Spending Some Time at the Buffet

Through the years, I have encountered numerous people who have said that they needed to stop serving at the Church so that “they could be fed.” In the early days of my ministry, I would nod and smile as if this made perfect sense. After several years, I started asking a question in response, “Who do you think feeds me?”

Most of the time, I am greeted with a blank stare. I remind them that I rarely hear a sermon on Sunday morning because I am always preaching. I ask, “How do you think I keep growing in my faith?”

The usual response is anger and frustration. They tell me, “It’s my job.” They say they are busier than I am. They used to say to me that they had been serving longer than I have been alive. There was a long list of reasons why my spiritual growth does not count, and there is definitely no need for comparison. This reaction is because I called their bluff. They simply wanted to quit serving so they could spend more time on selfish pursuits. It had nothing to do with “needing to be fed” and was more about wanting to do something else.

I still pose the question to you, “How do preachers get fed spiritually?”

The first answer is that we learn to feed ourselves. One mark of maturity is the ability to take care of yourself. To read, study, and learn on your own. The second answer is to go out to eat. Go to places outside of Sunday morning that feeds your soul.

While you are reading this post, I am traveling about four hours to a conference so that I can spend time at a spiritual buffet. There will be powerful speakers, incredible stories, and personal connections that will fill me to the point where I feel I am going to explode. I will bring back stories, notes, and notebooks full of ideas. These two days will propel me through Christmas and into the new year.

Personally, I attend at least one conference every year as one of the ways I feed myself spiritually. There are similar opportunities for men, women, couples, youth leaders, children’s teachers, and even worship leaders. Maybe if you are feeling empty in an area of your life, you should consider going to a conference. I know I need it, and perhaps you do too.

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A Strategy for Growth in Your Faith

What is yours?

You need one. Everyone does.

I am not here to give you one, because the best one is the one that works for you. That might include getting up early, staying up late or skipping lunch to provide time in some form of Bible study. The kind of the study may range from listening to a podcast, reading a devotional, to just walking through the Bible a chapter at a time. Your journey through the Bible might just be the New Testament or the whole Bible or some type of hybrid daily plan. You can read it or listen to it if reading is not your thing.

It doesn’t matter how you do it; you must try something.

There will be a lot of dead ends and failed plans, but each one will lead you closer to something that does work.

One of the founding fathers of our movement of Churches used to keep a bucket of ice water beside the table where he spent time in his study. Every time he started to nod off, he would dip his head in the icy water and go back to reading with his eyes wide open. It’s not my thing, but it worked for him.

The flip side of this idea is worth noting. You will never grow without a plan. You will never back your way into spiritual maturity. It takes work, and the work needs a plan.

Your spiritual growth problem is your fault. Own it. Then find a way to work around your setbacks. Develop a new strategy and move on. A lack of maturity in your faith can usually be traced back to a lack of planning, not a lack of tools.

Helping People Who Are Struggling Emotionally

I am not a doctor, but I play one on TV. That is a line I remember from a childhood commercial. In other words, I have no idea how to be a real doctor, but I am a good actor. Nowadays I think the line should be. “I am not a psychologist, but I play one online.” Every day I read all kinds of psychobabble floating around social media. Most of it means well as we want to understand our world, our friends, and even our actions. The problem is that they are armed with a little knowledge and have no idea how to use it.

I once had a conversation with a doctor, and he told me the biggest frustration in his profession was the internet. Everyone who came into his office had read several articles online, and they were sure what was wrong with them. He told me, and they are almost always wrong. What makes it worse is that some people already start treating themselves without really knowing the problem. The line he used, as best I can remember it, was, “You go to at least eight years of medical school for a reason.”

We live in a society full of information, and I hope we keep learning, but frequently I encounter people who have made a wrong diagnosis about their friends. So today I want to make a couple of suggestions on how to handle the people around you who are struggling.

