Today’s Sermon: Pew Edition

PlateToday was my co-worker’s turn to preach. However, before he ever got up to speak, a little three-year-old girl sitting in the pew in front of me “preached” the first sermon of the day.

As the collection plates were being passed around, this little girl was tightly clutching change she was going to sacrifice for the Lord. When the plate reached her, she held her hand out over the plate and opened her fingers to drop her money in the plate. However, due to clutching the money so tightly, or because she had sticky hands, or a combination of both, the change stuck to her open hand. So she had to pluck the coins from her hand into the plate. As her dime and nickel fell into the plate, she handed the plate to the man who was collecting them, looked at him and said, “Thank you!”

“Thank you?”  Doesn’t that seem like an odd response after giving away your money?  Usually it is the receiver, not the giver who says thank you.  Because of that, this little girl sent my mind racing.  When’s the last time I gave thanks for the opportunity to give?  I couldn’t remember.  But this little girl had it right.  We should possess a spirit willing to give thanks for the opportunity we have to give.

You see, when we “give,” we “get.”  Not that this is the reason to give.  It’s a serendipity; a by-product of our giving, not the aim.  But we do indeed “get” when we “give.”  For example:

  1. When we give, we get the opportunity to be like God (John 3:16).
  2. When we give, we get blessings and happiness (Acts 20:35).
  3. When we give, we get credit for the good that is done with that money (Philippians 4:17).

So this morning, I got to hear two sermons preached.  One from my co-worker, and the other from the little girl sitting in the pew in front of me.

This morning, I was reminded in a way I won’t soon forget, that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

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A Consuming Fire or Just “The Man Behind The Curtain?”

wizard-of-oz“For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24).  In spite of this truth, Israel disrespected God.  They treated God as though he were muzzled, tamed, or even docile.  To Israel, God was manageable and could be manipulated to their own advantage. There was no sense of awe, no reverent fear, and no trepidation when they came into his presence.

No better illustration of how they had trivialized God is seen in the life of King Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:1-23).  Uzziah was a very successful King with God’s help, but his success went to his head.  Pride filled his heart, and his pride grew, there was less and less a place for God in his heart. Consequently, Uzziah presumed to violate God’s command, enter the temple, and assume the rights that belonged only to the priests.  No less than eighty men attempted to stop him, but he had so marginalized God and puffed himself up, that he presumptuously disobeyed and paid a terrible price. He was like the occasional tourist who thinks Panda bears are so cute and safe that he ignores the warnings, reaches his hand through the bars to pet them, only to learn too late, that these bears are wild and untamed.

If there was a single message of which the church needs to be reminded today, in my judgment, it would be that God is a consuming fire; a jealous God!  Too many people have trivialized God. When some hear his “thunderings,” they pay no mind as though these “thunderings” originate from the “innocuous little man behind the curtain.”

I believe if we could get “God” right, most of our problems would disappear.  If we would stop treating God as though he were tame and and able to be manipulated, we wouldn’t presume to change his commandments. Our problems today are really not “the role of women in the church,” “the necessity of baptism for salvation,” or “instrumental music in worship;” rather our problem is more singular. We have failed to emphasize and consequently have forgotten that God is a consuming fire!

How else do we explain that when we gather to worship, instead of hearing gasps of “awe,” we sometimes hear “yawns of boredom?” Instead of God being a consuming fire having the power to refine and even destroy, we have reduced him to a safe, flickering candle that barely provides illumination.  We have allowed the familiarity of “sonship” to breed contempt and presumptousness toward God and his commands.

Friends, God is so much more than “the little man behind the curtain.”  He’s more than just a man with a deep, thundering voice (Numbers 23:19).  He can’t be manipulated.  He can’t be marginalized.  He can’t be tamed.  And he can’t be put in a box of our making. He isn’t manageable.  God is God.  He is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.  In spite of revealing himself to us, he remains a mystery. Consequently, we should worship and obey him with awe, caution, and reverent fear.  “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; and his greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145:3).

