#preacherfail: When Your Preacher Fails … And You’re The Preacher

epicfailThe highlight of yesterday’s worship service was a toddler farting during prayer time. A toddler dropping an accidental boom-boom during worship is always hilarious.

The lowlight of yesterday’s worship service was definitely the awful preaching. The pastor’s delivery was bad … The illustrations were non-existent … The knowledge of the source material was laughable. Even worse, the pastor even forgot to give an invitation at the end of the sermon!

Unfortunately, I was the one doing the preaching.

One toddler stunk up the auditorium … I stunk up the pulpit.

Sunday morning was a total #preacherfail. It’s been one of those crazy busy weeks in the life of the pastor that they don’t train you for in Seminary: Hospital and nursing home visits on Monday … Applying for church loan on Tuesday … Leading a training session on Wednesday … Plastering and painting my house in preparation of small group in my house on Thursday AM … Small group in my home on Thursday PM … Church yard sale on Friday … Family time planned months in advance on Saturday … Multiple crises and mega interpersonal church drama in between. A new conflict in the church kept me awake half the night on Friday. My daughter is asking to spend more time with me, and I worry about how to make her a priority instead of “squeezing her in.” The sermon wasn’t quite a “Saturday night special” (which is an unfortunate pastoral euphemism for hastily slapped together sermon written in the wee hours of Saturday night / Sunday morning), but it was about as close as I’ve ever come. In the midst of everything else, I’m having somewhat of an existential crisis about the quality of my preaching and why virtually no one responds to it. So the perfect storm of anxiety, stress, exhaustion and lack of confidence blew across the bow of the pulpit like a hurricane force wind.

Like many fresh-out-the-Seminary-bubble pastors, I bought into the false notion that a successful response to a sermon is to have a magical Billy Graham / Acts 2 moment where the masses rush to the altar in repentance after a good rhetorical drubbing from the Word. When you’ve bought into this measure of success, zero response to your preaching on a regular basis can be heartbreaking. And then the Monday morning quarterbacking questions inevitably ensue: “What am I doing wrong? … Did I not pray hard enough? … Was my delivery bad? … Maybe I wasn’t explicit enough with the main idea.” You wind up pulling all of your self-help preaching books off the shelf to highlight things to fix next week. Worst of all, I tend to get caught up in the sin of comparison, where I glance at other pastor’s successes and start to think I’m a failure. And so my wife winds up spending her Sunday afternoon talking me off the ledge a couple times a year. The great pastoral hope of early Sunday morning usually gives way to the Sunday afternoon desire to enter the witness protection program. You wind up like the guy in the suit from the Talking Heads video asking over and over: “How did I get here?”

 

talkingheadsAn extremely famous unknown person once said: “There is only one God. You are not Him.”

As a pastor, the subtle temptation is to attempt to take on the divine eternal attributes of God. If only I had the proper rhetorical skill, verbal hook and three points that alliterate, then sinners would be moved to repentance. If only I had edited my sermon better and been clear in the main idea, then my church would moved to evangelize their neighborhoods. If only I hadn’t whiffed that illustration, then that couple might finally start thinking seriously about joining a small group. If only I had a really moving conclusion, then that family might be moved to join the church. I know it’s complete foolishness but I find myself thinking in these insane manners sometimes. In the process, I put a lot of pressure on myself foolishly attempting to be God and to do only what God can do. Only the intersection of the Holy Spirit and the Word can move sinners to true repentance … Only God can move believers to grow in obedience to the Word … Only God can stimulate spiritual growth.

Honestly, I hate making the admission that I cannot accomplish what God can. I am a total perfectionist and pride myself in being able to solve my own problems without anyone else’s help, thank you very much. My default response is “What can I do to fix things?” … Instead of “How can I surrender this problem over to God and trust that He will provide?” Instinctively, I know this streak of self-reliance is sinful / wrong, but it’s my fall back position. The whole “Be faithful and let God take care the results” thing is far easier said than done.

I am often reminded that the original disciples fantastically failed in ministry too. In Matthew 17:14-21, we witness Jesus succeeding where the disciples failed in exorcising a demon from a child. When the group had gotten away from the crowds, the disciples asked Jesus: “Why could we not cast (the demon) out?” The implication of the question is that the disciples are asking what they did wrong: “Do we need to work harder? … Do we need to do better preparation? … Do we need to play some quiet worship jams to set the mood for the exorcism? … Did we not read the correct church growth manual? … Do we need three points and a poem next time?” Interestingly, Jesus replies: “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

The answer is faith.

The answer is trusting that God can accomplish what is seemingly impossible and relying less on your own power and ability.

