Preaching and the Sanctified Imagination

One of the most wonderful things about teaching in a Bible College as a practitioner (I preach and teach in local churches regularly) is that my calling encourages me to reflect more critically upon my pastoral practices. Though my specialization for academia is in Old Testament and theology, I’ve been afforded the opportunities to be the preaching professor for five years now. This has enriched my life as a preacher immensely (whether the congregants have felt so is another issue).
One area that recently has caught my attention in a fresh way is the need for a sanctified imagination in the pulpit.
I know many folks have witnessed imagination in the pulpit, but this is not that. Though, to be sure, one cannot preach without imagination. The very act of preaching requires a movement beyond the text of Scripture even while it should flow from and to Scripture. To simply read the Scriptures is not necessarily to engage the imagination (though any good reading of a text should do so). To say anything beyond simply reading is to engage the imagination and offer something extra-textual. While the act of reading (and hearing) invites imagination we have too often considered ourselves as preachers to simply be saying what the Scriptures say in our preaching. But that would be to only read Scripture (and one might even argue that is still not the case). If we would preach, we must imagine that world as it was, as it is, and as it must finally be (e.g., see Walter Brueggemann’s, The Prophetic Imagination and The Practice of the Prophetic Imagination). Thus, my own reflections on the act of preaching lead me to conclude the act of preaching is an act of the imagination.
This does not mean a free-for-all imagining, but a sanctified imagination. If a preacher would preach Christ they must have a sanctified imagination.
A sanctified magination is one that has been immersed in, and is being transformed by, the Spirit through the Word. It is consumed with meditating on the Word. It sings, speaks, thinks, reads, prays, and then eventually preaches that Word. Such an imagination has found itself in the unbreakable grip of the Father’s love in Christ Jesus–a love that consumes the passions and will of the preacher.
Such a sanctified imagination cannot but declare the revelation of God in Christ. It cannot but speak of King Jesus saving, healing, and baptizing in the Spirit. Such a sanctified imagination sees the world of Scripture playing out before them in fresh ways. This sanctified imagination declares the kingdom of God even as it enacts it in the life of the Spirit-filled community caught in the midst of the world (and living for that world and its redemption).
My prayer for myself, my students and those to whom I share in the preaching of the Word is that our imaginations might increasingly be caught up into the sanctifying life, death, resurrection, and soon coming of Christ who makes all things new.

Where He Leads I'll Follow

The Winding Path - Leiden, Zuid Holland
The Winding Path – Leiden, Zuid Holland

I never cease being surprised by the many places the Lord will take those who follow his calling. One could never conceive what such a journey might look like. Following Jesus is an adventure.
As a newborn I was prayed over in the Block Memorial Chapel of Trinity Bible Institute (now College and Graduate School). I had been born just a few blocks away in the old hospital in Ellendale, North Dakota. A visiting evangelist prayed blessings over me that someday I might preach Jesus to many around the world.
As a sixteen year old, I heard the voice of Jesus calling me in a church service in Omaha, Nebraska, to give my life for the ministry of sharing Jesus among Muslims. I intended to go straight upon graduation to some far off land and figure things out en-route. Instead, I heard the words of a district youth leader in the Assemblies of God of Nebraska (who went on to serve in missions full-time) addressing the need to commit to training because the cost of serving Jesus demanded that I demonstrate faithfulness to study and be discipled  into the man of God I was called to be. So I enrolled at Trinity Bible College for their Missions Major.
After Trinity I pastored several churches in rural North Dakota and Minnesota over the course of 14 years. This was the result of hearing the call of the Lord to preach followed immediately by an unquenchable passion to do just that. I had not intended to be a preacher (or a pastor).  But Jesus had other plans.
I found myself preaching for youth conferences, family and youth camps, special services, and missions conventions around the region. And I could not help but preach Jesus wherever I found an open invitation. It has led to ministry among German Lutherans and Mennonites, Swedish Baptists, Norwegian and Romanian Pentecostals, and African diaspora on three different continents. I have preached under trees, in soup kitchens, on streets, in stone churches, and private homes. I have witnessed Jesus healing and setting free. I have shared Jesus among the poor of central Mexico and on the streets of El Salvador. I have fed the hungry, clothed the naked and visited the sick. I have joined the chorus of saints gathered from across Europe and Africa worshiping Jesus in northern Italy.
I now write as one who has been training workers for the Lord of the Harvest for 4 years in two colleges, one graduate school and one seminary (between two countries). I write this as one about to preach on “prayer and action” for a series of meetings in an African church in western North Dakota. Who could have imagined such a thing?
I write this as one who sees the great harvest before me. I am moved to weeping. I am compelled to preach. I am enjoined to prayer. I hear Jesus calling…where it takes me before he comes again, I don’t know.
But I will follow! And I gaze longingly into the future before me!

