The art of excellence in preaching.

As preachers of the gospel we should be powerful and prepared.

A New Walk for a New Year

Consider adding #TheWalk to your reading resolution.

Into the Woods, A Pomo Scrum Beneath the Trees

Into the Woods asks an important question, who is to blame for evil?

10 Things You Need to Know About Suicide

Suicide is more common than we think. No one is immune from these fatal thoughts. There is help, but we need to start talking about one of life's most tragic mistakes.

Is God a Fun-Sucker? (from my book #TheWalk)

Surely God likes more than khakis and choirs.

How much do you weigh?

Your situation cannot be measured on a scale, but it is heavy. How to strengthen the soul.

January 8, 2015

Excellent Preaching - Prepared and Powerful

A few nights ago I watched the final half hour of the Kennedy Center Honors.  The Kennedy Center website states the following about how the honorees are chosen, “The primary criterion is excellence, and artistic achievement in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures, and television is considered.”
Before I went to bed that night I spent some time reading the Bible and reflecting on the idea of excellence in my craft, preaching.  While preachers do not preach for the accolades of an arts guild, there should be no less concern for excellence.  As ambassadors of The Kingdom our aspirations for excellence in what we do should be exponentially more.
Excellence in preaching requires that we be prepared and powerful.
There should be a passion in our process from preparation to delivery, a thirst for excellence, an attention to detail.  Like a gifted songwriter who makes a deliberate choice with every word, our desire to communicate effectively should be not less, but again, exponentially more.  We have the greatest text of all to inspire us; a manuscript breathed by God from which every thought is gleaned.    
A boring sermon is a tragedy.  An unprepared man rambling in the pulpit, searching for a thought, is a criminal of the Kingdom, not its herald.  
I consider 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 to be one of the most misunderstood passages in the Bible when it comes to preaching.  
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.  (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 ESV)    
The mistake made with this passage is in thinking that an unprepared message is a more powerful one.  That somehow it is more of a work of the Spirit if the rest of us are left to sit in the pew for a half hour while the preacher meanders from thought to thought, verse to verse, searching for something decently said that he can somehow attribute to God.  Such a show is not the Spirit working, but rather a testimony that you do not care to be prepared.  It does not mean you have made more of the Word of God, instead it means you have thought very little of it for days.
I have heard many singers stand up on Sunday morning to share a song and preempt their attempt with the words, “Y’all pray for me, I haven’t practiced much this week.”  Some sympathetic soul will say, “God bless”, but I say, “Then sit down!”  If you did not care to prepare then why should the rest of us care to listen?  Is this not for the sake of Christ that you sing, or preach, or teach, or do whatever you do?  If it is, then be excellent by being prepared.  Otherwise you are being careless.
But there is something important in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2 that we should not miss concerning power.  Preaching something well prepared, but lacking divine power is human persuasion in the pulpit, not gospel proclamation.  Preaching something not well prepared with passion is just yelling for the sake of distracting everyone from your bad preaching.  I can't remember the book in which it is contained or the exact quote, but Calvin Miller quipped something to the effect that a lot of bad preaching has been covered up by loud preaching.  Power is not a work of the diaphragm, it is result of a preacher well prepared in study and prayer.
Paul was not saying he lacked preparation.  He was not even saying that he regarded himself as a bad speaker.  What he was saying - he was saying to a hyper-sensitive, overly critical culture that was schooled in the art of rhetoric.  Paul was dealing with a group that was so attentive to form that they failed to recognize power.  They listened for logic, but had little skill to discern whether they were being moved by the Spirit or by clever persuasion.  As guilty as we are in some churches for preaching with power and no form, we are guilty in others of regarding form with no thirst for power.  We have heard many good sermons by gifted pulpiteers, but we are in a drought of God ordained power in the pulpit.    
Paul was not saying he lacked any form.  What he was saying was that he may not have met their preconceived ideas of the mannerisms and forms of the culture’s most gifted speakers.  I think Paul was actually saying that he was rebelling against their form (lofty speech, wisdom, or plausible words as they would judge it so) for the sake of one thing - power.  I would argue that such a feat in that culture would not have taken less preparation, but more.  To them it looked foolish, but it was powerful (2 Cor. 2:14ff).  Well done Paul!
We must be prepared, but we must also be powerful.  Not powerful in our own abilities or in cultural formalities, as Paul sought to purposefully avoid, but powerful in Spirit.  Personally, in my meditations of these things over the last week or so I am convicted not only to work more diligently to be a better communicator, but to work more deeply to be a more powerful one.  
As an athlete there were times that we worked on form and there were times that we worked on power.  Good form enhances power, it does not diminish it.  As a preacher I am often guilty of studying the form of preaching, working diligently to exegete the passage and massage the message, but failing to prepare myself for power.  Long hours of reading and writing must be done, but not to the neglect of prayer, meditation, fasting, and suffering.  These things are often formless, but they are powerful.  
As preachers, we will never be invited to the Kennedy Center to celebrate the excellent art of preaching, but we do stand in a more noble cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12).  The prophets, the apostles, the saints of God from every nation, the author and finisher of our faith all surround us to see what we do with the Word of God in preaching.  We should be excellent both in preparation and in power.

