Great Preaching: (Part III) Walk in the Light!

Leave It The Way You Found It?

A pastor places his order at the pet store: “I need at least 50 mice, 2000 ants and as many of those little silverfish you can get.”

The clerk replies, “We can probably do that, but it might take some time. Mind if I ask why you are placing such an unusual order?”

The pastor replied, “I’ve accepted a call to another church and the congregation council told me to leave the parsonage the way I found it.” From * That is the problem with so much preaching today – it leaves people the way they found it.

In a few years, will you have left your congregation the way you found them? Or, will your preaching have sparked a spiritual awakening … that glows long after you’ve gone?

The first step of Great Preaching: Walk in the Light is –

Learn to see the light of God

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.  If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. I John 1:5-7

Charles Adams helped his son to see the light in the world by taking him to the Panama-Pacific Exposition fair in 1915. A gift to his son to capture the visions of the fair and the Golden Gate area was a Box Brownie #1.

The following summer the family crossed the shimmering heat of the San Juan Valley and wound their way to El Portal, where 14 year-old Adams exited the vehicle to take snapshots with his Brownie. From that day forward, the vision of Yosemite held Ansel Adams, as he wrote –
“That first impression of the valley—white water, azaleas, cool fir caverns, tall pines and stolid oaks, cliffs rising to undreamed-of heights, the poignant sounds and smells of the Sierra…was a culmination of experience so intense as to be almost painful. From that day in 1916 my life has been colored and modulated by the great earth gesture of the Sierra.”

Move Beyond Snapshot to Vision

Below is a snapshot I took of our dog, Shadow. A snapshot captures a surface, temporal point in time. It captures what is required for a picture that might get a “like” on social media. It presents what is expected. A snapshot captures what happens in a typical Sunday morning pulpit. The people come, with expectation that the pastor will perform a sermon. Once completed, the pastor gets an “atta-boy” and everyone goes home. The pastor is satisfied that he/she did all that was safely required to retreat into the pastor’s office “dog house” until the next Sunday.


Vision discerns the eternal truth behind the surface. Vision moves beyond the required to the acquired. Vision finds that serendipitous moment as Jacob described in Genesis 28 “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it. “

Thunderstorm at Yosemite Valley, Ansel Adams

The above shows a thunderstorm at Yosemite. Using the darkness mixed with light, Adams was able to point his lens to the picture behind the picture. Adams used his black-and-whites as a medium of change that would ultimately expand the US National Park system, for which he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.

In the photo below, Adams captured a simple baseball game, something like he might have snapped with his Box Brownie at 14. We can taste the mustard on the hot dog and feel the sun and breeze on our cheeks.

Baseball 1943

The image of the game captured what is typically required of clergy on Sunday morning. The organist throws out the opening hymn, while the choir director tosses some high and low notes. Finally, the preacher walks out as the heavy-hitter to send everyone home.

Not so fast … True to Ansel Adams’ use of “picture behind the picture,” let’s add some clues to see through the surface of the photograph – World War II, California, Japanese Internment Camps 1943. We receive a serendipitous moment that these Americans, enjoying the “All American Pastime,” were interned as part of the 110,000 Japanese Americans held in 10 camps on the West Coast . Adams helped to heal America’s blindness to the plight of our fellow Japanese Americans. Photos from

As a result, in some instances Ansel Adams’ books were banned from bookstores and even burned as un-American. Remember that while Adams showed what he could in the camps, he was forbidden to photograph the guard towers and barbed wire.

Are you willing to take the risk to move beyond preaching what is required to sharing what is acquired as a word of God for the people? When was the last time your church heard your church bulletins were banned or burned as they moved the masses toward embracing the unfolding truth of God? What are the new forms of internments, the social concertina, that hold people captive today?

The New Sitz Im Leben

Back in my seminary studies across Baptist and United Methodist seminaries, we learned the term sitz im leben represented the original “situation in life” that gave gave rise to the Bible text. The New Sitz Im Leben is the situation in life of your people which provides the fertile soil for the Bible passage to produce life.

While attending seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, I spent a summer as a paid student chaplain at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas. About that time, I read about an Air force Base colonel who saw that his base chaplains sat in air conditioned offices and debated Karl Barth while the crews sweltered on the flight line. So, the colonel ordered the chaplains out of the office to minister to the soldiers working on the hot tarmac by the aircraft.

