Tag Archives: Preaching

No Apology Necessary

Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel.
Zechariah 3:3 (NIV)

Over the past few years, I’ve been serving as a mentor and coach for individuals in our local gathering of Jesus’ followers who are developing their gifts and abilities as teachers/preachers. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience and it’s a radical paradigm shift for almost anyone who grew up in the institutional, denominational church.

When Paul spoke of the Holy Spirit bestowing spiritual “gifts” on believers (see 1 Corinthians 12-13) for the common good, there are no limits or caveats mentioned regarding age, education, gender, race, or occupation. Spiritual gifts are given to every believer for serving the whole. Everyone is included. No one is exempt. Our local gathering is courageously believing that there are individuals within our midst who are spiritually gifted teachers despite the fact that they have not been institutionally trained as such. Like Paul himself, who worked tirelessly as a tentmaker, the teachers I’ve been privileged to serve over the past few years represent a diverse array of day jobs including diesel mechanic, corporate executive, middle-manager, engineer, non-profit director, IT network specialist, banker, writer, realtor, church staff member, and stay-at-home mom.

The feedback I and fellow team members provide each week is both the identification of a teacher’s strengths as well as opportunities to improve. At last night’s teacher’s meeting, I shared my observation that the most common opportunity for improvement I’ve identified across the broad cross-section of apprentice teachers is our seemingly requisite need to apologize to listeners for what they are about to hear. I’ve heard apologies for lack of ability, knowledge, experience, education, preparation, professionalism, and genetic similarity to the senior pastor. The apology almost always comes out in the opening statements. It takes the form of self-deprecating humor, humble confession, and nervous admission. Yet, I’ve observed that in every humorous, humble, or honest guise, this self-deprecating statement at the start of a message asks something from the listener (empathy, sympathy, mercy), when the teacher’s main role is to give something worthwhile to her or his listeners.

I’ve pondered on this for a long time. I’ve observed that there are two common motivations for this need to self-deprecate. The first reason is the simple fear of public speaking and the terror that comes with imagining yourself saying something wrong, silly, stupid, or offensive. The second reason is more intimate, and it’s the question any worthwhile teacher asks herself/himself in the quiet before she/he steps up in front of a group of listeners: “Who am I?”

I know my tragic flaws, my shortcomings, my hypocrisies, and my secret sins. “Who am I?” I whisper to myself as I’m ready to step up to the podium, “to think I have anything worthwhile to say to these people?” And so, I lead with an apology. I beg my listener’s mercy. Immediately, with that apology, I create unwanted and unnecessary nervousness, anxiety, tension, contempt, mistrust, or outright dismissal within the ranks of my listeners.

In today’s chapter, Zechariah has a vision of the high priest, Joshua. This is part of a series of visions intended to instill confidence and hope for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and God’s Temple among the exiles living in Persia. Keep in mind the context. It’s been 70 years since the temple was destroyed, and it was abundantly clear from the prophets, like Jeremiah, that the sins of the nation (including the priests) led to their captivity and exile.

In Zech’s vision, Joshua the high-priest stands there in filthy rags (a common, ancient metaphor for being sinful). Satan (the original Hebrew is more specifically translated “The Accuser”) stands next to him. I can easily imagine “the Accuser’s” stream of whispers: “Who are you to think you’re any better than your grandfathers that got them into this mess? Who are you to think you have anything to offer? Who are you to think you can actually restore God’s temple? Do you compare to Solomon?”

In the vision, the Angel of the Lord oversees the removal of Joshua’s filthy rags, and new garments are placed on him. “I’ve taken away your sin,” Joshua is told. “I’ve made a place for you here.” Joshua was called to fulfill God’s purposes despite his weaknesses, flaws, sins, and shortcomings. There is not one person on this planet whom God could call who doesn’t have weaknesses, flaws, sins, and shortcomings.

