My Vacation Reading

I have blogged several times about the way I plan my reading every year (here and here), so it won't surprise either of this blog's readers to know that I also give careful thought to my vacation reading. So I thought I'd share the books I plan to read on my vacation with the family, which starts this evening.

After I finish Winston's War by Michael Dobbs (which I've enjoyed immensely) tonight or tomorrow, I plan to have a crack at the following:

Those last two (a memoir and a novel) reflect something I like to do when I travel, and that is to plan some of my reading to reflect a sense of the place where I'll be reading it (in this case, northern Michigan and, specifically, Old Mission Peninsula).  

Why I Value Holy Land Tours

Next March (with the lovely Robin and others) I will be taking my fifth trip to Israel. I can't wait.

I honestly look forward to every trip as if it's my first. It's a trip I honestly believe every follower of Jesus should take. And even more so, every pastor--as early as possible in their ministry. My first Holy Land trip was in 1987, when Robin and I borrowed money to make the trip, believing that initial investment would pay rich dividends in our years of ministry to follow--and it did. Since then, I have come to value my travel to the land of Jesus, the apostles, prophets, and patriarchs beyond my ability to express it. But I will try. Here are six reasons:

Sunset on the Sea of Galilee
1. The sites and sights of the land of the Bible revive me spiritually. Never fails. This is partly due to the way the lovely Robin and I approach our trips, as prayer-and-Scripture pilgrimages.We don't go as tourists, we travel as pilgrims. We pray in the Garden of Gethsemane and at the Western Wall (and insert tiny folded prayers into the cracks in the wall, like many, many others). We read Scripture aloud in the very places where they were written and the places they describe, such as standing in the city gates of the Old City and reading Psalm 122:2 ("Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem") or stopping at the caves of En Gedi and reading of David sparing Saul's life there (1 Samuel 24). We meditate silently on the Beatitudes at the site of the Sermon on the Mount. We sing and pray while floating on the Sea of Galilee.
The lovely Robin and me atop Mount Carmel
2. It energizes and informs my Bible reading and study. Words cannot describe what happens to a person's Bible reading, studying, and preaching once you have sailed the Sea of Galilee, and been baptized in the Jordan. Or taken an early morning journey starting at the Gihon Spring, in the City of David, and traversing the actual tunnel of Hezekiah (dug underneath the Ophel in Jerusalem about 701 B.C.) and ending up at the Pool of Siloam. Or the side trip Robin and I and a half dozen good friends took our last morning in Jerusalem, when we took a cab to the village of Bethany, and walked the Palm Sunday route Jesus took from the traditional site of Lazarus’s tomb to the Temple Mount (see photo above). The topography and scenery of that three-mile walk will stay with me forever, and springs to my mind, of course, every time I read of Bethany or Palm Sunday or Lazarus, Mary, and Martha in my Bible. You can hardly take a step in Israel without touching something of Biblical significance. And it lasts long beyond the time in Israel; Robin highlights and dates in her Bible places she's been, so memories constantly inform her reading.
The "seat of Moses" in the Chorazin synagogue
3. I learn something new every single time I go. In fact, after my last journey (the fourth, remember), I listed twenty new things I learned on that trip (see here). I could easily have listed twenty more. Every time. And on our next trip (see the full-color brochure here) we'll be visiting some places I've never seen, such as the Valley of Elah (above, where David triumphed over Goliath), Emmaus, Jacob's Well, the Herodion, and more. And even beyond those new experiences, if the pattern holds true, I'll learn still more at every place we visit.

Julie, "sitting in the gate" of Megiddo
4. I love the people we travel with. Time after time, we've started and enjoyed and deepened some of our most valued friendships with people we may never have known (or known so well) otherwise by traveling with them through the land of Jesus. And there is a special bond we share forever after, a delightful fellowship of co-pilgrims.
Prayers at the Kotel, the Western Wall
5. I love the people of Israel. Israelis and Palestinians. Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and others. I laugh every time someone says, "You from America? I have a cousin in Cleveland!"
The steps Jesus traversed from the Upper Room to Gethsemane, then back after his arrest
6. Beyond the "facts" and details I learn on each trip is a less quantifiable but more valuable kind of learning I derive from each trip. Every time I absorb more of the culture, topography, spirit, and truth of the place. It opens my mind's eye to more and deeper ways of approaching and understanding God, the Bible, Jesus, and myself. It is hard to describe, but anyone who has been there knows--and especially those who have been more than once. It is a place like no other, with application to my life like no other.