A Sermon No One Should Preach

David and GoliathI know it’s often easier to critique than to offer positive contributions, but I was just meditating again on the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. And I was remembering poor sermons I have heard over the years on this favorite Sunday School story (you know it’s fun when talking veggies have their own rendition). At the time, they seemed like poignant Biblically-based messages that spoke to my life, but as a pastor now (and wanting to be faithful to the intent of Scripture) they were simply atrocious (even when offering valuable points that have little if anything to do with the text’s intent itself).
So here’s one: “You need to slay the giants in your life!” The preacher begins to name those giants: pride, lust, fear, smoking-drinking-and-chew, and going-with-girls-who-do (or something like that). It’s animated. You bring to mind all the sins you have committed and all the potential challenges you may face in life. You swing your air sling, followed by a chopping motion…and now the head of victory is in hand. It’s powerful. You are ready for any altar call given. The problem is…it just isn’t the point of this story.
Another day, another preacher: “God has given you five stones to defeat your enemies!” The stones are rattled off with exaggerated booming-voiced, staccato-like gunfire. The giants from the last message won’t stand a chance. Your stones of faith, forgiveness, prayer, reading your Bible, and going to Sunday School (or something like that) are powerful weapons in the arsenal of any David looking to be victorious over the enemies of their soul. The problem is…this also is not the point of the story.
Yet another day and another preacher (indicating the rejection by David of Saul’s armaments): “Use what has been tested and proven!”- followed by six more points every David-like leader needs to know in order to succeed (you have to have at least seven to be a truly spiritual leader after all). The litany of kingdom-wise business bullet points is overwhelming. You know you will actually need to have a couple of pens just to take all of the notes, because this message is LOADED with truthiness. Again, not the point of the story.
Is there no end to the directions this favorite tale has been taken? What is the point anyways? Put simply, the LORD (the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…the God of Israel) is lord of all. The LORD will not be mocked. The LORD is truly God. The LORD is the champion of His people. The LORD will act to deliver through those whom the LORD chooses to anoint.* This is ultimately a story about the LORD.
So the next time you preach 1 Samuel 17…make sure you know the point of the story…and don’t just start loading your slingshot with whatever you find along the way, try using what is already there. You may be surprised what the LORD will do with His own word.
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* I just realized I gave five points…now that should go in my pouch for future slinging. 🙂
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Adapted from my post authored at bluechippastor.org on July 1, 2013.