In the quiet this morning, I’m finding all sorts of encouragement in that word picture for myself and those I serve on the teaching team. I sometimes think that we do such a good job accusing ourselves that we make The Accuser’s job easy. The truth, however, is that since the ascension of Jesus there’s not one person who’s stepped up in front of a group of listeners to share His Message from Paul (murderer, a persecutor of the church) or Peter (who denied Jesus three times) to Martin Luther, John Calvin, Billy Graham, Mother Theresa or Pope Francis who didn’t stand in the darkness of the wings whispering “Who am I?”

“You are my child, my friend, and one whom I love,” I hear Holy Spirit whisper in response. “I’ve forgiven your sin. I’ve made you clean. I have given you a gift and a calling. You are purposed for this. You have something to say.”

“Say it, without apology.”

When I open the ears of my heart to hear, embrace, and embody that message, I grow to become a better teacher.

Click on this image to go to an index of all posts in this series on the writings of the prophet Zechariah!
A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Cooperation, not Competition

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.
1 Corinthians 3:5 (NIV)

Our local gathering of Jesus followers has two venues for worship, and each Sunday there are worship services that run in both rooms at the same time. For the past few years I have had the honor of working with a team of individuals who are developing their gifts and skills in teaching. Every season there is a rotating team of people who take turns teaching on Sundays and then meeting mid-week to discuss their experience and improve their skills. It’s a diverse group of both men and women of different ages, educational backgrounds, and vocational experiences. It’s been a fascinating experience for me to lead and participate. I’ve learned a lot.

One of the things I’ve tried to impress on our team of teachers is the reality that each week I get up to teach there will be those who are excited to see me up there, and those who who are not. As we represent a diverse cross-section of humanity, we each will appeal to different individuals within our gathering. Those who are gifted teachers and develop those gifts will naturally develop broader appeal, but no teacher enjoys universal appeal (not even Jesus). It just is what it is. I think that’s why Jesus’ followers are called a “body” and the spiritual gift of teaching is given to a diverse number of individuals across all parts of the body.

As I’ve been studying the early history of the Jesus Movement, I am repeatedly struck at how quickly the story shifts from the original twelve apostles to a host of other characters. In many cases, these almost anonymous individuals, such as Ananias (Acts 9:10-19), pop onto the scene like a bit player with a walk-on role, then make their exit never to be heard from again. Others characters are only referenced or mentioned, but nonetheless they played a large off-stage role. Apollos was one of these.

Apollos was from the city of Alexandria in Egypt, a city of great influence in the ancient world. Apollos was from the upper crust of society in those days. He was highly educated and trained in oratory, the art of speech and debate, which was arguably the most esteemed skill at that time of history. We don’t know how Apollos became a believer, but he arrives on the scene using his speaking and debate skills arguing that Jesus was the Messiah. He was such a powerful teacher and speaker, in fact, that he naturally developed broad appeal within the Jesus Movement, especially with many of the believers of Corinth. Division sprouted among the Corinthians believers as some in the local gathering there began to treat it as if it was a “The Voice” type of competition. Some were on “Team Paul” and other were on “Team Apollos.”

Paul immediately shuts down these notions of competition between the two. It’s not a competition, Paul argues, but a cooperation. Both Paul and Apollos had a role to play in the Corinthian believers faith and spiritual growth. Each brought his own unique personality, style, background, experience, and appeal. Every believer in Corinth had something to learn from both Paul and Apollos. This wasn’t “either, or” it was “both, and.”

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking of the diverse team of individuals with whom I partner to teach among my local gathering of believers. It’s been a blast for me to watch each of them develop their own voice, speak from their own unique experiences, and watch our gathering grow and learn from such a broad range of voices. It’s a weekly and constant reminder that “the church” was never to be a monument to a particular, persuasive teacher or leader. Every local gathering has both a Paul and an Apollos (and an Ananias, and a Priscilla, and an Aquila, and a Chloe and….).

It’s not competition. It’s cooperation. Or else, we’re doing it wrong.

Something to Say

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
1 John 1:1 (NIV)

My local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been doing something rather novel and exciting over the past couple of years. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to be a part of it.

God’s Message teaches that every follower of Jesus receives spiritual “gifts” from Holy Spirit. Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” These “manifestations” or “gifts” are specific yet diverse bents and abilities that are intended to help build up and encourage all the other believers. One of those gifts is teaching.