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Freed-Hardeman University Lectureship

freed-hardeman-administration-buildingFrom time to time, I write some personal articles on this blog, and this is one of them.  This past week was a difficult week for me.  I had trouble staying focused on my sermon preparation.  I was flat, dry, and stressed because “Sunday’s a comin.”  On Saturday night/Sunday morning, I was wide awake at 2:00 a.m., so I just got dressed and went on to the church building.  Twice this weekend, I had vivid dreams of my dad.  They were so real that when I woke up, I had to focus and remember that dad wasn’t with us anymore.  So Sunday night, as I watched a little of the Super Bowl, I played “armchair psychologist,” and I think I figured out the reason behind my strange week.  This week is lectureship week.

The annual lectureship at FHU has been a “family event” for us since the early 1970’s.  Consequently, I have a storehouse of memories.  Indulge me as a share a few.

  1. For the last decade, the Super Bowl fell at the beginning of Lectureship week.  That meant that my mom and dad would stop at our house on their way to FHU and I would get to watch the Super Bowl with my dad.  I can’t tell you how much I cherish the memory of watching the Steelers win the Super Bowl with my dad in 2005 and 2008.  My children remember this as well. They say they saw a side of “granddad” that they never knew existed!
  2. Mom and dad sat toward the right-rear of the auditorium with their lifelong friends, Pat and Willowdyne Gibbons.  For decades, they used the lectureship as a time to “catch up” with each other. Last year, as I attended the lectureship, it was quite difficult for me to look at dad’s vacant seat in the right-rear of the auditorium.  This year, there are two vacant seats there. In November of 2014, Pat also passed away.
  3. As I type this sentence, I paused long enough to count 45 FHU lectureship books on my bookshelf to my right.  Those books are all gifts from my dad.  It was his practice to buy me a lectureship book every year and give it to me.
  4. Lectureship week was often a reminder to me of my dad’s commitment to ministry.  FHU was 700 miles from Chester, WV.  And though this lectureship was a much anticipated “vacation” time for my mom and dad, I can’t tell you how many times through the years, they would arrive at FHU, and due to a death or illness, turn right around and head back home because someone needed them.
  5. One of the funniest things I remember about this week was when I had just convinced dad to get a cell phone.  Throughout the week, too many phones were going off, so a rather stern announcement was made from the podium of the main auditorium to turn off the ringer on all cell phones.  Since dad was new to cell phones, I figured he wouldn’t know how to do that, so I got up from my seat, stood in the back of the auditorium, and called dad’s phone.  Of course it went off, and 2000 people looked to see who ignored the stern warning from a few moments before.  Panicked, dad couldn’t think how to stop the phone from ringing, so it rang several times.  Finally, as the phone continued to ring, dad got up, with phone in hand, and headed to the back of the auditorium.  As he was walking toward the back, he saw me standing there laughing, and the look he gave me will be forever burned in my memory!  It was one of those, “You’ll be sorry for that” looks with a touch of a sheepish, “you got me good” look.

Anyway, I could go on and on sharing memories.  I am just thankful I have such memories, and that some of the best memories I have are centered around events relating to the Lord and his church.

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Don’t Bother Me; I’m Thinking

Thinking“A Christmas Story” is a holiday favorite around our house. Through the years, we’ve memorized various scenes and enjoyed quoting lines before they say them in the movie. One of my favorite lines from the movie comes when Ralphie was standing in line to see Santa Claus and the “Wicked Witch of the West” got down in his face and started talking to him.  Ralphie, trying to concentrate on what he was about to say to Santa Claus, turned to the witch and said, “Don’t bother me, I’m…I’m thinking.”

That scene reminds me of how preachers sometimes feel when people approach them with various matters just before they are to preach a sermon. Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying preachers are “prima donnas” and should be treated as such.  Nor am I saying we should be as rude as Ralphie was, but what I am saying is that there are appropriate and inappropriate times to discuss certain matters with your preacher.  These three tips may be helpful.

