The Worst Sermon Ever

ehudWhen I was in the One True Church, all brothers were expected to be exercised for ministry.  What this meant was that we had to prepare a Bible message for the two weekly meetings that had an open platform – Sunday morning worship and Thursday night prayer meeting.

We weren’t given much direction.  Our leader, Brother Brother-among-brothers would tell us that we had to get on our knees before an open Bible and ask for God to speak to us.  He said that when he was young, he used to be constrained by reading commentaries and by being swayed by systematic theology instead of being taught by God.  This, he thought, led to the pitfall of lifeless ministry where one wears their Bibles on their head.  That’s what worldly denomination churches do, he said – preaching head-knowledge messages without anointing.  That is, of course, when they weren’t preaching psychology instead of the word of God.

But we were much better than that because we got messages from the Lord as we were on our knees before an open Bible like Brother Brother-among-brothers had been doing for thirty years.

There were some unwritten but understood rules on Sunday mornings and Thursday nights.  Younger brothers (which was most of us) would go first.  This way, we could be followed up by an older brother.  The last brother to go was always a leading brother – the ones who led the church.  If Brother Brother-among-brothers was in town, he for sure went last.  Or he just took the whole time.

The goal of giving ministry was to encourage the Saints and not to be talked to by a leading brother after the meeting.  Encouraging the Saints was the easy part because the congregation was conditioned to say amen a lot and they pretty much said amen to anything positive you might say about the Bible and the Christian walk if it was not phenomenally stupid.

The older brothers went later.  If they felt a need to correct, they might do so by saying the opposite of a point you may have made earlier.  Oddly enough, the congregation might have said amen to what you said and then to the correction.  If you were off , you would likely get talked to by a leading brother after the meeting.

This set up afforded me the opportunity to hear lots of different preaching – the good, the bad, and the ugly.  From the deft and inspiring to the unskilled and incoherent, we heard it all.   Some expressed a clear progression of thought that I can go back and reflect upon as when I heard it thirty years ago.  Others would get the plane in the air, lose the flight plan, and never find the runway.  On a couple of rare occasions, Brother Brother-among-brothers would ask the wayward preacher to sit down.

It was worth the risk to get up.  It was heady stuff to be a twenty-one year old having the word of the Lord for a captive, amening audience.

One Sunday morning Brother Younger-younger got up.  He was even younger than me because I had by that time graduated to possibly being the second brother up on occasions but definitely not the third.  He made a tactical error of basing his sermon on the text concerning the stabbing of an extremely overweight king named Eglon.

Apparently, that fat surrounding Eglon’s belly and the corresponding stabbing was a picture of the carnality in our life and God’s attempt to cut through our resistance to penetrate the heart.  Brother Younger-younger was up front making jousting motions saying “God wants to get to your heart!  God wants to get to your heart!”  The congregation wasn’t amening at this point but kind of had their mouth stuck between the a and the men.

But there’s more.

Brother Younger-younger posed a question to the congregation.  What does it mean that when Eglon was stabbed by Ehud’s sword that the dying king’s humongous belly created such a vacuum that it swallowed the sword so that Ehud was unable to dislodge it from his bowels?

No one answered because when someone is preaching, you really don’t answer the question they might post. But we didn’t know.

However, Brother Younger-younger knew.  He turned triumphantly to Psalm 119:11 and read, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.”

You see, the Bible, also known by Christians as the sword of the Spirit, must cut through the fleshly resistance of our carnal nature and be sucked in so as to penetrate into the inner being of our heart so that we may be transformed into godliness.   Presumably this needs to happen before we die in our excrement.

Brother Younger-younger sat down yielding the floor to an older brother.

He got talked to by a leading brother after the meeting.

Disaster In The Desert

desert-safari-dubaiBack in my early Christian days, Bible teachers would see the journey of Israel in the books of Exodus and Numbers as an analogy of the Christian walk.  The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed; the New Testament is the Old Testament reveled.

God brought His people out of the tyranny of Egypt by blood and by power.  This correlates with Christ bringing  us out of the penalty and power of sin.

Israel was then to make a couple of days journey until they cross the Jordan in to the Promised land.  In like manner, we Christians move towards Christian maturity – assimilating and appreciate the fruit of redemption – serenity, inner peace, joy and love for neighbor – as well as disposing the enemies of our soul – resentment, bitterness, lust and the like.

In this desert analogy, it was supposed to be a short journey of trust and obedience from redemption to maturity but it turned out to be a forty year dead end where they all died in the desert.  What happened?

Israel rebelled at least seven times in this short desert walk but the one that truly arrested their development was the refusal to go into the land when God told them to.  God instructed them to send over spies to survey the land – presumably to figure out the best point of entry and other strategies.  It was never intended to be a collaborative group discussion as to whether or not they were to obey the very purpose for which they were brought out of Egypt.

