Let’s Talk About Weddings

I rarely visit with a pastor who enjoys doing weddings. Just mention weddings to a group of pastors and you hear things like this:

  • “It takes the whole weekend: Friday rehearsal, Saturday wedding, and boom—Sunday is here.”
  • “Everybody wants a Princess Di wedding these days. Couples are more concerned with how things look than what it means.”
  • “Many of the couples don’t take premarital counseling seriously.”
  • “I feel like rent-a-preacher.”
  • “Weddings? I’d rather do a funeral any day.”
  • And “You never know about the mother of the bride.”

Enjoy them or not, they are part of our duties as pastors. They provide an opportunity to deepen relationships with a church family, provide leadership to help a couple build a better marriage, and offer a gospel opportunity in the wedding sermon/devotional. In short, weddings give a pastor another avenue to shepherd the people toward Jesus.

I have mixed emotions when it comes to doing weddings. The better I know the couple and the family, the more I enjoy doing their wedding. I’ve been pastor where I am long enough that I have married persons who I visited at the hospital on the day of their birth. Those weddings mean a little more. Lots of shared history and experience together. I feel like they are family. It helps me, too, because I will only marry persons with whom I have connection. I haven’t been rent-a-preacher in years. At least two or three times a year, I get a call at the office: “Hey, pastor, we’re going to be in Hot Springs two Saturdays from now, and we’re looking for a Baptist preacher to do our wedding. Will you do it?” I feel zero guilt and remorse when I say, “No thanks.” If a person is connected to the church, I am glad to be part of the wedding. If they are not, there are plenty of rent-a-preachers available.

That said, let me chart out some things to think in regard to pastors and weddings:

If the church doesn’t have a wedding policy, help the church formulate one. Policies protect both the church and the pastor. Policies detail who can be married in the church and who can perform weddings in the church, a requirement (or not) to use the church wedding coordinator, calendar considerations, costs, premarital counseling expectations, A/V and custodial requirements and costs. Some policies even spell out the kind of music that can be played. The key in any policy statement is detailed enough to provide clear direction on the things that matter most to a church but general enough to provide a little wiggle room.

Determine your personal positions on issues like these: interfaith weddings or where one of the couple is not a Christian; how you will respond to a couple that is already living together before marriage; how you think about things like doing the Lord’s Supper for the couple only during the ceremony; what you will do if after getting acquainted with the couple, you’re convinced the marriage is a bad idea.

Determine what you will expect of the couple in regard to premarital counseling. Some churches offer required classes. If you do the counseling, how many sessions and what is your plan? Will you use some kind of standardized testing? Will you require any outside reading or homework assignments between sessions?

Know your role in the wedding rehearsal. These days, many churches provide coordinators or the couple hires a coordinator. If a coordinator is employed, what is your role. Personally, I prefer to run the rehearsal. If the wedding is in the church, I do run the rehearsal. I know how to do it. I do it well. I get everybody ready for the wedding day. I’m efficient. But these days, more and more weddings are in non-church venues. In that case, I tell the coordinator that while she/he is in charge of the overall rehearsal, I will take charge once we get the wedding party in their places. It works well. As to the rehearsal dinner, sometimes I go, sometimes I don’t.

Develop a wedding day ritual. I like to get there at least 30 minutes before the wedding, check in with the coordinator, check on the wedding party, and refresh my thoughts for the sermon/devotional. I like to share an appropriate Scripture, keep my words brief and to the point (5-10 minutes), keep it as personal as I can, and insert the gospel in the process. For years, I rarely mentioned the gospel. I’ve tried to remedy that in my old age. A wedding is as much a gospel opportunity as a funeral. After the service, I ask the photographer if he/she can take my picture with the couple first. I’ve yet to encounter one who wouldn’t do that. When I was younger, I went to more receptions. Of course, most receptions in those days were in the church. Fewer and fewer receptions are in the church now. So I may or may not go to a reception. I’ve yet to have anyone complain if I didn’t show up.

Consider your attire: make sure you own a black suit (a marrying and burying suit, as one preacher called it). Black is always appropriate. Of course, some couples prefer more casual attire. Check with the couple about that. I learned from my wife to ask about the bridesmaids colors, so I can pick a tie that doesn’t clash.

And what about taking an honorarium for your work? My policy, as I tell the couple during premarital counseling, is that I don’t want to be paid to perform their wedding. I consider it part of my responsibility as their pastor. If I pastored a church that didn’t pay very well, I would rethink that policy. I’ve never charged a fee, but I have gratefully received whatever a family wants to give. These days, since families know my no-charge policy, they tend to give me a gift card of some kind. Most want to do something. Let them.

So there you go: a few thoughts about weddings. What have I missed? What would you add or change?

Some of My Favorite Books on Preaching

Like many of you, I’m an avid reader.  I try to read across disciplines with a few novels thrown in each year.  But I burrow down deeply in the disciplines I most enjoy—preaching and pastoral ministry.  Blogs that list the writer’s favorite books get a read from me almost every time.  I came of age as a pastor in an era when intentional mentoring wasn’t much of thing.  Pastors tended to be more suspicious of each other, competitors with each other.  Count me as one who is glad to see that era mostly gone.  All that to say that most of my mentors in my formative years as a pastor were authors.  So books mean a lot to me.

Could I tell you about my favorite books on preaching?  If you know much about these books, you’ll notice that they tend to reflect a more right-brained approach to preaching—image driven, use of imagination, narrative style, word-precision—more a running train of thought than a sequencing of points.  Please don’t misunderstand.  I am not criticizing traditional three-point preaching.  When the text calls for it, I preach that way too.  I don’t know exactly how I would describe my “style.”  Words like expository, text-driven, text-centered, theological, all describe preaching styles.  Not everyone interprets those words the same way, however.  I guess I would describe my preaching as “biblical”—a prayerful attempt to preach the meaning of the text in the genre and mood and tone that text.  As most preachers desire, no matter their style of preaching, I want the church to learn something, feel something, and do something as they engage with the text and the sermon.  Experience has taught me that when the head and the heart take hands, they can move the will in the right direction. 

Every preacher is familiar with Phillips Brooks’ definition of preaching from his 1877 Lyman Beecher lectures on preaching at Yale: preaching is “truth through personality.”  As we learn to preach, we tend to mimic those preachers we like the best.  Over time, a preacher finds his/her voice.  My preaching reflects my voice.  That’s why people who know me would say I’m the same person in the pulpit and out.  I preach the Scriptures out of the personality God has formed in me, shaped by my internal wiring and by my experiences.  Most of my favorite books reflect preachers whose “voice” resonates with mine.  They speak to mind and heart and will.  But I suppose I need to say: I may not agree with everything in every book, but these are the preaching books that continue to visit me in my mind when I’m putting a sermon together.  Here are those books …

  • Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages by Haddon Robinson.  If I could only own one book on preaching, this would probably be it.  Published in 1980, it is now in its third edition.  I’ve tried to read everything Robinson wrote on preaching.
  • Preaching by Fred Craddock.  This is his “textbook” for preaching.  Craddock was unique among preachers.    He was much criticized for his book As One Without Authority for his inductive approach to the text.  But Fred could preach, and he could teach preaching with the best of them.  I have also tried to read everything Craddock wrote on preaching.
  • Homiletic: Moves and Structures by David Buttrick.  Buttrick greatly influenced the way I understand sermon structure.  This is a technical book not so well known as books by Robinson and Craddock, but it is worth wrestling with.  At least it was for me.
  • Preaching the Literary Forms of the Bible by Thomas Long.  I try to read everything Long writes about preaching too.  His “textbook” on preaching is The Witness of Preaching, but I chose Literary Forms because Long got on this approach before everyone else.  Now it’s common for preaching profs to encourage a strong look at genre in structuring a sermon.  It wasn’t so common when Long wrote this book in 1989.  The concepts of this book are in my head every time I wrestle with a text for preaching.
  • Celebration and Experience in Preaching by Henry Mitchell.  African-American pastors know this book.  We white pastors need to know this book.  Mitchell helps us see how the sermon is not just a part of worship; it’s an act of worship.  We white preachers won’t be able to pull off celebration in preaching like our black brothers and sisters, but we can learn from Mitchell and appropriate what we can.
  • The Preaching Life by Barbara Brown Taylor.  Even those of you who don’t believe a woman should preach would benefit from Taylor’s experience and learn a little something from her preaching style (saying a lot with few words) in the sermons she includes in the last part of the book.
  • Preaching as Reminding: Stirring Memory in an Age of Forgetfulness by Jeffrey Arthurs.  You may not know of this recent book, but Arthurs explains and demonstrates the importance of vivid language, story, delivery, and ceremony to preach sermons that stir believers to live their faith.

For my more left-brained pastor friends, two indispensable books are …

  • John Stotts’ Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century
  • And Tim Keller’s Preaching: Communicating the Faith in an Age of Skepticism.

I’m suspecting that John Piper’s new book Expository Exaltation will be another strong book on preaching in a more left-brained style.  I plan to read that this year.

Finally, I would also recommend the following books to provide a wide range of preaching possibilities:

  • Spirit, Word, and Story: A Philosophy of Preaching by Calvin Miller.
  • Preaching as Reminding: Stirring Memory in an Age of Forgetfulness by Jeffrey Arthurs. 
  • Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon by Bryan Chapell.
  • On Preaching: Personal & Pastoral Insights for the Preparation and Practice of Preaching by H. B. Charles, Jr.
  • The Homiletical Plot by Eugene Lowry.
  • Preaching for the Rest of Us by Robby Gallaty and Steven Smith.
  • Peculiar Speech by Will Willimon.

So, what’s your next read as you seek to improve as a preacher?  These books provide a wide range of preaching insight.  Could I challenge you to read two books on preaching this year?

And because I’m always looking for good books on preaching, what would you add to this list?  What are your favorite books on preaching?  Feel free to comment below.

