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

“Come and See!” Your Fabulous New Year

A bed by the window!

There were once two men seriously ill in the same small room of a great hospital.  Just large enough for the pair of them, with two beds, two bedside dressers, and a door opening on the hall, and one window looked out into the world!

One of the men as part of treatment was allowed to sit up in his bed for an hour each day, for therapy to drain the fluid from his lungs. His bed was next to the window which he was able to look out, during an hour in the  afternoon.

But the other man spent all his time flat on his back.  Both of them had to be quiet and still, which is why they were in the small room.  And they were grateful for peace and privacy.  None of the bustle, and clatter, and prying eyes of other wards for them.  Of course because of their condition they could not do much — no reading, no radio, no television.  They just lay still.

So they talked together, hours and hours.  About wives, children, homes, jobs, hobbies, what they did during the war, etc.  Every day during the hours of the afternoon, the man who was propped up near the window passed the time by describing  what he could see outside!  The other man began to live for those hours!

The window apparently overlooked a scenic park with a lake, skirted with evergreens.  Ducks of every variety and swans drifted across to whatever children were throwing bread. The afternoon sun turned the lake into a mirror upon which paddle boats, lazily crisscrossed with lovers pressed  together.

And there were rows of flowers.  Games of softball … fast pitch and slow pitch.  People taking their ease on  checkered blankets, and picnic baskets swelled with chicken, cheese, and iced tea.  And above the trees there was a magnificent view of the city skyline.

The other man would listen to all of this, enjoying every minute.  The exciting ballgames.  A child playing alone with his puppy.  Then one day a child fell into the lake … barely saved by a heroic rescue!

The other man could almost see what was going on outside the window.  He began to think,  “ Why should he get to look out the  window, while I am stuck in this bed, to look at the ceiling?”

He tried not to think like that. He brooded, and sunk in thoughts and grew more seriously ill. “He should be by the window! The doctor did not understand it!”

One night, the man by the window awoke struggling! Fluid in his chest choking him.  He struggled to find the nurse’s button on his bedside.

The other man watched! . . . and DID NOTHING!!!

The coughing continued on and on.  But the man stared at the ceiling. Soon the coughing turned to a soft wheeze …  and then silence.

 The nurse came in the morning for their baths and found the other man dead.

 They removed the body quietly and, as soon as it seemed decent, the man asked if he could be moved next to the window!  They moved him, tucked in quiet and still.

As soon as alone, he laboriously propped himself up on one elbow to look out on the park . . .


In the story the man near the window – is the man who lives by faith with a pure heart.  He is able to see a better life through eyes of faith. He is able to look beyond the barriers and see HOPE! He gives hope and joy to others around him.

The other man – is one who lacks pure motives and eyes of faith.  He only envies the one who sees with faith!  He  secretly wishes the man of faith would fail!  So they both could be miserable as he!

John 1:35-39 (NKJV)
35  Again, the next day, John stood with two of his disciples.
36  And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God!”
37  The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.
38  Then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, said to them, “What do you seek?” They said to Him, “Rabbi” (which is to say, when translated, Teacher), “where are You staying?”
39  He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw …


I used this story, shared widely by clergy, in a sermon preached January 4, 1987 at Laveen Baptist Church, Arizona, where I was ordained in 1984.

My Ordination Council, a memorable day of examination in 1984 by these fine men. Time has faded a few names, but what I can remember:

Back Row (Left to right): Rev. R.G. Whitehead, area Missionary, Deacons Ralph Spotts, Dick DeShazo and Armon D Cheatham.

Front Row (Left to Right): First two were fellow clergy from the Association, Deacons Dan Cain (third in) and “Bud” Graham.” My former pastor and Chair of the Ordaining Council, Rev. Jim Harvey. On the end was a fellow pastor who served in Ajo, Arizona.

Because of the faith and vision of these men and women (not shown), the church was able to grow and become what God wanted it to be, building first a new parsonage, converting the old to an office, a new Sanctuary and further education space. Many people since have captured a new vision of Jesus Christ.

Looking back, vision takes more than just eyes of one person. Jesus called more than one disciple. “John stood with two of his disciples.” Andrew had vision and brought his brother, Simon Peter to Jesus. And that was the beginning of the story of the Apostles who followed Jesus.

What do you see for your New Year?!