Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Personality and Particularlity - Modern Technology and Preaching

I want to talk a little about a specific question that I hear sometimes and use it to make some general observations about preaching in the church. The question is this: given modern communication technology, what is the place for the pastor in the local church? More specifically, can technology serve as a replacement for local preaching?

For those not up with the current trends, this question manifests in several ways. Some individuals view the sermon podcast - or, for past generations, the television preacher - as a replacement for sitting under the word in a local setting. For others, for some entire churches, modern technology results in streaming video of a celebrity pastor, sometimes in an entirely different city as a replacement for the Sunday morning sermon.

Right away, we should note there are good uses for this technology that aren't in question. Certainly, recorded sermons can provide wonderful supplemental devotional material. Since the earliest days of the church, sermons were written and shared between Christians. Several New Testament books may well actually be such sermons, and I have volumes of collected sermons on my bookshelves ranging from John Chrysostom to Jonathan Edwards. I enjoy podcasts of certain preachers while out on my bike or working in the yard. There are uses beyond this that also seem appropriate - the person far from a gospel-preaching church or a local congregation without a pastor might well use modern media beneficially in these ways.

However, none of those uses is the point. The question has teeth not when it is about supplementing local preaching or addressing its lack of availability but when it is about replacing such local teaching. This makes me uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. Some I won't even dwell on here - for instance, it often engenders cults of celebrity that are more about an eloquent speaker than Jesus. It also puts such churches at risk when a significant moral failure occurs, and it can subtly train us in a consumeristic view of the church.

The point, for me, is that the question often misunderstands what makes preaching effective. Where it gets its power. So let's ask that question instead - what makes a sermon effective?

Of course, the ultimate question to this answer is "the activity of the Holy Spirit." For preaching to change hearts, God has to supernaturally work through it. The best preaching, absent the Spirit, is just useless babble. However, that is beyond our control. We can (and must) pray for God to move, but ultimately He is like the wind, blowing where He pleases.

Beyond this, while it is ultimately up to God, there are things we can do in preaching which ordinarily fit with the Spirit's activities. We shouldn't miss the basic answers here - effective preaching is biblical, comprehensible and applicable. It teaches Biblical truths, anchored in the words of Scripture. People can follow it, understanding what the preacher is saying. And those truths are clearly applied to life. They aren't presented as scholarly curiosities but as necessary and to be put into practice. These things matter, and they can certainly be fulfilled by a face on a screen just as easily as a body in a pulpit. However, I would add to them two more elements.

First, effective preaching is personal. Not just that it involves personal anecdotes or is delivered in a human voice, but that it finds part of its power in the life of the person preaching it.

Aristotle, when discussing rhetoric - the art of communicating with each other - says that effective communication has three parts. There is the "logos," the words and arguments the person makes. This is what you would find if the sermon were just written text on a page. There is the "pathos," the way it is delivered. How the words are said, gestures, the stuff they teach you in public speaking courses. Both of these things matter, but for Aristotle, they are both secondary. The most important part of communication, he says, is the "ethos" - how a person is seen and received by their hearers. Who the person is in relation to the hearers is the most important part of how their words are received.

This is part of why character matters for pastors. Character in the obvious public senses - hypocrisy and scandal can destroy a preacher's effectiveness - but also in the subtler, more personal ways. A pastor who is arrogant or selfish or cruel virtually guarantees the Word will fall on deaf ears.

More than character, though, ethos is about being known as a human being in relationship to God and to His Word. As the preacher walks through the struggles of life - wrestling with sin, groaning under suffering, rejoicing in salvation - as they do this before and beside the people of the church, it actually lends strength and credibility to the words they say. Notice this isn't just saying that pastors must apply the sermon to themselves, although that is a part of it. More important is that they are seen within relationships as working through that application.

The truth is that people are far more likely to hear God's truth when it is proclaimed in the context of relationship. I have visited churches and sat under preaching that is, by public speaking standards, pretty terrible. Boring, unclear, wandering. Yet the members of that church receive it joyfully and are grown under it. I used to think this was simply because they didn't know better, but I have come to realize over time that it is I who was actually confused. The reason those congregations relished the preaching was that they knew the preacher. This was the person who visited them in the hospital, prayed with them in their homes, and broke bread with them at his table. Certainly, the sermons would still be helped by a few clear points and a bit of rhetorical practice. However, the point was that the person mattered far more than the polish.

