Friday, October 31, 2008

Truth Through Personality

Phillip Brooks has famously defined preached as "truth through personality."

This is a simple enough definition. Yet, at the same time, it is rather complex.

Of course, the complexity of this definition has nothing to do with the place of truth in preaching. That matter is pretty clear. It's a black-and-white issue. There is nothing ambiguous about it. True preaching must proclaim the truth. And, as Jesus declared to the Father in John 17:17, "Your word is truth."

The word of God is the truth. And faithful preaching must "tell the truth" as it is revealed by the word of God. We are to be a mouthpiece for the text, as it were. Sound preaching explains what the text means by what it says. On the back jacket of Albert Mohler's new book on preaching, He Is Not Silent, he explains the task of biblical preaching in three words: "Read. Explain. Repeat." It really is as simple as that.

The complexity of Brook's definition lies with the business of truth being dispensed through a human personality.

Preaching is dynamic because God uses different personalities to herald his word to his people. Some are master communicators. Most of us struggle to put our thoughts in order. Some are reserved. Others are... um... loud (HBC2). Some can stand and preach for an hour with nothing but a Bible in front of them. Others need an outline or even a full manuscript to make sure that are faithful to their assignment. On and on the differences go. As no two people have the same fingerprints, no two preachers are alike. Yet God graciously condescends to take our individual strengths and weaknesses and use them for his glory. What a mighty God we serve!

The fact that God uses different personalities not only makes preaching dynamic; it also makes preaching difficult. It is difficult for the preacher, evidenced in how often we struggle with the temptation to be something that we are not. And the younger we are, the more prone we are to wrestle with this temptation. It is also difficult for the hearer, who (most often) unconsciously compare one preacher to another. And sometimes the hearer can miss the forest - Is he telling the truth? - for the trees - Is he saying it in a way that I am used to, comfortable with, or find enjoyable?

I find myself working through my competing thoughts about these things as I am still seeking to settle into the new pulpit the Lord has assigned me to. In the providence of God, I have been called to succeed a unique, dynamic preacher. For almost fifteen years, God used his faithful preaching to touch and change many lives. And the congregation is naturally used to his preaching voice.

Conversely, for almost eighteen years, I preached to the same congregation. And in the goodness of God, I was not a "prophet" without honor at home. And they were used to my preaching voice I knew what to expect from them. And they knew what to expect from me. But it's a new day. Shiloh is now getting used to a new preaching voice. And I am getting used to my new congregation. And it can be a challenge sometimes for both us.

Please, don't read any of the previous paragraphs as complaints. I am unspeakably grateful to God for the fact that he sent me to serve such a great congregation. And the membership has received my preaching warmly. I believe, God is changing lives here. And the Lord is adding to the church. These are all wonderful blessings, for which I praise God.

But for some reason, I am hyper-sensitive about the cultural expectations and congregational norms. And I keep carrying these things to the pulpit with me. I concede that this burden may be the Lord's work to humble me and nurture me. And I recognize that I need discernment, so that I will not miss the lessons the Lord is teaching me or hinder the changes the Lord is working in me. But I also need discernment to know what thoughts to ignore, so that I can stand with courage to preach the truth with a sense of freedom to be what God has wired me to be.

I am so glad that God really does use weak people. Aren't you?

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us." - 2 Corinthians 4:7 (ESV)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Installation Services

"And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding." - Jeremiah 3:15 (ESV)

Next week, we will hold our installation services at Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church, in which we will affirm God's work in bringing us together as pastor and people. And we will, of course, pray God's blessings on the work ahead that the Lord has called us to.

On next Wednesday, November 5, Dr. Maurice Watson, pastor of the Beulahland Baptist Church of Macon/Warner Robbins (GA) will be our guest speaker at 7:15.

On Sunday, November 9, my adopted dad, Dr. John Reed Jr., pastor of the Fairview Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City (OK) will bring the message during our 8 AM service.