On Sleeping in Church

It’s been said that preachers are a group of people who talk in somebody else’s sleep. It happens—probably happens every Sunday most everywhere. Somebody in the congregation or the choir nods off to dreamland. This is nothing new. One of my favorite stories in Acts is the story from Troas in chapter 20, where Paul, planning on leaving the next day, and having still much to say, preached all night long. A young man named Eutychus moved during the preaching to sit in a window. Was he feeling sleepy? Maybe the smoky haze of burning lanterns called for some fresh air. Who knows? But we do know this: while sitting in the window listening to Paul drone on and on, Eutychus fell asleep and out the window—a three-story fall that killed him dead. But not to worry, the church rushed down to him, and Paul raised that boy from the dead. Some wonder if Luke included this story as comic relief, to prove Paul as a prophet in the vein of Elijah and Elisha, or to provide an example of judgment on those who neglect the word of God. Maybe it’s all of those. Being a preacher, I certainly find the comic relief in it—especially since Eutychus would live to sleep in church another day.

Every church has its sleepers. I remember a man in a congregation I served who kept his eyes closed for most of my sermon. He told me it helped him concentrate. I think he was catching a few winks. A friend of mine was in a church where a particular man fell asleep every Sunday. And one Sunday, the man was so deep in his sleep that he slept through the sermon and even the closing hymn. Fed up with it, the pastor called on this sleeper to close in prayer. Sound asleep, he didn’t hear the pastor call. So the pastor called on him again, and the man next to the sleeper grabbed his shoulder, shook him awake, and said, “You’re supposed to pray.” “What? Huh?” The man groggily stood and prayed, “Thank you, God, for the food we’re about to receive.” Thinking he was at lunch, he said a blessing. It happens. It’s never bothered me much when somebody falls asleep during my preaching. I figure that if the church can provide twenty minutes of rest to some worn out soul, then we’re still doing some good.

But not every preacher feels that way. I read a story about sleeping in church that happened in a Puritan church in Massachusetts in June, 1646. I found the story in On This Day in Christian History by Robert Morgan. The Puritans of colonial New England appointed “tithingmen” to stroll among the pews on Sunday mornings, alert for anyone nodding off during the long, often ponderous sermons. They carried long poles with feathers on one end and knobs or thorns on the other. Worshipers napped at their own peril, and the results were unpredictable. Obadiah Turner included this entry in his journal from a particular Sunday (I’m Americanizing the English a little bit):

Allen Bridges was chosen to wake the sleepers in worship. And being much proud of his place, he had a fox tail fixed to the end of a long staff with which he may brush the faces of them that nap during the sermon, likewise a sharp thorn whereby he may prick such as sleep most sound. On the last Lord’s day, as he strutted about the meetinghouse, he did spy Mr. Tomlins sleeping with much comfort, his head kept steady by being in the corner, and his hand grasping the rail. And so spying, Allen quickly thrust his staff behind Dame Ballard and gave him a grievous prick upon the hand. Whereupon Mr. Tomlins sprang up much above the floor and, with terrible force, strike his hand against the wall; and also to the great wonder of all, profanely exclaim in a loud voice, “Curse ye, woodchuck!” He was dreaming ,so it seemed, that a woodchuck had seized and bit his hand. But on coming to know where he was, and the great scandal he had committed, he seemed much abashed, but did not speak. And I think he will not soon again go to sleep in worship.

I think Mr. Tomlins could have avoided his embarrassing moment if he had owned a book I purchased years ago: 101 Things to Do During a Boring Sermon. In this book Tim Sims and Dan Pegoda offer a variety of games, diversions, musings, and the like to stay awake while the preacher waxes on and on and on.  Among them:

  • “Bird Brain” in which the bored worshiper lists as many state birds as he can and then matches the state birds he’s listed to church members who look like one of the birds.
  • There’s also a game called “Song of Solomon” in which the bored worshiper composes an oozing love letter to a prominent church member, then leaves it, unsigned, inside a hymnal or pew Bible. Not only will composing that letter keep you awake during the sermon, it’s bound to perk up the person who finds it the next Sunday.

Sleeping in church: it happens.  We preachers aren’t immune either. I remember reading this bit of preaching counsel: “Rule #1: don’t fall asleep during your own sermon.”  Perhaps, we preachers could work a little harder on being more engaging in our preaching.  But even the best preachers will preach a handful of people to sleep. 

I wonder if Eutychus realized what he was starting on that hazy Troas night. His tribe has increased. That’s just life; that’s just church. People are going to sleep in church from time to time. But my real concern is not for those that sleep through a sermon now and then but for those who are in a deeper spiritual slumber. They may wear the form of Christianity, but their faith is only skin deep, not heart deep. They are asleep to the presence of Christ around them, asleep to his promptings, asleep to the needs of their neighbors, asleep to God’s word and God’s will and God’s ways. Some of them may stay awake through every sermon and take good notes—notes that move from ear to page while bypassing the heart.

Those are the folks I worry about. But their situation is not hopeless. If God can raise the dead, he can surely wake the sleeping. I pray he will. There’s a life to be lived, a God to be worshiped, truths to be learned, and a world that needs God’s touch through you.  Sleeping in church won’t help.  Sleepwalking through the week won’t help either.

So, preachers, may God give us grace and unction to preach sleeping people awake, and awake people to vibrant worship and Christian living.

On Getting Feedback on Our Preaching

I don’t know about you, but I was not looking forward to preaching lab in seminary days.  I was not thrilled about preaching to my peers, looking into the eyes of fellow students, a sermon critique form on their desktop.  Some were sizing me up, some seemed disinterested, one blew the dust off his just sharpened pencil—the pencil he would use to critique my sermon.  I had to preach to that.  Still struggling with security issues, I was nervous.  I was as consumed with how they might critique my sermon as I was with preaching the sermon.  Sitting at the back of the room, the professor pointed his finger at me—the cue to preach my sermon.  Believe it or not, I still remember my text.  It was from Philippians 4 and the main idea was “we can find contentment in Christ.”

So I preached the sermon and received my first ever formal feedback.  I’d preached many times before that day, but I never received any feedback beyond, “Good sermon, preacher.”  “I enjoyed that, preacher.”  “God’s got big plans for you, preacher.”  Nobody I preached to had a critique form in front of them.  None of them were listening to find fault or to make me better.  They were praying for a word from the Lord through a young preacher like me.  But my classmates and professor had to critique me: What did I do well?  Where do I need work?  How did I explain, illustrate, and apply the text?  What annoying mannerisms did I employ in the delivery that were distracting to listeners?  Want to know the harshest critique I received?  “He was too polished.”  I needed to unpack that criticism, but I felt like I survived with barely a mark on me.  That was some 40 years ago, and I’ve received little formal feedback since then.

In the church I served in seminary, I was the Associate Pastor but did most of the preaching during an interim period.  One member, a friend and the father of a couple of kids in my youth group, offered me helpful critiques, asking me one time, “Do you know how many times you use the words uh and you know when you preach?”  I didn’t.  He told me.  He helped me.  Made me a better preacher.

During doctoral studies, my peer group spent one session critiquing a VHS copy of a sermon I had preached in the church I served.  We each had to take our turn.  That was helpful too.

But since then, formal feedback has been hard to come by.  I try to get it in staff meeting, but it’s not much different than what I get post-service on Sunday mornings.  I get it.  It’s not easy to evaluate your boss.  For one season, I invited people to join me in a group on Sunday night to dialogue about the morning sermon.  Few came.  Didn’t last long.  And I’ve done a church-wide written sermon evaluation form for any who wanted to participate.  That was interesting but not very helpful either with this exception: one person told me that I looked to my left way more than I looked to my right as I preached.  I took note of that helpful critique.

So where can we go to get good feedback?  Let me suggest some things.  I have not tried everything I suggest, but I’m thinking about it.

  • Don’t completely discount immediate feedback in the lobby of the church after the service.  If you know your people, you know which feedback is legit and which is perfunctory.  Take special note of those who rarely give feedback.  If they were moved enough to speak to you, you need to listen.  I still remember my all-time favorite post-service feedback.  It came from a man who had never given me feedback before.  He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I’ve never had my butt so thoroughly chewed and enjoyed it so much.”  That told me I struck a good balance between grace and truth on that day.
  • If your church has the capability to record or video your sermon, watch/listen to it once or twice a month.  It strikes me a bit self-indulgent to do that every week.  But now and then could be helpful.  What do you like?  What annoyed you?  Did you get to the gospel?  Did you transition well?  How was your vocal cadence and dynamics?  What could you have done better?
  • We don’t utilize a teaching team in our church, but if yours does, that’s a ready-made feedback group who can give feedback both before and after the sermon is preached.  This seems to me to be most helpful.
  • I’ve heard some preachers suggest using your spouse for feedback.  Wives (or husbands as the case may be) can be good.  I have a cartoon of a pastor and his wife in their car on their way home from church.  The pastor says to his wife, “You know, that sermon would have had a lot more impact if you hadn’t yelled ‘Ha!’ right in the middle of my second point.”  Some spouses feel equipped to give you solid content feedback.  But all spouses can provide feedback on your energy and passion level in your preaching.  They probably have a deeper sense than the average church member about how present you were in the preaching moment.
  • Another possible feedback source is to enlist a “preaching coach”—a seasoned preacher you respect and believe you can learn from who will give you periodic feedback on your preaching.  There are surely some out there who have the time to do this.
  • And still one more avenue of feedback is this: the health of the church you serve. Not every church has the capacity to grow much numerically, but churches grow in any number of ways: mission engagement, biblical literacy, generosity of individuals and the church body, evangelism, unity and fellowship, etc. If your church is healthy and showing signs of growth in some of these areas, that may be the best feedback on your preaching you need. You are feeding the flock. They are getting it. They are growing deeper in discipleship.

So feedback is important and can make better preachers of us all.  Still, I do want to give just a little push back against getting too caught up in seeking feedback. 

First, there’s something sacred about the preaching moment.  It can’t be replicated in a video.  Being in the room in the moment can have a mystical component not caught on a replay.  In other words, a sermon can be much better in the moment than it appears when reviewed outside of the worship hour.