January 6, 2015

New Year, New Walk

In the new year we often commit ourselves to reading.  If reading is part of your resolution, please consider my book #TheWalk that was released last October.  #TheWalk is a great choice as your first book for the new year.

Why #TheWalk?  January is a month of regret and resolve.  Our regrets often give birth to our resolutions.  The 7 pounds I gained from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day has served to make dieting a top priority in my life.  While weight, reading, saving, and time considerations often dominate the top of our list, there should also be some more lofty goals somewhere in the mix.  Instead of only considering what we may lose, save, or manage, how about considering some things you would like to finish, start, or even create?

It is difficult to be different.  If you want your situation to change, you must change.  The failure to be different is what usually trips up our resolutions.  John Maxwell said, "You'll never change your life until you change something you do daily."  It is at this point, daily change, that I believe you will find #TheWalk most helpful.

#TheWalk is not about doing more, but doing less.  It is not about meeting life goals as much as it is about doing something different daily.  No matter how big or how small the objective before us, there is only one way it can be accomplished; one step at a time - walking!

#TheWalk was born at the beginning of 2014 out of my own frustrations of having great ambitions, but feeling as if I had accomplished very little.  While praying through Psalm 119:133 God opened my eyes to a revolutionary principle that has changed my life - steps.

Rather than asking God to help me arrive at certain destinations or to accomplish certain long term goals, I now ask God one simple question each day, "What step do you want me to take today?"  Breaking life down into steps has made me more content and effective in everything I do.  I believe #TheWalk can do for you what the journey of preaching and writing it did for me - #TheWalk helped me be different.

Here is a short excerpt from the book that I hope you will find to be helpful.  I pray you will have a great 2015 and that you will consider adding #TheWalk to your book list this year.

_________________________

Honestly, I’m not a big fan of the circus.  Even though there is a lot going on in the three rings, something about the chaos of it just doesn’t hold my attention.  Trapeze doesn’t do it for me.  If you are a circus clown and you are reading this book, I’m sorry to offend you, but what you do in the circus doesn’t connect with me.  However, I would love to know how so many of you get in those little cars.  Other than that, I’m not a fan of the clown.  The dog trainer part of the show is absolute torture for me.  They are about to fire a man out of a canon.  Do the circus people seriously believe that a poodle hopping through a hoop is supposed to psyche me up for the human cannonball?  Get the little dogs off the floor and let’s see a guy fly through the air like a missile.  I see dogs everyday.  Missile men - not so much.   
There is one point of the circus, however, that grips me.  Bring out the lions and the tigers, and I’m all in.  Those massive majestic animals are mesmerizing.  Put a guy in there with the real potential of being mauled right before my eyes - I’m all over that - from a safe spectator distance, of course!
Have you ever noticed that the lion tamer takes only two things into the cage with him?  He takes a whip, which I can understand, and a chair, which I cannot.  Yet in that infamous image of the lion tamer that is etched in our minds, you see only two things in his hands, a whip and a chair. 
Most of the time when we watch the lion tamer work his craft, we are excited by the whip, but think little of the chair.  But the chair is the most important element of all.  The whip has little to do with influencing the animals.  
With the whip, the lion tamer controls the crowd.  We love the crack of the whip and, as humans, we are sympathetic to the sting.  Indiana Jones may do it for humans, but Indy does nothing for lions.  The whip may capture our attention, but it is with the chair that the lion tamer controls the beast.
Lions have an impeccable ability to focus.  When the end of the chair is extended toward a lion, the lion becomes almost paralyzed. Now, instead of focusing on one thing, the leg end of the chair presents the beast with four.  The otherwise perfectly focused animal doesn’t know what to do next.  He has too many choices to make.  
A powerful creature out of focus is ineffective.
I find myself like the lion a lot of times.  I have so much in front of me that I lose focus and become ineffective.  I find myself looking at the leg end of the chair way too much.
In a lot of ways, it is easy to become confused and paralyzed in your walk, wondering what to do next.  You have too many things in front of you at one time.  This is why priority is so important.  When it comes to your walk, the first thing determines everything.  With so many things in our vision, how does one possibly narrow it all down to one thing?  The good news is that God has made it an easy choice for you.  Remember, God has ultimately called you to do only one thing, walk in a way that pleases Him.
Jesus said it like this, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” - Matthew 6:31-33 (ESV)  
What we eat, drink, or wear is the leg end of the chair.  Jesus teaches us that if we can get those things in the right order of priority and make the one thing the main thing, all of those other things God will provide.  Remember, He is the provider for those who walk with Him.
That word seek, Jesus uses in the passage, means “to walk with focus.”  It describes investigation and searching.  You can’t seek several things.  There is an old proverb that says, “He who chases two rabbits captures none.”  The only way you can truly seek something is to get it down to one.  