My brother, Kevin Willis, pastor of the New Life in Christ Fellowship Church in Southaven (MS) will bring the message in our 10 AM service.

My pastor, Dr. Melvin V. Wade Sr., pastor of the Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church of Los Angeles will bring the message in the installation service itself, which will take place at 4 PM.

Other guests, friends, and local colleagues will be with us in these various services, as well.

Please pray that the Lord will be glorified in these services. If you are able, please join us.

All services should be streamed live for our "Internet members" who will not be able to attend.

God bless.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Notes from Sunday -10/27/08

We had a good day of worship at Shiloh. Both services were a blessing to be a part of and, more importantly, I believe God was glorified.

Shiloh is the first church I have worshiped in that has all-male ushers. This is totally new to me. But it is a great thing to see so many men actively serving in church. May their tribe increase. No apologies.

I was greatly encouraged to have the youth choir participate in the 10 AM worship service. I don't know what to say but praise the Lord.

I preached on one of my favorite verses in the Bible - Romans 8:28. I entitled the message, "The Ironic Providence of God."

I had an interesting week of sermon preparation. More than a month ago, when I mapped out my preaching schedule for October, I determined that I would preach Romans 8:28 on 10/27. However, as the weeks went by and I worked through my mini-series on prayer, I began to waver. With all the economic turmoil, I wanted to preach something that would address Christianity's counter-cultural perspective on money matters. I was torn between two sermons at the beginning of the week. But by midweek, I landed on a third message. But Saturday evening, it wouldn't stick with me. I concluded that I was just tired and went to bed. But early Sunday morning, as I began to prepare for worship, I still couldn't think through this message. So I stopped and asked for direction. And Romans 8:28 began to weigh on me heavily. And I was sure that was what I should preach. Praise God I was finally able to stand to preach with a sense that I was on assignment. This happens to all preachers from time to time. But God is faithful.

The Dallas Cowboys got an ugly win at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 13-9. But a win is a win. We'll take it.

The Jaguars suffered a tough home loss to the Cleveland Browns 17-23.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bring the Books!

Consider Charles Haddon Spurgeon's comments Paul's instructions to Timothy concerning his books: "When you come, bring the cloak that i left you Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments" (2 Timothy 4:13, ESV)

He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up in the third heaven, and had heard things which it was unlawful for a man to utter, yet he wanted books! He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books! the apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher, "GIVE THYSELF UNTO READING."

The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men's brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. YOU need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological words, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible. We are quite persuaded that the best way for you to be spending your leisure, is to be either reading or praying. You may get much instruction from books which afterwards you may use as a true weapon in your Lord and Master's service. Paul cried, "Bring the books" - join in the cry.

Paul herein is a picture of industry. He is in prison; he cannot preach: WHAT will he do? As he cannot preach, he will read. As we read of the fishermen of old and their boats. The fishermen were gone out of them. What were they doing? Mending their nets. So if providence has laid you upon a sick bed, and you cannot teach your class - if you cannot be working for God in public, mend your nets by reading. If one occupation is taken from you, taken another, and let the books of the apostle read you a lesson of industry. - C.H. Spurgeon, Sermon #542: "PAUL - His Cloak And His Book" in Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 9 (London, England: Passmore & Alabaster, 1882), 668-669

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Overcoming Hindrances to Effective Prayer

There are two primary reasons why you ought to pray. The first is obedience to duty. That is, we should pray because the word of God commands us to pray. Period. The second reason why you should pray is more pragmatic: Prayer works! God answers prayer. It pleases God to meet the needs of his children through the means of believing prayer. But while answered prayer is one of the great motivations to pray; unanswered prayer can discourage your prayer life.

If your prayers are not being answered the way you desire, I recommend that you do two things. You should continue to trust God anyway. God is good, wise, and sovereign. God knows what is best and is worthy of your trust, even when he says no. You should also examine yourself. Here are five hindrances to pray you should consider as you examine your ways.