For the past several hundred years the prevailing paradigm in the institutional church has been that the pulpit and the Sunday morning message at my local neighborhood church is reserved for a person (typically a man) who has received a Masters Degree at a seminary approved by whatever denomination my church belongs to. This person has received a stamp of approval from the denominational board, administration, or tribunal authorizing them to teach from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

Along my journey, here’s what I’ve observed: any individual can attend seminary and get certified whether they have a teaching gift or not. And, I’ve heard some educated and approved teachers who definitely did not have the gift of teaching. By the same token, Holy Spirit can bestow the gift of teaching on any person of any age or gender despite that person never having jumped through the educational and ecclesiastical hoops dictated by  a given denominational institution.

So, our local gather of Jesus’ followers has been identifying fellow believers within our midst who may have a Holy Spirit given gift of teaching. We’re allowing them the opportunity to try out that gift on a Sunday morning in our church’s auditorium. We’re working with them to train them up and develop that gift. I’ve been asked to lead and mentor these individuals. There is, of course, a lot more to it than I have time to explain here. It’s a work in progress, but an exciting one.

As mentor of these inexperienced preachers, one of the common fears and anxieties that I hear from individuals when tasked with teaching a large group is “Who am I to teach these people?” This nagging doubt can be paralyzing during the preparation and presentation of a message.

Just last week while I was driving to Minneapolis I started listening to a series of talks called Something to Say by Rob Bell (available for download; name your own price). One of the things that Rob brings out is the fact that everyone has the authority to speak about what he or she has witnessed and experienced in their own lives. If you’ve lost a child, then you have the authority to speak about that experience. If you swam the English Channel then you’re an authority on that subject. If you’ve been a diesel mechanic your entire life then you have the authority to speak about diagnosing and fixing a diesel engine. If you were on upper Manhattan on 9/11 then you can authoritatively speak to what happened that day from your own experience.

This morning we begin a letter written by John, one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, who was writing what scholars believe was a “circular letter” intended to be copied and passed around to all believers. John begins his letter the same way he begins his biography of Jesus,  by stating clearly that he is speaking to what he heard with his own ears, saw with his own eyes, touched with his own hands. “I was there,” John says. “I was with Jesus. I saw the miracles. I heard the teaching. I witness Him die on the cross. I saw Him risen from the dead. I am a primary source witness to it all.”

As I lead and mentor our fledgling group of teachers, I try to instill within them the power of our stories. In my almost 40 years of teaching, preaching, training, and presentations I have rarely had a person tell me that they remember the arcane theological point I made in a message ten years ago. I continue to have, however, a steady stream of people who tell me that they have never forgotten the story that I told even when I’ve long forgotten what it was.

I’m reminded by John this morning that I may not have all the knowledge, education, or professional training this world offers me. Neither did he. I do, however, have my stories. I have seen things, heard things, touched things, and experienced things to which I can bear witness. That means that, like John, I have something to say.

Developing Parts for the Good of the Whole

But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.
1 Corinthians 12:18 (NIV)

One of the things I love about creation is the way that God layers what He makes with all sorts of parallels to who He is and how He has ordered other things. In today’s chapter, Paul uses the physical body as a metaphor for how a local gathering of Jesus’ followers spiritually functions.

A body is made up of many parts, Paul explains, but it’s one body functioning together for the common good. He goes on to explain that God’s Spirit instills in each follower a spiritual “gift” (e.g. teaching, service, hospitality, intercession, and etc.) which makes that person a unique “part” of the body. Each person, Paul continues, should perform their unique “part” to provide their essential function in the health of the entire “body.”

Over the past couple of years, our local “body” has been doing something that is functionally unique in my experience. For a long time now, most churches have established a fairly rigid paradigm for vetting those authorized to teach in a weekly gathering for worship:

  1. Go to college and get an undergraduate degree
  2. Go to seminary and get a graduate degree
  3. Become ordained by your particular denomination

Of course, just going through this process does not necessarily mean that you are actually gifted by God’s spirit as a teacher. It is equally true that many who are spiritually gifted teachers never jump through the established institutional hoops to in order to become institutionally approved, and therefore they may never use fully perform their part for the good of the whole.