If you could get four or five things out of your face and bring one thing into focus, it would help you go further.  Why, because according to Jesus in Matthew 6:31-33, the first thing determines everything

 
Get your copy of #TheWalk today:  

January 3, 2015

Into the Woods - A Pomo Scrum Beneath the Trees

Over the weekend I made one of my rare visits to the cinema.  Sightings of Sasquatch, a chupacabra riding a bicycle, or Nessie doing the backstroke at Loch Ness are as likely as sightings of me at the movies.  Why?  It costs too much, people eat pop corn like horses feeding from a trough, and the whole thing takes too long.  Our most recent selection, Into the Woods, sported each of these dreaded elements of the cinema; a $50 family price tag, a family of stallions with a barrel of endless pop corn seated just behind us, and a 2+ hour runtime.  Apparently we have lost the art of telling a story in less than half a day.
My synopsis of Into the Woods: your favorite childhood fairy tales in a rugby scrum beneath the trees.  My wife called it Les Miserables Disney style as nearly all of the dialogue of the seemingly never to end movie is sung.  I imagine it will be one of those movies that I don’t particularly enjoy while everyone else on the row may be giddy as girls about it.  In fact, my youngest said it was her favorite movie.  Congratulations Into the Woods, you have unseated Night at the Museum 3 which held her top movie spot for a whopping four days.  Enjoy it while you may, given her track record you will be unseated on her next romp to Regal.  When it comes to movies, she loves ‘em and leaves ‘em.
I will spare you the synopsis and the details of a critical review.  I am not a movie critic by trade and PluggedIn.com is more than adequate to offer the christian version of At the Movies.  I am a preacher and so it should come as no surprise that I view movies as messages.  Movies are culture sermons.  As such, Into the Woods has a lot to say to us.
The film is the latest installment of what seems like a lingering decade of revising our favorite fairytales.  Some of it has been done in jest, taking our familiar heroes and villains and recasting them in new worlds and situations.  For me, Shrek was best at this.  Like Shrek, many films have come along to poke fun at the genre of the fairytale all together.  I love the satire when the magical, all is good life meets the real world.  The princess has been most often the butt of the joke.  Amy Adams in Enchanted was a prime example.  
But then we have a long list of compelling revisionary tales that have been popping up on stage, television, and on the big screen such as Wicked, Mirror Mirror, Maleficent, and GrimmInto the Woods is the latest edition that seems to be carrying forward the conversation with our culture; asking an important question.  Who is responsible for evil and how do we solve it?
There is a side of me that enjoys these reimagined tales.  From a purely storyteller perspective I give the writers kudos.  I am not one who would chide our culture’s storytellers as being uncreative; attributing this rash of revisionism to a lack of originality.  In fact, I would think as a storyteller that these revisions are somewhat courageous.  Who else would dare to take these iconic tales and dare to tamper with them?  In some ways it is like an artist adding paint to Mona Lisa.  You would have to be an idiot with a brush to try such a thing.  But these storytellers have pulled it off.  Why?  Because our culture has given them permission to rethink the stories.  Postmodernism has been an amusement park of revisionism in every field from history to morality to math.  We don’t even solve problems like we once did.  
Yet permission for revision doesn’t just come as a style choice of this young century.  Revisionism is a necessity in a culture that has flushed away absolutes and intentionally blurred the lines.  Postmoderns want to think all they do is good.  Tolerance is a false utopia and in a strange way, our new fairytale. 
All is well in our tolerant, fairytale garden utopia until we have a clash with the real world - where there is such a thing as evil whether we want to believe in it or not.  Everyone is fine in the scrum in the woods, the homosexual, the atheist, the hedonist, the pluralist, and the rest of us until a giant comes stomping through the trees.  A madman guns us down in the theater.  A terrorist kidnaps and kills girls in a school.  Isis beheads a journalist.  It is here that the crisis of relativistic culture begins.  Instead of asking what is evil, we are forced rather to ask, who’s to blame? 
Like the rest of the revisionist fairytale films, Into the Woods casts both hero and villain in new light.  It is ironic that these films begin to explore the flaw of relative morality - as much as we want it to be so, all we do is not good.  Evil exists and it is coming to destroy us.
The revisionist fairytale films are redemptive in the sense that they are willing to admit the faults of the heroes and heroines we once accepted uncritically.  In the former telling of the fairytales we overlooked that at times they lied a little, stole some, ignored the oppressed, and were subtly greedy.  However, where the films fail is in the moral direction they explore this idea.  True to postmodern form, instead of heading in a subjective direction and exploring the heart of the hero a more objective path is taken.  Postmoderns blame societies, never individuals and so heroes are what they are, not because of what they have done, but because of the advantage they are given.  Our princes and princesses no longer triumph due to the power of absolute good; no, they triumphed because they had the greater advantage to manipulate the circumstances.  They had more money, more resources, more favor, more looks.  They were deeply flawed but ultimately they won because they were favored.  
In the revisionist fairytales the villains are also re-cast in new light.  The villains, once thought to be unquestionably and absolutely evil, suddenly become more like us.  They are not as distantly dark as we once deemed them to be.  Once the warlords of darkness, in the revisionist tales these sinister characters are merely underdogs who sold their souls for the sake of survival.  Their hearts were broken.  They were bullied and embittered.  They didn’t turn their world dark out of malice, they did it out of defense against the cool kids.  
Because postmodernism is essentially amoral, there is no longer a narrative of whether good can triumph over evil.  The morality play has been assassinated in the postmodern era.  These are no longer stories of morals, but of advantages.  The princess with all the looks and a decided advantage created the witch.  This is the postmodern fairytale. 
