Seeing Hope From a Cave

As we live the Christian life, or as we seek to help others live the Christian life, we will constantly battle with the overpowering magnitude of the visible realm.  Life comes at us with trials, temptations, struggles, complexities, problems, and more.  And it doesn’t help to simply preach nice thoughts to ourselves or to others.  When life is overwhelming, then what we need is more than information, we need the transformation that can come from being mentored by Scripture.  Let me give an example.

In Psalm 57 we are told that David was on the run from Saul, in the cave.  Perhaps this was the cave of Adullam at the start of 1 Samuel 22, which comes after the loneliest chapter of David’s life.  Or perhaps it is the cave where Saul came close in 1 Samuel 24.  Either way, David has been anointed, has achieved notoriety by defeating Goliath, but is now on the run with an increasingly mad Saul pursuing him to kill him.  I have never been anointed the king of Israel, and I imagine you haven’t either.  Actually, I’ve never had to hide in a cave or had a mad king trying to end my life.  However, this three thousand year old Psalm resonates with me and with many of us.

We do know what it is to have an enemy of our souls who comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy.  We do know what it is like to have humans opposing us and making life difficult at work, or at church, or even at home.  We do know what is like to feel discouraged, downhearted and even depressed in the face of various trials.  So we are not where David was, but in a way, we feel like it.

That is the beauty of the Psalms.  Even though our circumstances are so different, often we will find the Psalm writer putting his words right on top of our feelings.  In the case of Psalm 57 we have the actual historical situation that David was in.  More often the Psalms keep their specific historical situation in the shadows, allowing their words and images to resonate directly with our struggles in life.

So whether you are spending some time in the Psalm yourself, or preparing to preach it to others, think about these 11 verses as a mentoring experience.  In effect through God’s Word we get to time travel three thousand years to sit in a cave with Dave and hear him processing his frightening situation.

In the first half of the Psalm he cries out to God in light of his situation:

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.

I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfils his purpose for He will send from heaven and save me; he will put to shame him who tramples me.  Selah.

God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!

My soul is in the midst of lions; I lie down amid fiery beasts – the children of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords.  (vv1-4)

Then comes a refrain he will repeat later:

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth! (v5)

Let’s notice a few details here, lessons for us from David in distress.

1. In distress he cried out to God. That seems obvious, but how often we don’t cry out!  How easily troubles prompt me to get my head down and press on through the day.  How easily I try to get resourceful and seek to handle the difficulties of life.  Not David, he lifts up his head and cries out to God with specific requests and transparent awareness of his plight.

2. David knew that God’s purpose for his life meant there was hope in this time of trial. Yes, he was anointed to be king, so there was a sense of a guaranteed future.  And I have not been anointed to be a king.  However, if God has a plan and purpose for my life and for yours, which He does, then the current trial will not wipe us out before our time.  We can have confidence for deliverance because until God’s plan for us is complete, then our life here isn’t.  That doesn’t lead to arrogance or over-confidence.  It does lead to prayers like this one in the midst of trials.

3. David knew that God would participate in his situation. Specifically, he declared that great theme of the Old Testament – that God is a God of steadfast love and faithfulness.  God is a God who makes promises and keeps them.  He is a God whose loyal love is toward his people in a loyal way.  Does that sound repetitive?  That’s because it is.  God’s steadfast loyal love is reinforced with the word for his faithfulness.  God’s loyal love is loyal to you and to me!

4. The bottom line of David’s cry for help is faith-filled.  You might naturally expect a “So save me!” or “Bottom line, Lord, defeat my enemy!”  But instead his bottom line is totally different – he wants God to be exalted and his glory to shine forth everywhere!

In the second half of the Psalm, David moves from crying for help to singing in praise:

They set a net for my steps; my soul was bowed down.  They dug a pit in my way, but they have fallen into it themselves.  Selah

My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast! I will sing and make melody!

Awake my glory! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!

I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations.

For your steadfast love is great to the heavens, Your faithfulness to the clouds. (vv6-10)

And then the refrain once again:

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth! (v11)

Let me add one more lesson to learn from David here before we leave him in the cave.