Second, God’s Spirit can use God’s word through God’s servant for God’s people in ways that cannot be analytically reviewed.  Haven’t you had the experience of stepping down from the pulpit feeling like you laid an egg only to have several people tell you how much God used that sermon to speak to them in deep places in their hearts?  And by the same token, haven’t you stepped down from the pulpit waiting for people to dump a bucket of Gatorade over your shoulders in celebration of a home run sermon only to discover in the heart of the church it was a weak grounder to the pitcher.  The Holy Spirit is the wild card here.  He can use us at our best.  He can use us at our worst.  Which is the fly in the ointment of feedback.  Too much fascination with feedback can get us too self-focused or too self-conscious or too concerned about how we are preaching to the point that we make it about us instead of Jesus, that we make it more about our affirmation than God’s declaration, that we make it more a job to accomplish than an act of worship.  May John the Baptist’s words be ours, “He must increase; I must decrease.”  The Holy Spirit’s role in the preaching moment can’t be evaluated by strictly human means, if at all.

And then, third, when it comes to getting “professional” feedback, every preacher has his/her own style.  Most preachers I know tend to think that their style is the “best” and the “right” style.  That means their feedback will be tempered by trying to fit you into their mold.  While the person giving feedback can be helpful on how you handled a text or the clarity of your main idea or delivery critiques, they may not be so helpful on “style” issues: exposition, narrative, point-driven outline, train of thought, manuscript, notes, no notes, etc.

Here’s the bottom line: get helpful feedback where you can as you can, learn from it, improve from it, but don’t become a feedback junkie.  As John Denver sang, “Some days are diamonds, some days are dust.”  As Tony Horton says about exercise, “Do your best and forget the rest.”  Pray hard.  Work hard.  Trust the Spirit.  And let it go, holding on to God’s promise that his word (no matter how well or poorly we preach it) doesn’t come back empty.

What do you think? And what is your best feedback story?

A Sample 4th of July Sermon

In the previous post, we discussed pastors and the 4th of July. Here is a sample sermon I preached on the July 4th weekend, 2015. I don’t always address the 4th. That year I did. Summer headlines: “ISIS murders Christians” and “Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage.” I’ve preached a number of July 4th sermons across the decades. This is just one example. If it stirs your thoughts as you preach on this American holiday, then I’ll be grateful.

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GOD BEFORE COUNTRY (Isaiah 40:10-15, 21-31)

For much of American history, churches have used the Sunday nearest the 4th of July to hold God and Country services.  And some of them have been real blowouts: an armed color guard presents the flag, the people are asked to say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the national anthem.  Sometimes on that Sunday churches will hang in the sanctuary an American flag big enough to make a car dealership jealous.  Of course, all the good old patriotic staples are sung in worship.  The church spends an hour or so celebrating the fact that we are Americans, and the preacher uses his or her time to speak in glowing terms of our great nation.

But some years ago, as America began distancing herself more and more from God, those services started changing a bit—a little less congratulations and little more criticism, a little less “Hooray for America” and a little more “Help us, Jesus,” a little less “God bless us” and a little more “Woe is us.”  And after last Thursday’s Supreme Court decision making same-sex marriage the law of the land, I wonder what kind of services evangelical churches will be having today.

As you know, we don’t really do God and Country services in this church.  We may sing a couple of songs that are tied to American history, but we don’t wave the flag and try to make better patriots out of whoever shows up.  I’ve taken some flack for that over the years, but I’ve held steady.  I love God, and I love our country.  But I don’t like the phrase “God and country”—never have.  We can do better than that.  How about God before Country?  How about God first?  God before Country helps us get our heads right and our doctrine right and put first things first.  For a follower of Christ, God and country are not on equal levels.  In our hearts and in our actions, God must come before country every time.

Just in case you ever get this confused, let me remind you that …

Barak Obama is not Lord.  Congress and the Supreme Court are not the heavenly host.  The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are not infallible guides to Christian faith and practice.  The “original intent” of America’s founders does not guarantee national righteousness.  The American flag is not the cross.  The Pledge of Allegiance is not the creed.  And the song God Bless America is not the Doxology.[1]

Not God and Country but God before Country.  And I don’t say this to rag on America.  Across our 239 year history, America has been in so many ways a gift to the world.  It’s safe to say that many, if not most, of America’s founding fathers and mothers believed God’s hand was at work in the formation of this nation.  Noted historian David McCullough concluded his book, 1776, with these words:

Especially for those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning—how often circumstances, storms, contrary winds, the oddities or strengths of individual character had made the difference—the outcome seemed little short of a miracle.[2] 

God has blessed America and made America a blessing to the world.  America has provided a haven of religious freedom, a harbor for immigrants and political refugees, food for the world, and care for her needy and poor.  America has sent more missionaries into the world than any other nation.  America is usually first on the scene with an open hand when earthquakes rumble and tsunamis roll anywhere in the world.  With the blood of many of our best and brightest sons and daughters, America has fought tyranny and fascism and helped liberate millions of people who lived under an iron fist.  America has done many things well.  We’re quite a nation! 

But we’re not perfect, we’re not innocent, and never have been.  We’ve got some blood on our hands.  Just ask the American Indian.  Just ask the families of African-Americans who were segregated and lynched because of the color of their skin and who are still fighting for an equal playing field.  Just ask the millions of unborn babies whose mother’s womb became their tomb through the atrocity of abortion on demand.  And now this latest Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.  We’ve got plenty of national sins and a few skeletons in our closet.  And even though we’ve made great progress in race relations in the last fifty years, the racial divide in America seems more pronounced now than in some time.

So while there is much in America that is good, America is not God, and Americans are not God’s chosen people.  It’s not God and Country.  It’s God before Country.  Always has been. 

And the prophet Isaiah helps us keep our heads straight on this matter.  In Isaiah 40 the prophet was speaking to a group of people in exile—strangers in a strange land.  And they were in exile precisely because as a nation they got too big for their britches.  They were Judah of Israel —children of Father Abraham, recipients of the magnificent Law of Moses, ruled by descendants of the great King David, God’s chosen people and the apple of His eye.  They thought they were invincible, bullet-proof, unconquerable.  “God is on our side!” was their boast. 

Problem was—they weren’t on God’s side.  God gave them the law; they disobeyed it.  God sent them prophets; they ignored most, killed some.  God called them to repentance; they persisted in their arrogance and sin and worshiped any number of idols alongside their lifeless, lip-service worship of God (Isa. 29:13).  And when God’s longsuffering patience was finally exhausted, He lowered the boom on His own people.  Their land was ransacked, their temple looted and burned to the ground, their ablest people carted off to Babylon.  Now in exile, they had their doubts.  Would they ever go home again?  Would they ever become a nation again?  How could this defeated people stand up in the face of Babylon and other nations who were so much stronger and greater than they?

And that’s where Isaiah set them straight.  It’s not really about nations, he said; it’s about God.  A sovereign nation is not the issue; a sovereign God is the issue.  It’s not God and country; it’s God before country—any country and every country.  Get your eyes on God.  Isaiah uses this chapter not to rag on his country but to brag on his God.  And that’s a good word for us too.  Hear the word of the Lord through Isaiah … (read the text)

These are some powerful words—God before country, God above country, God in a whole other realm from every country on the face of the earth.

I

What are nations to God anyway?  They are nothing.  They are like a drop in the bucket, like dust on the scales.  And what about the rulers of those nations—how do they measure up to God—these pompous, larger than life, intimidating, powerful kings, prime ministers, and presidents?  How do they measure up to God?  They’re not much either.  Compared to God they’re about the size of a grasshopper.  They come to power, they shore up their power, they work to protect and extend their power.  And just when they feel like they’re secure and in control, God blows on them and they wither; God sends a whirlwind and they are swept away like a West Texas tumbleweed.  In the greater scheme of things, nations and rulers don’t amount to much—they fret and strut their hour upon the stage and then are heard no more.  They are full of sound and fury, signifying … not much.  They do some good, they do some bad, and sooner or later they wither into dust and become little more than a page or two in a history book.  That’s been the case for every nation and ruler that has ever existed. 

At one time, Egypt was the deal—the strongest, largest, most powerful nation on the earth.  But look at them now—just another little country in the Arab world with some really cool pyramids—but no great player on the world’s stage.  Their greatest days are in the past.    

And what about Israel?  Under King David and King Solomon, Israel’s territory stretched for miles in every direction.  They were the kings of the middle-eastern hill.  They were the wealthiest and most feared nation on the earth.  But after Solomon’s death they split into two countries and in due time, because of their rebellion against God, both of those countries were invaded and destroyed, their people scattered.  And even though Israel returned to their homeland, they were little more than a puppet state, an occupied country.  Eventually the nation of Israel ceased to exist altogether until they were given back some of their land in 1948.  That’s Israel.

Then there was Assyria—the biggest, baddest bully on the block for two or three centuries.  They were ruthless, heartless, and violent.  Assyria had everybody shaking in their sandals.  But once the Babylonians destroyed them there has never been an Assyria anymore.

Nor is there a Babylon anymore.  Nor is there a great Greek or Roman Empire anymore.  The French and British empires had there day and are but a shell of what they once were.  Hitler’s Third Reich, which he predicted would last a thousand years, was destroyed after a tyrannical run of just over a decade or so.  The Soviet Union, once a major player and superpower, imploded after only 71 years of history.  And many observers would say that the good old USA is not what she once was and never will be again.

Nations come and nations go.  Some have their day in the sun and even become major players on the world stage for a time.  But sooner or later, nations decline and fall from their heights of glory.  Just read a history book and you’ll see.  Nations come and nations go.

II

But God is here forever.  And that’s what Isaiah is trying to make clear in our text.

Do you not know?
Have you not heard
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth
was founded?

God is here forever.  In the beginning … God.  Isaiah describes God in majestic, glorious terms.  We only read a few verses, but Isaiah uses this whole chapter to tell us about God.