For all the richness of my educational and training experiences to date, I rank our trips to Israel as the most transformative of my ministry. They have made me a better reader, student, and preacher and teacher of Scripture. They have been worth many, many times the money I've spent on them. And I gain so much from every trip that I immediately make the next trip a high priority.

From the Garden to the City

John Dyer has written an entertaining, thoughtful, and tremendously helpful book in From the Garden to the City (The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology). His expert understanding of technology (he is a web developer who has built tools for Apple, Microsoft, Harley Davidson, and the U.S. Department of Defense) and his insightful Bible exposition (he is also a ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary) shine through in this book. Perhaps most impressively, he manages to discuss technology, philosophy, history, and theology in a thoroughly and constantly engaging way.

I loved the relatable way he defined technology, and then pointed out its use in Biblical descriptions of the Garden of Eden and the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus (and restoration of Peter) by the Sea of Galilee. I highlighted whole sections of the book, which I rarely do, and transcribed many of his lines, such as, "Sinfulness is amplified all the more when we attach something as powerful as the internet to our hearts" and "Our task as believers is to work against the tendencies built into our devices, and to in effect become a predator of the media in the ecosystem of our lives." Man, those two statements (which appear back-to-back in the book) are worth the price of the book. As well as the statement in the next-to-last chapter that, "We must continually attempt to view technology through the lens of the story of God and his people, with the resurrected Christ at the beginning, middle, and end of that story. It is his life, work, and promises that should inform our value system, shape the way we see the world, and transform the way we live in it."

Dyer's book has already helped me to begin doing that, better and more consciously. I hope it does so for many, many others--particularly pastors and church leaders.

For more information (and to read sample chapters from the book), visit

Why I Value Practical Preaching

Many preachers today seem to be reasonably adept at exhortation, telling their listeners what they should do, must do, need to do, etc. That is a key element in the preaching task (in fact, exhortation is a gift of the Spirit, according to Romans 12:8).

But exhortation alone isn't enough.

Exhortation without identification, inspiration, and application, is unlikely to produce life change in the listener. And, of course, that is the goal (or should be) of all preaching. Let me explain what I mean by each of those terms.

Identification - Preacher, in the first few minutes of your sermon, your listener needs a compelling reason to pay attention, and there is no more compelling reason than for you to identify with his or her need. What John Watson (pen name: Ian MacLaren) wrote is true of church-goers, too: "Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." They enter your church with many needs, some of them huge: a faltering marriage, a wayward child, unemployment, a scary diagnosis, etc. The preacher's earliest task is to identify with a person's need in such a way that holds out a promise that he or she may just be better off in some way by the time the preacher concludes.

Inspiration - Another often neglected task in contemporary preaching is inspiration. That is, the preacher neglects to touch my emotions. It is good to smile or laugh, but it is better to feel my eyes water, my heart leap, or my soul shout. I'm not talking about emotionalism, but inspiration. The former is empty, the latter is critical for the preacher who wants to see lives changed.

Application - Finally, preacher, please give your listeners a helpful, practical way to put your exhortation into action. If you preached on loving one's neighbor, challenge me to show that love in some practical way today or this week--perhaps by learning my neighbor's name or mowing a neighbor's lawn. If you preached on prayer, invite me to pray for ten minutes each morning this week. If you preached on baptism, have the baptismal full and ready for a response. Urge an action on me. Give me a tool to live out your message through the coming week. Call it homework. Call it life application. Call it whatever you like, but please don't let me leave church without having at least one answer to the question, "What am I supposed to do with this information--this week? Today, even?"

A Letter to the North American Church

I'd like you to read this post on Ann Voskamp's blog, A Holy Experience. Seriously, please read it.