The revisionist fairytale asks us not to condemn the villain but to sympathize with them.  Villains are only the by-products of what it costs us to be prosperous.  Things may appear to be snazzy in Camelot, but there is a darkness brewing somewhere that Camelot has created as a consequence.
Into the Woods promotes this idea brilliantly.  As the giant approaches to crush our flawed cast of less than virtuous victors of situational ethics, they are left to introspectively mourn their mistakes in the woods.  As each of them considers their own role in the making of the giant, an important question enters the equation - true to the form of the film - given to us in song - do we really have to kill it?  After all, it is our fault that there is a giant coming to kill us.
This same tune is being sung in all of our media.  The terrorist is not evil, he is an embittered victim of imperialism and capitalism.  He would not even be here if it were not for the prosperity of our Camelot.  Who’s to blame?  And so our President apologizes to the world on our behalf.  Dear dark world, please excuse the mess we have created.  You hate us and its our fault.  Every crisis from Isis to Al Queda, from a gunman in a theater to the looter in a riot in the streets - none of it evil, but each of them only a giant in a fit of rage that we have created in our prosperity. 
In Into the Woods, the giant comes only because we interfered.  Jack climbed the beanstalk and tampered with the giant’s world.  And now, here she comes.  If you haven’t seen the film, this may not make sense, but trust me when as I reiterate my synopsis - the film is your favorite fairy tale characters in a  rugby scrum beneath the trees.  Had Cinderella not wished to be a princess, had Jack not been forced to sell his favorite cow by his somewhat abusive mother, had the baker not been childless, had Red Riding Hood not been gluttonous, had the witch not been hoodwinked by the baker’s father, had his father not stolen the magic beans - there would have been no stalk that connected our world to that of the giants and we would have lived happily ever after - had we merely been content to leave well enough alone.  Every choice made so that a wish may come true.  Every wish that comes true does so at a cost to someone else. 
What’s the answer?  We have to kill the giant only because we were not brave enough to do what we should have done in the beginning - kill the wish!
If movies are culture sermons, the closing scene of Into the Woods was an indictment of our culture’s hopelessness.  All we are left to do is retell the story - classic postmodernism.  There is no real solution, only regret and confusion.  Cinderella should have stayed a lowly abused house maid.  Jack should have been content to be poor.  The baker should have remained childless.  Red Riding Hood should have stayed home.  
The Bible was way ahead of film in teaching that prosperity should not come at the hands of oppressing others (Zech 7:10, Prov. 22:22-23, Jer. 7:5-7).  There is a right way to rise.  True, our wish should not be another’s nightmare.  The film is right in this, greed and manipulation are false paths to prosperity.  Yet the film fails to see that we need to instead be blessed by God as we walk in His ways.  The key to the rise is to repent of evil, not to negotiate with it, apologize for it, or to socialize a society thinking somehow we will level the playing field and starve evil into extinction.  The films portray our situation powerfully, but fail to solve it morally - evil is not the by-product of economics, but it is rather the by-product of a sinful soul.  Thus, it is solved only one way, not economically, socially, or circumstantially -  but through heart change.  
The key to a more peaceful world is not more tolerance in the scrum beneath the trees, but repentance.   
The Bible has a very clear view on evil that is in conflict with postmodern film.  A person may be victimized, in a past life she may have been a good witch who had a tough go of it back in the day at Magic High with Glinda, but there is no valid excuse for evil.  Instead of seeking to place responsibility on others and blaming them for the evil that is done, we are to look at ourselves and come to a place of honesty about what we have become.
The Bible finds only two solutions for evil.  It must ether be crushed in righteous judgment or the evil one is offered a place of grace in repentance and faith.  Evil does not go away if you apologize to it.  Evil is not in the woods, it is in us.  All of us are capable of foolish choices, ignoring the plight of the oppressed, and the pursuit of the ultimately selfish wish - we are capable, but we are also culpable for our actions.  
Postmodernism and her films fail in thinking that people are never the problem, but rather the situation.  In Into the Woods it is almost as if the whole thing is caused by the magic beans.  It is not the existence of greedy or embittered people that brings evil into the world, but it is rather the existence of those cursed magic beans that promise prosperity.  This is why postmodernism blames the gun instead of the gunman.  People are not evil, situations are.  
In its assassination of the morality play, postmodernism has become a naive fairytale indeed.  Isis is not going to climb back up the vine just because I say “I’m sorry.”  The school house gunman was not created by the gun manufacturer.  Taking away his weapon will not change his heart.  He does what he does not because of the cool kids.  He does what he does because he is evil.  In its refusal to call anyone evil or to celebrate anyone good, postmodernism rather teaches we are the product of Camelot.  Yet the Bible teaches that we are not the products of our culture, our culture is the product of us. 
In the end we are not left in the scrum beneath the trees to retell a pointless story and blame ourselves for what others do, but we are left with the gospel.  The gospel is the story that Christ has entered our situation to change our hearts.  The prince, the princess, the baker, the witch, the giant, all of us are confronted with a profound truth.  The Son of God has come into the world to confront evil people in one of two ways: by grace or by judgment - we have a choice - either repent or perish.  We cannot absolve ourselves in apologies for the existence of giants; pointlessly singing beneath the trees.  We must face the truth.  Evil is evil and it is in us.  We do not need another false narrative to sing; we need to be redeemed.