  • God is the Sovereign Lord who comes with power and whose arm rules for Him (v. 10).
  • But God is not some maniac tyrant.  God is the shepherd who tends His flock and gathers the lambs in His arms, carrying them close to His heart (v.11).
  • God is the Creator who measured the waters in the hollow of His hand (v. 12).  “I’ll put the Pacific Ocean here, the Atlantic over there.  And the Indian Ocean in this spot right here.”  When we cup our hand we hold just enough water to get a sip or two.  When God cups His hand he holds enough water to make an ocean.  That’s a big hand!
  • And when God measured the breadth of the heavens, which scientists tell us are a bazillion light years deep, God used His hand to mark off its boundaries (v. 12).
  • God holds the dust of the earth in a basket and weighs the mountains and hills on the scales (v. 12).  Did you know that our God is this large, this vast?
  • And smart too (vv. 13-14).  Madame Curie was brilliant.  Einstein was a genius.  But even smart folks like that had to be taught to read and write.  They had to learn their way along.  But not God.  God needs no instructor or counselor since He knows everything there is to know and all true knowledge has its source in Him.
  • And God sits on a throne (v. 22).  But not some pipsqueak earthly throne—no matter how large or ritzy it may be.  No earthly throne is big enough for God.  He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, said Isaiah.  He stretches out the heavens like a canopy and spreads them like a tent to live in.  You go camping, you pitch a little tent.  God goes camping, He pitches a universe.  This is some God, huh?
  • This is the God who brings out the starry host one by one and calls them by name (v. 26).
  • This is the God who is everlasting—no birth date for this God and you’ll find no tombstone for Him either—never will (v. 28).  He is everlasting.
  • This is the God who does not grow weary and tired, the God who never needs a nap or a vacation, who never has to sit down and catch His breath, the God who never even needs a coffee break (v. 28).
  • This is the God whose understanding no one can fathom, the God who gives strength to the weary and power to the weak, the God who lifts up those who trust in Him (vv. 28-31).
  • This is the God of Isaiah 40, the God of the Scriptures, the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth.

And Isaiah lifts up this God against nations and rulers and reminds God’s people like you and me that no nation has ever measured up to God.  Could these qualities of God that Isaiah described ever be used to describe a nation?  Do you know any nations who create?  Any nations who are everlasting?  Any nations with perfect understanding?  Any nation that never grows weary or tired?  Of course you don’t.  Only God can be described in such glowing, glorious terms.  “‘To whom will you compare me?  Or who is my equal,’ says the Holy One” (v. 25).  And the answer is obvious: no one—no nation, no ruler, or none of the many idols we manufacture in our hearts and minds.  No one compares to God.  That’s why God is always first, always deserves more from us than even our beloved nation. 

God deserves our highest allegiance—higher than the state, higher than our political parties, and higher than our rulers. 

  • That’s why when kings and the people told Jeremiah to quit preaching, he said, “No—God has put a fire in my bones and I have to preach it out.”   
  • That’s why when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were told to worship the king’s idol or be pitched in a fiery furnace, they said, “Pitch us in.  Our God can save us but even if He doesn’t, we’ll worship the one true and living God, not your stupid, lifeless idol.”
  • That’s why when Daniel was told, “Quit praying for thirty days or get tossed in the lions’ den,” Daniel replied, “I love God more than I fear lions.  I’m going to keep praying like I always have.”
  • That’s why when Jewish authorities told the disciples to quit preaching Jesus in Jerusalem, they replied, “Not a chance.  We must obey God before man.”
  • That’s why when many Christians in the first three centuries were told to say, “Caesar is Lord” or be killed, they were martyred because they said, “Jesus is Lord.”  They caught a glimpse of the Eternal City, bought for them through the blood of Jesus Christ who died for their sins and rose from the dead, who knows the way to heaven, and who can get his martyrs all the way home.
  • That’s why when many Christians in the Middle-East and in Africa were told by Islamic jihadists, “We’re in charge now.  Convert to Allah or off with your head,” they chose to lose their head rather than lose their faith in Christ.  They believed Jesus’ words, “I am the resurrection and the life.  He that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.  He that lives and believes in me will never die.”  So swing your swords, and shoot your bullets.  You can take our life, but you can’t have it.  Jesus has defeated death and he will have us forever. 

Our highest allegiance belongs to God and God alone.  Believers hold citizenship in a larger kingdom than America—a kingdom that includes persons from every tribe and nation and tongue.  And believers submit to a higher authority than a king or a president or a dictator.  We submit to the one before whom someday every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10-11).  That’s our God.

III

And that’s who we worship.  That’s why we don’t make a big deal out of God and Country services.  The church’s mission is not to make patriots but to make Christian disciples.  There are plenty of other venues in our culture to create patriots.  The church needs to point to that higher kingdom and higher authority of the Sovereign God before whom all nations (even our own) are like a drop in the bucket, and all rulers (even our own) are like grasshoppers.  And on the holiday where we celebrate our Declaration of Independence, the church needs to celebrate a declaration of dependence upon God and His grace and His righteousness and His word and His ways.  The church needs to worship the true and living God—not our country, not our forefathers, and not our heritage.  The church needs to worship God and join Isaiah in saying that it’s not about God and Country; it’s about God before country.

This doesn’t mean we can’t love our county.  I love our country, and I suspect you do too.  I have a deep appreciation for those who serve our country in the military and for many in politics.  As Christian citizens in a democracy we have a moral obligation to engage at some level in our country’s political arena.  Who knows?  We could make some difference along the way.  Many have.  So at the very least vote, and some of us need to speak up and run for office if God leads you to do so.  Just don’t put all your eggs in that basket.  And don’t base your hope for America upon our political process, or your hope for the church and the world upon America.  God is our hope.  Our Creator, Sovereign, powerful, all-knowing God is in control so we don’t have to be.  He’s in charge so we don’t have to worry.  Our hope is not in America and not in our rulers; our hope is in God.  Lord, please send a revival!

And lest you think this sermon is a reaction to the Supreme Court decision last Thursday, I want you to know that I preached pretty much this same sermon (with minor changes) in this church on July 3, 2005, ten years ago.  This is not reactionary; this is foundational.  This is not emotion; this is historic Christian doctrine.  We who call Jesus Lord better get our heads and heart right about this because I believe it’s going to grow more difficult in coming years for Christians in America who won’t spout the party-line.   But I’m not preaching this to rag on America; I’m preaching this to brag on God—our Creator, our Savior, our Lord, our hope, our peace, our present, our future, our God! 

So it’s fine and good for us to share our stance on issues in the hopes of changing some minds, but let’s do something more that could change both hearts and minds: as Christians and the church, let’s humble ourselves, seek God’s face, repent of our sins, get our own house in order, pray like never before for our nation, cry out for revival, and proclaim in word and deed and love any way we can, anywhere we can, to anyone we can, the glory of our great God who in His Son Jesus Christ and by the power of His Holy Spirit continues to save sinners, spare nations, mend broken lives, sanctify His children, and build His kingdom—the only kingdom in history that cannot be shaken and the only kingdom that will last forever.


[1]This is my paraphrase of part of an editorial titled, “Worship as Higher Politics,” www.christianitytoday.com, (June 23, 2005).

[2]David McCullough, 1776 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 294.

The Pastor and the 4th of July

It’s on the calendar every year.  And most churches expect some kind of acknowledgement in the worship service prior to the 4th.  Some churches expect a blowout celebration complete with an American flag large enough for a car dealership to envy, patriotic songs, and either a rousing patriotic sermon or an angry “prophetic” sermon railing against political progressives and liberals.  Churches have traditions about such things.  Some churches are known for their annual passion play at Easter or singing Christmas tree during Advent.  Some churches are known for their annual “God bless America” rally.  What are we pastors supposed to do with the 4th of July?

We need to pray this through and figure it out for ourselves.  But I can tell you what I do.  I don’t like patriotic services.  And I’ve taken some flack for it across the decades.  I haven’t made everybody happy.  Still don’t, but one of the blessings of tenure is that over time, my approach has become “normal” for our congregation.

Some Context and a Confession

I am a Baby Boomer and came of age during Viet Nam, the fight for Civil Rights, and Watergate.  Maybe I’ve grown a bit too cynical about our nation and our politics.  Maybe I always have been.  Not becoming, I know, but not much has happened since my youth to alleviate my cynicism.  I’m not blind to that. 

But my views on how the church engages politics and celebrates the 4th of July is born out of my theology rather than my cynicism.  The church is to be a home for the gospel and a house of prayer for the nations, not an institution to promote Americanism.  This is why our church doesn’t place an American flag in the sanctuary.  We’re not against the flag.  We love the flag, and we love America.  But we put the flag in the foyer—a space designed for mingling rather than worship.  Though this seems subtle, symbols matter.  We love our nation and are grateful to be a church in America, but we don’t want to identify as an “American” church.  We take our cues from the Scripture not the constitution.  We get our marching orders from God not the President.  Our forefathers and mothers in the church are not George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; they are, among others, Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul, and Mary (and I don’t mean the singing group).  In a country full of immigrants, we want to demonstrate hospitality to people from every land.  We want our people to understand the universality of the gospel and grow a love for the nations.  While we encourage our people to be good citizens in the U.S.A, our best energies are given to helping us cultivate our citizenship in heaven.  I love America.  I pray for America.  But Jesus did not commission us to make patriots or Democrats or Republicans.  Jesus commissioned us to make disciples … of all nations.

Practice

So what do we do on the Sunday before the 4th of July?  We won’t wave a flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance, but we will have a brief segment where we sing, “America”—a hymn.  And during our greeting time, we’ll sing “God Bless America”—a prayer.  In bringing these hymns and prayers to worship, I’m trying to give a little concession to our folks who would like a more patriotic service.  We will also spend time in prayer for our nation and our leaders.  And I will preach a sermon from Amos 4 I’m calling “O Say, Can You Repent.”  We don’t ignore the national dimensions of the holiday, but we try to bring the gospel to bear and elevate Jesus.  As people leave our worship this Sunday, I don’t want them to say, “America is great”; I want them to say, “God is great!”  And I don’t want them to say, “I’m going to be a better American”; I want them to say, “I want Jesus to make me a better Christian.”