5. David changes the order of experience. So often we assume that our problem leads to our prayer, which leads to God’s provision and then we will praise.  But David inverts this order slightly. Yes, our problem can and should lead us to pray.  But then David praises in anticipation of future provision of deliverance.  That is a big difference.  Do we only praise with hindsight?  Do we only worship God when we have seen Him do something special?  Honestly, how is that a life of faith?  David leads the way for us in this.  Our prayer to God is an inclination of our hearts in trust toward Him.  As our hearts look to God, we can know that He is bigger than the biggest trial we face, and therefore we can also praise by faith … before we see any answer to our prayer.

This Psalm, like many others, is filled with this lesson for us.  Our God is bigger than every problem and challenge we face.  So by faith we incline our hearts to God in prayer.  And, by faith we can incline our hearts to God in gratitude, in praise, in song … before we see how He will answer.  That is the life that Dave in the cave invites us into as he mentors us through this Psalm.  And honestly, it is a life I want to live in the coming year.  A life with my heart inclined toward the great God of steadfast love and faithfulness, a life where my prayer points my heart to a God whose character and greatness stir my heart to trust, to gratitude, to praise and to song.  God is to be exalted!  We want his glory to be over all the earth!

A Contagious Pulpit

I remember Haddon Robinson saying that a mist in the pulpit will result in a fog in the pew.  It seems so obvious to say it, but there is a strong connection between what is going on in the preacher and what will go on in the listeners.  This is true both positively and negatively.  Here are some examples with brief comment:

Negatively

1. Nerves & Stress.  If you are nervous, they will join you in that.  If you seem stressed, you will put them on edge.  Whatever your preparation has or has not been like, make sure you go into preaching by faith rather than self-reliance, or self-concerned stress.

2. Coldness & Distance.  A congregation is like a dog in this regard: they can always sense if you don’t care for them.  Pray until your heart beats with God’s heart for these people, especially when you sense that indifference and lack of love that so easily creeps in for all of us.

3. Boredom & Disinterest.  Nobody wants to listen to someone who is not particularly interested in the passage they are preaching or the God they are speaking about.  In fact, they won’t listen.  Your disinterest will transmit so that they mentally leave the venue long before you leave the pulpit.

Positively

4. Warmth & Connection.  Maybe you have met somebody so warm and congenial that you found yourself warming to them as the conversation progressed.  The same is true in preaching: your love for them and enthusiasm for the God you speak about will increase their temperature toward you and Him!

5. Clarity of Image.  Whether it is an illustration or the retelling of a narrative, this principle applies: if you can see it, so will they.  Be prepared enough to be able to see what you are describing and you will be surprised how much more your listeners feel like they are immersed in the movie, not just enduring a monologue.  Blow the fog away, describe what is vivid to your mind and it will be clear to theirs, and engaging to their hearts too.

6. Responsiveness & Worship.  This goes way beyond enthusiasm and even interpersonal warmth.  This is about response to God.  If you are moved by the passage and the message to worship and obedience birthed from stirred affection, then that will increasingly be the response of your listeners too.

There are many ways in which we  will infect our listeners as we preach.  What “diseases” do we want to carry to them?

Simple Encouragement

Earlier this year I heard a quote from JRR Tolkien.  After having the completed manuscript of The Lord of the Rings in his office for several years, he finally had it published.  Why?  Tolkien replied along these lines: “It would not have been finished, let alone published, if it were not for the simple encouragement of my good friend, CS Lewis.”

In Ephesians 4:25, Paul urges the believers to be truthful with one another, rather than living on in the falsehood that pervades our fallen world.  The community of God’s people are members of one another in a unique way, and so their mouths should be used to unify through the truth rather than the lie.  A few verses later, he returns to the subject of the mouth.  In verse 29 he urges them not to spray rottenness from their mouths, but rather to only speak words that build up and give grace.  Speaking the truth may be challenging, but building up takes it to a higher level again!

If this is true for believers in general, then how much more should we heed this as preachers.  Preacher, do you encourage?  It is strange to take note of how  encouragement is missing in a lot of preaching these days.