You may say,

“Jim, I’m too busy preparing my sermons to visit the people.”

Get out on the flight line.

“I’m more of an ‘executive leader’ than just a pastor. “

Get out on the flight line.

“I’m more of a teaching pastor than a pastoral caregiver.”

Get out on the flight line.

“It’s just not exciting visiting widows and shut-ins than discussing the computer images of the next big service.”

Get out on the flight line!

The result of failing to embrace your sitz im leben will be that your sermons will come across as Kodak slide shows of vacations you’ve taken where your members pretend to be interested. The message will be void of life that springs out of that context. For those of you who don’t remember, a Kodak slide show was a meeting of friendly captivity at which a host projected images of distant lands while guests feigned interest. Feigned interest is quite difficult and can only be accomplished by consuming large quantities of chex party mix.

f/64 Sharp Focus

  • Use and carry a Vook. A Vook (vision book) is a small lined book that you use to obtain insights and applications that you gained from your sitz im leben – your vision book. Keep it by your bedside and be ready. God may give you insights in the middle of the night that may become the heart of your message.
  • Use Bible software to do an in-depth “instant verse study” that will compile the data from a variety of Bible translations, commentaries, word studies and devotional works. The image below shows a favorite tool of mine used for over ten years and versions – Wordsearch Bible

I chose Wordsearch Bible as a tool over other more technical Bible study software as it more applies to the lives of the people versus a Bible language analysis tool. The people don’t need the nuances of meaning of the Greek verb if they are facing a death in the family or a job layoff.

  • With a few clicks, you can create a 40 page instant report containing the best Christian writings available on your chosen text. With that you can read through the study material and mark it with a check mark (for check this out!), ! for must focus, and ? for question.

The Shutter Squeeze

You’ve spent the week with your Vook and have consumed your “Instant Verse Study” with process notes. Now is the time for the frame, which involves focus – What is the subject of your message? What one or two points will you use to convey the message? Focus – What is the subject of your message? What one or two points will you use to convey the message?

As every photographer knows, frame is followed by shutter squeeze. Your “instant verse study” resulted in 40 pages. You may find them all as interesting as riding every amusement ride in the park. Squeeze your message down to ten minutes but have something to say.

Some rules of thumb:

Leave them wanting more.

Rather than fill-in-the-blank sermon notes, provide vision space in the bulletin for flash notes on an empty canvas.

Today fill-in-the-blank sermon notes have crept into PowerPoint slides – a form of the Kodak vacation slides party.

Write out your sermon. Give yourself permission to cut it down to two points.

Keep your outline on the pulpit as a safety-net while you preach without notes.

If you can’t remember what you’re saying, how will your people?!

Start on time. Finish early.

In the next blog, we’ll talk about how to Run with your Message!

Pass the Chex Mix!,

-Pastor Jim

Great Preaching (Part II): Max Your Understanding in Preaching!

Meet Max! Max Understanding. *

For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding. – Colossians 1:9

Too much preaching is a reaction to something rather than addressing insights gained by “spiritual understanding.” It’s Advent? OK, it’s time to rework an old sermon on the birth of Jesus. Offerings down or time for the annual pledge drive?, then work up a not-to-pushy sermon on giving and avoid any texts that speak of Jesus driving the money changers from temple. We can speak of changing the world … as long as this change doesn’t swap our liturgical colors or interrupt our capital improvement drive.

Reactionary preaching is the “astroturfing” of the wild lilies of the field. A predictable form haunts Sunday’s services like a woman who received too many Botox injections. Even churches that began as wild revolutionaries that held services in open fields have turned electric guitars and drums into a loud monotonous chant of the same decibel crunching pitch and meter.
Artificial plastic smiles are frozen on every face without real spiritual movement.

Reactionary preaching is the “astroturfing” of the wild lilies of the field. A predictable form haunts Sunday’s services like a woman who received too many Botox injections – artificial plastic smiles are frozen on every face without movement.

To move beyond reaction to understanding, you need Max understanding! It was 8:00 p.m. on Friday night of Cinco de Mayo weekend when Max, our neighbor’s Border Collie started barking. An hour of barking later, I looked and saw that our retired neighbors were out with the truck and camper gone. At 10:00 p.m. I began reacting, “How dare they go away and leave their dog. It’s disrespectful to the neighbors!” I considered calling their cell phone … if I had it. At 1:00 a.m., Max had barked non-stop for three hours. I climbed in my car to confirm they were gone and shined my flashlight over the back fence in the backyard to rule out another problem.