In the end, the people of God rejected the will of God.  How can this be?  How does the unthinkable become the unquestioned?  How does the very sin no one would think of committing become the very thing that popular opinion lays hold of as the only option?  How does rebellion become accepted?

Here are the three steps they took:

  1. Legitimate Problem

The giants in the land were a clear problem.  I don’t want to trivialize this.  People face huge problems in their life that I cannot even imagine.  There are forces and obstacles much bigger than us over which we have little control.

Admittedly, some of my problems are not big problems at all but issues common to everyone which my mind tends to  make larger than life.

  1. Panic and Catastrophe

While the problems are real, the catastrophe isn’t.  “We are all going to die,” said Israel.  “We are as grasshoppers in their sight.”

When I move to panic and fear, I can’t make discerning decisions or put things into perspective.   Such a state of mind makes it least likely that I will do the right thing and not make things worse.

Telling myself scary stories and believing will set me up for disaster.  Israel began to buy into the narrative that God  had abandoned them.  Worse yet, God was capricious – bringing them out to the desert to suffer and die.

  1. Irrational Thought

Dwelling in fear and calamity only leads to irrational thought.  How else would you explain this common embracing of the idea that the days in bondage were good?  This is the mind of an addict who truly wants to believe that their substance or behavior that had devastated their life will now solve all of their problems – even though it has never worked in the past.  Let’s go back to sin – to the shame, secrets, and guilt.  Let’s go back to the demeaning behavior that put us at odds with ourselves and those we love.

The end of this path is disaster in the desert.

If I am to look into my heart, recognize this tendency towards unbelief, and want to do something different, what do I do?  What is it that gave Caleb the emotional energy to make choices in the right direction?  Here are suggestions:

  1. Acceptance

M. Scott Peck opens his famous 1980’s pop culture book The Road Less Traveled with the immemorial opening, “Life is difficult.”  He goes on to say that as soon as we accept the fact that life is difficult, it ceases to be quite so difficult.

I do not have a right to a problem free life in spite of my sense of entitlement.  Problems are real, sometimes insurmountable, and I legitimately have a sense of powerlessness over them.  I cannot control  the actions of others nor most circumstances in my life.  Choosing to live life on life’s terms is the first step.

  1. Choosing To Trust

Though I am powerless, I am not helpless.  God is greater than me.  “So we will not fear when earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea.” says Israel’s poet.  This is where I had to make a choice against the legitimate feelings within, get on my knees and commit to God my trust in the specific area of fear and repulsion.

I do it specifically.  Whether it is personal problems or social unrest – too much to do or fear of where society  may be heading – in all things I acknowledge that God is bigger than me and no matter which way things turn, I trust that God has my best interests at heart.

  1. Taking Action

Simply trusting in my head is not enough.  Over forty years later when Israel entered the land as they were supposed to, the Jordan river did not yield until the priests actually set their foot in it.

Trust is substantiated through action not by simply having the right beliefs in our head.  In a particular situation where I was stuck spiritually, it was only when I began to pay attention to suggestions by some spiritual mentors and taking action that my life began that deliverance from the impediment began to take place.

If I am fraught with fear that I have too much to do, I commit to God my trust, look at my list and choose one item to begin working on.

If I am confronted with a person I need to learn to love.  I trust that God can change my heart to love this person.  However, it is when I make steps to reach out to this person and make amends for my part in the relationship breach that healing takes place and love is born in the heart.

When I accept my problems as they are, commit to trust God that no matter what, He has my best interest at heart, and then take appropriate action – these are tools from slipping into the irrational decision that going back to Egypt is the better way.



Pilgrims and Strangers and Church Buildings

LordsSupperParkI never was a member of a church that met in a church building.

Back when I was with the one true church, we met at a women’s club.  We prided ourselves on not having a church building.  We were like the nation Israel that were God’s called out people who were also homeless.  Cities, buildings, and permanent residence led to trouble so we thought.

This played well into the idealism of those Jesus movement days.  We don’t need no building.  Or traditions.  Or religion, especially religion.  We just had Jesus.  In those days, we could sit on the grass with our Bibles and rap about the Lord.  If someone had a guitar (or not) we would sing simple love songs to the King.  I heard of some who were out camping on the beach and had communion with slices of oranges – maybe that was taking it a bit far.

After we left this church, we found ourselves at the church of the clean feet.  This church met at a converted elementary school.  The school auditorium served as  its sanctuary.