Exhortation is not the same as encouragement.  Yes, there is a need for exhortation, especially when the text calls the original hearers to action and that call remains applicable in the same way to our listeners today.  But exhortation tends to include persuasion with a dash of rebuke.  This may be needed, but it is not encouragement (with its recipe of hope, confidence and life).  Exhortation aims toward the listener, but tends to fire provocation rather than the relational fuel that we humans need in abundance.

Guilt is not the same as encouragement.  It really isn’t the same thing at all, just as a fish knife is not a butter knife.  It may seem like it will achieve the same goal, but generally it is sharper and more likely to provoke instinctive withdrawal rather than the desired goal.  Guilt dresses up as a shortcut to achieving conformity, but the results tend to be short-lived and shallow.  By all means pray for the Spirit to convict your listeners of guilt, He is very capable of that, but don’t go adding guilt into your primary repertoire – you will soon be slipping into legalism when you do.  Guilt aims at the listener, but it does so in an essentially negative way.

Enthusiasm is not the same as encouragement.  Yes, enthusiasm can indeed be contagious.  At the same time, it can merely impress others with your passoin while leaving them unencouraged in their own hearts.  Your enthusiasm does matter, but it is really a heartiness toward a subject or topic, rather than the life-giving heartiness toward your listeners that they need.

Application is not the same as encouragement.  By all means demonstrate how a biblical truth can translate into the nitty gritty situations of life.  People do need that to a certain extent.  But simply applying a text will point listeners to the steps they might take.  They also need heartfelt encouragement to feel warmed toward motivation in that direction.

Your words can urge, convict, enthuse, or offer clarification of application.  But let’s make sure our words build up, giving grace to those who hear, so that they feel our hearty encouragement.  They need it.  We all do.

Think back to someone who has been a real encouragement to you.  How did they do it?  Who can you offer encouragement to personally?  What about other people in ministry like you – is there another preacher or pastor that you can build up with some words today?

Perhaps before you preach again you need to look at the passage and ask yourself, “how is God encouraging me in this passage?”  Pass that on.

Preach Don’t Overreach

It is so easy to overreach when preaching.  In fact, I wonder how many thousands of sermons are preached every week that are barely even Christian?

We should point people, via the Word of God, toward God/Christ.  We should clarify not only what the text is saying historically, but also what it means for us today.  We should lead the way in being responsive to God, inviting people to respond to His grace.  We can encourage people to respond and move in the right direction.  But it is not our role to create momentum, nor is it up to us to generate the force to determine speed of change.

It is the same with counseling, pastoring, parenting, etc.  We can orient hearts in the right direction, we can make clear what next steps might look like, and we can travel alongside the person we are caring for … but we cannot push them along at a pace to suit us.

Sometimes God generates an incredible rate of change in a life.  Sometimes forward motion is imperceptible.  As preachers, as pastors, or as parents, let’s not usurp the Spirit’s role and try to force things along.  When we do, we undermine the foundation of our ministry.  Remember the first step?  It is to orient hearts in the right direction, to point people to God/Christ.  Usurp the Spirit and you will quickly point people back onto themselves.

When we turn people toward themselves, toward their efforts, their failings, their discipline, etc., then we can quickly slip out of biblical ministry and into the role of a personal trainer or life coach.  Our calling is higher than that.

Preaching Needs to Engage

Preaching is not just about speaking, presenting, informing, educating or even filling a time slot … preaching needs to engage.

There are too many people settling for filling time, entertaining, or giving a lecture.  What our churches need is for people to have their hearts and minds engaged with the Word of God.  What are some of the ingredients that will make this possible?

  1. The preacher needs to be engaged by the passage, by the message, and by God on a personal level.
  2. The preacher needs to share God’s heart for the listeners who will be hearing the message.
  3. The content needs to be engaging – that is, clear, relevant and interesting for the listeners who will be present.
  4. The delivery needs to be engaging – that is, there needs to be energy, variety and warmth in vocal tone, body language and facial expression.