A fitful night of sleeping in the guest room, with dreams of calling animal control and leaving a nasty letter on the door, I awakened to attend an all-day course in Flagstaff. I returned home only to see that the truck and camper were still gone and as I stepped on the patio — barking. Reaction had run its predictable course.

It was here that God showed me how I went through my life and ministry … reacting in one form or another, allowing circumstance and calendar to drive my life, attitude and message. I then looked at Max with the eyes of understanding and saw the old dog, recently diagnosed with advanced cancer, staring for his masters at the back of their house, where he remained barking in that position for hours. His jaw hung slack and his coat now appeared dull and disheveled. His bark now a weak rasp, barely audible. His normal brisk walk became a slow shuffle back under the deck. I saw no food or water were in sight.

Now, understanding awakened. “What if our neighbors had an accident or illness and could not return or communicate to care for their beloved pet they raised since a puppy?” “What if the grown daughter, who has placed other burdens on her parents, got carried away in her own Cinco de Mayo activities to the extent of ignoring old Max.

Understanding plowed through the brick-like surface of my astroturfed reaction and moved me into action. I cooked two hot dogs and put them over the fence with a pail of cool water and called Max, but he was too weak to come. No barking was heard that night. I was now afraid Max had died. The next morning, I looked off the porch and saw that Max was now walking and no longer panting. The hot dogs were gone. As he took his position again on guard at the back of the house.

Understanding plows through the brick-like surface of our astroturfed reaction and creates a bloom of transformation

When Jesus disappeared as a boy in Jerusalem, his parents found him three days later in the temple:  

Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.
And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.
So when they saw Him, they were amazed.
Luke 2:46-48 (NKJV)

As you have your Bible passage in hand, and the predictable elements pushing you forward through the calendar of teaching and preaching, take a moment and look through the the Bible passage and the issues beating their drums in your ears.

If you will pause and listen to the the Holy Spirit, you will give your people pails of cool water that will not only refresh them but that they can share with a thirsty world. Your church members in the workplace live in a world built on action and reaction. Imagine the transformation when they learn how to max understanding in the workplace, turning reaction, that breeds more reactions, into transformation.

*The image above is that of our Border Collie mix, Shadow. Tonight as I checked on old Max. The house was still dark. Now there is no barking and no sign of Max. I think of how Max’s owners would feel knowing that their neighbors reached over the fence to their distressed companion with of a pail of cool water and warm hot dogs.

In the next video blog, we will discuss some practical tools that you can use to Max Understanding in your Walk to Great Preaching.

-Pastor Jim

The Preacher’s Crawl

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. – St. Paul

Preach: Crawl, Walk, Run! is not about how to preach, which is often a personal subject wrapped up in ego. Rather this is a pool of the best resources on 1. how to read the Bible in a worship service, 2. discover your thin-place where God speaks with you in your sermon preparation, 3. tools to prepare you for preaching and 4. launch ideas for your sermon.   

Back again with you after after a few weeks delay for a shed wiring project followed by my wife’s surgery. Thanks for waiting – the shed now has lighting and my wife is recovering. This delay stands in contrast to your regimented weeks marked by Sundays rapidly approaching.

I remember attending our sons’s Saturday soccer games in body while my mind was away on Sunday’s sermon. Present in body but absent in spirit. One regret was that I lacked of a healthy crawl toward Sundays’ services.

Worship Plan Book: Your denomination likely has some sort of plan book for worship and preaching planning. If you teach Sunday School, you likely use a teacher’s guide. I have recently used the United Church of Christ Desk Calendar and Plan Book –

Plan books such as these orbit around the Revised Common Lectionary, a three year plan of Bible readings that provide a guide of passages for reading and preaching based on the church year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter Seasons after Pentecost.

You may, such as I, come from a tradition that doesn’t follow the church calendar. You may consider yourself an “expository preacher” who preaches through the Bible verse by verse. My response, “That’s great!… But beware of the instrument that plays only one note.”