In addition to being personal, effective preaching must also be particular. The very act of preaching reminds us that the pastor's role in the pulpit is that of translation. It is taking God's Word spoken in one time and place and proclaiming it to people in another. This is why we have sermons rather than simply reading the text and saying, "there you have it." Preaching is always about helping a group of people understand and apply God's truths to their situations.

Churches are different and need to be challenged in different ways. Consider, for instance, the broad demographic differences in our world. Preaching about money will focus on different things in a place that is poor than one that is wealthy. Preaching on race focuses on one set of sins and struggles in a church that is predominately white and a different set if the church is predominately some other ethnic group. Calling people to trust in their heavenly citizenship rather than earthly powers has one slant if you live in deep-red rural country and another if you are in a dark blue urban setting. Even beyond these regional and class differences, every church has a particular place it is living. A complex collision of history, geography, current events, and personality means that every congregation has a particular character to it. There is a web of successes and failures and tragedies and faithfulness that makes every church unique.

Preaching becomes more effective the more it can address the particular character of those sitting under it. Obviously, there are truths that transcend such divisions. That is why the church should be a diverse place. Yet the very act of preaching also acknowledges that we need to be addressing these people in the place where they are living. If we didn't, we could dispense with preachers entirely.

Failing to practice this particularlity isn't just less powerful. It can also become dangerous. Any sermon should contain enough challenge to convict us and enough grace to draw us toward healing. When we fail to recognize our specific place we end up failing to challenge the people in our pews. We end up preaching to the proverbial choir, leaving our people feeling righteous rather than repentant. We end up talking about sin in ways that make people look down on their neighbors rather than thoughtfully at their own lives.

So, particular and personal. Neither of these is meant to replace the other things we mentioned. Obviously, it is still the Spirit which brings true change. Likewise, good ethos and knowing your congregation is useless if it isn't biblical and applicable. It doesn't matter if you're aimed at the right target if the gun isn't loaded. However, my concern with much of the discussion about modern media and preaching is that it tends to discount the necessity of those realities. As a result, while churches may hear true things delivered excellently, they are being starved of the specific person whose presence is God's appointed instrument to bring His word to them.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Which Happiness?

There is perhaps no more quintessentially modern field than that of "happiness research." If you're unfamiliar, it fuses ideas from sociology, psychology, and economics in an attempt to answer this seemingly simple question: what actually makes someone happy? While there is much of interest in the findings of such studies, they also fall prey to a more basic question: what is happiness, anyway? This seems like it should be obvious, but the answer is harder than you might think.

One of the basic fault lines in the debate over happiness boils down to what we should measure. One approach to happiness research is to focus on the present, to ask "how happy are you today?" The hope is that those answers, aggregated over thousands of responses, will show what choices and what sorts of people are happiest. Another approach, though, avoids such immediate questions and instead asks "how satisfied are you with your life up to this point?" In that case, happiness is not about how I view the moment but how I view life as a whole.

This isn't an inconsequential disagreement. Certain factors look very different depending on which of those measures you choose. Take having children. In a surprise to zero parents of young kids, asking about the present moment makes children one of the worst things you can do for your happiness. You feel tired and harried and a little lost. However, if you instead try to measure life satisfaction, the numbers shift dramatically. By that standard, children are instead one of the best things you can do in a quest for fulfillment and joy.

All of which makes intuitive sense, but I don't point it out as a simple curiosity. Instead, I think our lack of reflection on that divide in defining happiness deeply affects how we view our lives.

I regularly hear people tell me that they should be able to do whatever they want to be happy. That God wants them to be happy. What I want to tell them is always "Yes, but also no. He does and He doesn't." That contradiction stems from the fact that they aren't distinguishing what sort of "happy" they have in mind. Happiness in our world, just like in happiness research, can mean either comfort-happiness or fulfillment-happiness.

Comfort-happiness is the truck of much modern consumerism. It is the happiness of being unworried and distracted. Of endlessly scrolling through Facebook or browsing Youtube. Of sitting on a beach with no greater responsibility than to wave over a waiter to bring your Mai Tai. Fulfillment-happiness, on the other hand, is the joy of seeking accomplishment and significance. Of doing things that matter, investing in relationships that grow, and working to better oneself and the world.

Of course, the two can co-exist. They should co-exist in a healthy life; as a Christian, Scripture extols the virtues both of work and of rest. The goodness of a productive Monday morning and a lazy Sunday afternoon. However, the two can also destroy one another, especially if we don't distinguish which belongs where. Imagine the person who thinks they should enjoy their work (which is good) but seeks that enjoyment in terms of comfort-happiness. They do as little as possible, surf the web and play Candy Crush all day. That person will be unhappy. They will lack the fulfillment-happiness a job is meant to bring, and they will probably also lose their comfort-happiness because their boss won't take kindly to the idea. In such a circumstance, when the person protests that they just want to be happy, the proper response is "Yes, you should be, but not that kind of happiness."

