Archive for October, 2010

How to preach when your wife has cancer (or some other “distraction”): Part Two

See Part One here.

1. Review your history

As a minister of the gospel you will inevitably encounter “distractions.” The word distraction for our purposes is a fluid term. Right now, I am easily distracted by the fact that my wife has cancer. I can be knee-deep in a riveting exercise of exegetical study only to have this fact surface in my thoughts and derail the project for a spell. This reality drops in for a visit at the most unexpected times and rarely does it knock.

I realize that not everyone is dealt the same measure of distractions but they are sure to come in one shape or another.  These things, as they say, go with the territory. Our territory as ministers of the gospel is the local church. I think we can rightly infer from Matthew 16:18 that the church will persevere by the grace of God but it will also endure Hell in the process. Brother, you will endure difficulty in the ministry. Those who fail to see this are like those who believe the Army recruiter really wants them to see the world and meet interesting people. However, in fine print at the bottom of the pamphlet is something about bullets being fired at your head.

A great encouragement in persevering through pain is that you stand near the end of a long line of faithful saints. How you endure ministerial suffering today can be a reflection on your understanding of the past. It is incumbent upon us to keep our fingers on the pulse of those who endured before us. The writer of Hebrews says that we receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken from its foundation (Heb 12:28) and because of this the Lord is our helper and there’s no reason to be afraid (Heb 13:6; Psa 118:6). Exhibit A of this truth is that you can “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7).

In the study of our history there is a lot to learn, much to righteously repeat, and plenty to caution our present steps. C. S. Lewis, who lost his wife to cancer, likened ignorance of history to joining a conversation after the fact. He said, “If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said.”[1] Lewis furthered this idea by calling us to read old books stating, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”[2]

So on the one hand I can struggle with Lewis in the anguish of his deceased wife (in A Grief Observed) and then keep reading backwards and find many others paddling the same boat. Lloyd-Jones and Nazi bombs, Spurgeon and his invalid wife Susannah, Brainerd and the pain of tuberculosis, Baxter grieving over the death of his bride Margaret, Luther watching his daughter Magdalene die in his arms, Calvin losing both children and his wife Idelette, and many other testimonies along the way. Real ministers have experienced real suffering (i.e., “distractions”) throughout our tangled history and there’s no forecast that promises otherwise. Read and drink deeply from these ministers who walked before you. Chances are you will find great help, counsel, and encouragement along the way.

One thing stands out to me in all this. The old saying says, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” A great illustration of this comes in 1 Corinthians chapter 10. There, the Apostle rehearses the sordid web that is Israel’s faith and failure.  Paul says, in effect, don’t think for a minute that you’re any smarter than they were (1 Cor 10:12). However, there’s a positive here as well. In verse 13 he reminds us that we’re not alone in the struggle and our temptations are the same ones that litter the roads of history. Something else should be noticed in verse 13, the faithful covenant-keeping God continues to make His name great through your endurance. Brother, as you endure disruptive elders, wayward children, sinful congregants, or physical suffering, God is making His name great through perfecting you in weakness. Keep your fingers on the pulse of history and this will always be fresh in your mind.

[1] From the introduction to St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 4.

[2] Ibid.

Remembering Luther

We remember Luther best when we proclaim Christ and the gospel to our world of need. And we do so fully clothed in our humanity.

Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation:How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 38.

How to preach when your wife has cancer (or some other “distraction”)

I must have been absent the day they covered such things in seminary class. The professor might have addressed it the day I skipped school with my friend Eric to go snow boarding in the mountains north of L.A. However, I’m certain this topic was not covered in any preaching class. I have shelves of books on preaching and none of them seems to address my question. How in the world do you preach and minister week in and week out when your wife has stage-three colon cancer?

I confess that the reality of the question itself is still a bit surreal. This might be hard to believe but there are moments where we all forget that Julie has a killer disease. It’s surreal because she looks so healthy and is so young. At least for now, there are four small children who can’t tell any real difference between pre-cancer mommy and cancer mommy. Still, I stare down this plaguing question. How can I possibly minister to needy and sometimes hurting believers when my own wife is weighed down with massive physical and spiritual burdens?