In preparing for these blogs, my wife and I visited many churches in the Verde Valley of Arizona – from Methodist to Nazarene, from Community to Seventh Day Adventist. We noticed many with beautiful views but empty parking lots. We also noted a lack of women women participating in the worship services (This will be subject of a future blog … that women’s ministry means more than just the kitchen, the nursery and the coffee pot! Oouch!

In one church, the pastor had committed to preaching through a series of messages as part of a program that came complete with slides. Though we arrived at the service ten minutes late and the pastor baptized some believers earlier in the service, the pastor determined that he could not push the sermon material to the next week. The fill-in-the blanks sermon note acted like grains of sand dribbling down in an hourglass. The pastor’s prepackaged sermon agenda held him in a grip tighter than any liturgical calendar. I must confess that during a merciful break for prayer, my wife and I slipped out before the conclusion. Almost every blank in the sermon notes could be answered by writing the word, “Jesus.”

Enter Your “Thin Space”: Take your worship planner and enter into your “thin space,” a sacred space where you encounter God. For me, I would take my Anglican prayer beads and go on a prayer walk on the top of a limestone bluff, overlooking Wet Beaver Creek on our Rimrock property, home to rattlesnakes, deer and beaver … and and occasional mountain lion.

He restores my soul …

In the shadow of this mesquite tree, I encountered the presence of God

When Moses encountered God in his “thin place,” he said, “I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.”

In the shadow of an old mesquite tree, I encountered God and listened to the voice of the Spirit.

One guest preacher from we hosted at my first church told me his “thin place” was the altar area of the sanctuary at night. Alone in the church, he would place himself prone before the altar and seek God’s presence and ask for insights into God’s message for the people. His personal insight into his “thin place” has stayed with me 34 years. To this day I don’t think his prominent congregation knew of his practice.

All great preaching and teaching begins with discovering your “thin place” and listening to the voice of God. The Spirit of God will prompt your preaching and worship leading only as it springs out of your own experience with God.

Out of the above encounter, you may ask the Spirit to guide you in your worship and preaching preparation. Be prepared … but be open for the Spirit to change your plans.

Feed Your Staff: Church staff’s planning and production depend on your sharing with them. You may now have a quarter of the year charted, for which your worship leader and office staff will rise up and call you blessed. Your staff can now can select music and live in hopes they might print the church bulletin before Friday. There’s nothing more awkward than the church administrator asking the pastor on Thursday, “Well, do you have a sermon title?” The pastor hears this question as, “You mean with all the hours you had this week, you have no clue what you are saying Sunday?”

“Well, do you have a sermon title?” The pastor hears this question as, “You mean with all the time you golfed this week, you have no clue what you are saying Sunday?”

I have experienced more than one Sunday, where I awakened at 4:00 a.m. with the hopes of finishing Sunday’s message. There’s no worse “agony” of preaching than staring at a full coffee cup and a blank screen at zero-dark-thirty on Sunday morning. Thankfully, those mornings were the exception. I share this to affirm that you are not abnormal to encounter this wild beast.

Internalize the Passage: Now, here is a resource most often overlooked by today’s clergy – the oral interpretation of the Word. First, visit and look up your passage in New International Version (NIV). Click on the speaker arrow and you can listen to the narrated reading of your passage. Print out your passage and as your listen, make marks on your passage, noting where the reader pauses and how phrases are emphasized.

Now make it yours – Read the passage through as the narrator gave … until you are comfortable with the words. Now practice it and emphasize the passage so that the reading makes the most sense to you. Until you have the passage in you, you will not be able to share it from you. Too many preachers try to talk about the Bible rather than sharing what they have experienced in the Bible.

Too many preachers and teachers try to talk about the Bible rather than sharing from what they have experienced in the Bible.

How many times do you need to read a passage to internalize it? I recommend three times listening while marking from the narrator. Then three to four times on your own. So, let’s say a good biblical reading aloud seven times.

OK, you have crawled by encountering God in your “thin-place,” shared with your staff, and internalized the passage. Your choir leader is sings your praises as she can select music for a full quarter. And your church administrator no longer thinks you are golfing way to much as her bulletin is done by Thursday.

Hold the phone – we are not done. This is “Crawl …” In the next blog, we will “Walk” … putting flesh to the passage that has become part of your life.

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?

– Romans 10:14

-Pastor Jim

Special thanks to my wife, Carol, whose editing fixed issues where I was limited by a growing cataract in my left eye.