Leaping to Conclusions

Edwin H. Friedman says a number of good and helpful things in his book on leadership A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Too easily, he says, we allow our emotional engagement in a system to lead to a sort of gridlock that kills imagination and shuts leaders off from exciting possibilities. He’s right. But like many good books on leadership Friedman overstates his case, bases it upon what appear to be wild generalizations, and takes too long to say it. I’m clearly not a fan of books on leadership (except this one!).

As an example of innovation freed from such constraints, Friedman points to the courage and innovation of Christopher Columbus to whom he credits the restoration of European greatness. In so doing, Friedman paints a picture of European malaise drawn from a 1493 publication called the “Nuremberg Chronicle”. We ought always to be suspicious of points made by reference to single ancient texts. And preachers, no less than leadership gurus, are guilty of this.

Imagine in the wake of a nuclear holocaust or zombie apocalypse, the only historical record of our age several hundred years into the future are several fragmentary speeches of Donald Trump.
We would not want generalizations made about life now based upon such sketchy evidence. Rodney Stark, a Baylor sociologist, speaking of the late Roman Empire as an “experienced pollster” has reminded us that we ought not to characterize

“…the ‘feelings and thoughts of fifty-million people’ on the basis of a few fragmentary literay quotations.” (The Rise of Christianity, page 200)

This reminds me of the caution that writer Barbara Tuchman developed in her own presentation of medieval history A Distant Mirror. The negative will always be over-reported.

“A…hazard, built into the very nature of recorded history, is overload of the negative: the disproportionate survival of the bad side—of evil, misery, contention, and harm. In history this is exactly the same as in the daily newspaper. The moral does not make news. History is made by the documents that survive, and these lean heavily on crisis and calamity, crime and misbehavior, because such things are the subject matter of the documentary process—of lawsuits, treaties, moralists’ denunciations, literary satire, Papal Bulls. No Pope ever issued a Bull to approve of something….
“Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place.” (pages xviii-xvix)

Writing this in 1978 Tuchman had never heard of the internet, or imagined how it could magnify this tendency.

I say all this to urge caution in the generalizations that we accept as true. I say it as well as a caution that we not be those, especially we who are preachers, who further mistaken conclusions by making them or repeating them.


Scolding and the Treasures of God’s Grace

I asked my wife Sunday afternoon if she felt that I had ‘yelled’ too much in Sunday’s sermon. I don’t yell, exactly. But I can allow a strained elevation of my voice to be sustained for a significant period of time that can seem, to me, like yelling.

I felt I had done that Sunday. She told me that I had not yelled and that, in fact, I came across as more reserved than the previous Sunday. So, I concluded, as I do with such information (I’m an Olympic caliber conclusion-jumper) that I had yelled THAT week.

Perhaps I did, perhaps I did not. But I did come perilously close to scolding. Much of those sermons was spent challenging the congregation, and myself, to examine some elements of our discipleship and to call us to a purer devotion to Jesus. That is necessary and it is good. But alone, it is empty and vain.

As a reminder of that, these words from a former professor of preaching which I read this morning, ring so very true.

I know I need to be scolded. I need to be corrected. I need to be instructed and exhorted. I need to be called to repentance. But I also need for you the preacher to take me by the hand and let me walk off the size of my inheritance as a child of God. I need every now and then to run my fingers through the unsearchable riches of the treasure of God’s grace, to sing the doxology, and go home.

If preachers could do that better, I’m convinced we would need to do far less scolding.

[from Fred B. Craddock, Craddock on the Craft of Preaching, page 115]

On Presenting Christ

Yesterday, Easter Sunday, Christian preachers around the world struggled to present to their congregations, and to their own hearts, the glory of Christ in his resurrection from the dead. Many no doubt walked away from that effort burdened with a sense of inadequacy. This is to be understood, for the topic we tackle is one which cannot be adequately treated. All efforts fall short. We who see that glory imperfectly will sense that our efforts to reveal it perfectly are doomed from the start.

In such a state, we share worthy company. The Puritan scholar John Owen wrote a treatise titled “Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ” which is rich with reflective wisdom on the subject. But even Owen confesses his inadequacy.

For who can declare this glory of Christ? who can speak of these things as he ought? I am so far from designing to set forth the whole of it, that I am deeply sensible how little a portion I can comprehend of the least part of it. Nor can I attain unto any satisfaction in these Meditations, but what issues in an humble admiration. [Chapter XI]

We are all inadequate. And yet we persevere to that which the resurrection so fundamentally promises: we will see him, and see him as he is. Owen grows warm to this, as should we:

How excellent, how glorious will it be, when with these eyes of ours, gloriously purified and strengthened beyond those of Stephen, we shall behold Christ himself immediately in the fulness of his glory! He alone perfectly understand the greatness and excellency hereof, who prayed his Father that those who “believe in him may be where he is, so to behold his glory.” [Chapter XII]

We give our best efforts to understand and to preach Christ’s glory but it meets in frustration. Such frustration must be tempered by the realization that by these weak efforts, men, women, and children are, by grace working through the word we preach, preserved and kept for that day in which we all shall see His glory face to face.