Prayerlessness. James 4:2 says, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (ESV). Indeed, the biggest reason why many of us are not the beneficiaries of answered prayer is simply because we do not pray. There is much you can do about your situation after you pray. But there is nothing you can do that will make a real difference until you pray.

Unconfessed sin. In Psalm 66:18, the psalmist says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Now, this is not to say that you have to be perfect in order to get a prayer through. It means that effective prayer begins with the confession of sin.

Selfish motives. But James 4:3 states: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” The Lord does not answer selfish prayers. Sure, you can pray about your own needs and desires. But remember that the priority of prayer is God and his glory, not you are your wants.

Broken Fellowship. In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus says, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leaven your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” In a real sense, all prayer is corporate prayer, in that God will not talk to you if you refuse to talk to your brother. For instance, 1 Peter 5:7 warns husbands that if we do not live with our wives in an understanding way, our prayers will be hindered.

A lack of faith. James 1:6-7 instructs, “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts Is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the win. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord.” Believing prayer is short-circuited when the one who prays doesn’t really believe. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”

Monday, October 20, 2008

Notes from Sunday - 10/19/08

I know. It has been a week since I have published a post. But contrary to popular belief, it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the Cowboys lost last week. It has just been one of those weeks when I stayed on the run to keep up with my schedule. Hopefully, I won't be so far behind this week.

Sunday was a great day of worship at Shiloh Church. God richly blessed our Lord's Day services.

My mom came in from Oklahoma City to spend the weekend with us. And she led the pre-sermon solo in both of our morning services. In the 10 AM service, she sung one of the first hymns she taught me to sing when I was a boy, "I Don't Know About Tomorrow." It was great to have mom here and to have her participate in our worship services. And she quickly fell in love with Shiloh.

There were several politicians in our second morning service. ?

I preached the second of a two part series on prayer. Last week, I preached "God is not a Sleepy Friend" (Luke 11:1-13). Yesterday, I preached "God is not a Crooked Judge" (Luke 18:8).

I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching on prayer these past two weeks. The subject of prayer humbles me and reminds me of my own desperate need for God's help. And it also gives me the opportunity to arm the church with one of the great tools the Lord's has given us for life, faith, and ministry. It happens after prayer!

What a sight it is to see the members of Shiloh holding hands in prayer together at the end of our worship services!

After the worship services, we attended a luncheon with about 500 Shiloh members. It was a very special occasion. There was no real program. We just came together to share a meal and fellowship with one another. It was a wonderful experience for me and my family. And I really enjoyed meeting and chatting with the members of Shiloh.

When HBC3 was introduced at the end of the luncheon, he jumped up with a big smile on his face. For the rest of the evening, Crystal and I wondered who was that little boy who jumped up and what did he do with our son!

The move from Los Angeles to Jacksonville has been a challenging step of faith for me and my family. We miss our family and friends in Los Angeles. But the great outpouring of love the membership of Shiloh has shown us has made this transition so much easier for us. Thank you, Shiloh. I love you and praise God for sending me to you.

The sky if falling. The Dallas Cowboys - for the record, they are not just my team, they're "American's Team" - were beat down by the St. Louis Rams 34-14. This makes two straight losses in a row. Who cares that "Pacman" Jones was suspended this past week and Tony Romo's finger kept him out of the game. A beat down is a beat down. And my boys were beat down Sunday. See, I am man enough to say it. The Cowboys lost.

The Jacksonville Jaguars had a bye-week. It was also the same day the luncheon was scheduled. Coincidence?

I can't believe that 65-year-old Bernard Hopkins defeated middleweight champ Kelly Pavlik Saturday night.

USC is #5 in the first BCS poll that was released this weekend. Now all we need is four teams ahead of us to lose!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Notes from Sunday - 10/12/08

We had a good day of worship and fellowship at Shiloh Church. I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the great way the Lord is blessing these opening weeks of our life together as pastor and people.