Listening to the Spirit…Ahead of Time

Preaching CalendarI have a friend whom I remember visiting with about his preparations for preaching. He didn’t prepare. He would simply show up to the service a little early…play some worship music and “let the Spirit lead to whatever text the Spirit wants” and then he would go to the pulpit when it was time and preach “as the Spirit led.” (Or so his story to me went).
My version is, he was just being lazy about his preparations and study and not listening to the Spirit ahead of time. After all, the last I checked, the Spirit speaks if we will listen. My friend’s “prep” was bogus. And sadly there is a temptation among many pastors to do similar things and blame (er…”name”) the Spirit for their message. This can even occur when we are simply not giving ourselves to the faithful meditation of Scripture that God demands if we will truly desire to listen and be changed by this word to us. Pastors MUST prepare and be faithful persistent students of the Scriptures ever listening to the message God would speak to His Church.
But the Spirit IS speaking…are we listening? Are we planning and preparing in advance by attuning ourselves to the leading of the Spirit as we give ourselves to study the Scriptures and hear what the Spirit is saying to the church? Can’t the Spirit be involved in the preparations of a preaching calendar (especially if we actually believe the Spirit superintended the composition and compiling of the Scriptures)?
I personally “know” what I’ll be preaching for the next year or more at any given time (how NOT very Pentecostal of me 😉 )…and that’s for three different messages a week. For me, I’m currently doing Sunday AM through the Gospels and Epistles (alternating one Gospel and one or two Epistles…currently Matthew), Sunday PM in the Psalms (and currently with an interlude of Marriage video with discussions), and Wednesdays are OT books (currently Leviticus). But that is what I felt the Lord would have my congregation to do for this time. This way I can look down the road and see where I believe the Lord may be leading us and try to attune myself and my congregation’s ears to hear what the Spirit is saying.
So my question to you pastor is: Are you taking time and energy to lay out a preaching calendar and begin your preparations on messages BEFORE the few days you are due to preach? I’m not talking about writing out every detail, but are you taking time to discern just where your congregation might need to go in Scripture over the next month, several months, or year?
If so, what have you found helpful for such preparations? Pre-selected topics? Pre-selected texts? Church calendar days for particular messages or series?
The Spirit is speaking…are you listening?
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Originally blogged by myself at bluechippastors.org on February 1, 2013.
DISCLAIMER: While I do not preach this regularly in my current ministry, I still plan out my preaching calendar well in advance: enough so that I know what I will still be preaching about 6 months out for the services I have booked at camps, conferences, and churches. For this, I have found great help in a regular Bible reading plan as well as making good use of the Revised Common Lectionary.

A Little Reading for 2016

HermeneuticsAs I look to the coming years and what the Lord might allow me to do, I like to plan ahead what I might be able to read. The types of things which give direction to my choice of books are the projects I’m currently working on (or interested in potentially working on) and, now that I’ve been teaching, those subjects which I have and will teach. For whatever it is worth, I always welcome reading recommendations (but know that my Amazon wishlists contain somewhere in the vicinity of 300+ titles already 🙂 ). So here are a few of the volumes I will be reading in 2016 to be “discipled” further in several areas.
Hermeneutics
Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
Bartholomew, Craig G. Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Framework for Hearing God in Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015.
Ricœur, Paul. Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976.
Ricœur, Paul. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action, and Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Preaching
Alcántara, Jared E. Crossover Preaching: Intercultural-Improvisational Homiletics in Conversation with Gardner C. Taylor. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015.
Witherup, Doug. Interrobang Preaching: A Renewed Homiletic for the Twenty-First-Century Church. NC: Witherup, 2014.
Theology (just for fun)
Diller, Kevin. Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014.
Isgrigg, Daniel D. Pilgrimage into Pentecost: The Pneumatological Legacy of Howard M. Ervin. Tulsa, OK: Word & Spirit Press, 2008.
Spencer, Archie J. The Analogy of Faith: The Quest for God’s Speakability. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015.
So what books are you scheduling to read in the next year to develop in specific areas of your life and calling?