  1. Listen. The single most significant thing you can do for most people is to listen to their problems. They do not need a diagnosis or a solution. They need someone to listen.
  2. Learn. Pay attention as you listen. You will be amazed by what you can learn about people. More than once, I have seen people emotionally breakdown because someone remembered something they said or did.
  3. Lead. Most people are not looking for advice; they are looking for a companion. They want someone to help them on their journey through a difficult time. Your online post about the trouble with narcissistic behavior is way less helpful than inviting that person to help you serve others. Show them the way to a better life.
  4. Love. Once again, you do not need to have profound psychological insights into the mind of the suffering. You just need to love the people who are hurting. You need to stand beside those who need a friend. You need to help guide those whose lives have gone off track. Finally, you need to let them know you care when all others have turned away.

The other night I was scrolling through my social media feeds, and I was troubled by the repeated things that people share, like and give approval in that setting. We have somehow all become experts at things of which we have no idea. Just like you should not perform surgery because you have read some stuff on WebMD, it is not helpful to psychoanalyze people because you saw a meme that you find applicable.

If you as a believer want to make a difference in the world, then my suggestion is that you listen, learn, lead, and love as Christ would do for someone. These may not always work, but they will be far more helpful than most of the stuff I see.

A Sermon Series and Preacher After 20 Years

Currently, I am preaching through the book of Ecclesiastes. This is not the first time preaching through the book in my ministry. It is officially the second trip through those twelve chapters about the meaning of life. My first exploration through it was 20 years ago. It was so long ago that I had handwritten notes for each sermon that were then put in a manila folder and placed in a big metal filing cabinet. For my new series, I went back and pulled out the file and looked over each sermon. When I did this, I noticed a few things.

  1. God’s word never changes. Many of the things I said 20 years ago are still 100% correct because they were based on God’s eternal word.
  2. A sermon that honors God’s word is timeless. Now, I did not preach those old outlines and sermons, but I could have done it. The structure was sound, and the words were valid.
  3. I have changed tremendously. While the original sermons were fine, my insights and applications have adjusted through the years. When you are 27 years old with a newer marriage and a couple of small children the world looks different than it does to a 47-year-old with 25 years of marriage and four boys who are almost adults.

I am continually reminded of the Biblical image of God being the potter, and we are the clay, but I also like the idea that I am iron, and God is shaping me with each pound of his hammer. Both of those images fit my life so perfectly. Sometimes God has molded my life with gentle hands on my soft clay, and other times he has hit me repeatedly to get me to change my shape.

As I look back over my life, I am amazed at the things that have changed without my noticing. My words are different, my heart is softer to certain things and tougher with others, and my knowledge of God and life has expanded with every passing year. My prayers are less desperate, and my faith is firmly established. I have gone from being a kid who embraced the reckless love of God to a middle-aged man who holds tightly to God’s unchanging nature. Twenty years of molding and shaping by the master have made me a different person, and I barely noticed until I opened that file.

For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord, there is this unseen hand making us into the image of God. Most of us lose sight of that until we pull out the old files and look back at old pictures of ourselves. I think one healthy practice for all believers is to spend a few minutes thinking about who you used to be and who God has made you into today. The sermon is still true, but the person delivering it is not the same.

How We Measure Spirituality

I watched a Church leader webinar last week with one of my former college professors named Mark Moore. In the middle of his teaching about how to get the Church to engage the Bible, he stopped and made a statement that I immediately wrote down and want to share with you today. He said, based off his own experience alone and no other research, he has determined that we measure spiritual maturity among believers by four criteria.

  1. Doctrine
  2. Morality
  3. Experience
  4. Social Justice

Each of these is relatively self-explanatory but let me say a word or two. Doctrine is about believing a specific set of teachings. This may vary from group to group, yet there is always adherence to that group’s teaching. Second is morality, and that is best understood as living a life without the things we classify as ungodly. This can range from the way we dress to the things we put in our bodies. The third is experience, and that is about our feelings. It is hard to measure because each person’s experience might be different, but the common thread is that our faith produced some encounter we cannot explain without God. Finally, there is social justice, and this is described as caring for any social issue. This can range from fighting poverty to working in political fields for change.