Later, we moved cross country and joined a nice little fellowship in town that evolved into what is now the doctrinally correct church.  For the first three years, we met in a converted bus station.  Later, we obtained a Christian school building.  We met in the gym doing the best we could to keep up with the big boys with stage lights, dynamic Powerpoint, coordinated banners that matched the bulletins and the sermon’s color scheme, and a professionally mixed worship ensemble.

The vision was cast and embarked upon to build a real church building just before the nation decided to throw a recession in 2008.  By the time we reached our twenty year mark at the church in 2015, our hearts stirred us on to a small, organic, liturgical fellowship.  At this point, the expected building that promised community and discipleship had not yet come to fruition.

This week, our small, organic, liturgical fellowship met in the park for the summer months.  Apparently, liturgy travels well with a few photocopied song sheets and readings.  Some passersby joined us for the singing, a heartfelt sermon, the open free-expression prayers of the congregation, and the communion of bread and wine.

I’m not against church buildings as I may have been in my young, idealistically spiritual days.  I’m thankful for the hundreds of meetings I’ve attended that utilized the space provided.  I love sitting quietly in beautiful church buildings and cathedrals.  Space and facilities dedicated to God’s work is not a bad thing.

Some Christians have lost buildings that were hundreds of years old to terrorists.  Some in my small fellowship had been in churches that lost historic sacred places because they wanted to uphold the Bible as authoritative and their governing denomination had not.  When I was in Kenya, I heard of an evangelist who started a church with two women sitting under a tree herding their goats.

Its nice to have a place to meet.  But if we don’t, we are still the church.  What I learned in my Jesus movement days is still true.  We are the church with or without the building.

My First Prayer Meeting

When I went off to college, I wanted to find a Bible Study.  While my family had mixed religious affiliations, the net sum of the two faiths put me in a family that was essentially secular other than an occasional Christmas eve mass and my father’s annual passover candle.

Perhaps this was God’s trick – to create in me a spiritual thirst that could only be satisfied with the most radical group I could find.  I’ve often wondered if we raised our kids as secular atheists if they would have rebelled against all of our values and became missionaries to Borneo.

My quest led to a Bible study at my community college which led, through misunderstanding, to a book table of an entirely different group which led to a campus prayer meeting.  I was game for just about anything so I showed up.  There were three of us and we went around the group and prayed.  The only problem was that I never prayed in my life except the ones I learned by my on-occasion Catholic mother.

I rather liked the Catholic prayers.  I have memories of being in church and wanting to light a candle and say them.  In a rare time at History Forum_Februaryhome where somehow we prayed (I can’t remember why because we rarely prayed), I recited every prayer I knew – Our Father, Hail Mary, and probably some others I don’t remember.  My parents smiled approvingly because back in the 1960’s it was fashionable and good to like Christianity even if you weren’t practicing.  However, I was partially just showing off.

I never actually prayed impromptu as in “Let me take a moment from the regularly scheduled programming to say a few words from the heart” – that kind of prayer.  When it came my turn, I stumbled haplessly into what turned out to be an Evangelical prayer staple – I gave a weather and nature report.  I thanked God for the sun and moon and perhaps the plants.  I may have prayed for world peace.  I have no idea.

When we were done, one of the three, with a full hippie beard said, “Praise the Lord, Brother” and gave me a full bear hug.  I stood in a “what just happened here?” daze not realizing that the Jesus movement had fewer inhibitions – it was all about love.

Though I am still not a hugger, I did learn how to pray.  I can make up a prayer like the best of them – quote scriptures, work a prayer list, pray a mini-sermon so God ascertains the doctrine behind what I’m asking, and I can even lead with a weather report.  I have a few memorized prayers tucked aside.  And I can even do silence.

Nevertheless, after almost forty years, I still don’t understand prayer.  Not really.  I’ve given up trying to figure out the cause and effect.  I’m really not sure if my day will be better or worse if I pray or don’t pray.  I’m a bit doubtful that the moral ambiguities of culture is a direct result of my failure to pray more instead of watching American Idol with my wife (though perhaps the series end is a result of many husbands praying for deliverance).

I think it has something to do with this strange calling I have to something bigger than myself.  Some people figure out that they want to be writers or be successful in business or have babies or make their mark in baseball.  All of these types of things seemed secondary to me – a means to an end.  I have had this attraction to know God, to cultivate the spiritual man, and to touch something eternal.

I have no idea if I am doing it right and, to borrow a phrase from a friend, I may have stumbled upon the “God of my own misunderstanding.”  Nevertheless, I sense in my heart that something is there.  Something drew me to want to light candles, memorize the prayers, and show up at a little three man prayer meeting at a community college when most students were interested in the ski club.  Something stirs me when I am in the midst of muddled confusion to get on my knees and tell a God that is bigger than me that I’m really trying to believe that He has my best interests at heart and that I trust Him to guide and give discernment amidst the challenges of the day.