I began a little mini-series on the two parables on prayer that Jesus tells in the Gospel of Luke. I preached a message from Luke 11:1-13, which I called "God Is Not A Sleepy Friend."

I plan to complete the series this coming Sunday with a message on Luke 18:1-8, which I intend to call, "God Is Not a Crooked Judge."

I sat in a portion of the Married Couple's Bible Study Fellowship group meeting. Pastor Mike Rodgers is the teacher. The lesson was from the latter portion of Matthew 6. I was good for me to think about the Lord's instructions on worldliness and worry in the context of a discussion of marital relationships.

I am slowly but surely becoming more comfortable in my new pulpit, even though it is still an adjustment to me to be ministering to a new congregation after 17 years in the same pulpit. But I thoroughly enjoy preaching to Shiloh. What a great place to preach!

As the weeks go by, more people are sticking around to greet me after the services. The kind words and opportunity to meet the members of Shiloh have been very encouraging.

Thanks to all of you who have sent me notes to say that you are watching and being blessed by the webcasts of our worship services. Please keep watching and praying for the continued progress of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ through the Shiloh Church.

Contrary to popular belief, I do not go into hiding when the Cowboys lose. But I will admit that I am shocked and stunned that the Cowboys lost to the lowly Arizona "Some-Kind-Of-Birds." I hear it was a good game. But, for the record, it is not a good game if the Cowboys lose.

It also seems that the Jaguars overcome the devastating loss last week to pull out a victory yesterday against the formidable Denver Broncos. But who's counting?

Friday, October 10, 2008

My Personal Mission Statement

I was unpacking boxes in my study earlier this week. And I opened a box that was filled with pictures, awards, and trophies. I rummaged through it a little and found a frame that I had not seen in some time. I immediately pulled it out and placed it on the shelf behind my desk. It is my personal mission statement.

I began thinking about having a personal mission statement some years ago, as I was reading Steve Farrar's book, Finishing Strong. It's a book for men about living with integrity and leaving a legacy. I don't remember Farrar recommending the establishment of a personal mission statement in that book. But he speaks freely about his own. It is simply, "Don't screw up." I was deeply impressed by the writing of this man who had a sense of both God's goodness to him and his responsibility to God for all that had been entrusted to him. Big things, like your family and your reputation. And his simple goal was to not screw up.

And at some point, I established my own personal mission statement. Here is is: Don't sell out! I typed these three words in big, bold font and put a copy on a frame to hang in my office. I also made a copy and taped it to the pulpit from which I preached every Sunday, so that every time I stood to proclaim the word of God I would be reminded to preach to please God, not people. It stayed there for years, until the church bought me a new podium.

Looking back, I am sure there was some sense of pressure that I must have been feeling at the time to cause me to select this statement to help direct my faith and work. But I have absolutely no recollection of what was going on with me at the time. Nevertheless, this statement challenges me today just has much as it has at any point in my life.

We who preach God's word and pastor God's people struggle with some rather interesting temptations. They are common temptations, in that we are not unique in dealing with them. But they are strange temptations to wrestle with in the context of vocational Christian ministry. I'll state in them in the words of 1 John 2:16: "the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride in possessions" (ESV).

Alongside my pastoral work, I have had a somewhat broader speaking ministry over the years. And it has been rare for me to go somewhere without being asked how large my church was. It always felt like an awkward question to me. But that how many people rate one's ministry. It's also how many of us as preachers rate our ministries. Unfortunately, we as pastors are often preoccupied with numbers. And we seem to forget that when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ, he is not going to ask us about the size of anything. He will judge us according to our faithfulness with the things he has entrusted to our care.

