Hearing and Speaking the Word

Faith, Hebrews, Preaching, Promise No Comments »

“We are God’s house if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” ~Hebrews 3:6

We don’t know exactly how it happens. But we do know that, when all is said and done, the goodness of God is going to prevail over evil. The love of God is going to win in the end, not hate. The beauty of God is going to overcome and transform everything that’s ugly. And the risen Son of God will be on the throne, not the powers of darkness and death.

God wins in the end. Right? God wins!

How do we know that? Because we have heard his Word. We have heard God’s voice. We have heard the words of Jesus. We have the Word proclaimed by faithful witnesses and preserved for us in the holy Scriptures.

If we trust only what we see, we’re lost. We’re going to fall asleep at best, and quit the story altogether at worst. But if we hold firmly to what we have heard, if we live and believe what we have heard, then we enter the rest of God and we increase in confidence and courage and hope. And we boast. We start talking with great confidence.

We all turn into preachers.

Think about the way we talk. Think about the way hearing the Word and believing the Word causes us to speak. Why else would we say the things we do?

At the waters of baptism, we’re dealing with very risky and very unpredictable human beings. We can be baptizing a 12-year-old child we know nothing about or a 35-year-old adult we know way too much about. But when that human being comes up out of the water, we say,” All your past and future sins are forgiven! You are now sealed for eternity by God’s Holy Spirit who now lives inside you! You belong to God in Christ Jesus for all eternity!” We say it because we have heard the Word. And we believe it. It’s bold.

Around a hospital bed we say, “The Lord is my rock and my salvation; I will not be afraid!” Why? Because we have heard the Word.

In the cemetery at the graveside we say, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! Death has been swallowed up in his victory!” Why? Because we have heard the Word. It’s courageous.

To people who pollute the air, the water, or the land we say, “Stop it! The earth belongs to the Lord and everything in it!” To those who want to construct walls between people and do hateful things and use hateful words and forward hateful emails in Virginia or in Amarillo we say, “Every single man, woman, and child on this planet is created by God in the image of God and is loved deeply by our God! Cut it out!” And in moments of personal or even national crisis, we can proclaim, “We are not afraid! We’re not worried! We have been to the mountain top! We have beheld his glory! We have heard his Word!”

That way of talking boils up from a deep conviction and confidence in the promises of our God.

We’re not jumping into the dark here, we’re stepping into the light. We know what to do and what to say because God has spoken to us by his Son. He is still speaking to us by his Son! And we do hear that faithful Word.

Peace,

Allan

Giving Central a Break

1 Thessalonians, Central Church Family, Church, Preaching No Comments »

I know when I’m out of town or on a vacation and somebody else preaches for me, it’s good for Central. I figure the church needs a break. The same can be said as it relates to our church staff and probably the elders: when I’m not there, it’s probably good. I think I can be overly intense and loud. I think I’ve mainly only got one speed and only one volume. And a lot of me for too long of a time is probably too much.

So I haven’t preached at Central in two weeks. We were so blessed to have Rick Atchley preach for us two Sundays ago and then my family and I were gone last Sunday visiting Valerie in Edmond. We missed Central’s annual baby blessing, but, again, I think our church needed a break.

As a church, we’ve also been blowing and going pretty hard since October with our Ignite Initiative. I’ve preached lots of sermons on giving, we’ve talked a lot about vision and mission. It’s been challenging. We’ve all been stretched. God has been faithful and our church has been fabulous. But, in a lot of ways, it’s been tiring. For me, for sure and, I’m assuming, also for Central.

So, my plan has been to start this Sunday on an eight or nine week expository series through 1 Thessalonians. I thought it would be good for all of us to dive into 1 Thessalonians and just relax in it together. I think I feel about Central the way the apostle Paul feels about this church in Thessalonica. When I read this ancient letter to that little church that was meeting in Jason’s house in Thessalonica, I think I could write a similar letter to Central.

1 Thessalonians is different from all the rest of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. In every one of his letters, Paul is responding to a crisis in some church. He’s correcting a false teaching or fixing a bad practice or criticizing some ungodly attitude or behavior. Except in 1 Thessalonians. Instead of rebuking and correcting, Paul writes to these Christians in Thessalonica: Keep doing exactly what you’re doing!

“We instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more.” ~1 Thessalonians 4:1

This is a very encouraging letter. It’s very positive. It’s inspiring. And I figure it’ll be good for our church to just relax for a couple of months with this easy letter.

But after studying it for the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed it’s not going to be that easy.