December 13, 2014

Ten Things I Learned about Suicide, #'s 6 and 7

Continued from a previous post: http://www.feelmyfaith.com/2014/12/ten-things-i-learned-about-suicide-1-5.html

6.  Parents who have lost children through suicide want you to say their child’s name and talk about their child’s life.


During our interview time, Mike mentioned that his son is one of three young men who had died untimely deaths in their family.  Mike tragically lost two nephews.  One was killed in a car accident and the other was lost when a tornado hit a high school in Enterprise, Alabama in 2007.  
Mike said that when he is around friends and family, people will freely share memories of the other two boys, but will seldom mention his son.  There may be various reasons, but whatever the reason it reveals a common problem, people don’t know what to say.
Mike looked at our congregation on that Sunday and said, “Say their names.  Parents who have lost children through suicide want you to say their names.”  People who have lost loved ones through any manner of death find healing through the sharing of memories and the recollection of stories.  For those who have lost someone through suicide, it is just as healing for them to hear those stories and to have their names mentioned and missed.  Family members and friends don’t want you to ignore their loss, they want you to talk about it, ask questions, and share memories.  The freedom of conversation lets them know you are with them in their trial.

7.  Grief after suicide is different than grief after other forms of death.
No one survives life.  Death comes upon us in various ways and at various times.  Some die young.  Some are very old.  Some lose their life after long battles with sickness or disease.  Some people’s bodies just break down.  Some people are lost suddenly and tragically in accidents.  There is a common patter of grief shared in almost all of these instances, but for those who lose someone through suicide, the process of grief takes on a different form.
After the death of a loved one grief is often objective.  We wonder if our loved one suffered in their final moments; or perhaps we wonder what their life would have been like if they were allowed to continue living.  With suicide grief is greatly mingled with guilt.  Grief takes on a much more subjective tone as loved ones struggle to answer a seemingly impossible question; why?  
Many times there is a great deal of blame.  People may blame themselves or one another.  Suicide often brings with it emotional strain that tests friendships, familial bonds, and even marriages.  With suicide there is confusion and anger at the one who took their life, but the person is no longer there to help bring resolution.  Suicide is not only the end of the conversation, but it as stated in a previous point, it is the end of possibilities.  
For those contemplating suicide, Mike mentioned that one often thinks his or her death will bring relief or resolution to a problem.  Mike said the reality is otherwise.  He said that his son struggled with depression and other problems from the time he was a teen, but those problems were no comparison to the problems his suicide has brought upon his family.  Mike said his son’s death was only the beginning of problems; and those problems continue even 11 years later.  

Grief after suicide is severe.  For those contemplating suicide, the toll on one’s family needs to be considered before you make a tragic mistake.  For those helping a loved one heal after suicide, it must be understood, this will be a long road full of unanswered questions.  In this case we may not be able to offer solutions, but to do what the Bible says and merely to help bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2).

December 9, 2014

Ten Things I Learned About Suicide (1-5)