More could and should be written about each point, but that’s good for starters!  What do you find helpful when you preach, or when you hear an engaging preacher?

Personalize Your Preaching

Preaching is person to person, so surely it should be personalized?  But if we are not careful our preaching can feel impersonal and distant.  We can learn how to prepare a sermon, then treat the process like a machine for generating messages – put in a text at one end, turn the handle, and out pops a three point outline ready for Sunday.

True biblical preaching is not primarily about outlines.  It is about heart-to-heart communication.  Ultimately it is God’s heart to our listeners’ hearts, but our heart is in the circuit too.  So how can we make sure our preaching feels personal when you stand to deliver this Sunday?

1. Make sure your study of the biblical text touches your heart.  Newcomers to preaching may think sermons are texts and ideas squeezed into outlines, but actually we need to be studying the text to understand it.  When we study it, we have to make sure our hearts are engaged and not just our heads.  This passage was put there by God to impact readers spiritually – how is it impacting me?  I need to be talking to God about that and not just looking for a sermon that will preach.  In fact, here are a few quick sub-points relating to this phase of preparation:

A. Ask God to help you understand what the text was intended to communicate to the original recipients – what was the spiritual impact supposed to be back then?

B. Ask God to help you understand what the text was intended to communicate to readers like you – it is part of a bigger whole that all points receptive hearts toward Him.

C. Ask God to convict you of sin, to motivate you for service, to make your heart beat with His and to stir you to worship as you spend time in the text.

2. Pray for God to give you His heart for the hearers as you prepare the message.  Before you start to shape your study into a sermon, come before God in prayer and really intercede for your hearers.  Whether it will be your home congregation or a group you have never preached to before, God knows and loves them better than you do.  Ask Him to give you His heart for them.  Don’t just pray for the message to “go well,” but pray for them as real people, in real situations, facing real difficulties.  Pray for those who are not His yet, and those that are.  Pray for His heart for them, and for their hearts to be ready to hear from Him.

3. Prepare a message that will give your best, vulnerably.  Actually this is two points.  First, preach your own message.  Don’t steal someone else’s sermon and preach it.  That is a shortcut that wastes time in the long run.  When you steal sermons you don’t get the benefit of the study, and they don’t get the benefit of hearing from you … instead they hear a poor version of someone else’s message.  If you choose to use a point or a quote, that is fine, just say that “someone put it this way…” and use it, but make sure you are preaching when you preach.  By faith you can trust God that your moderate ability will be better suited to these listeners than someone else’s impressive message.

Second, prepare to preach with vulnerability.  Let the you shine through.  There is no benefit to hiding behind your exegesis and presentation.  People need to know that you also struggle, that this moves you, that you are a real human.  Obviously you should think through what you will be saying.  It isn’t helpful to vent your anger or share a struggle that is too raw.  It also isn’t helpful to overstate your struggle or to share something that will distract or undermine your credibility.  But there is plenty of real you to share as you preach.  Plan to preach your own stuff, and plan so that it is really you that is preaching.

4. Grow in your ability to deliver sermons naturally.  We no longer live in an age of voice projection and concert hall oratory.  We live in a time when people value authentic, genuine, relational communication.  Some are taught to preach dispassionately, thereby avoiding emotionalism and manipulation with the opposite poison of disconnection (and a different form of intellectual manipulation at times).  Don’t be arms length from your material, preach from the heart and through your genuine personality.  If you are quiet, that is fine.  If you are out-going and enthusiastic, that can work too.  What matters is not the personality you portray, but that it is your personality as you preach.  As I often say when teaching preaching, it takes work to be natural in such an unnatural setting.  Do the work so that people can hear from you.

There is more that could be added, but that is four ways to try to inject the personal into your preaching.  What would you add?

Two Kinds of Prayer

There are essentially two kinds of prayer that we pray.  This is true for us as preachers, as it is for us as sheep in Christ’s flock.  They seem so similar.  But they are radically different.

My Great Plan – In Mark 10:35, James and John come to Jesus with their big request, “do for us whatever we ask of you…”  What was their request?  It was to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand when he came into his glory.  It is easy to sit here now and read that with a judging tone.  Perhaps like the other disciples our indignance might reveal something about us (it takes one to know one!)