The opening ten verses are all thanksgiving and praise, but every sentence is loaded. I have found myself writing a sermon that’s as much challenge and stretch as it is attaboys and praise. What’s wrong with me? I can’t read words like “power” and “deep conviction” without wondering if we feel that in us. I wonder about how well we imitate Christ under the threat of suffering. What does it take to be a “model” church? Have we turned from our idols? What’s wrong with me?

I can’t help it.

I’ll say it again: I feel about Central the way Paul feels about this church in Thessalonica. Central, I believe, is a model church. And we’re serious about this church. We’re reading the Scriptures and we’re fasting and praying. We’re paying more attention to formation. We’re focused on the vision the mission. I’m taking it seriously. And so is the whole church. We’re all walking together.

I just don’t want us to ever settle for surviving — let’s get to thriving! Let’s challenge “what is” for the sake of what could be and should be! If we dig deeper and climb higher and live better and serve others in faith, hope, and love, hell can’t put up gates big enough or strong enough to stop us!

I promise you, Central, this sermon series from 1 Thessalonians will be a bit of a break. Just not as much of a break as I had planned and that you probably deserve.

Peace,

Allan

The Johnson Amendment & The Church

Christ & Culture, Church, Preaching 2 Comments »

SteepleCityYou would be so proud of me. I’m showing such tremendous restraint in my old age. Yesterday’s Amarillo Globe-News published a front page story on U. S. President Donald Trump’s oft-repeated promise to abolish the Johnson Amendment with this accompanying headline: “Many local faith leaders support president’s vow to ‘destroy’ political ban for churches.” The same issue’s editorial contained an over-simplified analysis of the amendment that more or less argued that, since we all know which churches are politically conservative and which churches are politically liberal, the Johnson Amendment doesn’t really matter. So why are we making such a big deal about it?

Steady… Calm… Serenity now… Serenity now…

I did not write a letter to the editor. I did not call the Faith reporter. I did not send out an email to my fellow Gospel preachers who are quoted in this story as being in favor of abolishing the amendment because our religious liberties are under siege.

I slept on it. And I’m responding with this post.

This will be short.

SilencePreacherFirst, there has never been and isn’t currently any kind of threat in this country against any pastor or church preaching and practicing the politics of the Kingdom of God which, by the way, are the only politics Christ’s Church should be concerned about. Love. Forgiveness. Mercy. Grace. Gentleness. Helping the helpless. Healing the sick. Worshiping in spirit and truth. Obeying the Law to love God and love neighbor. Would somebody please explain to me how any Christian is being told he or she cannot do those things?

Some of my fellow preachers in Amarillo are quoted in the paper as saying it’s an “overreach of the government’s authority to restrict what a pastor says from the pulpit on any subject, including politics” and that “freedom of speech shouldn’t stop at the local church doorsteps; The church… needs to be a voice to the community.”

So you think we should preach Christian values and Christian ideals and Christian beliefs and morals to the Christian members of our Christian churches? Me, too. Big time. What does that have to do with this country’s political parties or candidates? Our King tells us that bigotry and inequality and violence and discrimination and oppression — SIN! — are solved by love and grace and forgiveness, not politicians and votes and laws. Salvation from God in Christ is the only answer to what’s wrong with you and me and the Church and this country. The only thing a preacher can’t do in his or her pulpit is advocate for a particular party or candidate. My question is, as a preacher of the Good News of Jesus Christ, why would you ever? Touting somebody or some thing other than Jesus as the solution for sin would seem to disqualify one as a proclaimer of the Gospel.

MoneyBagBurlapSecond, Christians come across as really petty and small when they complain about government interference. Churches in this country don’t have to pay taxes!!!! Everybody knows churches don’t pay taxes. You knew that, right? Don’t these faith leaders know it? We stand out as arrogant and entitled when we say, as one local preacher did in the AGN story, the Johnson Amendment “should not keep the church out of matters of the state, but rather should keep the state out of matters of the church.”

We don’t pay taxes!!!! The state is very much “in the matters of the church.” I don’t think totally removing the state from church matters — doing away with the tax breaks — is what he has in mind. It would be the best thing that could happen to the Church in the United States; but something tells me that’s not what he’s advocating.

FistThird, the last thing God’s Church in America needs is any kind of political “victory” delivered in the name and manner of Donald Trump. Can you just imagine the misguided ways in which that would be interpreted and then used? Abolishing the amendment would not only compromise the voice of Christ’s Church, it would bring out the worst in the people of Jesus. We would lobby and petition, boycott and campaign, write letters and print posters and stump for particular candidates in a specific party. And then we’d get offended or angry if someone pointed out how unfair it is that U.S. taxpayers are forced to fund our political group but not anybody else’s political group. Yuk.