I once served under a pastor who burned out fast and imploded in slow motion over a course of several months. From a public blow-up over a baptismal unfilled to a cussing out of the worship leader mid-service, the signs were on display for the everyone for all to see. Sermons become more spiteful and hateful and less loving and caring. Everyone in the congregation knew that the end was near, but no one really know what to say. The problem was the pastor put all of the pressure of the success or failure of the church on himself. And no one – including me – had the guts to tell the pastor that it’s OK to fail. I wonder how much healthier that church (and all of our churches) would be if the congregation just spoke up and told the pastor that they don’t expect him to be perfect. Ironically, I now find myself in similar shoes, blaming myself for every failure, and not giving myself permission to fail. Similar to the disciples in Matthew 17, I need to understand the answer is more faith and less methodology and minutia. Success is simply faithfulness.

There will be more #preacherfail.

If you are reading this blog and serve in any capacity in ministry from ministry leader to Sunday School teacher to deacon to worship leader, you will have your Sundays of #leaderfail, #teacherfail, #deaconfail and #worshipleaderfail too.

We’re not God and we have to accept it. We cannot accomplish what only God can do under His own power. We simply have to plan, prepare and give God our best, and trust God to accomplish the things of God. I don’t particularly like this concept, but – like broccoli – I’m working on it becoming more palatable.

I also need to remind myself of the following:

I am still a child of the King.

I am still more loved by Christ more than I possibly understand or deserve.

I still have the riches of a glorious hope and inheritance in Christ.

And when I fail, nothing will change these immutable facts.

So it’s Monday morning. It’s time to start preparing for next Sunday.

 

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Dragon Land (On Heaven & The Gospel)

ReDragonsPart Two in the Series “Heaven Forbid”

When my daughter was much younger, she loved this PBS show called “Dragon Tales.” Perhaps other parents out there have gotten a migraine from watching this show as well. “Dragon Tales” is about two siblings (Max and Emmy) that get magically transported on a regular basis to a land full of dopy dragons, including one named (I kid you not) Wheezy. And man, oh man … These dragons have major drama … Like when everyone forgets your birthday or when you really miss your dragon mom and dad. Just like other children’s programming like “Dora the Explorer” and “The Cat In The Hat,” you’d think that these kids’ parents would notice that their kids had absconded to magical lands for extended durations of time and call 9-1-1. During every episode of “Dragon Tales,” the kids would touch a magic dragon scale and chant the magic slogan that would transport them Dragon Land: “I wish, I wish with all my heart … To fly with dragons in a land of heart.” Then the two kids would solve all of the dragons’ drama, much like miniature Dr. Phils, and go back home in time for lunch and naps.

“Dragon Tales” really follows a trope of most children’s literature about magical lands: If you just wish and believe hard enough, then you’ll wind up in a magical paradise. Call it the alternative gospel of wish fulfillment.

One of my greatest concerns about the “Heaven and back” genre of books is an acceptance of the alternative gospel of wish fulfillment. In some cases, this appeal to an alternative gospel occurs rather unwittingly as the Gospel is assumed in writing to a principally Christian bookstore audience. However, part of the goal of the “Heaven and back” books is to describe Heaven as an awesome place and to convince people that they need to go there too. Even entitling a book Heaven Is For Real affirms this argumentation. It’s almost like those anti-smoking television PSAs where a bunch of hip teenagers try to show their audience how awesome life is without lung cancer: “Heaven is such a cool place to be! Free white choir robes for everyone! Hell is for wimps!” While some marginal discussion of the glorified Christ is given, the Gospel message of sin, repentance and trust is minimized, and an appeal to Heaven is emphasized more than an appeal to the Gospel.

Many of the “Heaven and back” books include anecdotes of the narrator’s friends, family and acquaintances converting to Christianity based on a recounting of their purported Heavenly experiences. We find such anecdotes in Don Piper’s 90 Minutes In Heaven, where several sick or dying persons hear an account of Heaven and convert to Christianity. Presumably the Gospel and the person of Christ gets shared somewhere in the midst of the situation, but the person’s salvation experience is left somewhat ambiguous. However, the account of Heaven appears to be the initial impetus for belief.

The question is begged: What are we putting our hope, trust and faith in? And what exactly is the character of saving faith?

One Biblical affirmation is critical: Saving faith is based on a person and not a place. The Biblical Gospel is short circuited when salvation becomes more about a longing for a place than love for a person. Salvation comes from trusting in Jesus, who singularly has the the authority and the power to take believers home. Consider Paul’s words in Philippians 3:8-9: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” The highest and greatest value of the believer is knowing Jesus Christ, who provides to His people a righteousness apart from good works or rule following. Such righteousness is found through faith in Christ. Christ stand victorious and able where we are feeble and incompetent. And if we gain a Heaven apart from Christ, then we have truly gained nothing. Our treasure is Christ.