In reality James and John had probably pondered their request for a while.  Their gradually dawning awareness of Jesus’ identity perhaps stirring a request that reflected a craving for position and power, but also perhaps felt justified out of a desire to stay close to Jesus.  Whatever their thinking, in their minds it seemed like a good plan.  Now they just needed Jesus to sanctify the request with his blessing and all would be well.

How easily we can come to Jesus with our great plans. Jesus, I know how revival should spark from this next sermon.  Jesus, I have an idea for who should be hit the hardest by this message.  Jesus, I know the next step in the development of my ministry.  Our motives are always mixed, so we can usually add the veneer of humble service over any grandiose self-promotion.  It seems that Jesus is not in the habit of fanning the flames of our egos as we pray.

My Great Need – Fast forward to verse 51 and Jesus is using the same words as he speaks to Bartimaeus.  This man had been crying out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” until he had Jesus’ attention.  Then Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Bartimaeus was blind, but he could see some truths about who Jesus was.  He knew his need was great.

It seems to me that Jesus is very discerning when it comes to telling the difference between “Great Plan” prayers and “Great Need” prayers.  We may fool ourselves with the veneer we add, but Jesus knows our hearts, and he knows what is best for us.  The reality for you and I, as individuals and as preachers, is that we have plenty of need to bring to Jesus in prayer.

Maybe we would do well to ask him to help us discern the difference, and perhaps to invest more of our time bringing great needs to a merciful Saviour, instead of just bringing our great plans to someone who knows better than to grant everything we ask!

10 Ways to Thrive in Christian Gatherings!

Big gatherings of Christians can be really special times.  A conference, a multi-church event, a festival, even a wedding.  But they can also be difficult environments to navigate well as a believer.  Here are ten suggestions to keep in mind as you head into these environments.

1. Allow Christ to minister to you before you focus on others – It is so easy when surrounded by Christians and doing “Christian” things like listening to messages and singing worship songs to somehow lose track of the personal element of your relationship with Christ. Whether you need to get up early for time with God, or go for a walk, or miss a session, make sure you are getting time with the Lord. Remember that He wants to minister to your soul and care for you, and out of that ministry you will be in a better place to interact with others in a life-giving way.

2. Process everything in conversation with God – A lot of Christian gatherings are input overload environments. We can easily go into hyperdrive trying to accumulate notes, speak to everyone and experience everything. But along the way you will need time to process what you are hearing.  Take time to talk with God about it all.  It could be that a particular message has spoken to your heart and you need to share that with your Father, or maybe you’re carrying comments of encouragement or even criticism that you need to hand over to Him.

3. Aim to build up, don’t hype up – it is so easy to get caught up in the hype of Christian gatherings. Perhaps well-known speakers are involved, and it is likely that introductions of speakers will be sometimes be over-the-top. Before you know it, you can be sucked into the false world of praising or criticizing reputations.  Instead of simply adding to the hype, be sure to treat people as real people – both the unknown person you are speaking to and the famous person who just walked past you.

4. Look for Good Samaritan opportunities – Large gatherings of people, such as conferences, are not without their casualties. Be sure to keep your eyes open and your heart ready to care for people along the way. It may not be someone lying at the foot of a staircase.  It might be someone who is feeling overwhelmed, or alone, or who has been hurt by a misunderstanding or unkind comment.  Remember that it may also be the high-profile speaker whose reputation intimidates you – they sometimes take quite an emotional beating in these environments.  You may be enjoying the break from normal life, but there are plenty of people present whose normal life is looming large in their hearts and minds.  Your care for them might be the highlight of their time away.

5. Network by faith – I remind myself of this lesson learned every time I go to a conference. It is so easy to network by stress. That is where I have a mental list of people I want to talk to and I run around frantically trying to find those people in the midst of a busy conference.  I want to navigate this by faith rather than stress.  Trust the Lord to bring you together with the people you need to speak to, even ones you don’t have on your list.  If the need is there, He is more than able to bring you together in the time you have.

