performer.
  • A real sermon requires a special grace, because it is a timely message from God to the listeners.
So there you have it. According to the Professor, a good sermon needs three ingredients:
  • Preparation and training in knowledge and art
  • Truth and sincerity from the preacher
  • Special grace and help from the Holy Spirit
I like that. I humbly desire to preach good sermons, real sermons, whenever I am afforded the opportunity.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Diversity Makes Us Complete

Here's another word from the book Write Well, Speak Well (Houghton Mifflin) that caught my eye. It's a word that is often misused and confused. The word is...

com.ple.ment (kŏm′plǝ-mǝnt); noun; Something that completes, makes up a whole, or brings to perfection.

Example: The large beautiful tree still held its full complement of leaves.

Looking at the definition for this word made me think of some other things that have come up recently in my church. We have been studying our fundamental doctrines lately and one of the teachings focused on the church and its mission. The apostle Paul writes in the book of Romans, chapter 12, verses 4 and 5:

4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (English Standard Version)

This basically teaches individual Christians that even though they are unique individuals, performing different functions, they all belong to one another and only together do they make up the full body of Christ—the Church. One member cannot say to another, "I don't need you." Each member is needed to make up the full complement and to bring it to perfection.
The diversity of Saints around the throne of heaven.

Where there is division and hate, there is brokenness.

Now, think about that in the context of the human race. God has created each human being in His image and in His likeness. Yet, we are all unique persons. I think the greatest picture of God can only be obtained when a diverse group of individuals comes together and learns to appreciate differences. And diversity to me is way more than language and culture (although the Bible gives a great picture of heaven when it says there were individuals "from every tribe and language and people and nation" worshiping God around the throne; see Revelation 5:9). Diversity involves personality, interests, skills, dreams, gender, and color. Think of all the wonderful things we could bring to the table if we would only believe that we belong to one another.

Now, don't misunderstand me. I am not advocating that we should all lay down our beliefs and convictions in the name of unity. I am, after all, unapologetically a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I cannot help it. After some deep and sincere soul searching, Christ saved me and called me into the ministry twenty-eight years ago at the age of fifteen. He is as real to me as everything we see. I talk to Jesus every day and I have dedicated my life to spreading the Good News that there is hope for everyone who calls on the name of Jesus! But, I try to do it in accordance with the Scripture with gentleness and respect.

What I am proposing is that we remember we are all first born of God. There is something to be appreciated in each human being. There is something to respect about the image of God they bear. They may not recognize they bear His image and likeness, and their behaviors may sometimes make it hard to see, but in them are the attributes of their Creator. And our Creator loves us. We should love one another too. It is through His love displayed that people have a chance to respond to God and love Him back.

We, friends, belong to one another. Together we make up the full complement of the human race. One race made up of diverse peoples. To our Creator we are worth more than the stars that shine in the universe. Why can't we see it that way too?

Friday, December 19, 2014

Lembas, the Bread of Life

Now as the blackness of night returned Frodo sat, his head between his knees, his arms hanging wearily to the ground where his hands lay feebly twitching. Sam watched him, till night covered them both and hid them from one another. He could no longer find any words to say; and he turned to his own dark thoughts. As for himself, though weary and under a shadow of fear, he still had some strength left. The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam's mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.

 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, Book SIX, Chapter III, Mount Doom

What an amazing power Tolkien has given to lembas! A quick study of it will tell you all about its origins and how it was made. Check out Lembas on the Tolkien Gateway website for an interesting read. One of the things you'll find is that the word lembas is Sindarin (one of the languages of the Elves) from the older lenn-mbass meaning journey-bread. In Quenya (another language of the Elves), it is called coimas which means life-bread.

Outside of the Elves, other races were seldom given lembas; but Frodo and Sam obtained it from Galadriel, who gave it to them at the beginning of their perilous quest. It would literally keep them alive and feed their will to carry on. Otherwise, they would have given up and died!

Interestingly, lembas is vile to evil creatures such as Gollum and the Orcs. They cannot stand it.

When I think of how lembas works, I cannot help but think of how Christ Jesus and his Word play the same role in my life. In fact, the Bible records this declaration of Jesus: "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty" (John 6:35).

Jesus feeds my will, gives me the strength to endure, and helps me accomplish things beyond mortal ability. Seriously, when I am serving people in my community, there are times in my natural body I have felt completely drained, having worshiped God with all my strength, and yet I gain a divine second or third wind to carry forward until the work is done and I can finally rest my head.

The potency of lembas is increased when it is not mingled with any other foods. I see this true also when I adhere to the authority of Holy Scripture and do not mix Truth with worldly philosophy. When I doubt and debate with God, I get weaker in spirit; but when I believe by faith what God has said, and press ahead through prayer and trust in him alone, his power increases in me.