A few weeks ago I invited The Director for The Center for Hope, Denny Whitesel and a pastor friend of mine, Mike Jackson, Director of The Office of Leadership and Church Health for the Alabama State Board of Missions, to join me one Sunday morning for a conversation about suicide.  Denny has done extensive work in suicide prevention.  Mike lost a son 11 years ago to suicide.  Here is what I learned.
1.  Suicide is more common than we think and more people in the church are struggling with it than we care to admit.  
“In the U.S., there were 38,364 suicides in 2010—an average of 105 each day. On average, one person commits suicide every 16.2 minutes.  An average of one elderly person every hour and 41.4 minutes and an average of one young person every two hours and 2.1 minutes killed themselves.
“Suicide was the tenth leading cause of death for all ages in 2010. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among persons aged 15-24 years, the second among persons aged 25-34 years, the fourth among person aged 35-54 years, and the eighth among person 55-64 years.”
“Men are more likely to die by suicide than women, but women are more likely to attempt suicide. There are on average 3.7 male deaths by suicide for each female death by suicide. But there are three female suicide attempts for each male attempt.”
My personal experience as a pastor has been that when I am willing to openly talk about suicide, truthfully and lovingly from Scripture, there are people in the congregation who will admit they have been struggling with it.  Often, these are people who have been a part of the church for some time.  
As a pastor, this tells me that the conversation about suicide does not need to be anathema to the church.  The gospel has an answer.  The power of Christ is sufficient even for suicide.  If we are to preach the full counsel of Christ we cannot exile certain topics.  Doing so communicates to our brothers and sisters in Christ that you are alone in your struggle and this is simply not the case.
In fact, my experience has taught me that no one is immune.  Pastors, teachers, the most kind, loving, Christ-like people can struggle with suicidal thoughts.  These people need to know the church is listening and has an answer for a very real problem they are facing.
2.  Treatment is not defeat, even for people with great faith.
In our conversation, Denny shared that more than 80% of those thinking about suicide, who seek professional counsel, are treated successfully.  I was pleased to hear that the success rate was that high.  Mike shared that his son had gone through treatment several times, but unfortunately he still chose to end his life.  From my vantage point it was refreshing to hear these men talk about the need for Christians to seek clinical counsel.
Yet, I wonder how many people in the church see visiting a counselor as defeat?
The argument for counsel is a post in itself.  I dealt with the issue of paying for counsel in a post sometime ago.  Space does not suffice in this post for the full argument, so allow me to simply string together some thoughts to consider.
There are some things your pastor, your family or your friends, are simply not equipped to deal with.  I can speak from personal experience; if your pastor is worth his weight, he will be willing to admit his limitations.  Furthermore, there are some things you need to be able to talk about with someone you don’t see every Sunday.  There are some things YOU WON’T talk about unless you feel 100% safe.  I’ve never felt 100% safe talking about some of my personal struggles with people in the church.  
A counselor provides you a safe place to talk - and let’s be honest, so you can continue attending your church!  There are some things people want to discuss with me that I will refer them to a counselor for one simple reason; I know if they tell me, they won’t come back.  From that point onward, that person will think that if I bring up certain topics from the pulpit, that I am talking specifically about them.  As a pastor, referring someone to counsel is not defeat, it is protection for both pulpit and pew for liberty in preaching.
Counselors are trained professionals and paying them is not a sin, it is smart.  These people have invested massive amounts of time and money studying human behavior.  Paying for counsel is not a self-defeating admission there is something wrong with you as much as it is a matter of support for someone well equipped to help you.  You pay a mechanic to work on your car.  Why not invest money and time into seeing someone qualified to treat someone much more precious like your thoughts and emotions?  
What’s your life worth?  Most of the time when we don’t seek help, we pay far greater a price.
3.  Suicide is brain failure.
Pastor Rick Warren lost a son to suicide in 2013.  In preparation to discuss this topic, I watched Rick’s first sermon after his tragic loss.  He made a great point.  Sin in our lives is to blame not only for failures in our body, but also for failures in our brain.  People suffer heart failure and kidney failure.  People also experience brain failure.  
During our interview, Denny shared that most people who are suicidal are dealing with some form of mental illness.  Something in their thinking and reasoning, whether cognitively or emotionally, isn’t working.  We can be mentally ill just as easily as we can be physically ill.  Guess what, anyone at any time can become mentally ill.  
The week after I shared this topic with my congregation I was in a meeting of over 200 men.  The speaker for the event is one of the most motivating men I know, a former athlete who played football for the University of Georgia, and a real leader in our town.  He is a man’s man who appears to have it all together.  Toward the end of his talk he made the statement that he had been hospitalized four times for depression and suicidal thoughts.  
When he made that statement I did not think less of him.  In fact, it was probably the most liberating thought of the entire evening.  Here is a man, a leader, who knows what is wrong with him and he is getting the help he needs.  How many of us know there is something wrong with us, but we have yet to admit it?  
We go to the doctor when something is wrong with our bodies.  Why don’t we find help when there is something wrong with our brains? 
4.  Suicide is satanic, personal deception.
In the first chapter of his epistle, James explains the course of temptation and sin for all of us.
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. James 1:14–15 (ESV)
Suicide is a sin in the same way that adultery, corrupt speech, stealing, murder, or abuse is sin.  Yet, unlike many other sins, suicide has an immediate, fatal, self-centered consequence.  
Somehow the mind gets twisted into thinking ending life is better than living it.  Perhaps a person is not willing to suffer, be shamed, deal with the consequences of actions, seeks attention, or maybe even wants revenge upon a loved one - whatever the reason one is carried away in their own desire, the thought is allowed to incubate and the mind becomes convinced.  
Satan is the father of lies.  He knows our mental and emotional weak points and he exposes them.  We are easily deceived and according to James it becomes even more dangerous when we become personally convinced.  
As with other sins, self-control, denial, and repentance are essential tools in interrupting deceptive thoughts.  The mind must be brought back to truth.  Ending one’s life is not the end of problems but the end of possibilities.  
My friend Mike Jackson, in our conversation said it best, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”  In fact, he pointed out that in the experience of his family, his son’s choice to end his life was only the beginning of what has become 11+ years of problems for them.  He had much rather his son be alive than to be dealing with the harsh reality they now contend with everyday.  
When we have suicidal thoughts we must fix our minds on truth, on a God with whom all things are possible.  We must bring ourselves back to reality or we may be fatally deceived.
5.  A suicide survivor may be someone far beyond the circle of immediate family.
We often hear the term “suicide survivor.”  Up until our conversation about suicide I often thought of the survivor being a spouse, a child, a parent; someone from the immediate family or perhaps a close friend.  In talking about and researching suicide I realized that the term “suicide survivor” encompasses a much larger circle.  
Survivors of suicide may include any of us who know someone, whether intimately or distantly, who has committed suicide.  A suicide survivor may be a classmate who never had a conversation with a person who ended their life, but wonders why they never took the time to get to know them.  A survivor may be someone who worked in the same building and never even knew the person’s name, but carries some weight of blame wondering if it would have made a difference if he or she had reached out to them.
The suicide of one can effect an entire school or community.  Suicide hurts and confuses all of us.  There are more survivors out there than we think. 
In the second service that morning there were around 300 people in the auditorium.  I asked those in attendance to raise their hand if they know someone who has committed suicide.  I was shocked to see a clear majority of hands were raised.  