6. Give life, don’t suck life – There are basically two kinds of people in large gatherings. There are those that suck life out of the group, and people that add life to the group. Be someone who asks questions when you have opportunity for conversation (it doesn’t have to be all about you).  Be someone who affirms and encourages, rather than picking holes in everything that is happening.  Real life can become like Twitter, where somehow it seems easier for many people to say things about people that they would never say to people.  Don’t let the false environment of a big gathering fool you – what you say matters, speak life-giving words.

7. Express appreciation and gratitude to all – This follows on from the last one, but let me specify my point slightly. Yes, it is important to speak encouraging words in your conversations. And it is certainly good to express gratitude to those who minister to you if you have the opportunity to do so.  But that is not just the speakers in the sessions.  What about volunteers working behind the scenes to make the event work?  What about kitchen staff in the venue?  If you see them, they see you, and if you express gratitude then you are doing a good thing.

8. Watch your witness to watching witnesses – This follows on from the last one, but let me specify my point again. Yes, your gratitude will be appreciated by venue staff and others. But more than that, anyone who is not in your group will be watching your group.  Other guests in the venue, local residents near the festival, etc.  Just because your small group are having the greatest celebration of friendship ever does not mean that others will appreciate your high volume late at night.  Be sensitive to others.  They are watching and they may well associate your insensitivity with the God under whose banner your gathering is taking place.

9. You are not on holiday from family roles – It is so easy to get caught up in the event that you are attending and to then neglect your spouse and children (whether they are with you or not). You are still a spouse, even if you have travelled alone. You are still a parent, even if they are being cared for by someone else.  Be sure to make the phone calls, send the messages, express appreciation, be involved.

10. Be healthy – Conferences, festivals and large gatherings can be so unhealthy. It doesn’t help your experience, or your life after you return home, if you neglect your health for several days. Be sure to sleep as best you can on an unfamiliar bed (maybe bring your own pillow?), just because the food is available does not mean you need to eat all of it, get some exercise, enjoy the good gifts of God including creation, laughter, recreation, etc.

These ten suggestions may help next time you have the privilege of attending a Christian gathering – feel free to add more in the comments below!

 

 

Appetise Don’t Just Expect

It is so easy to communicate expectation.  For instance, “Christians should desire heaven.”  That is a statement of expectation and potentially a statement of pressure.  Preaching in churches all over the world is full of such statements.  Churches easily become sanctified gyms where the preachers function as the personal trainers conveying expectation and pressure to the struggling masses.

Now I am not saying that we should fail to communicate expectation when the biblical text does so.  However, it probably offers less context-less pressure than we tend to think.  Always take a look and see what the context is offering by way of motivation.  If it is about conviction pure and simple, then by all means, communicate that.  But so often there is a rich bed of gospel motivation underlying statements we can so easily pluck and apply.

Instead of defaulting to mere expectation (with its twin sibling pressure), why not look for ways to stir the appetites of your listeners.  It takes far more skill to describe fine food so that your listeners salivate than it does to tell them they should eat a balanced diet.

Every **ssage is Unique

A lot of preachers seem to scan their preaching passage for gospel words and then essentially preach the same message every week.  Their messages may be doctrinally sound and evangelistically clear, but they and their listeners are impoverished by this approach.

Every passage is unique.  Instead of scanning the passage for gospel words or harvesting imperatives for applicational teaching, my advice would be as follows:

Study the passage and seek to really understand it.  Don’t jump off that pursuit just because sermon material shows up in the text.  Keep studying and really seek to understand the passage.  Then prepare and preach a sermon that has a fingerprint as unique as the passage it is based on – so that every message is unique!

This approach will bless the preacher because you will enjoy the richness of God’s Word far more and find that God stirs your heart with layer upon layer of biblical truth.  This approach will bless the listener because they will not grow tired of hearing the same sermon dressed up in different clothes every week.  Instead they will start to appreciate the uniqueness of each passage, the beautiful diversity of Scripture, and the multi-faceted and highly relevant wonder of God’s character.