Over the last couple of years, the spiritual leaders of our local gathering identified a number of members of our “body” who they believe may be gifted teachers. These individuals were offered an opportunity to receive some training and to actually teach our local gathering on a rotating basis on Sunday mornings. A process of oversight, encouragement, and feedback is growing. Some individuals have tried it and determined that teaching is not their gift. Others are continuing to grow and develop. Perhaps some will decide to go on for more formal, institutional training. Nevertheless, it’s been amazing to see individuals growing and developing in their gift. Despite those who expected the experiment to result in people choosing not to come to worship, our local gathering hasn’t diminished through the experiment. Rather, we are discovering that each teacher appeals to different parts of the body and that each teacher complements the whole of the team. It’s been fascinating to observe and participate.

Today, I am thinking about the diverse jumble of “parts” in my local gathering of Jesus’ followers, and the myriad of ways that these people are gifted in the healthy functioning of the whole body. Some are teachers. Others provide very different, but necessary functions. The proper functioning of every part doing its job ensures the health of the whole. I am continuing to grow in my understanding and appreciation for the fact that each part, no matter the gift and ability, is essential in its role for the common good.

 

Wise and Persuasive Words

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
1 Corinthians 2:4-5 (NIV)

Over the past couple of years our local gathering of Jesus followers has been engaged in an experiment of sorts that, in my experience, is rather unique. The weekly worship and message is not centered around a specific teacher or leader. Rather, a team of 10-15 individuals who are developing their gifts as communicators of God’s Message take turns. I have been asked to take on an informal role as mentor and acts as an anchor for the team.

There are some who felt this experiment would be an utter failure. The norm in our culture is to find people congregating around an individual leader with exceptional communication skills. Will people consistently gather to hear a broad spectrum of teachers who are diverse in their style, experience, and knowledge? The answer appears to be “yes.”

One of the things that I have been observing as I listen and interact with each of the teaching team members is that they each bring their own unique personality and style to their delivery. I want each of them to discover and develop the voice that God gave them. At the same time, there are simple rules and principles of communication from which we can all learn and develop our skills as communicators. I’m learning that there is wisdom required in knowing the difference.

One of the underlying themes that Paul is communicating in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth is predicated on a similar situation that was creating conflict. Apollos was a dynamic speaker in that day who travelled and taught about Jesus. The believers in Corinth had begun to split into factions behind their favorite teachers. Paul addressed this in yesterday’s chapter:

One of you says, “I follow Paul”;another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Now, Paul continues to address the situation. Compared to Apollos (and perhaps Peter [Cephas] too), Paul knew that he was not a dynamic teacher. There is a story in the book of Acts in which a young man fell asleep during Paul’s teaching and fell out of a second floor window to his death. I have to believe that an experience like that would stick with you as a teacher.

To the people of Corinth, therefore, he is makes it clear that the power of the teaching is not in the skills of the orator, but in Holy Spirit’s presence. A skilled communicator can affect the thoughts and emotions of the masses, but spiritual impact of an eternal nature happens only through the work of Holy Spirit.

The truth of the matter is that different individuals have different styles, personalities, and communication skills. Moses was not a great communicator on a human level, but God used him to great effect. Paul seems to be placing himself in a similar camp. Those who teach should always seek to improve the quality of their communication skills, while acknowledging that the greatest of communicators is dependent on the power and work of Holy Spirit for our words to have spiritual potency or eternal value.

Today, I’m thinking about a message I have to deliver among our gathering of believers this coming Sunday about the unmanageable power of Jesus. As always, I’m diligently trying to prepare to communicate the Message well. I am reminded this morning that my preparations are not complete without acknowledging my utter need of, and dependence on, Holy Spirit.

 

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Did I Just Strike Out, or Did I Hit a Home Run?