I have also found that those who oppose the will of God are offended by Jesus Christ and his Word. It is vile to them and they cannot stand it. They will not have it. Even the mention of Biblical truth brings up distaste in their mouth (and I'm not talking about shoving it down their throat, only the casual mention of it). I've even heard some express it in that exact way. "I think I just threw up in my mouth," they say in response to any traditional or fundamental interpretation of Scripture.

But there are many, like myself, who are well blessed to have found the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ. Spiritually I am more satisfied than I've ever been and I would never want to go on this long and perilous journey called life without him. If you haven't already, you should try coming to him and believing in him. I believe you'll find his promise to be true! You will never go hungry or thirst again.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Power to Follow

Then Aragorn led the way, and such was the strength of his will in that hour that all the Dúnedain and their horses followed him. And indeed the love that the horses of the Rangers bore for their riders was so great that they were willing to face even the terror of the Door, if their master's hearts were steady as they walked beside them. But Arod, the horse of Rohan, refused the way, and he stood sweating and trembling in a fear that was grievous to see. Then Legolas laid his hands on his eyes and sang some words that went soft in the gloom, until he suffered himself to be led, and Legolas passed in. And there stood Gimli the Dwarf left all alone.

His knees shook, and he was wroth with himself. 'Here is a thing unheard of!' he said. 'An Elf will go underground and a Dwarf dare not!' With that he plunged in. But it seemed to him that he dragged his feet like lead over the threshold; and at once a blindness came upon him, even upon Gimli Glóin's son who had walked unafraid in many deep places of the world. 

- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, Chapter II

Following Aragorn was the errand of the Rangers, Legolas, Gimli, and the horses. It was not their duty to face the terror of the Door and take the Paths of the Dead; it was Aragorn's. So, why did they go with him? How did they muster the courage to follow him into a mountain haunted by ghosts?

In the passage above, several things are made plain about each follower:

  • The Dúnedain and their horses followed because of Aragorn's great strength of will.
  • The horses of the Rangers followed because of great love for their riders.
  • The horse Arod followed only after the touch of Legolas upon his eyes, along with words sung to him.
  • Gimli the Dwarf followed when he couldn't bear the thought of an Elf being more courageous than he to go underground; Dwarves were made for such things!

Earlier in the chapter, the Lady Éowyn gives one more motivation for the followers of Aragorn. She says to the returning king, They go only because they would not be parted from thee - because they love thee.

In life we will take up many errands to follow. We won't always play the role of the leader, nor should we. Others will have duties that do not belong to us, yet we will give ourselves to aid them because of our relationship and bond with them. We will let them lead us.

Love is one of our greatest motivators. It gives us the power to follow a leader. But before that, comes strength of will demonstrated by the leader. It is hard to follow someone who is not resolute, even when we love them. Therefore, the full power to follow is only realized when there is love for a leader who demonstrates great strength of will. Or is that really the full power?

Gimli gives us one more ounce of motivation: knowing who we are.

It has been said that the two most important moments in a person's life are the day they are born and the day they find out why they were born. When we begin to understand deeply how we entered the world, why we are here, what we are capable of, and where we are headed in the future, our fears can be overcome.

Following is scary business. Why? Because the quest is not ours to lead. We are not in full control. We have limited influence and knowledge, which makes things very uncomfortable for us. But, if we have a leader who is sure, a leader that we love, and a healthy understanding of who we are, we can face our doubts, overcome our shaking knees, and plunge into the dark right behind our leader.

On a spiritual level, I believe God created us to be with him and he invites us all to follow him on a great quest to tell everyone, everywhere, about his wondrous love. Jesus said, Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be (John 12:26, New International Version). But what will motivate us to serve and follow him? Fear is a certainty. Evil abounds and actively opposes God's righteousness.

I would propose that our power to follow God flows from the same things we see in the Grey Company that followed Aragorn: we can endure our fears because God is resolute; our love for him compels us to follow; and we know who we are!

Listen to these words that God spoke to Joshua, the successor of Moses who would lead the ancient Israelites into the Promised Land: 

Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. 

- Joshua 1:6-9, NIV

God commands Joshua to be strong and courageous. He tells him exactly what he will accomplish. He gives him precise instructions on what to fill his mind with and how to act. He commands him to be strong-willed by saying not to turn from the law of Moses to the right or the left and by not letting it depart from his mouth. Finally, he tells him not to be terrified or discouraged. Why? Because God would be with him wherever he went. Jesus' words centuries later would be an echo of this, And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20, NIV).

Not everyone could have had the power to follow Aragorn. Tolkien tells us, But when the dawn came, cold and pale, Aragorn rose at once, and he led the Company forth upon the journey of greatest haste and weariness that any among them had known, save he alone, and only his will held them to go on. No other mortal Men could have endured it, none but the Dúnedain of the North, and with them Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas of the Elves.