Let me try to illustrate this point another way. Over Thanksgiving break, our family took a short vacation to an indoor water park. My daughter was extremely curious, asking a mind-numbing amount of questions: “How long will it take to get there? … Will there be hamburgers with onions only? … Can I bring all of my stuffed animals? … How many hours can we spend in the pool? … Why do your fingers get all pruny underwater?” My wife and I showed her numerous pictures from the website. We watched online videos showing the rides and activities. While driving to the drudgery of school every morning until Thanksgiving break, my daughter would groan: “I wish we were going to the water park instead!” But in the end, my daughter never would have gotten to the water park unless she hopped in the Kia and trusted that I would drive her there. Similarly, we will never arrive in a Heavenly destination unless we know Christ and trust that He has the power and authority to take us there. Just because we long for a place doesn’t mean that we will arrive there.

If we’re not careful, believers can wind up being more like real estate brokers peddling a new subdivision than heralds of the conquering King. The world where we live has been horrendously broken by sin, and groans for restoration (Romans 8:19-22). Mankind is longing from escape from the pale specter of cancer, natural disaster and death. Loved ones get hospitalized. Family funerals become more frequent. Dreams crumble. Unrelenting and unforeseen disaster cripples. Living in the world hurts. So people reflect upon Heaven as a gigantic family reunion jamboree where fading memories of papaw fishing and mamaw’s apple pie l will once again be realized. Or Heaven becomes a nice suburban mansion on the corner of Gold and God Street with no mortgage. Or Heaven becomes the place where we can eat Ben and Jerry’s by the gallon and never get out of shape. Simply put, Heaven becomes a mirror of our personal dreams and fantasies instead of God’s design.

Don’t get me wrong: Revelation 21:4 does affirm that our Heavenly abode will be a place without death, mourning, crying and pain. It is a good thing to hope and trust that the curse of sin will once for all be eliminated by Christ. But these things are not ends unto themselves. Even atheists hope that pain and suffering will end on the earth, but their methodology for how that peace will occur is radically different from Christ.

Above all things, the Gospel cannot be reduced to mere escapism. Again, believers must affirm that saving faith is based on a love for Christ and not longing for Heaven. I frequently quote John Piper’s compelling question from God Is The Gospel to my congregation: “The critical question for our generation—and for every generation— is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?” I fear that many who claim Christ would answer “yes” to that question.

Make no mistake: Heaven is all about Christ. The worship of Christ is both the central theme of Heaven and our primary activity in Heaven. Every Heavenly description in the book of Revelation revolves around Christ. Christ alone is the glorified Son of God, victorious over sin and the grave (Revelation 1). Christ boldly stands amongst his persecuted churches (Revelation 2). Christ is worshipped as ruler over all Creation (Revelation 4). Christ alone stands worthy to open the seals of judgment (Revelation 5). Christ alone is worshipped by a great multitude from every nation (Revelation 7). The warrior Christ triumphs over all of His enemies (Revelation 18-19). Christ reigns as King over the New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 21-22). You will find no description of a man-centered Heaven in Revelation or anywhere else in Scripture.

Fortunately, my daughter (who my wife and I joke is 8 going on 16) has well moved on from “Dragon Tales,” and is now devouring The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. In re-reading those tales alongside my daughter, I’ve started to notice the methodology of how the characters actually arrive in the supernatural land of Narnia in each book. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Lucy stumbles upon the wardrobe entrance to Narnia during a game of hide and seek, and then evangelizes her three siblings into journeying through the wardrobe with her. In Prince Caspian, the same four children are pulled out a train station back into a Narnia while unassumingly on their way to school. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a portrait of a ship hanging on the wall turns an average bedroom into an Narnian ocean. And the pattern continues: No one comes to Narnia except those that Aslan, the wild lion and Christ-figure of the series, has called to be there. And the timing of his calling is largely unknown and often quite inconvenient. And the way to Narnia is only known by Aslan.

In end of The Voyage of The Dawn Treader, an older Lucy has the following conversion with Aslan:

“Oh, Aslan,” said Lucy. “Will you tell us how to get into your country from our world?”

”I shall be telling you all the time,” said Aslan. “But I will not tell you how long or short the way will be; only that it lies across a river. But do not fear that, for I am the great Bridge Builder.”