As to preaching on the 4th of July Sunday, sometimes I preach a theme connected to the holiday; sometimes I don’t (especially if we’re in a summer sermon series).  In the next post, I’m including a sermon I’ve preached a couple of times in the last twenty years, updated to fit the current historical context.  Hopefully, it will illustrate what I’m getting at in the previous paragraph.

What do you think?

I doubt we all agree on these matters.  Pastor, how do you approach a national holiday like the 4th of July in worship and preaching?  Weigh in.

Let’s Go to the Hospital

I’d like to talk with my pastor.

Basic to a pastor’s ministry is care for the sick. In James 5:14, church members are instructed to call upon the elders to pray over them and anoint them with oil when they are sick. Not every pastor gets this. A pastor once told me, “I tell my people, ‘You don’t want me to visit you in the hospital because if I show up it means you’re about to die.'” This was a pastor of a large church. He felt he had bigger fish to fry. He also hated going to the hospital. Some pastors do. I understand: you see things you didn’t want to see; you smell unpleasant things; some insist on showing you their scar. Like some of you, I’ve held a tray under the chin of a parishioner who suddenly began to hurl chunks. Like some of you, I’ve accidentally caught people in various stages of undress. Like some of you, I’ve had to fight holding my nose in the wake of putrid smells. Like some of you, I’ve had to help people wrestle through horrible news and where God might be in all of that. I’ve even had brand new parents put a dead baby in my arm and ask, “Would you baptize her?” I get is when pastors are slow to make hospital calls. Some have to drag themselves there. So, drag yourself there. We sometimes forget that our presence symbolizes the presence of God. You are an ambassador for Jesus and the church. Your presence brings Jesus’ presence. Your touch is Jesus’ touch. It’s the church’s touch. It matters. It’s central to our calling as we care for souls and help shepherd them through the valley of their sickness.

Over time, pastors tend to find their groove, their style, in how they make a hospital visit. Find your style and do it your way, a way that’s reasonably comfortable for you. But that said, let me share some tips that reflect how I do hospital ministry.

In regard to surgery, I try to arrive at the hospital when the patient is scheduled to arrive. I find it helps my parishioner to see me when they arrive. It encourages them and in an unconscious way reminds them that God is with them too. I chat for a moment, assess nerves, offer a Scripture and prayer in their behalf, and go on about my day. If I (or none of our ministers) can’t be there in person, a phone call the night before surgery or even that morning is better than nothing. Physical presence is better. Though I don’t always remember to do so, I try to follow up by phone later that day to see how things went.

In regard to a basic hospital visit, here are some pointers born out of experience:

  • Utilize parenthesis prayer: before you go into the room, after you leave, and while you are there.
  • Respect closed doors. I usually knock. If no answer, I try to leave a note or a card in the door and move on.
  • Pay attention to medical directions posted on the door (gown and glove and mask?)
  • Foam in / Foam Out. (Most hospital provide hand sanitizer outside a room door. Don’t take any diseases into the room with you; don’t take any out.)
  • Don’t wake sleeping patients. Rest is critical in recovery from sickness and surgery. I only attempt to wake the parishioner if he/she has asked me to.
  • Don’t be afraid to offer your hand in greeting—kind and gentle touch matters.
  • I generally stand for the visit unless the patient asks me to sit, or I sense that the conversation might be longer than usual.
  • Keep your visit brief—unless the patient engages you in a significant conversation (5-10 minutes max.) If the room is full of visitors, I usually bring a greeting, offer an open-eye prayer, and move on.
  • It’s okay to ask the nature of the patient’s health issue—if you are comfortable with that.
  • Don’t offer health advice. You may be a Ph.D. or a D.Min., but you are not an MD. Keep your medical advice to yourself. Don’t confuse the patient or say something stupid about an issue with which you don’t have all the facts or the know-how.
  • Don’t make the visit about you and your health.  (It’s okay to say, “I’ve been there,” but don’t tell your whole story or show your scars. It’s not about you; it’s about your parishioner.)
  • Before you leave, ask, “Could I pray with you?”  You might even ask, “How can I pray for you?”  If the patient is not a Christian (someone I’ve been asked to see), I usually do open-eye prayers where I say something like, “I’ll be praying that the Lord helps you get better and so you can go home and get on with your life.” And if a non-Christian patient wants to talk, an evangelistic witness is appropriate.
  • If a Scripture comes to mind, share it. God’s words are better than our words. I encourage you to memorize several Scriptures that are appropriate for hospital ministry, so you are always ready with the Word.
  • Offer to pray, gathering up the concerns you’ve discovered during the visit, and keep it brief.  I take the parishioner’s hand as I pray or at least place my hand on his/her shoulder.

Now, a final word: if you have staff, share some of your hospital ministry with them. You don’t have to go all the time. In our current set up in our church, I go to the hospitals on Monday, on my call Friday, and on the weekend if necessary. Otherwise, all our ministers have their day. This is a good thing. When staff ministers make hospital calls, they get a chance to know the larger congregation and to be seen as a church pastor rather than a niche minister. If you don’t have staff, involve your deacons and some women in the church to help you in this ministry.

The Merry Heart (Proverbs 17:22)

Here’s a second example of preaching Proverbs with a focus on a single proverb. Much of Proverbs lends itself to using a compare/contrast strategy in formulating the sermon: not this, but this. That gives the preacher room to play a little bit in driving home the gist of the proverb. In the conclusion, I even sang “The Lord of the Dance.” By playing a little in the preaching, my goal was to help the congregation not just hear the proverb and understand the proverb; I wanted them to feel the proverb—to feel joy. Oh, an another plus for preaching a single proverb: if you repeat it enough, folks will have it memorized by the conclusion of the sermon. Anyway, this is one preacher’s attempt to preach a single proverb.

********

I invite you to open your Bible to Proverbs 17:22.  We’re continuing our series, Spiritual Cardiology, in which we’ve been thinking together about some of the heart texts in the Bible.  As we’ve discovered, such texts diagnose and expose spiritual heart disease.  We’ve already examined the hard heart, the deceitful heart, the bitter heart, and the broken heart, and we’ve learned something of Dr. God’s prescription for healing these heart diseases.  But now it’s time to move away from spiritual heart disease and consider the healthy heart.  And a healthy heart is a merry heart.  Hear the word and wisdom of the Lord in the Proverbs … (read the text).

A joyful heart!  A rose by any other name would smell as sweet: a joyful heart, a happy heart, a cheerful, glad, rejoicing heart, and as King James translated it, “a merry heart.”  All good words—adjectives with a smile on their face, a chuckle in their throat, and a dance in their step.  The joyful heart is good for what ails you.  No wonder the Proverbs calls the joyful heart “good medicine.”

Ask Robert Reid.  Though stricken with cerebral palsy and confined to a wheelchair, he moved to Portugal in 1972 to serve as a missionary.  He served there until 1983.  He employed a tutor to teach him the language.  He distributed gospel tracts in a public park.  He engaged people in conversation.  He even married a Portuguese woman named Rosa.  He helped lead 190 people to Christ and made an impact on numerous churches.  Today, in his old age, he lives in his childhood home of Abilene, Texas, and focuses most of his missionary efforts on prison ministries.  On one occasion, he was asked to speak to a group of pastors and missionaries.  They lifted his wheelchair onto the platform.  A friend laid his Bible in his lap.  The audience watched his stiff fingers force open the pages.  It was obvious the sympathetic crowd genuinely felt for him in his disabilities.  Reid could have played for sympathy or pity, but he did something very different.  He raised his bent hand up in the air and declared, “I have everything I need for joy.”[1]

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

Though the disabilities Reid suffers have crushed the spirits of some, they didn’t crush Reid’s.  The good medicine of a joyful heart is just what Dr. God prescribed to lift Reid to joy.

I

Who doesn’t want joy—or, as the world frames it, happiness?  Didn’t Thomas Jefferson suggest that, along with life and liberty, one of the inalienable rights given to us by our Creator is “the pursuit of happiness”?  People certainly pursue it.  Some think they can spend their way to happiness, divorce their way to happiness, indulge their way to happiness, or drink and drug and gamble their way to happiness, only to find that the happiness they gain is temporary, fleeting, and back-loaded with buyer’s remorse.  But it doesn’t keep people from trying. 

Since the mid-90s there’s been a lot of happiness research.  Who are the happy people?  What makes people happy?  Where do the happiest people live?  A lot of research.

A study from 2011 found that Americans are most happy between the ages of—get this—75 and 79. It also found that Americans are unhappiest between 40 and 44. Can anyone say ‘midlife crisis’?[2]

Other studies have found that some of the things that most contribute to happiness are these: giving, serving, forgiving, faith, gratitude, strong relationships.  Happy people also avoid “if only” fantasies (like, “If I only had more money or a better job or better health or a better spouse or whatever”).  And happy people allow themselves to be happy.[3]  They don’t live with some sort of martyr’s complex that thinks they don’t deserve to be happy or to have joy.  No, they choose to be happy.  They allow themselves to be happy.

And a 2013 study found that many of the world’s happiest people live in Northern Europe, with countries like Finland and Denmark right near the top and Norway coming in number one.  Oh, and in case you’re interested, the United States ranked number 11, just behind that burgeoning super-power Luxembourg.[4]  And in terms of the United States, guess which state ranked number one in happiness—no big surprise here, Hawaii.  And guess where Arkansas ranked: 45.[5]  Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with how disappointing Razorback football has been the last couple of years.  If ever a state needed a sermon on the joyful heart, it must be us. 