Preaching Christ and Helping Marriages

Love and Respect
Love & Respect (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Marriage seminars and sermon series are all the rage. Churches seem to offer a regular smorgasbord of options intended to strengthen the family, but are we doing what we were intended to do? Is it the local church’s responsibility to provide marriage counseling? Is it the church’s duty to detail the nature of inter-personal communication and conflict resolution?*
I know these questions are provocative. They are questions I wrestle with regularly. And I do so even as I am specifically offering a marriage series on Sunday nights (the “Love and Respect” Small Group study**). I do believe the local church must offer helps to its congregants and to the local community, but is it perhaps overly easy to fall into attempts at psychological answers in place of Biblical answers? I firmly believe the church (my congregation included) MUST strengthen families through every means available, but the question remains…where do we say that the Church MUST be the place where God’s Word is proclaimed and lived out and not simply another tool. Where the Scriptures function as more than a crutch to our marriages, but functions as the transformative, life-giving message of God’s Spirit changing and conforming us into the image of God.
It is far too easy (as Eugene Peterson pointed out in “The Pastor: A Memoir”) to fall into offering helps that are not the direct purview of the Church or the pastor. It is easier in some sense to speak to the psychological and social issues involved and offer such models for resolving conflicts, or improving the well-being of our congregants, but (while these can be incredibly beneficial) do such things belong to the direct responsibility of the local church? Can we offer such helps (as in some sense para-church outreaches), even while retaining our primary responsibility of preaching Christ crucified, risen and coming again as the grounds for our daily lives? I am persuaded that the good news says much about our relationships, but do not want to put undo emphasis where it does not belong. I guess what I’m asking is, should the task of preaching be to offer marriage seminar-like messages…or does it need to be something more? Messages where Christ is central and marriage peripheral.
If so, how do we maintain the centrality of the story of God’s redemption of creation in Christ, while still offering helps which do not belong centrally to that message, but may still be vital to the overall health of our churches?
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* Disclaimer: I offer pre-marital counseling, marriage counseling, family counseling, have preached (and will continue to) on issues of the family and marriage (as a matter of following the text of Scripture we are working through and not as a separate series), and offer specific events targeting families, marriages, singles, and parenting.
** I highly recommend this series for its helpfulness.
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Originally published by myself at bluechippastor.org on Jan. 21, 2013.

A Fairy Tale Parable

CastleI enjoy and encourage creativity in my classes and it delights my heart to witness students expressing themselves through the various gifts God has given them. One of my Advanced Preaching students (Paige Koch) shared a homespun parable told as a fairy tale for the introduction to her sermon today and I thought it was simply too good not to pass along. So I asked her if I might share it. Enjoy!

Once upon a time there was a princess who lived in a kingdom that she could not call home. See her prince had come and saved her when she was nothing but a mere peasant. She wasn’t born of royalty like snow white or sleeping beauty but she was born into filth and darkness. As she grew up she would look out her window and see the princes’ castle and dreamed that one day he might notice her. But she banished those thoughts off quickly for she knew that a girl like her would never catch the princes’ eye. For she knew the law and knew that she was dirty and so unworthy to even be allowed in his presence.
But one day the prince came down and visited the small town and as he walked the streets he noticed the girl in filthy rags and the hurt in her eyes. And as he saw her He was drawn to her and he wanted a relationship with her. He knew that she wasn’t royalty and by his laws he couldn’t even allow her to stand in his presence. But he decided that he wanted a relationship with her no matter the cost. So He paid the price the law demanded in order to have that relationship with her.
He wanted to save this girl from the world she had been born into. For he knew that there was a better world for her that he could provide. After he paid the ultimate price he began to have a relationship with this girl. He would talk with her and listen to her. He had compassion on what she had gone through and eventually he asked her to marry him. She of course said yes and was rescued from the filth and darkness that she had known her whole life.
But that’s not where the story ends though she was rescued from the darkness and filth and now lives inside the kingdom gates life wouldn’t be as easy as she thought.  For the prince had to leave for a short time. See he had to prepare a place for her in his castle.  So he bid her a far well and promised her that her new home would be like nothing she could imagine and that he would return for her quickly. He told her to be patient for his return but to be a guard for he will come swiftly to take her home.
The years passed by as she waited for her prince to come back and she lived among the kings people and learned there ways. She learned to dress like them and talk like them but as the years passed by the kingdom grew dark. Fights broke out worse then she had ever seen, the kingdom was falling apart around her, taxes were being raised, people put to death unjustly, liars were rising up and perverting the prince’s name. And the kingdom was in panic but she knew not to worry for her prince had promised her that he would be back to take her away to her new home.
She knew that this wasn’t her permanent home. She knew that her prince would be coming back to finish the job he had started so long ago. She knew he would keep his promise even if it seemed to be taking him so long. For she had faith that if he could save her from her filth and darkness she once knew  that he would finish saving her from this new trouble that had arisen. So the princess waited for the prince to rescue her again.