Christ is the great Bridge Builder. Only He can bridge the chasm of death. Our journey to Heaven is not glorified wish fulfillment. Arriving across safely on the other shore the Jordan is wholly dependent upon loving and trusting the One who has built the bridge. In the words of C.S. Lewis, Christ’s message to worried disciples in John 14:1-7 is mirrored: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going. … I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In this regard, I am also critiquing myself and my own preaching and teaching. I too long for a renewed and restored creation minus all of the suffering and sorrow. I have experienced the death of loved ones and now find my own body slowly falling apart due to the effects of time and self-inflicted pain. I long for the day promised in Revelation 21:4 where Christ will wipe every tear from my eyes. As such, I often find myself hawking Heaven instead of introducing Christ. So I need to be more herald and less real estate broker. The emphasis of our preaching and teaching needs to be more about the One who stands victorious over death than the land where death will be no more. We cannot cross the Great Divide without knowing the One able to build a bridge over the chasm. It’s exceedingly more important to know the great Bridge Builder than to know what lies over the Bridge.

Let us rejoice in knowing the great Bridge Builder.

 

The Man Who Fell From Heaven (On Heaven & Christ)

stairs-to-heaven-1

Part One in the Series “Heaven Forbid”

Full disclosure: I’ve never been to heaven and back.

But I have met two people who claimed to have gone to Heaven and back.

Let’s start with number one, shall we?

Back in 1990, Wednesday night for our family invariably consisted of the weekly church supper and youth group. I can almost smell the single serving meatloaf and canned golden corn nibblets now. On one night in question, I remember that my singular focus for the evening was to flirt with a certain girl at youth group, so I was actually excited to get to church. To my dismay, youth group was cancelled for the evening, and the entire church was invited to stay in the church Fellowship Hall after supper to hear an extra special speaker.

I remember our extra special speaker looked like the second coming of Harry Carry with wild grey hair, coke bottle glasses and grey wool suit. The Harry Carry clone then began to explain in great detail how he had died, went to Heaven and was sent back by Jesus to report to everyone what he had seen. Honestly, I probably missed out on a few of the details because I managed to sit beside the young lady I’d was interested in seeing in the first place. I did catch many of the usual tropes about Heaven that I’d heard in Sunday School: angelic beings with big wings … pearly gates … reunions with old Sunday School teachers and loved ones.

(Why is it that everyone talks about meeting their old Sunday School teacher in Heaven anyway? … Case in Point: Thank You For Giving To The Lord by Ray Boltz … But I digress …)

And then things started to get real interesting when Harry Carry told us about all of the aliens in Heaven. Yes … extraterrestrials riding UFOs. Apparently, Heaven was going to be filled with different types of aliens from other planets that God had redeemed. Jesus had explained to Harry that there was a different plan of salvation for the aliens than the Vacation Bible School “admit-believe-confess.” And that certainly caught my attention more than flirting with whats-her-name (seriously … I don’t remember her name … yikes!). I remember all of the youth group being abuzz for days afterwards with all of the “proof” of Heaven and how exciting that it was going to be in Heaven with ET. Maybe we’d even get to ride a genuine spaceship.

And then I happened to meet a second man who claimed to have gone to Heaven and back. His name is Jesus. I also happened to meet Jesus in 1990. I surrendered my life to Him, and I’ve spent the past 24 years getting to know Him a lot better. He even called me out of the tremendously exciting world of zoning administration to serve as a pastor.

As a pastor, the number one question that I get asked is: “Have you read (insert title of book about Heaven here)? Do you think it’s true?” Admittedly, I was fairly ignorant of the whole “going to Heaven and book” trend in Christian literature, but I kept getting questions from my congregation about the genre. So I checked them all out. Seriously, all of them. Now I’m seeing one or two new books about Heaven cropping up every month. That’s a lot of people that Jesus is allowing to take the peepshow tour of heaven. Apparently, Jesus needs to send an exponentially increasing number of people back from Heaven to write compelling, ghostwritten bestsellers and major motion pictures that prove to the world that Heaven actually exists.

Here’s the major rub: Jesus made exclusive claims about His incarnation.

In John 3, Jesus has a surreptitious nighttime meeting with the Pharisee Nicodemus. Jesus brushes off Nicodemus’ initial flattery and wonder at His miracles. Jesus gets straight to the point: He tells the Pharisee that he must be spiritually born again to see the kingdom of God. And new life comes from the Spirit of God … Not from following the Old Testament Law. As an expert in the Law, Nicodemus twice scoffs at Jesus’ message of spiritual rebirth. So Jesus responds with one of the harshest theological beat downs in all of Scripture:

10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. – John 3:10-15

In one fell swoop, Jesus declares this expert teacher of the Law to be a theological simpleton, unable to understand the basic principles of God. Like most Pharisees, Nicodemus was like a whitewashed tomb, appearing Godly on the outside due to religious obedience but spiritually dead inside.