And then cry out with me, "Pray for us, African Church. Pray for us, South American Church. Pray for us, Asian Church, Haitian Church, Syrian Church, Mexican Church. Pray for us the American Church, who haven't yet learned love and life and Christ."

The Impossible Mentor

"Nearly everyone is willing to acknowledge Jesus is a worthy role model, but almost no one seriously believes it is possible to live up to his example."

So says Ray Hollenbach in his recent book, The Impossible Mentor: Finding Courage To Follow Jesus. He makes the case that Jesus is not an "impossible mentor," but that anyone can live the Jesus life--if we resign from "the fellowship of low expectations" and instead pursue the presence, grace, and purpose of Jesus in purposeful ways.

The book is divided into three sections: "Four Problems," "Five Answers," and a five-part "Putting the Answers to Work" section. While the Kindle version had some irritating errors (missing words, the repeated use of "it's" instead of "its"), the book was rich in content and helpful in insight and application.

The author lives in central Kentucky, where he served for fifteen years in a pastoral role at Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Campbellsville, Kentucky. He now travels and speaks on personal spiritual growth and discipleship. He blogs at

Why I Value Professional Counseling

It's not just because my wife is a gifted professional counselor. And it's not just because I'm a tad crazy (okay, more than a tad). But there are numerous reasons I value professional counseling--especially for those in the helping professions, and even more so for anyone in ministry.

Here are seven reasons I have long valued professional counseling, and particularly during my decades of pastoral ministry:

1. Smart people advise it. For several years, while being coached as a church planter by my friend Steve Sjogren, he would ask in probably more than half of our meetings together, "Are you seeing a shrink yet?" At that time, my answer was no. But he, with wisdom borne of years of successful ministry, continued to promote to me and my co-pastor the importance of self-care for pastors, which includes having a counselor to talk to.

2. It is wise preparation. As I told my first counselor when he asked me in our first session, "Why are you here?," I sought out counseling when I wasn't in crisis because I knew (as I myself had counseled many) that the best time to seek help is before a crisis hits. And, boy, did that ever prove wise.

3. Ministry invites spiritual warfare. The burdens of leadership and ministry are so heavy at times that it is so valuable just to have an outlet, a pressure release valve, someone who isn't a member of the church, and who can offer comfort and counsel and wisdom and perspective.

4. It sets a good example for the flock. It is one thing to recommend counseling to people from some position of supposed superiority, and a much better thing to model the fact that a person doesn't have to be crazy to seek counseling (even if I am).

5. It is a key part of an accountability network. My counselor has helped to expose my blind spots and ask the hard questions of me. I hate that. But it is helpful and necessary.

6. It provides spiritual partnership and direction. I chose a counselor who was also a qualified spiritual director. So he has often helped me get better at listening to God and discerning what God is trying to say to me (most of the time, it's "Hey! Anybody in there?"). The value of spiritual direction is not mainly in answering my questions, but in questioning my answers.

7. It clears the clouded head. Often, after seeing my counselor, I have experienced a renewed mental, emotional, and spirituality clarity as a result of offloading some of the confusing and conflicting thoughts in my head. Turns out such clarity is an asset for a pastor. Who knew?

These are, of course, just seven among many reasons I value professional counseling...and recommend it. Especially, as I said earlier, for those in ministry.

Why I Value Multi-Sensory Preaching

I had the honor and joy of speaking last week at the Write-to-Publish conference in Wheaton, Illinois. In one of my three plenaries, I talked about "writing for the senses." It seemed to go over well enough.

I believe not only in writing for the senses, but in teaching and preaching for them, too. That is, consciously involving the learner's senses whenever possible (I was, therefore, quite glad that Kristin Sanders's sermon on Sunday at Cobblestone Community Church involved a good metaphor and helpful props).