"Only his will held them to go on." It will ultimately be only those who recognize and submit to the will of God and his leadership that will follow him to the end. Love for God and self-awareness are key powers to begin the quest of following him; but when the darkness and gloom settle in, and the demons of the unseen realms manifest themselves, wreaking their destruction, the only power we have to endure is the unquestionable truth that God is with us and in him we place our hope and trust.

Today, will you accept the presence, leadership and authority of Christ in your life? Will you love him and commit yourself to serving by his side? And will you let him reveal to you who you really are?

I will end by leaving you a verse of Scripture the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus while he was imprisoned for spreading the message of Christ.

For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10, NIV).

The original Greek word for workmanship is poiema from which the English word poem is derived. If translated literally, it means "work of art." Think about that. We are God's work of art - his greatest poetry! 

Even so, that marvelous truth may not be enough to keep us following. Our power to follow God will be found in submitting ourselves to his strength of will and doing the good works he has prepared in advance for us to do. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Loving people is the second greatest commandment that Jesus left us with. The apostle Paul describes our responsibility to love our fellowman as a debt that is never satisfied in Romans 13:8. We truly do prove our love for God by loving others.

But, Jesus said to love our neighbors as ourselves. What does that mean?

C.S. Lewis reveals that Jesus was teaching us something very profound when he said those words.

“I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man's actions but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner. ...I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life -- namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.” 
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Disappointment in our own actions proves we love ourselves. Saying, "I hate myself" is really admitting "I love myself, but I hate what I did." How? Because we realize that we are better than that. In the end we want to be good. 

Therefore, we may hate the behaviors of others, but Jesus said we should forgive them anyway and go on loving them, believing that they can do better. They are valuable creations of God.

Just as we discipline ourselves to change for the good, our discipline of others should have the same motivation. It must include love and forgiveness, even if the correction is severe. We must love our neighbor as ourselves. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A real poser.

Take a look at this kid's face.

What kind of look is that? To me he looks puzzled. I wonder what he's stumped about. Someone must have asked him a real poser, but the look in his eyes says the question was terrifying.

Life can be that way too. One day you think you have everything sorted out and then, wham! A puzzling, nagging thought enters your mind and you don't know what to do about it. Should you forget about it? Should you take action? What will happen either way? If you take action, will you regret it? If you don't, will you regret it? Will you mess things up? Will you tell someone else about it? Will you lose credibility in the process? Will your faith stretch and become an example for others? 

The biggest questions of all: Where did the thought come from? Did it come from your own heart or did God pose it? Is it something you want, or is it something you were destined for? Is the thing you want also the thing you were destined for?

Any person who wants to advance in life will experience these kind of posers. That's because they aren't satisfied with the status quo. They realize that life is short and they only have a small window of opportunity to take hold of greatness. 

So, what should we do when ideas and visions pop into our heads?

First, we should ask God for His wisdom. Second, we should ask appropriate people for their wisdom. Finally, if there are no red flags, we should take action and step forward. Even if it all turns out to be a failure or never comes to pass, we can at least say we took the risk and tried. And, we can always try again if we wish, until we succeed. One thing is for certain: If we never try, we will never succeed, and we will never know if that puzzling, nagging thought was something we were destined for.     

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Love of Galadriel

'Dark is the water of Kheled-zâram, and cold are the springs of Kibilnâla, and fair were the many-pillared halls of Khazad-dûm in Elder Days before the fall of mighty kings beneath the stone.' She looked down upon Gimli, who sat glowering and sad, and she smiled. And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face, and then he smiled in answer.

He rose clumsily and bowed in dwarf-fashion, saying: 'Yet more fair is the living land of Lórien, and the Lady Galadriel is above all the jewels that lie beneath the earth!'  —THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, THE MIRROR OF GALADRIEL

What beautiful language to describe the melting of hatred through the generosity of praise. J.R.R. Tolkien has given us yet another scene we can all benefit from. It is the lesson of Christ — to 'love your enemies.' 

There is power in love! Power to transform the most stubborn of evil persons into a good friend.

If we could only be like Galadriel, we might be surprised at how many who would respond like Gimli. Yet, we are afraid, too fearful to say anything complimentary or sympathetic to those with whom we have profound disagreements. We are so caught up in our differences and deep seated emotions against them, that we will not allow ourselves to be charitable. God help us! What a foolish trap to be stuck in.

Let us break free! Let us open up our mouths and permit understanding to roll off our tongues. May our words be sweet. May we offer a smile to counter the sadness and gloom of our enemies. Let us gaze into their eyes and let them see that our hearts are bigger and purer than they had imagined.

Wouldn't it be wondrous?