But Jesus goes further to tell Nicodemus about His source of authority to say these things. Jesus is no ordinary itinerant rabbi or miracle worker … Jesus is the divine Son of God. And Jesus is actually bearing witness to what He has actually experienced. The eternal Son of God spent an infinite amount of time in Heaven prior to the incarnation, humbly left His Heavenly dwelling for 33 brief years and then rode on the clouds back from whence He came. The divine Jesus took on flesh and dwelt amongst us without ceasing to be God (John 1:14). Unlike any human teacher or religious leader, Jesus is an expert witness about Heaven, because Jesus has experienced what no man could experience through His divinity. And unlike any ordinary man, Jesus was the incarnation of God, coming from the eternal and humbly descending into flesh (Philippians 2:4-11).

Not only has the divine Christ experienced what we cannot, He also created everything that we have yet to experience. At the dawn of creation, the divine Word, Jesus Christ, was present (John 1:1-3). Christ is the image of the invisible God, and all things (including heaven and earth … visible and invisible) were created through Him and for Him (Colossians 1:15-16). In Christ, all things are held together (Colossians 1:17). Because Jesus is the divine Son of God, He is also the One who created everything in Heaven and everything that we cannot see. Every minute detail of the New Heavens and Earth that we have yet to see was designed in the mind of God. Heaven: It was Jesus’ idea. And no man mind can truly comprehend the omnificent (meaning: all-creative) works of God.

But wait … There’s more!!! One of the most noteworthy titles for the exalted Jesus in Revelation is “the faithful witness” (Revelation 1:5). A witness means that someone can speak in a trustworthy manner regarding what they have seen and heard. Because Jesus is divine, Jesus is also trustworthy.

So let’s recap:

  1. Jesus is divine.
  2. Jesus has experienced Heaven.
  3. Jesus created Heaven.
  4. Jesus is trustworthy.

To be clear, Jesus isn’t actually saying that no one went to Heaven prior to His incarnation. The Old Testament states that Enoch lived 365 years, “walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:24). Similarly, Elijah took a ride on a whirlwind into Heaven (2 Kings 2:11). The New Testament book of Jude seems to affirm the apocryphal tradition that Moses went to Heaven as well (Jude 9). So Scripture affirms that Enoch, Elijah and Moses ascended into Heaven. But here’s the hitch: None of them came back of their own accord, because none of them were God.

Some will object further: Didn’t some New Testament figures go to Heaven? And doesn’t their journey start a precedent for the witness of modern believers? The apostle Paul experienced Heaven, but couldn’t figure out if he was there bodily or outside of his body. Then God commanded Paul, who never would have won class accolades for “Most Likely to Keep His Mouth Shut,” to not write about his experiences.* The apostle John had the opposite experience: John had a vision of Heaven while locked up on the island of Patmos, but did not actually go to Heaven. Where Paul was commanded not to speak of his experience, John was commanded to write everything down that he saw and share with the churches. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave, Lazarus lounged at the dinner table with Jesus (presumably after taking a hot shower), but didn’t start blabbing to everyone about where he had been for the past four days. The deacon Stephen had a vision of Jesus exalted in Heaven, but he was not quite dead when it happened. The New Testament does not have one singular example of anyone other than Jesus who actually experienced Heaven and was commanded by God to share the experience. Why? Because Jesus is divine and has sole authority to tell us about Heaven.

I don’t personally know the Burpo family, the Malarky family, Don Piper or anyone else who is making claims of going to Heaven and back. But I do personally know Jesus, the divine Son of God who spoke unto all of Creation. And if you are a follower of Jesus, you have the opportunity to intimately know Him as well through the Word.

Trust Jesus.

He is divine … He is eternal … He is Creator … He is a trustworthy witness. And He has promised never to abandon His children … He promised to lead us home (John 14:1-7).

So what other witness about Heaven do we really need?

NEXT TIME: HEAVEN LIT & THE CRISIS OF REVELATION


 

* Paul does state that he went to “third Heaven,” which kinda invokes imagery of Miss Allen’s third grade classroom. Some argue that this supports the notion that different levels of Heaven (and Hell) exist, similar to Dante’s Inferno. A more likely explanation is Paul is differentiating between other uses of the Greek term for “Heaven.” Paul did not go into Earth’s atmosphere with flying squirrels or to outer space with E.T. Instead, Paul is making the point that he went to the abode of God.