  1. Don’t ask the preacher to remember something just before he gets up to preach.  At this time, his mind is focused on preaching and presenting the lesson he has prepared.  He’s trying to keep his points, sub-points, illustrations, and Scripture references all in his mind.  Chances are slim if he will remember what you asked him to remember by the time he finishes his sermon. Also, keep in mind that not only might you ask him to remember something, so might 10 or 15 other people.  If you want him to remember something, and need to tell him before he gets up to preach, take the time to write it down and let him put it in his Bible for later reference.  This can greatly reduce your frustration with your preacher’s poor memory.
  2. Don’t get confrontational with the preacher before he gets up to preach. There’s a time and a place for everything (Ecc. 3:1-8).  But distracting a preacher from his focus just before he speaks is not productive and can adversely impact the delivery of a message that has the potential to save a person’s soul.  Through the years, I’ve had a few times in which a person attempted to “pick a fight” (my words) with me just moments before I got up to preach.  I know from experience how distracting that can be.  If you have issues to resolve with your preacher, work at resolving those issues on some other day of the week prior to Sunday, or after he is finished preaching on Sunday.
  3. Don’t bring peripheral problems to the preacher just before he gets up to preach.  These distractions can cause him to lose his focus.  A leaking faucet, a cracked mirror in the restroom, or the setting on the thermostat may be better handled by someone else at this particular time.  Less than a month after my dad passed away, I was asked to fill in for him and preach a sermon he was scheduled to preach on a lectureship. I can’t explain to you the mental energy and focus it required to get through this lesson and to say the things I wanted to say. However, quite literally seconds before I got up to preach, someone brought some problems to my attention that were frustrating in nature and totally broke my focus.  I was then emotionally unable to say many of things that I had wanted to say and had prepared myself to say.

I’ve lived long enough to know that there’s a time for me to be in the kitchen and that time is not when my wife is trying to prepare a meal.  Probably all of us husbands can understand exactly what I mean, and probably all of our wives agree with my wife’s feelings on the matter.  All I’m trying to say in this article is that if cooking a meal for our bodies demands uninterrupted focus, then so might the preparation and delivery of a meal for our souls.

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Wounded But Not Defeated

191979-1912-theodore-roosevelt-3c174Surely all of us know who Teddy Roosevelt was. While we may know that Roosevelt served as the 26th President of the United States, I dare say that few people know of the following, almost unbelievable event that occurred while he was campaigning for his third term as President.

On October 14, 1912, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Teddy Roosevelt left his hotel room to make a speech to his supporters.  As he headed to his car, a man, who was later declared insane, pointed a gun at Roosevelt’s heart and fired.  The bullet hit Roosevelt in the chest and lodged near a rib.  However, the bullet stopped short of his heart.  Fortunately for Roosevelt, he had folded his fifty-page speech and placed it in his coat pocket.  The bullet was slowed down by his heavy overcoat, 100 pages of paper, and his eye-glass case.  Roosevelt’s handlers insisted that he immediately go to the hospital for treatment.  However, Roosevelt had other ideas.  He coughed a few times and spit on the ground to see if he saw any blood.  Seeing none, he concluded that the bullet had not penetrated his lungs, so he went on to deliver his speech.  But also, not only did he proceed with his speech with a bullet in his chest, he spoke for 90 minutes!  (Roosevelt really was a “bull moose!”)  Though wounded, he was not defeated!

Speech-with-bullet-holeIn 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, Paul said, “We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”  Just like Roosevelt, Paul too, was wounded, but he was not about to let those wounds stop him.

Then there’s your story.  If you’ve lived long enough, you too have suffered wounds.  And if you have been wounded, you have a decision to make.  Are you going to quit because of your wounds, or are you going to press on?

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