White/Gold and Blue/Black Sermons

Ah, the Dress. By now we all know about The Dress. One color combination to one group of people; a different combination to another. The phenomenon was all the rage and ‘so last week’.


This is a phenomenon well known to any preacher. Several weeks ago I met with a friend on a Tuesday morning, and he got serious with me.

“Randy, I want to tell you this as a friend. Sunday’s sermon was way too long. I even checked with my wife, and she agreed.”

I take such things to heart. But then I don’t know what to do with them when the next day I hear from another.

“Randy, when is that sermon going to be posted online? It was so helpful and I need to hear it again.”

I asked if it was too long and, as expected, the answer was, “Heaven’s no.”

There is nothing new under the sun. Just occasionally, the Internet notices it.

Unsupported Assumptions

A pastor queried for a series being run on the website of The Gospel Coalition made this observation to support his advice to young pastors:

Much evangelical preaching tends to be either therapeutic or moralistic, regardless of theological persuasion.

That may or may not be true, of course, but there is no way of disputing it. The man making the claim preaches most Sundays, so he can’t have much personal experience by which to make such a judgment. I can’t imagine how he has researched this claim, nor does he cite the research of others. How can he make the claim? Is it because we grant such leeway unthinkingly to prominent pastors?

I’m not sure why without support we are supposed to accept such claims. Maybe no one does. Or maybe they do. I can’t claim to know one way or another.

Mr. Knox’s Courage

In my sermon this past Sunday, I made mention of the period of England’s history in which Edward VI was dying, and others were scheming to retain power by arranging for young Lady Jane Grey to be his successor. (This is all wonderfully captured in a movie called simply Lady Jane which is, unfortunately, very expensive to buy, but can be streamed.)
Lady Jane
In the midst of this intrigue, a young John Knox was given opportunity to preach to the parties involved. He made the most of his opportunity.

The second Sunday in April 1553 the last Tudor King of England went to hear, for the last time, one of his favourite preachers in Westminster Abbey. All the glitter and jingle of a medieval court was there; the glorious, flashing colour, the shields and banners, the velvet and miniver. His Highness Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, a gorgeous figure, famous as a jouster, with his tall handsome sons: Paulet, Marquess of Winchester, the perfect time-server, who was Comptroller, Secretary and Lord Treasurer to Edward, who cursed Mary as a bastard, yet lived to ‘crouch and kneel’ successfully to her in turn; all the dukes and earls and jewelled ladies were there: for sermons were high fashion, for the moment, in England.

Knox, the dour little Scotsman, rising to preach, perhaps looked round from the white-faced boy to the jealous lords: and gave out his text from the Gospel of St. John xiii. 15: ‘He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me.’

These words, used by the Lord at the Last Supper, are quoted from Psalm 41, v. 9, in which David laments the treachery of Absalom. Knox turned back to read again those incomparable stories of treachery and heroism in Isaiah, in 2 Samuel xvi and xvii, 2 Kings xviii; stories of three different sorts of traitors: of Shebna the traitor who wormed his way into King Hezekiah’s confidence, becoming comptroller, secretary and treasurer – did the congregation prick up their ears? Of Achitophel who rose to be the highest in the land while he plotted with Absalom to supplant David: whose counsel ‘was as the oracles of God’: of Judas who sold his friend.

The preacher’s voice rose to a climax: ‘Was David and Hezekiah, princes of great and godly gifts and experience, abused by crafty counsellors and dissembling hypocrites? What wonder is it then, that a young and innocent King be deceived by crafty, covetous, wicked and ungodly counsellors? I am greatly afraid that Achitophel be counsellor, that Judas bear the purse and that Shebna be scribe, comptroller and treasurer.’

There must have been a wave of anger – perhaps of laughter – along the gorgeously dressed congregation. Was there too a flicker of satisfaction over the white face of the little King? But whether or not he was the King’s favourite, this sermon went a little too near the bone : Knox was summoned before the Privy Council of England on 14 April.