These studies make clear that people pursue happiness.  They want joy.  And I’d suggest that this very human desire is a reflection of the image of God in our lives.  Since Adam and Eve first bit in the garden and brought down sin on their heads and ours, this desire for joy has been corrupted.  People often chase joy in things and ways that are opposed to God and far from God.  But the pursuit of that joy is rooted in the fact that we are all created in the image of God, and God is full of joy.  God takes delight in His creation (Gen. 1:31).  God works in us, “both to will and to do for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).  Hebrews 1:9 says that God anointed Jesus with the oil of gladness.  Jesus himself declared in John 15:11, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”  And in Galatians 5:22, Paul writes that part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit is joy.  God is no cosmic sad sack, no celestial killjoy.  And His Son Jesus is more than “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”; He’s a bundle of joy.  And the Holy Spirit does more than convict of sin; He brings armloads of joy into the life of a believer.  Our pursuit of joy stems from the image of God in our lives. 

Dallas Willard described a scene he witnessed in South Africa in which he walked over a rise near the seashore and caught a view of the ocean that took his breath away.  It was so incredibly beautiful and glorious.  It stirred a profound joy in Willard’s heart as he enjoyed the view.  Willard goes on to say that while he rarely sees such views, God sees them all the time.  While we take joy in the colors and movements of little fish in an aquarium, God has seas full of them, and they are ever before Him.  Willard concludes, “All of the good and beautiful things from which we occasionally drink tiny droplets of soul-exhilarating joy, God continuously experiences in all their breadth and depth and richness.”  No wonder Willard calls God “the most joyous being in the universe.”[6]  And because we are made in God’s image, God has tucked that seed of joy in our hearts.

God has tucked it into the Bible too.  Joy is a predominant description of the Christian life.  The noun occurs 58 times in the New Testament alone.  The verb rejoice occurs 73 times.  And joy and rejoicing are rooted in another New Testament word: grace.  Because we are graced by our God of joy, we can be joyful too.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

II

There are plenty of crushed spirits around, so why don’t we take our medicine—the medicine of a joyful heart.  And it is medicine.  In India, laughter is made a form of medical therapy through “laughing clubs.”  The first one opened in the mid-90s and hundreds more since then.  In the 1990s in Bogota, Columbia, the mayor had to deal with increasing episodes of road rage.  People were getting killed.  You know what the mayor did?  He dressed the traffic cops in clown costumes.  Much to everyone’s astonishment, the experiment worked.[7]  Laughter is good medicine.  Laughing reduces stress.  Why do you think there’s a category of laughter we call “the nervous laugh”?  Because it at least momentarily breaks tension and reduces stress.  Why do you think that when I preach on touchy, stress-y subjects like money and marriage I use a little humor?  Why do you think during occasional tense discussions in meetings, I employ a witty comment here and there?  To reduce tension and lighten a moment.  Laughter is good for you.  It even provides exercise.  Laughter works both facial and abdominal muscles.  It burns calories.  It lifts heavy hearts.  It usually leaves a feeling of serenity in its wake.  And laughter is no stranger to the person with a joyful heart.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

III

In the record of Christian history, we discover that numbers of Christians have taken this medicine to heart.  The first Christians were so joyful they were accused of being drunk.  The first Franciscans had to be reproved for laughing in church because they were so happy.  During the Reformation the reformed church set Christian lyrics to tunes they borrowed from the barroom.  The first Methodists stole some of their hymn-tunes from operas and set the songs of Zion to dance music.

My God, I am Thine; what a comfort divine
What a blessing to know that Jesus is mine!
In the heavenly Lamb, thrice happy I am
And my heart it doth dance at the sound of His name.

The first Salvationists danced.  In fact, they jumped with joy.  General Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, told them that if they felt the Spirit move them they could leap in a hymn or a prayer.  They leapt all right.  One Dr. Farmer, a very prim and proper organist at a large church in England, used to tell how he adjudicated at a great music festival, and he heard a Salvation Army band in action for the very first time.  His most educated musical soul was offended both by the drummer and the man with the French horn.  He appealed to the drummer not to hit the drum so hard, to which the beaming bands-man replied, “Oh, sir, I’m so happy I could burst the blessed drum!”  When Dr. Farmer turned with a similar appeal to the man with the French horn, the man held up the much-twisted instrument and said, “But sir, I’m so full of joy I want to blow this thing quite straight!”[8]

And in the Great Awakening joyful outbursts were common and sometimes considered proof of one’s salvation.  When one had the “falls” he let out a scream of repentance, fell suddenly to the floor where he lay mute and motionless for a time and then returned to consciousness with a “heavenly smile.”  The “rolling” exercise was another outburst of joy in which one seized by the spirit of joy would roll over every obstacle (pews, stumps, or logs) until his spirit was calmed (thus the term “holy roller”).  The “holy dance” was late in arising and early in declining, but for a while it was considered an apt expression of praise and joy in which during a worship service one would go into a monotonous dance pattern keeping rhythm with a lively tune.  (I saw this happen in worship in Jamaica).  And then there was even the “holy laugh,” a soft, audible, rhythmic tone which young people found irresistible.  And because of its quiet nature, it outlasted other exercises of joy—the “holy laugh.”[9]  A few years ago, this “holy laugh” made a re-appearance in the Toronto revival.

Through our Christian history, joy has found a way to bubble up from the soul in any number of expressions.  And it’s provided some good medicine for the church.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

IV

Sadly, along the way, some Christians tried to squelch joy.  They seemed to assume that “a crushed spirit” was more godly than a joyful heart.  The renowned ancient St. John of the Cross advised believers to mortify all joy and hope, to turn “not to what most pleases, but to what disgusts” and to “despise yourself, and that others should despise you.”  St. Bernard habitually covered his eyes to avoid the beauty of Swiss lakes.  The Puritans, as H. L. Mencken once described them, were persons with a haunting fear that someone somewhere is happy.  Much of 20th century Protestantism worked diligently to avoid any levity or humor in their gatherings.  Legalistic Christians have always done more to steal joy than to give it, to crush spirits rather than cure them.  And the late columnist Erma Bombeck once famously penned a column in which she wrote about overhearing a mother in her church scold her small child for smiling at people in the pews around him.  He turned around and looked at the people behind him and just smiled.  The kid wasn’t doing anything disrupting—no crying, no whining, no fiddling with hymnals, no noise of any kind; he was just smiling at the people around him.  And his mother snapped this classic line at her little boy: “Stop that grinning!  You’re in church.”[10]  Really?  Don’t the world and the devil do enough to crush our spirits and steal our joy without the church piling on and giving such aid and comfort to the enemy?

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

V

So choose joy!  “But, preacher, my spirit is crushed.  And if you knew my circumstances, you’d realize there is no room for joy in my heart.”  Oh yes there is—because joy is not dictated by circumstances.  Joy is more about faith than about feeling.  We faith our way to joy.  If we couldn’t faith our way to joy, the Bible wouldn’t couch it as a command and teach us that joy is something we can choose.  The psalmist declared, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (118:24).  Choose joy!  To the Philippians Paul wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice” (Phil. 4:4).  Choose joy!  And to the Thessalonians Paul wrote, “Be joyful always” (1 Thess. 5:16).  Choose joy!  God wouldn’t command something He wouldn’t empower us to do.  Remember: part of the fruit of the Spirit is joy.  So when the Spirit is in your life, joy is in your life.  You have to lay hold of it in faith.  Paul did.  He wrote those commands to be joyful not from a beach resort in southern Italy; he wrote those commands behind prison bars in Rome.  Choose joy!

Sure, studies show that we can contribute to our happiness when we do things like give and forgive, serve others and cultivate healthy relationships, exercise faith and cultivate gratitude.  Those things help, but the source of the joyful heart is not in the things we do.  The source is in what God has done for us in Christ.  We can only find our deepest joy, joy that lasts, when we live in relationship with God—a relationship made possible because, as Hebrews teaches, Jesus, “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).  Don’t look for your joy in the world; find your joy in Jesus.  The world will break your heart; Jesus never fails.  Don’t look for your joy in circumstances.  Circumstances are fickle and changing all the time; “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).  Lean into Jesus and develop your relationship with Him.  The deeper you go into Jesus, the deeper your joy.  Like Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail, you’ll find a song even when bombs and bullets and battles are exploding all around you.  It may be the blues for a while, but it will be a song of Jesus’ faithfulness and love.  And if you can’t sing when your spirit is crushed, then remember God’s promises:

  • And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).
  • Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:39).
  • For this light and momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor. 4:17)
  • The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:18).
  • In this world, you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (John 16:33).
  • And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

Lay hold of the promises of God.  Speak God’s promises to your pain.  Take your burdens to Jesus.  Relax into the joy of the Holy Spirit in your life.  And in spite of your circumstances, joy will bubble up in your soul, and you may find yourself whistling in the dark.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

VI

It was Bible School as usual on that summer day so many years ago.  I had been visiting with various classes, and it was my time to sit down with the kindergarteners.  Usually, these visits became question and answer sessions.  And kids can ask some great questions.  More often than you’d think the youngest kids ask me about death.  So we were talking about that kind of thing, as much as we could on a kindergarten level.  I was trying to be as engaged as I could but that was a tough week.  On top of VBS every day and my regular preparations and responsibilities, as I recall I also had a couple of funerals that week for people I genuinely loved.  So not only was I already feeling rather crushed and pressed and dried in spirit, the conversation felt heavy too.  And that’s when a boy named Noah, a kid who didn’t have the easiest life in the world, spontaneously shot up his hand and in the most random of comments said, “My mommy taught me a song this week, and I want to sing it.”  And before I even gave permission, he stood up and broke into song—this song

I danced in the morning when the world was begun,
And I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun.
And I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth;
At Bethlehem I had my birth.

Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.

I danced for the scribe and the Pharisee,
But they wouldn't dance, and they wouldn't follow me;
I danced for the fishermen, for James and John
They came with me, and the dance went on.

Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.

I danced on the Sabbath, and I cured the lame;
The holy people said it was a shame.
They whipped and they stripped and they hung me on high.
And they left me there on the cross to die.

Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.