Changing Media Living Message

changesI often hear complaints (and have offered my own) about movies not being like the book and just how much better the book was by comparison. This may be true enough, but perhaps what we are latently getting at suggests we simply do not understand how changing media automatically changes the message.  I wrote the following comment on a friends blog review of the film “Noah”(you should really read his review):

“…changed media ALWAYS alters the message and its fullest (or limited) contents in some fashion. This is true of preaching (though we don’t want to admit it). This is true of lectures, Sunday School lessons, etc. It is true of translations. It is most definitely true of films. Altered media, altered message (at some level). Some are truer to intent, some less. Some downright intentionally change, some ignorantly, some faithfully offer a harmonizing understanding, but all changes alter the message in some fashion.”

Perhaps some examples of what I am talking about might be helpful with regard to the changing media of Scripture:

  • Commentaries – While I did not mention this one in my comment to my friend, it is still worth mentioning. Commentaries on Scripture alter the message by offering (it is hoped) a reading of the text for clarification. Some are more intentionally rooted within the theological traditions of the Church (the Brazos series), others offering contemporary significance (NIVAC series) as part of the explanation. But by explaining the text, the text is altered. It is not offered without comment. To comment is to change. Whether this is for the better (as in clarifying what the intent really was) or worse (changing the intent altogether) remains to be seen.
  • Sermons – Like commentaries, sermons offer an explanation of the text. To preach a text of Scripture is to alter it. Some portions of the text are given greater emphasis. Some less (or none at all). A preacher also selectively chooses only a portion of the text thus already stripping context even while the faithful preacher includes descriptions of context to attempt to locate the passage within its original context. But still…a sermon alters the message…sometimes accidentally, sometimes purposefully…but always alters. (Lectures also fit this category).
  • Translations – The oft-quoted Italian proverb/pun is fitting: “Traduttore tradittore” (“the translator is a traitor”). To translate is to alter. Some are more faithful, some less. Some offer greater conceptual faithfulness, others word-for-word faithfulness. But all sacrifice something in offering translations. (HERE is a brief explanation of three general philosophies of Bible translation)
  • Canon – To read the Scriptures as a part of the canon is to alter the reading of Scripture. The various texts and books of Scripture were not a part of a finished work, but were created independently (sometimes interdependently), but it is not as if the human writers colluded on writing one book of many different sections (though the Spirit is confessed to have superintended and inspired the whole as parts and whole). For example, to read or hear the Old Testament as a Christian is to hear the Old Testament through the Lord Jesus Christ as God’s plan for the ages. This alters the message. To join the sixty six books of the Protestant canon together is to alter the message (and likewise for the various canons of the other streams of the Church).

To be clear, what I am NOT stating is that somehow in altering the message we have automatically been unfaithful to the One who has given us this testimony of grace. The Spirit enlivens the text to bring about preaching, teaching (commentaries/lectures), translations, and canon. The retelling of the story of Jesus in preaching might be yet more faithful to the intent of our Lord in the moment of preaching than in simply reading the original language in the study.
Let me go one step further: the message of Scripture is altered when it is applied by the illumination of the Spirit to us. The words are driven home in different ways than when read. Some facets are illuminated while others remain shrouded.
And still further: the obedience of the message alters the message by not simply rote mimicry, but by faith-filled Spirit enabled listening and following. And this is the will of God for us. It is true to His intent for us in this moment, even while altering the original media form. Indeed, His word is living and active! To those with ears to hear…

Bookshelf Callenge: Week 3

2014-01-20 13.00.05Sadly, I only added a single volume this last week.
Andy Stanley and Lane Jones, Communicating for a Change (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2006).
Stanley and Jones have done a wonderful job of communicating the need to be on point about preaching. This is an easy read and very practical for working toward owning your sermon as your own and being able to share it in a way that is both memorable and applicable.