Mr. Moore described these as the four essential measuring tools that every believer and Church uses when it comes to spirituality. Then he said something I find fascinating. He asserted that no believer and no Church focuses on more than two at a time.

If this is true, it explains so much to me and hopefully to you. This explains why each Church does what they think is important. This is why some believers, even in the same Church, can have such different approaches to faith. One person is concerned about social justice mixed with experience, and another is all about doctrine with morality. These two people struggle to get along because they have different tools to measure faith. I think the implications for the Church are limitless.

So, let me ask you today, which two of these do you think are the most prominent measures of faith? Once you have yours firmly established in your mind, start asking other people there two. See where you are alike and where you are different. This might help you to understand your friends, other believers and the Church with which you are connected.

A Sermon That Only You Can Preach

In college, one of my professors defined a sermon as “speaking the word of God through our personality.” I have never forgotten that definition because it felt so wrong and right all at the same time. The primary goal of all preaching and teaching in the Church is to communicate God’s will through the explanation of his word. Also, my experience had taught me that the person speaking brought their personality and past to each sermon.

This lesson was learned in the early days of preaching. I would hear an excellent sermon from someone else, and then I would try to replicate it. Every time I tried this maneuver, it fell flat. People could listen to the lack of wisdom in my voice and see that it was not my personality but an attempt to be someone else.

Through the years, I have learned to develop my voice. When I talk about marriage, I have 25 years of ups and downs to draw upon for material. My sermons on theology now have years of Bible reading under my belt. Whatever I say about prayer is the result of hitting my knees repeatedly and talking to God. I speak what I know about God through my personality as forged by my life experience. As a result, every time I stand up to speak, I share words that only I can say.

The same is true for each one of us. God has been shaping your life through the years even without you noticing it. The potter has made you into his beautiful masterpiece by using pain, pleasure, and your overall life experience. The conclusion is that you have a message to share with the world that only you can speak. What you have been through can help someone else. Your growth through seasons of pain will be a guide for other people walking a similar path. Your personality will click with some people and help them to understand God better. You are a sermon that you can give to the world, and only you can preach it.

When People Roll Their Eyes

I was talking with a Church member about some activities and events that were taking place in our faith and local community when something happened. The name of a particular person was brought up, and a question was asked about their participation. The response was a simple, “They are a part of this Church,” and then they rolled their eyes. We both smiled, and the conversation went forward with no more discussion.

That one eye rolled said everything without saying anything. Neither of us was being judgmental nor mean. We did not speak ill or that person, and we were in no way spreading malicious stories. At the same time, we both acknowledged the truth on a deeper level.

When someone rolls their eyes, it is a statement of “don’t pay any attention to them.” That means this person says things that are usually proven to be untrue. In other words, they say they are a part of our Church, but there is no evidence to support that claim.

This encounter made me smile and hurt and think all at the same time. For me, I like to take ideas and flip them over to see them from another angle. I immediately wondered, “What do people roll their eyes about when they talk about me?” What is there in my life that I claim true and everyone knows it is not, but no one says a word?

Christian integrity is about doing what you say you believe. Your words and actions need to be in complete harmony. I wonder, “Where are the gaps in my life I am missing?” If I could see people talking about me, at what point do they roll their eyes. This is most likely the place where my life needs attention as a believer. Am I all talk and no actions? Do my actions align with my words? Do I believe things about myself that have no evidence in my life?

Through the years, my actions have received a due amount of jokes and finger-pointing. I am deeply flawed, but I am trying to grow in the Lord. One sign of my growth and maturity is that I live in a way that no one will roll their eyes about me anymore.