I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black;
It's hard to dance with the devil on your back.
They buried my body, and they thought I'd gone;
But I am the dance, and I still go on.

They cut me down, and I leapt up high;
I am the life that'll never, never die.
I'll live in you if you'll live in me;
I am the Lord of the dance, said he.

Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.

He sang the whole thing acapella and in key and with the most beatific smile on his face.  My eyes welled up.  I smiled too.  And in spite of a painful, pressured week, I kind of wanted … to dance.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.


[1]http://maxlucado.com/read/topical/peace-that-defies-pain/ and other internet sites.

[2]http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/12/age-and-happiness_n_4773484.html

[3]This kind of data is readily available on the internet through a google search “what makes people happy”  

[4]http://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherhelman/2013/10/29/the-worlds-happiest-and-saddest-countries-2013/

[5]http://info.healthways.com/wbi2013

[6]Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper, 1998), 62-64.

[7]I found this information on India and Colombia in Leonard Sweet, Learn to Dance the Soul Salsa (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 188-189.

[8]I am indebted for most of the material in this historical survey to a sermon by William Sangster cited in 20 Centuries of Great Preaching, Vol. XI (Waco: Word Books, 1971), 341-342.

[9]This Great Awakening survey is cited in Hugh Wamble, Through Trial to Triumph (Nashville: Convention Press, 1958), 42-43.

[10]Much of this historical survey is found in Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 31-33.

Let’s Have That Talk About Alcohol Prov. 20:1; 23:29-35

I was born smack-dab in the middle of the Baby Boom Generation.  My parents grew up during the Great Depression and my dad fought World War II.  But there’s another thing we baby-boomers have in common.  We grew up in an era where everybody smoked.  My parents smoked.  Their friends smoked.  We had ashtrays in every room—in fact, making an ashtray was a pretty common project in grade school art classes.  I remember my doctor checking me over on the exam table with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.  Nobody thought two things about it.  Cigarette ads o wned television: “I’d rather fight than switch!”  “I’d walk a mile for a Camel.”  “Welcome to Marlboro Country.”  “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”  There was no such thing as smoking and no-smoking sections in restaurants.  When I was a busboy at a local restaurant, part of my job was cleaning the ashtray after clearing the dishes from a table—I cleaned a lot of ashtrays.  I was around cigarette smoke for much of my life.  I have no clue how many packs I smoked second-hand across the years.

And growing up in the home of a family who attended a mainline church, it was also common in our home to see some beer in the fridge and some Mogan-David Wine in the cabinet.  On rare occasions, even a mixed-drink called a high ball was put together and consumed.  I never saw either of my parents drunk, neither drank much, my mom barely at all, but neither had any moral or biblical qualms about drinking a little alcohol now and then.

Somewhere along the way, smoking became a national sin.  Warning labels from the Surgeon General showed up on cigarette packages.  Television ads were removed from the air.  Cities started creating smoke-free zones.  Other than the loss of personal freedom involved and the way smokers are often treated like something less than human, I don’t mind these changes.  I can’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke.  But in spite of the fact that alcohol does way more damage to families and society than smoking, alcohol gets a pass.

Now, any historians in the congregation will be quick to say, “Alcohol hasn’t always gotten a pass.  Remember the Volstead Act—Prohibition?  It didn’t work.”  No, it didn’t.  People still got their booze, and the crime involved in making it happen made legends out of people like Al Capone and Eliot Ness.  And it even made good citizens criminals according to the letter of the law.  Whether those rip-roaring years of Prohibition have anything to do with alcohol getting a pass in today’s culture, who can say?  But alcohol—America’s drug of choice—sure does get a pass.

And the church doesn’t say much about it one way or the other anymore.  Catholic and mainline Protestant churches have never had much to say about alcohol.  But there was a day when conservative churches were all over it.  Listen to this excerpt from a Billy Sunday sermon called “Get on the Water Wagon.”

I am the sworn, eternal, uncompromising enemy of the Liquor Traffic.  I ask no quarter and I give none.  I have drawn the sword in defense of God, home, wife, children and native land, and I will never sheathe it until the undertaker pumps me full of embalming fluid, and if my wife is alive, I think I shall call her to my bedside and say: “Nell, when I am dead, send for the butcher and skin me, and have my hide tanned and made into drumheads, and hire men to go up and down the land and beat the drums and say, ’My husband, Bill Sunday still lives and gives the whiskey gang a run for its money.”[1]

When I joined the Baptist church in 1974, I noticed in the hymnal a copy of something called “The Church Covenant,” and there was a line in there about members agreeing to neither use alcohol nor sell it.  It was in the hymnal, but in all the years since, I never heard anybody talk about it except every now and then when a Youth Minister would warn kids to steer clear of it.  I never heard any pastor preach on it except when “drunkenness” was included in one of the sin lists in the Bible passage they were preaching.  I’ve been preaching most every Sunday since 1981, and I’ve only preached on it once—and that was on a Sunday night in 1992.

I

Sorry about that.  We should have had this talk before.  And as I was putting together this Front Porch Wisdom series, I sensed God leading me to have that talk today.  There’s not enough alcohol in the Bible to taste it, but there’s probably enough to at least get a whiff of it when you flip through the pages.  And a lot of it makes it difficult to build the case for total abstinence.

  • There are some places in Deuteronomy where the gift of wine is viewed as God’s blessing (7:13) and the absence of wine is viewed as a curse (28:39).
  • There’s the text in Ecclesiastes 9:7 about drinking wine with a merry heart.
  • And of course, there’s Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana.  Jesus certainly would have made it a lot easier on us Baptist preachers if He had turned wine into water.  But He didn’t.

I wish I could say that there is a proof-text in the Bible that calls for God’s people to abstain from alcohol, but there’s not.  There are plenty of verses that label drunkenness a sin and warn of the dangers of alcohol, but there are no verses that say drinking alcohol is always a sin.  I wish I could make a biblical case that there was, but I can’t.  Drinking alcohol is not always sinful, but it’s not always wise either.  It’s a matter of personal conscience like the foods we eat and the entertainment choices we make.  So we better be wise as we discern what’s best for us in this matter.  I invite you to open your Bible to Proverbs 20:1 and 23:29-35.  Solomon helps us here. 

And we need his help because nobody does a better job selling their product than companies that market alcohol.  They spend a fortune on enticing us to drink their products.  If your only basis of judgment concerning alcohol was magazine and television ads, you’d conclude that alcohol is essential if you want to hang out with pretty girls and handsome guys, if you want to be popular, if you want to be where the action is, if you want to live the happy life, if you want to taste the Rocky Mountains, if you want to be one of the most interesting people in the world.  “Hey,” says alcohol, “throwing back a few brewskies with your pals, well, it doesn’t get any better than this.”  That’s what alcohol says when it gets paid to say it.

But the truth paints a different story.  Alcohol is closely linked to crime.  Alcohol is involved in:

  • 40% of all violent crimes, including murder.
  • 37% of rapes and sexual assaults
  • 27% of aggravated assaults
  • 25% of simple assaults
  • And 36% of those in jail were under the influence of alcohol when they committed the crimes that put them there.[2]

And those statistics don’t count the cost to families and employers and communities who must deal with the consequences of alcohol use and abuse.  And none of this brings comfort to those whose loved ones were killed or disabled by some drunk driver.  Alcohol gets paid to say what a wonderful elixir of life it is and what happiness it brings.  But the larger truth is a different story, a tragic story of families, fortunes, jobs, and lives lost.

Solomon is getting at this larger truth when he tries to wise us up about alcohol.  Hear the word of the Lord … (read the texts).

The Surgeon General won’t put a warning label on alcohol, but Solomon does in these texts.

II

Alcohol is a mocker.  Alcohol makes fun of us and fools of us.  In my day it was Otis Campbell riding a cow through Mayberry, thinking he was on a horse—hilarious!  It was comedian Foster Brooks, doing monologues while he pretended to be drunk stuttering and stammering and tripping all over his tongue—hysterical!  It was Animal House and college kids doing things in their drunkenness they would never have done in their sobriety.  Well, slap my knee!  That’s all staged humor built on the fact that alcohol mocks us, ridicules us and makes us do ridiculous things.

But it’s not so funny in real life.  I remember a great uncle who used to sit in his chair and get drunk most every night—which would embarrass my aunt to no end.  I remember a cousin who in a drunken fit over his wife’s threat to leave him, tore up their home, embarrassed himself and his family, and left those of us who were trying to keep his wife safe, on pins and needles wondering when he would show up at our door and what he might do when he got there.  I don’t think I laughed even once during that ordeal.  Only alcohol was busting a gut. 

I experimented with alcohol for a few months in the middle of my senior year in high school.  Didn’t feel pressured to do it.  I decided I wanted to do it.  In the process, one of my friends got so drunk on cherry vodka that he puked all over himself and the Dairy Queen.  We cleaned that up, took him to a friend’s house to sober him up, and laid him the bathtub so if he puked anymore it would be easier to clean.  Shortly thereafter, even before I got serious about Jesus, I decided alcohol didn’t live up to the hype.  I didn’t like it anyway.  And I didn’t like what it did to me and to my friends.  I was breaking the law to do it and encouraging others to break the law to provide it.  I was a fool.  So I said, “I’m done with alcohol.”  Alcohol is a mocker.  All the supposed good times it creates don’t make up for that one bad time, because that one bad time could get somebody killed or maimed or a criminal record.  Alcohol is a mocker.  And in families where alcoholism lives, alcohol mocks those families for generations, breaking children’s hearts and creating a home that functions not as a haven but as a ticking time bomb.  Alcohol is a mocker.

III

Alcohol can lead us astray.  The choice to consume alcohol is a choice to give away self-control.  It’s a choice to put yourself in a position that is unwise, says Solomon.  Because alcohol breaks down inhibitions, hampers quality judgment, and destroys self-control, those who use it are essentially putting the keys of their life in alcohol’s hands and saying, “Take me where you want me to go.”  Would you put the keys of your life in the hand of a stranger you could not trust?  Then why would you put the keys of your life in the hands of alcohol.  You can’t trust alcohol.  You can’t be sure when to say when.  You can’t be sure what you’ll do under alcohol’s influence.  How many drinkers, when told what they did under the influence of alcohol, have said, “I can’t believe I did that”?  This is why Solomon says that “whoever is led astray by alcohol is not wise.” 