I have peers that I love and heroes that I respect that have seemed to compromise in order be deemed successful. As the years past, I have watched their convictions change about things. Not because they have a better understanding of scripture, but because they are following the new, popular trends that the big-shot bishops have embraced. And with God's help, it has been my prayerful determination to stick to my convictions and to leave the outcome to God. Or, as one well-respected pastor often puts it, "If you take care of the depth of your ministry, God will take care of the breadth of it."

Recently, the Lord has sent me to a congregation that is larger than the one that I previously served. But I do not feel that I have "arrived" in any way. Rather, it feels like that I have been dropped into a more dangerous base in the spiritual war zone. And I need the weight of my mission statement to shape my thinking and actions now more than ever. I do not want to compromise my integrity, convictions, or priorities. I don't want to sell out. My goal is to do God's work, God's way, according to God's word, at God's discretion, for God's glory. I want to hear the Master says, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

Paul speaks to this matter with great wisdom in 1 Corinthians 4:1-2: "This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy."

Pray for me. And pray for all of us who have been appointed as shepherds of God's people and stewards of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Happy Birthday, Doc! (HBC3 - 10/08/99)

Crystal and I finally told Trey and Natalie that Shiloh Church would be voting on a new pastor. We also told them that we needed to pray hard for Shiloh, because I was one of two names that would be submitted to the church for consideration. They were both speechless. So I encouraged them to say something. H.B. spoke up, asking, "Daddy, you said we have to pray. But can we pray what we want to pray?" "Sure," I replied, not really knowing where this was going. He leaped into the air cheering and instructing his little sister to vote for "the other guy."

We were on our way to dinner. And Crystal and I were both on the phone, discussing the fact that Shiloh had just elected me to be its new pastor. When I finished my call, H.B. asked me about the vote. I answered him. He ordered me to tell them no. Then he cried for several hours. Literally. And for the next several weeks, whenever he heard the words "Jacksonville" or "Shiloh" he would cry.

I was truly worried about him and how this potential transition would impact him. I wasn't really worried about Natalie. She only only wanted to know how many people we would be able to take with us and whether Pastor Letson would still be here when we arrived. In contrast, H.B. is very shy and nervous around people. And he just began to start opening up. We didn't want a possible move to be too hard on him.

Once it was settled that we were moving, Trey began to slowly adjust. We first noticed it when he started going to be every night wearing the "All-Male Round-Up" t-shirt Deacon Bobby gave him. Later, we started noticing that he would begin his questions or statements with the words, "When we move to Jacksonville..."

Today, my family has been here for two weeks. And today is Trey's ninth birthday. He is at school, where he tells me that the whole class is his new friends. And this evening we will all attend Midweek Worship Service. But our plan is to make a weekend of it. He wants to go bowling, because we went bowling last year on his  birthday and he beat me the last game (I blame it on the bumpers he had). He has invited two new friends he has made at the church. And he even invited one of the associate pastors to come. I praise God for how my little boy is adjusting to our new reality. And I hope that he will remember his first birthday in Jacksonville as a special one.

I praise God to see over these days how my little boy is growing up. I love him and am so very proud of him. He knows that I pray that God would call him to preach the word. He's not sure about that, but he doesn't want to hurt my feelings. You see, he wants to be a profession wrestler. Don't ask. And he keeps telling me he can do both, promising that he will only wrestle on Saturdays so that he can preach on Sundays. I don't argue with him. I just continue to pray that he would grow as Jesus grew - in wisdom, and stature, and favor with God and men (Luke 2:52). And I pray that God would be glorified in his life.

Happy Birthday, Doc! Daddy loves you.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Church Is Not Our Cadillac

During his tenth anniversary, Garrison Keillor told a story (he said it was true) about an experience he had as a teenager. Walking down the sidewalk one day, he saw this unbelievably beautiful woman coming toward him. A stunningly beautiful woman. What could he do? He spied a large, white Cadillac parked next to the sidewalk. Strolling over to the Cadillac, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a dime, put it in the parking meter, and leaned confidently against the Cadillac, smiling at the approaching woman. To his delight, she returned the smile. She moved toward him, spoke to him, saying, "Thank you" as she got into the Cadillac and drove off.