I’m so grateful for my brother Burt Palmer of Polk Street United Methodist Church, the lone voice of reason among the Amarillo preachers responding in print to Trump’s pledge. Burt told the Globe-News that the total repeal of the Johnson Amendment “may lead to religious organizations being consumed with advocacy for a specific party or platform. He adds that the Church’s role is “to rise above [party] affiliations… sharing the message and love of Jesus Christ.” Burt warns about Christians and churches “slipping and sliding into serving the god of a political party.”

Finally (this is longer than it should have been), a response to the paper’s position itself.

The AGN editorial piece claims that repealing the Johnson Amendment is inconsequential because most Christians already know which way their church leans politically. By extension, I suppose, the community, too, knows whether a specific congregation of God’s people is politically conservative or liberal. Because of the preacher’s sermons on social justice issues, because of the political candidates the church may choose to invite to speak, it should be clear, so the editorial argues, how the pastor or the church feels politically. So, the Johnson Amendment doesn’t really matter.

I pray that after listening to me for only a short while, my parishioners at Central have a clear understanding that my political beliefs line up first with our King Jesus. I pray that my sermons and my statements about current issues are completely confusing to anyone trying to peg me or our church to a specific party or a particular candidate. I am aware of no party in this country that is pro-life to the max: anti-abortion, anti-war, and anti-death penalty. I don’t know of any politician who is both opposed to gay marriage and for welcoming refugees. Is there any candidate who will denounce both the killing of unborn babies in abortion clinics in this country and the killing of born babies in war efforts in other countries?

Jesus Christ does not fit neatly into a nationalistic political party. God’s Church cannot be defined by the platform of a power-seeking coalition of politicians.

Survey after survey shows that young people and millennials are turned off by the Church’s affiliations with the political right. We’ve somehow aligned ourselves with a worldly party in a worldly kingdom with worldly goals and worldly means of accomplishing those goals, and it’s nauseating to lots of people who are conditioned to see right though it.

We are beyond this. We are above it. We do not want to be associated with it.

You’re right, Amarillo Globe-News, the Johnson Amendment doesn’t matter at all. But not for the reasons you believe.

Peace,

Allan

Blessed at Central

Allan's Journey, Central Church Family, Preaching No Comments »

CentralPreachersI don’t know all my sins and shortcomings. I don’t know all the many ways I’m sure I fail as a proclaimer of God’s Word. I’m not aware of every single way I most surely disappoint the people in our church. I don’t know all the variety of things I do and say that are just not enough, things that could be done and said much better by a better person, a guy with more talent, a person better equipped.

But I do know a lot of those things. I am well aware that I fail often, that I disappoint plenty, and that my efforts are usually not enough.

When I’m alone with God in this beautiful 90-year-old chapel at Central, I become acutely aware of my own unworthiness to be in a leadership role with this great and faithful church. Who am I? What am I doing here? I feel incredibly blessed just to be in the middle of these wonderful saints. I feel so privileged that God would let me be a member of this church family. But he’s made me the preacher! What a joke!

Who am I to pray in the presence of this godly group of shepherds? Who am I to lead this incredibly talented and dedicated company of ministers? How can I further inspire this gathering of Christ-minded disciples who for years have been serving and ministering with power and grace throughout this city and around the world?

I have no business being the preacher with these people at this place.

It’s hilarious!

CentralWorshipCenter1980sOur Lord proves to me over and over every day that his grace is sufficient. He reminds me every week that his strength is made perfect in our weakness. He continually shows me that he arranges the parts of the body exactly the way he wants them. And he makes it work here at Central.

Thank you, Father, for moving me to Amarillo to be blessed by this faithful body of your children. Thank you, God, for the difficult challenges and the easy lay-ups, for the incredibly high mountains and the devastating valleys, for both the really good times to keep me encouraged and the really tough times to keep me humble. I need all of that. And I need to experience it with a generous, gracious, patient, forgiving, loving community of Christians.

I ask myself often how in the world I ever wound up at Central. And then I fall to my knees in humble gratitude and praise.

Peace,

Allan

The Sunday Sermon is Brutal

Allan's Journey, Preaching 2 Comments »

preachingbibleI want to share something with you today that’s very personal. This is not sad, it’s not disturbing, this doesn’t depress me in the least. Don’t mis-read or mis-interpret today’s post. This is a reality I’m only just now recognizing in the past two or three years, and I want to simply acknowledge it.

I’m sharing this for two reasons: One, I want all preachers who read this post to fully understand that they are not alone and, two, I want everybody else who reads this post to have a better understanding of something really weird and quirky about their pulpit guy.

The Sunday sermon is brutal.