I don’t know about you, but I can lead myself astray enough without the help of alcohol, so why would I want to double-down by adding alcohol to the mix?  That’s just foolish, says Solomon.  Alcohol can lead us astray.

IV

Alcohol promises pleasure and delivers trouble.  It looks good there in the bottle or the glass.  It sparkles.  It foams.  It may even go down smooth on that first or second drink.  It promises friendship, happy times, liquid courage.  But in the end, it bites like a rattlesnake.  In chapter 23, Solomon catalogues what alcohol delivers.

  • It delivers “woe” — Ask anyone who ever woke up with a hangover.  “What was I thinking?”
  • It delivers “sorrow”“Did I really do that?  How could I have been so foolish?”
  • It delivers “strife” — Alcohol contributes to fights in bars and fights in the home.
  • It delivers “complaining” — over the mess alcohol makes of a life and a family.
  • It delivers “wounds without cause”“How’d I get that bruise?  How did I cut my head?”  And in the words of Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville:
I don't know the reason
I stayed here all season
Nothin' to show but this brand new tattoo
But it's a real beauty
A Mexican cutie
How it got here I haven't a clue
Wastin' away in Margaritaville.
  • It delivers “redness of eyes” — And if you drink long enough you’ll end up with yellow eyes, 20 or 30 extra pounds, a fried brain, and a liver that looks like Swiss cheese.
  • “Your eyes will see strange things” … Hallucinations are not that unusual for someone who is rip-roaring drunk.
  • “Your heart will utter perverse things” … People under the influence of alcohol will say perverse things they’d never say sober, and they will do sinful things they’d never do sober.
  • You’ll have the up and down sensation which can leave a drinker reeling with a spinning head and feeling sea-sick.  The initial buzz becomes a buzz saw.
  • You’ll dull your senses … You might get beat up but won’t feel it much because the alcohol numbs your pain in the moment … but the next day will tell a different story.

For some reason the alcohol peddlers forget to tell us this story when they’re pimping their product.  So, wise Solomon tells us the story instead.  Alcohol promises pleasure and delivers trouble.

V

And alcohol can enslave.  At the end of v. 35, Solomon writes, “When shall I awake?  I must have another drink.”  Did you get that?  I “must have.”  Alcohol can enslave.  Most drinkers don’t get that far, but plenty do.  They get to that place where they no longer choose to have a drink; they have to have a drink.  We call this alcoholism.  This is when alcohol becomes not a choice but an addiction, not a may have but a must.  This is when people drink to escape troubles, when they drink most every day, when they hide alcohol and sneak drinks when no one can see them.  And if you asked them to stop drinking for a month, they couldn’t do it.  They’ll say they can, but they can’t.  This is a problem drinker for sure, probably an alcoholic, certainly a person who “must have another drink.”  Alcohol can enslave.

If this describes you, you need to seek help.  You need Celebrate Recovery or A.A. or some group like that which helps you own your problem and gives you resources to overcome.  And you need the Lord.  The Lord will help you win this battle if you seek Him in the fight.  Jesus bore this sin on the cross.  Jesus bore this shame on the cross.  He can help you.  He doesn’t want you enslaved to alcohol; He wants you enslaved to Him.  Listen to Paul in Ephesians 5:18: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.”  Live under the influence of the Spirit, not alcohol.  Seek courage in Christ, not alcohol.  Seek freedom from worry and stress in Jesus, not a bottle of booze.  Seek joy in the Jesus the joy-giver, not a six-pack of beer.  Be enslaved to Christ—a good and wise thing.  Not to alcohol—a bad and foolish thing.   Alcohol can get in the way of responsible discipleship in our Christian walk.  The person who “must have another drink” lives for that drink, not for Christ.  “But I’d never become an alcoholic.”  Every alcoholic in the world has said the same thing.  The only way to be sure you never become an alcoholic is to never take that first drink.  That goes especially for those who may be genetically or environmentally disposed to such things.  Alcohol can enslave.  Wise people recognize this.

VI

The use of alcohol requires wisdom.  If it didn’t, it wouldn’t show up in the Proverbs.  Because the Bible does not forbid its use entirely, Christ-followers must exercise great wisdom here.  All Christ-followers won’t land in the same place on this matter.  And the Bible gives tea-totalers no leverage to condemn those who choose to take a drink now and then or those who as Paul told Timothy, take a little wine for the sake of their health (1 Tim. 5:23).  You and I can’t choose for anyone else; we must choose for ourselves.

I chose decades ago to abstain from alcohol.  I tried it and didn’t like it or what it did to my friends and me.  And once I got serious about Jesus, I thought abstention was my wisest choice.  Not because I thought taking a drink now and then was a sin, but for reasons like these: I didn’t want anyone to start drinking because they saw me drinking.  And if my children ever took up drinking it wouldn’t be because they learned it from me.  That’s my choice.  You’ve got to make yours.  (And let me say parenthetically that teenagers really have no choice: it’s against the law for you, and you haven’t accumulated enough wisdom to handle alcohol.  For you, drinking is a sin to avoid.)  But we adults do have choices to make, and we need to exercise wisdom in our choosing.

Years ago I came across someone’s reflection on the use of alcohol.  I offer it to you as a means for wise evaluation.  Have you ever known …

  • A man to lose his job because he drank too little?
  • A doctor to advise his patient, “Your chances to survive this surgery would be better if you were a drinker”?
  • An employer seeking a person for a responsible position to say, “Give me a drinker every time”?
  • A wife to explain, “My husband would be the best man in the world if he would only drink more”?
  • A husband to say, “My wife would be a better mother to our children if she spent more time in bars”?
  • A defendant in a courtroom to seek acquittal with the plea, “If I had been drunk I never would have done it”?
  • An insurance company to offer reduced premiums to drinkers?
  • A police chief to advocate more consumption of alcohol as a means of reducing crime?
  • Or a Christian to say, “I’d be a better person and a more convincing witness for Jesus if I just drank more alcohol”?

It really doesn’t take any great wisdom to answer those questions, does it?  Common sense and life experience answer those questions.  But only you can answer the larger question: in this alcohol-saturated culture, what’s the wisest choice I can make concerning my own use of such beverages?

I’m glad we finally had this little talk.  I’m thankful for the wise guidance of the Scriptures in this matter.  And as you make your choices, I just hope you’ll listen more to the Scripture than to the booze peddlers or the opinions of your pals.  Because as Solomon says in another place: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom …” (Prov. 9:10).    


[1]Lyle W. Dorsett, Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 181.

[2]https://ncadd.org/learn-about-alcohol/alcohol-and-crime

Preaching the Proverbs

Opened an email from a pastor-friend of mine this morning. He is putting together a study of the Proverbs. He asked if I had done much with that book over the years. I’ve read a jillion times. I’ve never preached through the book, but I’ve preached a number of Proverbs in other series across the decades.

Good things can come from preaching the Proverbs. What’s not to love about laying out biblical wisdom for the congregation? What can’t be gained by drawing a distinction between a foolish life and wise one. In a culture where self-help books sell like hotcakes, Proverbs might gain a hearing even among those who don’t follow Jesus.

And Proverbs can be flat out fun to preach. There are some rich images and pictures in the book that fire up the imagination. Metaphors and similes abound. Employing the image-rich language of the Proverbs in our preaching can help people see the sermon as well as hear it. Most practical situation in life find voice in the Proverbs. The preaching can be very down to earth. People can relate: “Yes, I get it. I’ve been there. That’s me.” There’s some good preaching to be had from the Proverbs.

But there are some challenges too. There is so little historical context. So much of Proverbs are collected “sayings” that are rooted in life experience but in no particular historical situation (other than the kingship of Solomon). That creates a more generic, free-wheeling feel to the Proverbs, which makes the bridge over the river that separates their time from our time a little shorter maybe.

Another challenge in preaching the Proverbs is the temptation to preach them as promises. They are not promises. They are conventional biblical wisdom that describe things as they are or at least tend to be in the general course of life: lazy people end up with empty hands while industrious people have what they need; children raised in the right way tend to walk in that way when they get old; live wisely and your life is likely to be stable, fruitful, and joyful, but live like a fool and reap disaster. It’s tempting to preach the Proverbs as promises. Don’t do it. Preach it as wisdom literature.

Another challenge in preaching Proverbs is working in the gospel.  I’m afraid I’ve not done as well at this in the past as I do now.  It’s easy to turn Proverbs into moralistic preaching that invites people to live life in their own strength instead of in the strength of Jesus. It’s easy in preaching Proverbs to stir in people a sense of “Hey, I can do that.” We’d be wise to avoid that approach to Proverbs.  I would encourage you in whatever proverb you teach or preach to show our incapacity to live wisely without Christ’s strength and presence. The wisest life is not enough to bring us into relationship with God and gain us heaven. We need Jesus. Keep that in your Proverbs preaching. And in a larger sense, use the Proverbs to demonstrate that Jesus is not only source of wisdom, he is its personification. Though wisdom is pictured as a lady in the Proverbs; the larger, better picture is wisdom as Jesus.

Like any book, preaching Proverbs has its blessings and challenges. But there is rich wisdom in the Proverbs God’s people need to learn and apply.

But how to get at it? Because there is no narrative plot to the Proverbs, some pastors preach through them thematically.  They gather up what various proverbs say about money, work, the tongue, marriage, parenting, integrity, laziness, etc., and they work through them that way. That seems to me more effective than a verse-by-verse approach.

Anyway, in the next couple of posts I’m going to share some of the attempts I’ve made at Proverbs.  No doubt you will do better than I.  Blessings as you teach this great book! May it lead to a wiser, more Christ-dependent congregation.