This is true on a theological level as well. It is true, from a certain angle, that God wants us to be happy. However, the problem is when we confuse our terms. Christianity is almost never about our comfort-happiness. It offers something more akin to fulfillment-happiness, but of a sort that worldly comfort often threatens.

This distinction is true in terms of our relationship with God. There should be pursuit of happiness in our faith. "Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart." (Psalm 37:4) However, notice the connection between those two passages. God is giving us the desires of our heart, but that only applies when the desires of our heart ultimately delight in Him. This is not a promise that our present circumstances will be pleasant, but rather that an ambition to find our joy in the Lord is an ambition which will be fulfilled.

Likewise, the Christian life is a call to pursue true fulfillment-happiness. Christian obedience is not some list of arbitrary rules - it is a call to become the creatures we were meant to be. To give ourselves to God's great labors, living as He intended us to live, working the world that He created us to work, caring for and building up each other rather than taking for ourselves. It is the ultimate sort of purpose - to become creatures that show His image to the world.

There is a happiness in such a calling, but it is not comfort-happiness. Scripture constantly insists that seeking such deep meaning and significance will, in fact, cost us our worldly ease, our immediate fulfillment, and ultimately our lives. The only way to turn toward Christlikeness, peace, and meaning is to turn from such passing things.  It is the meaning of Biblical axioms like "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 10:39)

Or, to put it another way, the danger we face is not that we want to be happy but that our vision for happiness is too small. There are joys in comfort-happiness, and everything I've said above shouldn't be seen as a denial for its place. A restful afternoon, a leisurely Saturday, an evening with friends, full bellies and full hearts - those are good blessings. However, they are only good when they remain incidental. They should be restful breaks from our journey, not the destination we are seeking.To live a life chasing comfort-happiness will, by definition, be a life that is unfulfilling.

Our calling is to seek a deeper and higher sort of happiness. It is the desire that animated our Savior. Scripture calls us to "[look] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:2) Notice the motivation there - Jesus was willingly slaughtered for the "joy that was set before Him." But also notice that seeking that joy cost Him his comfort.

That is the happiness God promises. An ultimate happiness. One we grow into in this life, experiencing the love of our adoption into God's family, the purpose we share as those who bear His name, and the ultimate inheritance of an eternity spent living as the people He has made us to be.

However, if that is what we are chasing, we need to resist the reasoning of comfort-happiness that infects our world. Satan doesn't tempt us with the badness of sin but with the short-term goodness. It is what he offers Jesus in the desert - food and safety and worldly prosperity. (Matthew 4:1-11) It is only Jesus's commitment to pursuing true joy in God's ways that shows those temptations for what they are. Small things that would, if pursued, destroy the much greater things He was meant to do.

So this is the question for us - what sort of happiness are we seeking? If it is comfort, we will find some measure of it, but even that will ultimately be fleeting. But if it is God-given purpose, we will not only find it fulfilled but will also be able to properly enjoy the comforts along the way.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Ask Pastor Eric - Head Coverings, Women Speaking and Other Strange Biblical Commands

Note: This is the second in an ongoing series of videos where I try to answer your questions. Feel free to comment if you have one you'd like discussed in the future!

Question: Why are some commands, even in the New Testament, generally dismissed by modern Protestants - head coverings, women speaking in church, even greeting each other with a kiss?

Answer: So let me give a general answer first and then talk about some of those specific questions that you asked, Jim. The general principle that we need to bear in mind whenever we're interpreting the Bible is that while the Bible is for us and the Holy Spirit works to apply it to us, it is not addressed directly to us in the original text.

Instead, there is an original audience for Scripture, and it speaks directly to them in a way we have to figure out how to apply to our lives. The way I picture it is like there's this circle of application which involves the original audience of Scripture, and then there is this circle of our world that we live in, and we have to think about how those circles overlap when we think about applying the Scriptures.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Good Thinking, Part 1 - Fact and Interpretation

We live in an opinionated world. Our culture is fueled by pundits - from television to the internet, we increasingly get information from sources who do not simply tell us what they know but what they believe. Whether it's talk radio or television commentary or (ahem) blog posts, the great majority of what we read involves people purporting to think for us - to give us their conclusions and expect us to share them. None of this is new, but what is new is the way we've blurred the lines between this punditry and simply "finding the facts." The effort to be objective or give both sides, while always imperfect, has now largely been abandoned by large swaths of our world and across cultural, political, and religious lines. We live in the age of the fundamentalist, whether that fundamentalism is one of the Right or the Left, the Christian or the atheist.