2013 06 08 Nathan VL Baseball 02

Then I said, “Sovereign Lord, they are saying of me, ‘Isn’t he just telling parables?’”
Ezekiel 20:49 (NIV)

For the past couple of months I have been teaching a class for a handful of brave souls from our local group of Jesus followers. The class was intended for a those who feel that they may have a spiritual gift in preaching or teaching. I have been asked to teach and to mentor them. I encouraged anyone interested in being a better communicator to join us and a number of people did.

In the first week of the class I announced to the group that we would be breaking some new ground and that there was the distinct possibility that I could really miss the mark. Most people are used to taking a class that follows a published book or video series of some kind. What we are exploring, however, is how God uses the language of metaphor. We’re talking about metaphors in creation, metaphors in the names we find in God’s message, metaphors in the sacraments, metaphors in prophecy, metaphors in parables, metaphors in the arts and creative expression, and etc. Along the way, we are also touching on some practical advice for preparing and delivering an effective presentation or message.

One of the most important points I have made to my class is that when you deliver a message the job is to prepare and communicate the material to the best of our ability and leave the response and results up to the Holy Spirit. That is easier said than done. We all have a natural desire to know if our words have accomplished their purpose. Last night as I left the parking lot I called Wendy to tell her how the class went. “I’m not sure,” I ruminated, “if I struck out swinging or hit a home run.”

The question still nagged at me as I read this morning’s chapter. For 20 chapters Ezekiel has been preaching, prophesying, and performing his metaphorical productions as God instructed. Then, at the very end of the chapter Zeke questions God about his audience’s response. I can feel his heart. “Is any of this landing? Are my messages having any impact? Am I making any kind of a difference? Have a stuck out swinging or am I knocking it out the park?

I’m sure Zeke would have been encouraged to know that 2500 years later his prophetic messages would still be having lasting impact as we read them, meditate on them, study and appreciate them. But, in the moment, he’s just a messenger wanting to know if he’s making a difference. How very human, and in that I am encouraged this morning as well as being reminded of my own words to my class: “Just keep doing what you’re called to do to the best of your ability. God takes care of the rest.”

(Message) Hearing God’s Voice: Journaling

Hearing God's Voice IconThis past Sunday I delivered the morning message in the auditorium service at TRC. We are in a series called Hearing the Voice of God and journaling is one of the disciplines that is discussed in the process of tuning into God’s Spirit. In this message I share the story of my own experiences and lessons learned from the discipline of journaling. I have included the powerpoint file, as well. This message is posted hear with the permission of TRC and is intended for personal listening only.

2015 01 25 Hearing God’s Voice PowerPoint

Message: Renewal

The link below is for the .MP3 of a message I gave on January 4th in the auditorium of Third Church in Pella, IA. It is used with permission of Third Church for personal listening.

“Here I am. Did You Call Me?” (My Story)

Me and some of my Gospel Team bros on a mission trip (c. 1984)
Me and some of my Gospel Team bros on a mission trip (c. 1984)

Meanwhile, the boy Samuel served the Lord by assisting Eli. Now in those days messages from the Lord were very rare, and visions were quite uncommon.

One night Eli, who was almost blind by now, had gone to bed. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was sleeping in the Tabernacle near the Ark of God. Suddenly the Lord called out, “Samuel!”

“Yes?” Samuel replied. “What is it?” He got up and ran to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?” 1 Samuel 3:1-5a (NLT)

I have rarely told the story of the beginning of my spiritual journey. Like Samuel, I was called by God as a young man and after sharing the story with my friend Kevin for the first time this past year, he challenged me to share it in a blog post. I have been waiting for the right time. This morning as I read about God’s calling of young Samuel and see the loose parallel, I think that this is the time. Be prepared. This will be a longer post than usual.

I was raised in a nice little neighborhood Methodist church. I like to joke that despite all that I was taught in the Methodist church, I still believed in God. Like a lot of kids in the junior high or middle school age, I experienced the crisis of trying to figure out who I was in the world. I had been “confirmed” in church at the age of 13 and my parents let me know that after being confirmed I was allowed to decide for myself whether I wanted to attend church or not. I believed in God at this point. I mentally accepted the basic tenets of the Christian faith. In retrospect, however, I didn’t have a relationship with the God in whom I said I believed.

