What does a preacher exist for? Why are preachers needed? I believe a preacher’s calling is to boldly declare God’s Word, and how God’s Word intersects with the challenges of our lives in the present time. This means, by definition, that a preacher is always preaching partly God’s Word and partly his/her own opinion. Does this seem upsetting in some way? The fact is it cannot be any other way most of the time.
For example, Jesus said we are to love our enemies. This is not a matter of opinion, it’s what Jesus clearly said. The question is, what does that mean for us today? That’s where opinion comes in. How are we to love our enemies? Who are our enemies? More directly, what would it mean for me as an individual Christian to decide to love Muslim extremists, who have stated clearly that their goal is to see me (and you) dead? How would that affect my decisions about whether or not to join the military, to support my country in war, etc.? (Because clearly it should, the question is how). What about the church’s mandate to love its enemies? As a church, should we make statements about war and peace, about politics, etc.? Is it possible to separate the words of scripture from real-life application? I don’t believe so. Understand, I’m not answering these questions right now, just asking them. And I intentionally chose a divisive topic to illustrate my point.
If in preaching the Word of God we always find personal applications that align perfectly with the values we already have, we are not digging deeply enough. Jesus’ Words were, if anything, offensive. He offended practically everyone at some point. This did not come from his strong pro-Republican or pro-Democratic political standpoint. It came from a “Kingdom of God” standpoint. He was not sold out to any political agenda because he was able to clearly discern the limitations of politics in bringing what is most needed — change to the hearts of individual men and women. Heart-change often begins with ideas that intrude upon the mind as foreign and basically unwelcome. For example, “Repent, for you are a sinner and lost without Christ.” Very difficult to hear and take to heart.
My goal in preaching is to increasingly challenge the hearer where they live, to shake people up a little bit, but I will never shake them in ways that I have not first shaken myself. I want to hear and apply the gospel to my life in the 21st century. I want to allow its sting to revive places of apathy, fear, and stubbornness in me. I want the fact that I’m a Christ-follower to have an impact on the way I think of war and peace, of sexual politics, of educational policies, of environmental issues. I want it to pervade my whole life. I have a long way to go. The easiest thing to do is “pick a position” and cling to it no matter what. It’s much harder to remain open to the Holy Spirit and carry a commitment to living out gospel principles in every way we can. That is what Christ calls us to do, and what I am committed to asking my people to reach for.
Note: Written before my own daughter's suicide attempt in June of 2011
Someone recently asked my opinion on what happens to those who commit suicide. Will they “go to hell?”
Before I give my take on this, I must start off by saying that no one but God has any business saying who goes to hell and who doesn’t. It’s not the church’s job, or any pastor or religious teacher’s job, to declare that any specific behavior puts someone on the fast track to hell. Show me a pastor or religious teacher (or institution) making declarations about who is going to hell, and I’ll show you a case of spiritual megalomania, since this assumes levels of knowledge no human being could possibly have.
Human beings (and most creatures) have a natural bent toward preservation of their lives. Any exception one could find to this would be just that — an exception — thereby proving that the rule is generally true. Certainly to commit suicide is to act against one of our most basic drives. But everyone understands this implicitly. The question is what is a proper attitude towards those who commit suicide, or attempt to?
I suggest that condemning these people to hell is not the proper attitude. I think the traditional church idea that suicide equals a trip straight to hell proceeds from three places.
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…it is the will to pray that is the essence of prayer, and the desire to find God, to see Him and to love Him is the one thing that matters. If you have desired to know Him and love Him, you have already done what was expected of you, and it is much better to desire God without being able to think clearly of Him, than to have marvelous thoughts about Him without desiring to enter into union with His will.
— Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
I wish that with a stroke of my “pen” (keyboard), I could cut out of people’s lives all the gangrene that they have accumulated by going to church all of their lives. As a pastor I am certainly not against going to church, but the longer I do this job, the more convinced I am that the church probably stands as frequently as a barrier between people and God as it stands as a beacon, pointing the way to life.
Religion, with all its insistence that it knows the way, often does not know anything at all. Knowledge itself is not inherently good or evil. Knowledge can be used to light the paths of those who stumble, or to bludgeon those who disagree with us, and is used far more often for the second than for the first.
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Pretty much everything I do involves teaching. And whether I am in a counseling session with someone, teaching a class at Spring Arbor University, or preaching a sermon, I have noticed that nearly everyone responds positively to perfectionism. Perfectionism is popular in America. (Perhaps other places too, but I’ve never really been anywhere else — well, okay, Mexico and Canada, but that’s cheating.) We positively exalt it. When I ask a class, or a client, or a congregation if they are perfectionists, hands shoot up like crazy. People think perfectionism is a good thing. Which is fine. Except that it’s not a good thing.
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I’ve been doing some reading lately that has got my mind in the right place. It has me realizing that politically, the right and the left are both pushing to build the American empire, just in different ways (which is why I bow out from both right and left). Most of the church wants to build the same empire and pronounce God’s blessing on it
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