The weekly homily consumes me every waking moment of my every day. I think about it all the time. Mowing the yard. Eating dinner with the family. Watching a baseball game. During a meeting. When I get up in the morning and when I close my eyes at night, I’m thinking about the sermon. Maybe I need to arrange the points differently. Should I leave out that illustration? Should both of those passages be used or just one of them? Is this truly what the Scripture says or am I making this up? Does this encourage anybody? Do I need a better example? Should I use that person’s name in this story or not? Does the end connect to the beginning? Are they going to hear what I want them to hear? One more word study. Look up one more cross reference. One more prayer begging God to reveal himself to me one more time. It truly consumes me. I can be having a conversation with you, face to face, about your family or your job or the Rangers or the fact that my house is on fire and burning to the ground, and I’ve still got the sermon in the back of my mind: Is there something in 2 Thessalonians about God’s providence? The sermon is this thing that hangs over me, following me, always with me, always there.

The sermon is never finished. It’s 10:00 Friday morning and the sermon for this Sunday is finished. But it’s really not. I’ll be obsessing over it all day today, at several points during the Amarillo – Tascosa game tonight, and all day tomorrow. I’ll be second guessing some key components of the sermon during Bible class Sunday. It’s brutal.

And when the sermon is finally delivered…

I’m almost always disappointed.

I’m telling you, it’s brutal.

It rarely turns out as good as it was supposed to. It hardly ever lives up to what it should. There’s a tremendous sense of relief, but a more pronounced feeling of let-down. It sounded so grand in my head, it felt so inspirational in my prayers, it meant so much to me when I read it from the Bible, but it didn’t come out of my mouth that way.

The words of the 4th century preacher Augustine, who lived with this same agony week after week, resonate in my soul: “I am saddened that my tongue cannot live up to my heart.”

Every Sunday.

Now that I’ve actually written this down, it looks and sounds depressing. But, really, it’s not. It’s just a weird reality for me and, I’m guessing, all preachers except maybe Rick Atchley. To be consumed by and obsessed with something all week long and never have it turn out just right is the reality of this calling.

But so is the beauty of God’s grace.

I experience God’s grace in my preaching nearly every Sunday. This is also a reality of the calling: that through my inadequacies and shortcomings and full-on failures, our sovereign Lord is doing eternal work. He shows it to me every week. He is at work when his Word is being proclaimed. He is doing salvation and reconciliation and sanctification when his Gospel is being preached. He affirms that to me almost every single week in very real and encouraging ways. And I’m so grateful. Most preachers do understand this. I suppose it’s the best reason most of us keep doing the chore.

That gives real meaning and purpose to the terror of the weekly sermon, but it doesn’t alter the terrible cycle for the preacher. So, when your preacher doesn’t seem fully engaged, maybe a bit distant, not totally there, give him a break — he’s thinking about the sermon. And on Sunday afternoon and evening when he’s a bit quieter than normal or even withdrawn, cut him some slack — the sermon wasn’t as good as it should have been.

Peace,

Allan

Full Time Work

Jesus, John, Ministry, Preaching No Comments »

HardWork

Today I’m speaking downstairs at our weekly Loaves and Fishes gathering, I’m finishing up the sermon for this Sunday, re-reading the passage in Mark I’m teaching in our Bible class, writing questions for the small groups discussions, and visiting a dear church member who was moved into hospice care last night. While you’re slaving away at the office or the construction site or the airport or the school, I’m at the church building doing God’s work. Right?

WRONG!

We are all doing God’s work, together, every day, seven days a week.

Sometimes we speak in ways that make what I do as a preacher “full-time Christian work” and what you do as a member of the Body of Christ “part-time Christian work” or “weekend Christian work.” You must know that you are a full-time Christian banker or plumber or homemaker. You are a full-time Christian truck driver or repair man, administrator or salesperson. When we are at our work, we are at the same time at God’s work. Just like our Lord Jesus.

You realize that most of what Jesus did he did in a secular workplace: in a farmer’s field, in a fishing boat, at a wedding feast, in a cemetery, at a public well, on a country hillside, in a court room, at dinner with friends and family, while walking along a road, in the marketplace. Sometimes in the Gospels Jesus shows up in a synagogue or the temple. But he mostly spends his time in the workplace.

The Fourth Gospel identifies Jesus as a “worker” 27-times. It quotes our Lord as saying, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”

Your work does not take you away from God, it continues the work of God. Our God is always in his workplace, your workplace, working. And once we recognize that, we can more easily see ourselves — all of us — working in our workplaces in the name and manner of Jesus to his eternal glory and praise.

Peace,

Allan