The shape of suffering in your ministry may not take on the same form as mine but don’t think for a moment that God’s “distractions” will somehow miss you. As sure as you’re one of His sons and ministers, the arrows of God will be lovingly aimed at your ministry to keep you humble and to expose your many weaknesses. Before we complain about this we have to wonder why we would want it any other way. We tend to forget that the real pathway to life with Christ is narrow, difficult, and hard to find. If you haven’t cried yourself to sleep at night with the promises of 2 Corinthians 12:9 playing pinball in your heart then you haven’t been in ministry long enough. Give it time and suffering will come to your parsonage.

If this sounds like I’m delivering hopeless news and prophetic judgments then you need to stick around. To the contrary, this is some of the best truth we pastors can wash in. Over the coming days I want to explore this issue of preaching and ministering with “distractions” in your personal life. I’ve been thinking on this for a while now and I hope to fill-in some of the gaps missing from preaching class. Until then.

Luther on sermon length

In September of 1532, Luther said in his Table Talks (2643a):

I hate a long sermon, because the desire on the part of the congregation to listen is destroyed by them, and the preachers hurt themselves.

A few months before in June he said (3137):

I cannot bring things together short and to the point like Philip and Amsdorf.

In the fall of 1533 he said (3422):

The sign of a good speaker is that he stops just when people are most interested in hearing him and feel that he has just begun. But when he is boring and people wait for the end of the speech, that is a bad sign. The same is true of preachers. When someone says: “I would have liked to listen longer,” that is good. When someone says, however, “He was prattling on and could no longer stop,” that is a bad sign.

In August of 1540 (5171a):

A preacher climbs up to the pulpit, opens his mouth, and then stops. That means a preacher must be called before he advances to the pulpit. He should preach carefully and be understood by all, and not burden his listeners with too much verbosity.

That same month it is reported (in 5171b) that Conrad Cordatus asked Luther: “Reverend Father, tell me in a brief way how to preach.” Luther replied:

First, you must learn to go up to the pulpit. Second, you must know that you should stay there for a time. Third, you must learn to get down again.

It is reported that this infuriated Cordatus.

Is the Sabbath required for Christians?

I have touched on the issue of Sabbath a few time here at ET with a few comments and quotes (See Is the Sabbath for everyone?, Is Sunday the Sabbath?, Is the Sabbath abolished?, Remember the Sabbath?). To date, the best book I’ve read on this is the classic From Sabbath to Lord’s Day edited by D.A. Carson.

Justin Taylor has recently posted excerpts from Tom Schreiner’s upcoming book with an edgy, postmodern title, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law. I found his answer to the question, “Is the Sabbath Still Required?” one of the most succinct answers I have ever read on this difficult subject. Read the whole thing here. Here is the conclusion of the matter:

Believers are not obligated to observe the Sabbath. The Sabbath was the sign of the Mosaic covenant. The Mosaic covenant and the Sabbath as the covenant sign are no longer applicable now that the new covenant of Jesus Christ has come. Believers are called upon to honor and respect those who think the Sabbath is still mandatory for believers. But if one argues that the Sabbath is required for salvation, such a teaching is contrary to the gospel and should be resisted forcefully. In any case, Paul makes it clear in both Romans 14:5 and Colossians 2:16–17 that the Sabbath has passed away now that Christ has come. It is wise naturally for believers to rest, and hence one principle that could be derived from the Sabbath is that believers should regularly rest. But the New Testament does not specify when that rest should take place, nor does it set forth a period of time when that rest should occur. We must remember that the early Christians were required to work on Sundays. They worshiped the Lord on the Lord’s Day, the day of Jesus’ resurrection, but the early Christians did not believe the Lord’s Day fulfilled or replaced the Sabbath. The Sabbath pointed toward eschatological rest in Christ, which believers enjoy in part now and will enjoy fully on the Last Day.

“Word to your mother” ~V. Ice

We’ve got Spirit, yes we do!

Doug Wilson can turn a phrase better than most. His preaching style is probably not your style and his theology is probably not your theology in all points but here he provides a few thoughts on the role of the Holy Spirit and sermon preparation. Even if you don’t tuck in your shirt when you preach you can probably learn something here.

Money quote: “Prepare the man before you prepare the message. The first issue relates to character — confess sin, grow in grace, resist temptation, feed your soul something other than spiritual Doritos.”

The gist: The Spirit is with you as a minister of Christ. There is no reason that the Holy Spirit cannot bless you in the study as well as in the pulpit, if you are rightly seeking that blessing. You are His servant in both the preparation and the delivery. Why would He be with you in one place and not in the other?

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