After confirmation I stopped going to church for a while. I was a good kid. I enjoyed my junior high years, but over a short period of time there grew within me a nagging confusion about life and what it all meant. I felt depressed and sunk into full blown teen angst. Realizing that I had not been to church regularly for a while I decided to return, wondering if that might not be part of the answer. I got involved in my youth group and started to feel better about things.

In February 1981, a girl in my youth group invited me to make an hour long trip to Marshalltown with her and her dad on a Friday night to hear some guy speak. She was a senior, I was a freshman, and I had a bit of a crush on her – so of course I said “yes.” There was another friend from church going and it sounded better than anything else I might be doing on that Friday night. The speaker was part of a weekend conference at a church there Marshalltown. I listened to this guy talk about God in a way I had never, ever heard before. He spoke about faith being a living relationship with God which was something very different from the simple mental acquiescence to certain spiritual truths that I had always considered “my faith.” Jesus spoke of the eyes of your heart being opened to see the truth clearly, and that night I experienced it personally. The eyes of my heart were opened for the first time. I committed my life to following Jesus. I asked Him to come into my heart to start a personal relationship together. There was a subtle, but substantial shift in my soul. I knew I would never be the same, which has proven true to this day.

My sister, Jody, is two years older than me. Upon arriving back home late that night I shared with her what had happened to me and pretty much demanded that she go with us the following night. She did, and that night I could tell that the eyes of her heart were being opened too. At the end of the service an invitation was given to any who wanted to start a relationship with Jesus and follow Him. She went forward to pray and I was left sitting in the pew praying. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting about 4-5  pews back on the stage right side of the stage right section of pews.

At this point, let me explain that I don’t claim to have spiritual dreams and visions all the time. God may work that way with others, but I have only heard God speak to me clearly on a handful of occasions in 35 years (that’s another blog post, for another day). That cold Saturday night in February was the first time. As I sat in the pew praying, I suddenly felt like I was dreaming in deep REM sleep. In the dream I was sitting in the pew right where I was, but as I looked up toward the front of the church I saw myself standing on the platform speaking just like the guy whom we’d listened to the past two nights. “You are going to proclaim My Word,” a voice said to me. I knew it was God’s voice. Here I was, a young kid in Iowa, hearing God’s voice just like the boy Samuel heard in the temple in today’s chapter.

That was it. Dream over. I was back in my pew watching my sister praying to start her own relationship with Jesus. But, I knew what I saw and heard. It sounded so crazy at the time, but I knew that it was real. That night I went home and told my parents that God had called to me that night. Mom was folding clothes on the family room floor. Dad was laying on the couch. They were watching television. I think they must have wanted to check my pockets for hallucinogens.

“Okay God,” I remember praying shortly thereafter. “If you want me to do this, you’re going to have to open the doors for it to happen, because I don’t know what to do.” I began reading and studying the Bible voraciously. A few weeks later, an adult approached me at church.

“In April, we’re having a youth service,” she said. “We were wondering if you would agree to be one of the youth to share the sermon that morning.”

About eight weeks after God called to me in a dream, I preached my first message.

The following summer my parents, having seen a very distinct change in my sister and me, reaffirmed their own faith in Jesus. As a family we decided to leave our little neighborhood church and start attending another church a few blocks away. This church had a large youth group and also had a youth “Gospel Team” (think “Glee” for Christians). My sister decided to join the Gospel Team and early that fall there was a kick off concert at the church. The Gospel Team Director pulled me aside the week before the concert and asked me if I’d be willing to share my story during the concert. I agreed and during a break in the concert I shared the story about how I decided to become a follower of Jesus.

After the concert, the director sought me out. “I think you’ve got a gift,” he said. “I’m wondering if you’d be interested in joining our team. In a few weeks we’ll start going out every Sunday night to do concerts in different churches around the state. I’d like you to consider going with us and giving a message at each concert.”