There were present at this Council, Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor, the Earls of Bedford, Northampton and Shrewsbury; the Lord Treasurer (‘Shebna’), and the Lord Chamberlain, and two Secretaries of State. For obvious reasons, they did not take him up on the sermon; but instead brought up the old complaints against him. Why had he refused preferment? Why had he objections to kneeling, to the special wafer instead of common bread, and the like? Knox had answers ready for all their points: so in the end they ‘dismissed him with fair words’, saying only ‘they were sorry to understand he was of a contrary mind to the Common Order’….

His enemies could afford to wait a little. The sands were clearly running out for Edward. Youth had ceased to fight with death: his days were numbered.

Plain Mr. Knox, Elizabeth Whitley

This scene, unfortunately but not surprisingly, does not make it into the movie.

Timmy Keller Guys

Eugene Peterson in his wonderful book The Comtemplative Pastor strongly urges pastors to be conversant with poetry. If that is the measure of pastoral success, then I am a hopeless failure, to which the following bears sufficient witness.

(This is offered in fun, with sincere apologies to The Beach Boys and all mentioned herein.)


Timmy Keller Guys

Well, emerging guys are hip;
I really dig those styles they wear.
And the southern baptists with the way they talk
they knock me out when I’m by there.

The Pentecostal screamers
can get you wound up oh so tight.
And they let it loose with a holler and a whoop
so we come back another night.

I wish they all could be Timmy Keller,
I wish they all could be Timmy Keller,
I wish they all could be Timmy Keller guys.

Reformed boys have the insight
and they cross their T’s just so.
I dig a Genevan gown on a pipe-smokin’ man
in a pulpit of marble stone.

Piper channels Edwards
and Dr. Sproul, he is so sly.
Begg packs ’em in with his Scottish dialect,
And Osteen only has to smile.

I wish they all could be Timmy Keller
I wish they all could be Timmy Keller
I wish they all could be Timmy Keller guys.

The Middle Man

Ron Unz of the American Conservative has thought for some time that so-called ‘gay marriage’ was an inevitability. What is somewhat troubling in his re-statement of his position here is his cynicism regarding the power of the church to shape thinking. I post this not to take a position on marriage, but to encourage thought about preaching. The relevant passage is this (emphasis mine):

Above all, the transformative power of the American media is once again revealed. Some time back I joked with a conservative friend that after a few years of relentless media pressure the very same preachers then denouncing Gay Marriage as the “sin of Satan” would probably be uniting same-sex couples in holy matrimony at their own churches, and so far the social trend lines seem to be supporting my prediction. After all, in modern American society the Word of the Almighty and His Holy Book may have a powerful influence, but they are regularly trumped by whatever our electronic media tells us to believe. Perhaps churches should just install television sets in front of their pews and cut out the middle man.

What do you think? Too cynical?

Bono and Grover

It is inscribed in the lore of Hope Presbyterian Church in Bradenton the Sunday that the preacher, showing off his “acquaintance” with pop culture, made reference to the lead singer of the band U2, pronouncing Bono with both o’s long. Whatever point I was making was quickly lost as those in the know snickered with silent amusement mixed with pity.

That was then. I’m far more careful now.

Sort of.

Easter Sunday at Covenant Presbyterian Church is one of two or three Sundays each year that we do not dismiss the children to children’s church before the sermon. So since my audience was much larger and much younger than normal, I made an extra effort to speak to the children.

My opening reference to The Wiggles went fine. No problem there.

But then, trying to give the children something to look forward to, I assured them that Elmo was going to make an appearance in the sermon. A brilliant strategy, thought I.

Twenty minutes in, when the slide with Elmo’s picture appeared, I expected, properly, for the children to perk up and some to say, “There he is!”

But they didn’t. I was surprised. Shocked, almost. I really expected them to be excited.

And then it was pointed out to me that the slide in question was in fact not Elmo, but Grover.


One child reportedly said to his parents after the sermon, “But Elmo never came.” This is a failure of Bono proportions.

As a follow up, after the service, I found this on my desk.


I will be studying my Sesame Street characters this week.

And how to pronounce the names of major pop artists.

What will you be doing?

Bring Snacks

My sermon yesterday seemed to go long. We’ll see after it is posted online just how long it was. But I had to simply summarize the last point, and that weakly, to allow our service to end on time.

The irony of this, of course, is that the sermon was on the shortest chapter in the bible – Psalm 117, a mere two verses. This led one member to quip, “If this is how long you go with the shortest chapter in the bible, when you preach on ‘Jesus wept’ [the shortest English verse] I’m bringing snacks.”

Which led some to whom I told this story to ask how long a sermon should be. I always answer that question with the very wise answer of the British pastor and author John Stott who said something like this: “It does not matter how long a sermon is as long as it seems like twenty minutes.”

But I don’t mind if you bring snacks.