To me those hands represented a truth we have heard but often ignore.  You never know who is watching.  Our lives are interconnected more deeply than we think.  We need fewer suicide survivors and more life sustainers.  We need to get to know one another’s names.  We need to open up the conversations.  You never know how a smile, a simple question, a hand shake, a “good morning” could save a life. 
To be continued . . .
Listen to our conversation about suicide here.   Suicide: Thinking, Coping, Healing from Liberty Baptist Church Dalton, GA.

December 8, 2014

Is God a Fun-Sucker? (An Excerpt from My Book #TheWalk)

It is difficult for many of us to believe that God wants us to be satisfied.  My wife affectionately refers to me sometimes as a “fun-sucker.”  A “fun-sucker” is someone who can emotionally vaporize every ounce of joy in a room with a single word.  I am a master at the craft.
One of our favorite things to do in the spring of the year is to attend the University of Georgia G-Day football game.  The weather is warming.  There is a real family atmosphere in the stadium.  It has been a long, dark winter and it has been a long time since we have seen some football.  Best of all, its free!  A game will cost my family a small fortune in the fall, but the spring game is perfectly priced.
We get out of bed the morning of G-Day and the weather is perfect.  Our plan is to stop at a mom-and-pop breakfast joint in our town and grab biscuits on the way to the game.  Apparently, everyone else in the metropolis of Chatsworth, Georgia had the same plan.  We live in a small town with only a few thousand people.  Apparently all of them meet up at the same hole-in-the wall joint for biscuits and invite out-of-town guests. 
We sat at the drive-thru 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, and it seemed like we had moved less than a car length closer to the window.  It was at that moment that fun sucker determined to save the day.
I loudly expressed to every passenger in my van my thoughts regarding the inefficiency of the restaurant servers.  I condemned harshly the idea that other people in our town would want biscuits as badly as I did.  Comparatively, I pointed out why my day must certainly be more important than theirs.  How dare the good people of Chatsworth inconvenience a man on a schedule going to a glorified spring football practice!  By the time I had yelled, stomped, and slung gravel while bolting out of the parking lot, there was not a single ounce of fun left within the confines of our Honda Odyssey van.  Mission accomplished.  
For some reason we believe God is a “fun-sucker.”  We believe God is a mostly stoic, otherwise temperamental, unpredictable, ruler of the universe who requires us to be miserable if we are to have any shot at being godly.  If you share this belief allow me to ask a few questions.
Who was it that created the Garden of Eden full of perfect provision and told Adam and the Eve to have it all, but one?
Who was it that invented the day off?
Who was it that instituted seven feast days on the Jewish calendar?  
Who was it that created the concept of a promised land flowing with milk and honey?
Who created Paradise?
God is not a fun-sucker.  The God of the Bible is happy.  
In John 17 we have recorded a divine conversation between Jesus and the Father.  There Jesus prays, “But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” - John 17:13 (ESV)  
As a happy God, the Bible teaches that there are things that God approves, that He delights in (Psalm 35:27).  We have a God who actually likes things.  Remember why we said that, when we turn our attention to God’s face instead of our own, we are more likely to be satisfied?  Because you need only one “like.”
Someone may object and point quickly to the Ten Commandments.  It is difficult to envision a happy God who likes anything when the 10 most familiar statements in the Bible begin “Thou shalt not.”  Through our eyes we see God as a warden on patrol.  He has a scowl on His face and He is quick to bring harsh judgment on anyone who dares to break one of the ten rules.  But is that really a fair assessment of what the Ten Commandments truly are?
Is it really fair to presume that negative statements are always motivated by hate?  When a child walks too close to a fire, is it hateful for a mother to scream out, “Stop!”  Is it judgmental for the manufacturers of rat poison to put a skull and crossbones on the box and to warn you that, if you eat it, you will die?  Think about this:  Do the warnings on a box of poison diminish in any way the pleasure that is found in cake?
What we need on a box of poison is a warning about the contents, not a commentary on the taste of cake.  Would you rather the box list all the things you can eat and allow you to figure out by the process of elimination what you can’t eat without harmful repercussions?  No way!  What we need is for warnings to get to the point.  It’s not so much negative as it is practical.  
What if you rethought the Ten Commandments and didn’t see them only as negative statements, but as affirmations of what God loves?  If the Ten Commandments are the primary list for what God doesn’t like, what do the Ten say about what God does like?
Let’s take the last 6 as an example.  The last 6 govern our relationships with one another.  Honor your father and your mother.  Why, because God loves the family.
You shall not murder.  God loves life.
You shall not commit adultery.  God loves loving marriages built on trust.
You shall not steal.  God wants you to enjoy ownership and have security with your stuff.
You shall not bear false witness.  God loves truth and in the same way He protects His image (no graven images, do not take the Lord’s name in vain), He protects your reputation.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house or wife . . . or anything that is your neighbor’s.  God values contentment and security in community.
Is it really a fun-sucker move on God’s part to protect your property, your marriage, your parents, your children, and your very life?  The Ten Commandments say more about who God is and what God likes than they do about what He doesn’t.
If you will learn to like what God likes, you can have your fill of it.  It is here that the word “fun-sucker” enters the equation.  So what does God like?  Is it singing in the choir?  Wow, now that sounds eternally fun - forever a choir boy!  