Take this as a parable of ministry. The church is not our Cadillac. We pastors, leaders, teachers may be "stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor. 4:1) but not owners. It is fine for us to make our contribution, to lean against the church in order to look good, but ultimately this Cadillac is God's and God has entrusted it to the laos, God's people rather than to the pastors of God's people. - William H. Willimon, The Last Word, p. 85

Monday, October 06, 2008

Notes from Sunday - 10/05/08

Sunday was my first Lord's Supper Sunday at Shiloh Church. And it was a very special day. As I am getting started in this new work, the love, prayers, kindness, support, and encouragement of the membership has meant more than words can express.

What a joy and privilege it is to be in any worship service where new believers are being baptized and the saints are sharing the Lord's Table. Praise the Lord!

On a practical note, it was remarkable to see how fast the brothers served the Communion elements to the congregation. It was decent, in order, and efficient.

I fumbled about a little bit during my first Communion. But the brothers had my back and helped me through it. Thanks for the assists.

Yesterday was the first day my whole family was in church with me at Shiloh, as Crystal had to take Natalie to the hospital last Sunday. It had a calming effect on me to be able to look over and see my family sitting in worship with me.

I preached a message from Psalm 32, which I entitled, "Good News for the Guilty."

It felt like I rushed through the message in both services. But I think I got through the core of the message both times.

It may not be obvious in the presentation of my messages, but I really enjoy preaching the word of God to the Shiloh Church family.

I led the congregation in the morning hymn at Shiloh for the first time. What a joy to hear the voice of the saints lifted in praise to God!

One thing I think that goes unnoticed is the army of volunteers who serve in so many ways on Sunday mornings at Shiloh. What the few of us on the platform do on Sundays is nothing compared to quiet but diligent service of Bible Study Fellowship groups, parking attendants, greeters, decision counselors, cooks, deacons and district leaders, media workers, nursery and children workers, ushers, and a host of others who willing serve in various ways. To God be the glory for this culture of foot-washers who love the Lord by serving his people!

I hear that George knocked it out of the park again at MSMBC. The best is yet to come for this great church.

We attended Joshua and Jacob's little-league baseball game Sunday afternoon. They played well. As for the score... It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game!

The Cowboys did not have a good game yesterday. Yet, the still won. This is further proof of how good the Cowboys are, in my estimation. The Bengals worked harder to lose! Cowboys are now 4-1 after this 31-22 victory over the cats.

I fell asleep during the Sunday night football game. Did the Jaguars win?

Saturday, October 04, 2008

A Minister's Evils

Blessed Spirit of God,

Four evils attend my ministry -
The devil treads me down by discouragement and shame
    arising from coldness in private meditation.
Carelessness possesses me from natural dullness and dimness of spirit;
    because in the past I have met with success
        and have been highly regarded,
    so that it does not matter if I have now failed.
Infirmities and weakness are mine
    from want of spiritual light, life and power,
    so that souls have not been helped,
    and I have not felt thee to be near.
Lack of success has followed even when I have done my best.

But thou hast shown me that the glory of everything
   that is sanctified to do good
       is not seen in itself,
       but in the source of its sanctification.
Thus my end in preaching is to know Christ,
    and impart his truth;
My principle in preaching is Christ himself, whom I trust,
For in him is fullness of spirit and strength;
My comfort in preaching is to do all for him.

Help me in my work to grow more humble,
    to pick something out of all providences to that end,
    to joy in thee and loathe myself,
    to keep my life, being, soul, and body only for thee,
    to carry my heart to thee in love and delight,
    to see all my grace in thee, coming from thee,
    to walk with thee in endearment.
Then, whether I succeed or fail,
    nought matters but thee alone.

The Valley of Vision, pp. 336-37