At the same time, we have increasingly lost a desire to think well. Perhaps this is a cause of the pundit's rise; perhaps it is an effect. Regardless, the training in logic and rhetoric that was once a hallmark of a liberal arts education is now often sacrificed in the name of mechanical proficiencies. Our aim is to train people in ways that make them successful economic actors rather than successful thinkers and citizens. I don't mean to romanticize the past there - it's not like careful thinking was ever common. However, what desire for it did exist seems increasingly set aside.

What is perhaps most challenging about all of this is that we often don't realize our lack of ability to think well. Psychologists talk about the "Dunning-Kruger Effect," which is a way of comparing how much people know to how much they think they know. You might, for example, give someone a test and ask them how they think they did on the test, after which you compare it to how they actually did. What these tests show, mathematically, is something we all know intuitively but fail to apply to our lives. People who know the least about a topic often feel like they know the most. As you start to learn, your perception of competence actually falls (dramatically) before it starts to rise again. The chart to the left illustrates this effect.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Ask Pastor Eric - The Rich Young Ruler

Note: This is the first in an ongoing series of videos where I try to answer your questions. Feel free to comment if you have a question you'd like me to address!

Video Transcript:
Question: “I have always been curious about how we should be dealing with Mark 10:17-22, where Jesus advises the Rich Young Ruler.”

Answer: For those not familiar with that story, let me summarize it for you. This guy comes to Jesus, and the text tells us that he is rich (Mark 10), he is young (Matthew 19) and he is a ruler (Luke 18) - he's powerful. He comes to Jesus and he asks what he needs to do to be saved. Jesus's first response it to say, “Well, you know what the Bible says. You know the law.” And the Rich Young Ruler responds immediately that “I have kept all of those Commandments since my youth” So then Jesus looks at him, the text says, and then he says this: “You lack one thing. Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And come and follow me.” And disheartedned by that the Rich Young Ruler then goes away discouraged and despairing of ever finding salvation.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

When the Question Comes - Parenting in a Painful World

Today was the day our children asked the question.

As we had discussed how to walk through Elizabeth's terminal cancer diagnosis with the kids, we had arrived at the conclusion that we wouldn't lie to them but we would also give them space to ask about the mortality part of it in their own time. We told them her cancer was back, and that it wouldn't go away unless Jesus decided to heal it. They had asked about death back with the first diagnosis, and we had been honest but careful then: yes, she could die from it, but at that point we were hopeful that after chemo it would go away. We expected them to ask the same question when we told them it had returned, but they had studiously avoided it. Children facing big, hard truths often do this as a healthy defense - they're unable to handle something, and so they don't think about it. We wanted to honor that process and give them that space, although we had both agreed we would be honest when they asked. Which, as I said, happened today.

Our daughter asked it first, curling up in bed with my wife who was resting in the aftermath of a chemotherapy treatment. She edged up to it, wanting a promise that Elizabeth would never "be gone." Eventually the conversation reached the point where it was clear the words needed to be said, and so we said them.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

This Bitter, Beautiful Love

As a pastor, one of the things I get to do is walk couples through the process of premarital counseling. One of the things I tell them in the first session is that, in a sense, marriage is not about the good times but the bad. Of course, the vows they take in marriage apply all the time. However, we don't need the constraining power of those promises in the "better," "richer" and "health" moments. They come into their own when we are at our worst, when poverty and sickness and sin rear their heads. We don't need marriage because we love each other. We need marriage because sometimes we don't and because this crooked world will do everything in its power to destroy what love we manage.

Friday is Elizabeth and my 11th anniversary - our third since her diagnosis with cancer, and the first since that diagnosis became terminal. As much as they are still sweet, anniversaries have become reminders to us of her condition. Old couples announcing their 50 or 60 years together used to be one of our favorite things. We would smile at each other and talk about the sweetness of growing old together. Of walks where we leaned into each other, each needing the others' strength to stay upright. Of familiar jokes and shared stories when our rough edges had, at last, rubbed against each other long enough to become smooth and polished. Now, we are forced to remember that we will probably never be those couples, or even come close. The implicit hope of such occasions – the “and many more” - has turned into a question. "How many more?"

As I reflect on that reality today – as we find our anniversary an occasion for both joy and grief – there are two thoughts that linger in my heart.