Surely God likes modesty.  Does that mean I must wear khaki and white everyday?  If we like what God likes, we imagine ourselves having only our fill of a monkish life, holed up in a bell tower, hooked on Gregorian chants, destined to forever wear khaki.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  God has greater desires than khaki for His people.  
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December 4, 2014

How much do you weigh?

In Psalm 138:3, David writes, “On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased.”
Life is heavy.  There is a weight in situations and circumstances that cannot be measured with a scale.  There is no physical mass to a hard day, but still you feel and weight of it.  
How heavy is the soul?  
Can you imagine going through the day, walking up to friends, acquaintances, and strangers and asking them a common question, “How much do you weigh today?”  Talk about getting personal!  
And so, I will start the day with you, how much do you weigh today?  I can ask because I am at a safe “no slap” cyber-distance from you through the blog.  Yet, I can also ask, because I am not speaking of the weight of your body, but the weight of your soul.  How about the weight of your day?  Perhaps the weight of your situation?  The weight of the body, you and I mindlessly carry it around day by day.  I think very little of 211.  I’m so used to it, I don’t feel it.  I am what I am!  But, weight of soul, I feel it.  So do you.
How do we increase the strength of our soul?  From Psalm 138 we can draw some solid principles.
  1. Thankfulness from the whole heart (v. 1) - The Psalms are not trite songs and prayers that mindlessly look for the good in every situation.  If anything, the Psalms are honest songs and prayers.  They are the anthems of heavy souls.  In fact there is a small collection of them that in Latin are referred to as misery Psalms.  The foremost of them being Psalm 51.  Yet even in Psalms of hopelessness there is thankfulness.  In Psalm 138:1 he sings praise to his God before the gods.  Our soul is strengthened in the song of thankfulness.  The situation may not change, but a burdened soul finds resolute strength when we take a moment to enter into the equation of our situation who God is.
  2. Bowing the body in prayer, daily (v. 2) - Notice in the second verse David bows toward the Temple.  It is the same as saying, “I bow before God.”  The posture of our body reflects the posture of our heart.  When we bow before God we are not only expressing reverence, but humility and vulnerability.  When arresting someone a policeman says, “Hands up where I can see them.”  If the hands are up, it is assumed there will be no defense.  Bowing is the “hands up” of the soul.  It is the posture of total surrender.  How often do we pray a pithy prayer, a token word to God as we walk, or before we eat, or even as we drive.  There is no surrender in religious ritual.  There is no strength of soul in mindless habit.  But have you taken time in prayer today to bow before God?  Bowing requires that you stop what you are doing.  It requires that you get on your face.  Bowing is breaking the back, cracking open the soul, laying down before the Lord.  Bowing before God not only says, “God, you are holy” but it also says, “I can’t do this.”  The soul is strengthened in holy vulnerability.
  3. Remembering the plans, purposes, and promises of God (v. 4-8).  I will admit, it is difficult for me to pray for long periods of time.  The digi-brain is easily distracted.  Smartphones are the death of meditation and of the attention span.  Yet when my mind is stayed on Scripture I can concentrate.  What I am writing this morning is due to my time praying through Psalm 138; my strength of soul has been increased - and so I blog.  In verses 4-8 David is citing what he has found to be true of God by experience, but for the most part, he is reciting back to God what he knows to be true of Him from His Word.  The thought that all the kings of the earth will give God praise is an eschatological hope.  The world is unwound right now, but we know how the story ends.  Truth strengthens the soul.  Verse 6 reflects God’s character.  “Though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly.”  You and I need to remind ourselves of this - it strengthens the soul to know God cares.  He is with me in my times of trouble (v. 7).  His promises do not fail (v. 8).  The weight of the day threatens to crush me, but in these truths there is a new reality that strengthens my soul.
It cannot be measured on the scale, but you feel the weight of the day.  The situation may not change, but the soul has the potential to be strengthened.  Prayer, singing, bowing before God, staying the mind on truth - these are the things that increase the strength of the soul.  

How much do you weigh today?    

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