And so, less than a year after hearing God’s call to proclaim His Word I was travelling around the state every week doing just that.  My Gospel Team experience led to other opportunities to speak in churches, camps, and other groups. But, the story doesn’t end there.

I attended Judson College (now University) for four years where God continued to give me opportunities to speak and to teach. I was even the campus Student Chaplain for a year. As I prepared to graduate, I wondered what I was going to do and thought I might pursue full-time pastoral ministry, but I was newly married and didn’t really want to rack up more debt with grad school. Youth Ministry is a common first step breaking into pastoral ministry, so I began applying for positions as a youth pastor.

There was one youth ministry position open that I desperately wanted, but had little chance of getting. It was a large church with a large youth group and a solid reputation. I figured that without a seminary degree and with no experience there was no way I would even be considered for the job, but I sent in my resume anyway. A few weeks later I received a phone call and a subsequent phone interview, but shortly after the interview I received the polite “thanks, but no thanks,” letter from the search committee. I continued to pursue other options.

Weeks went by and I was no further in figuring out what I was going to do after school. I interviewed and was accepted into the Master’s program in acting at the University of Iowa (ironically, my 10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success blog post is now a fixture on their department’s homepage). However, that didn’t seem like the right avenue for me any more than going to seminary. Either option would only add to my debt load and my young wife was less than thrilled with the idea of having to continue working full time to support us.

Then, out of the blue, the Chairman of the search committee for the youth pastor position I figured I would never get called me. “We’ve been praying a lot as a committee,” he said, “And the Holy Spirit keeps bringing you back into our conversation. It’s kind of crazy, but we believe we’re supposed to invite you for another interview.” And so I interviewed again. Quickly, I was asked to visit the church for a weekend round of interviews culminating in me giving the message in the Sunday morning worship service and being voted on by the congregation.

And so, I visited the church the following weekend. I breezed through the interviews. On Sunday morning I stood up on the platform to proclaim God’s Word. Incidentally, it was the same platform I had seen in my dream seven years earlier when God called me. I was interviewing for a position in the very church in Marshalltown where my faith journey following Jesus began and where I heard God’s call. The dream like vision I had been given of standing on the platform in that church was literally fulfilled.

Samuel’s story is one in a long string of examples of God calling and using the young, the weak, and the least to accomplish His purposes. My own story has caused this truth to resonate deep within me. Every person who enters into a relationship with Jesus and is a part of the body of Christ has been spiritually gifted to accomplish God’s divine purpose. This is true no matter the age, social status, gender, background, experience, history, pedigree, or educational level. You don’t need a degree, a certificate, or a stamp of approval from the board of your local church. Using the gifts you’ve been given to serve God and others is part of the daily journey of any Jesus follower.

My and my youth group of 1980s kids in parachute pants and permed hair!
My and my youth group of 1980s kids in parachute pants and permed hair!

Articulating the “One Thing”

Preparing my Next Sermon
(Photo credit: the tartanpodcast)

The purpose of my instruction is that all believers would be filled with love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith. 1 Timothy 1:5 (NLT)

Whenever I prepare to deliver a message, whether it is in a classroom, stage, boardroom, or sanctuary, I always start by identifying and articulating the one thing I want to communicate. If I can nail that, then the rest of the message become much easier to prepare. If an idea, explanation or illustration does not serve to lead the hearers to the articulated purpose of my message, then I’m wasting my time and theirs. Without a clear purpose, a message will become lost as it meanders in different directions.

In today’s chapter, Paul is instructing his young protege Timothy whom he left behind in the city of Ephesus to teach the followers of Jesus there. Paul clearly articulates the purpose of his instruction: Love from a pure heart, clear conscience, and genuine faith. As I read this I thought of all the messages I have heard through the years that seemingly had little or no clear purpose. I thought of many messages I’ve heard in which the purpose seemed to be judgement, condemnation, and shame.

I’m taking Paul’s purpose with me into my day as I think about all that I think, and say, and do. Is my purpose today an increasing measure of love in my own heart, love that flows from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a genuine faith in Jesus, the One whom I follow?