Some of my favorite sensory preaching moments in the past have been:

Taste and Touch 
On Palm Sunday 2010, in the final message in a series called, "Do Something," I talked about how during my latest visit to Jerusalem, our group was walking through the Old City of Jerusalem, our guide Nader pointed out to us several times a scrap of bread on a window ledge or a few pieces on an electrical box. He explained that, because Jesus revealed himself to the two disciples he met on the road to Emmaus in the breaking of bread, bread is so revered by the Christians of Jerusalem, that they will not throw it in the garbage…and if any bread falls to the ground or is seen on the ground, the residents will pick it up and place it on a ledge so it won’t be trampled underfoot. So I asked everyone to come to communion, expecting to meet the living Christ in the breaking of bread, like those two disciples, and then I asked them, on their way back to their seats, to leave a piece or two or more of bread on the window ledge to represent the person or persons they had invited or planned to invite to Easter, with a prayer that that person would someday soon be meeting the living Christ in the breaking of bread, as they had just done. It prompted a beautiful response from the people of God that day.

Oh What a Sight
One Summer (2009, the fortieth anniversary of the original "Summer of Love") we did a "Summer of Love" series. As a sort of fun finale, I delivered my message on "The Breadth of Love," from Ephesians 3:18 and Luke 15:1-7 in the hippie threads you see at left. Some people giggled through the whole thing. I don't know why. I thought I was groovy.

Taste of Grace
In a study of Galatians called, "Livin' Venti," I preached on the first ten verses of Galatians 2, in a message called "Free to Belong." I wanted to emphasize the futility of adding to the Gospel of Grace. So I produced a fresh Krispy Kreme donut, and asked how many would eat that donut if I gave it to them. Of course, many hands were raised. Then I produced a ketchup bottle, a jar of jam, and a bottle of hot sauce, and added those ingredients to the donut, asking if anyone would eat it. ONE young man (in each celebration that morning!) raised a hand, so I gave him a bite. The crowd loved it--and even more when one of the guys had to leave the room shortly after to get a drink, or crackers, or something! It was fun--and, I hope, got the point across.

A Hands-Tied Experience
Also in the Livin' Venti series, preaching on the latter half of Galatians 2, I preached the first part of the message in a strait jacket, to illustrate our tendency to return over and over again to the constraints and strictures of the Law, instead of enjoying the fact that we are "Free to Enjoy" the new life God gives us. That simple visual seemed to make this message one of the most impactful and memorable I've ever given. Oh, and in case you're curious, the strait jacket was bought from a costume supply place....I didn't just happen to have it on hand, despite what you may think.

Wedding Banquet, Draft Notice
In an eleven-part study of the book of Revelation (that is easily
one of my favorite series, ever), I gave the ninth message, "The Last Word on Salvation," on Revelation 19-20. In it, I depicted salvation as wedding (ch. 19) and war (ch. 20), and we did a number of things to try to drive the point home. We divided the message into two parts, eparated by the celebration of communion. For the first
part of the message, I came onstage in a tuxedo, and issued the invitation, "Come to the Wedding" (from Revelation 19:1-10) after which we celebrated communion together from a beautifully appointed banquet table, to emphasize the wedding supper of the Lamb (right). After communion, I returned to the stage, this time in Army camo fatigues and issued the call, "Go out to War," from Rev. 19:11-21. We also had, on each seat in the auditorium, a card with a printed invitation to the wedding of the Lamb on one side, and a draft notice on the other; as part of the response, I urged participants, if they accepted the wedding invitation, to also sign the signature line on the draft notice, emphasizing that we kid ourselves if we think we can come to the wedding without joining in the battle.

Remote Preaching
My co-pastor at the time, John Johnson, planned and delivered one of the most imaginative messages I think I've ever seen. He actually constructed a silo in the auditorium (on the left in the photo at right; sorry for the quality, but the photographer is not the brightest bulb in the box) and delivered the first ten minutes or so of the message from INSIDE the silo, and had a video feed that showed him, contained and isolated in the silo, speaking to us from the big screen! He also had a SECOND camera that he could switch back and forth from to show us the cozy confines of his self-imposed cell. It was a memorable way to depict how many of us tend to prefer isolation from each other rather than engagement and vulnerability and community with each other.

Barefoot Sunday
Finally, one Thanksgiving Sunday, I surprised the whole church by concluding my message that day by challenging them to donate their shoes--the shoes they wore to worship that day--to people around the world who don't have even one pair of shoes to wear, through the ministry of Soles4Souls. God's people responded magnanimously! It was a day to remember, as worshipers came forward during the closing song, left their shoes on the platform steps, and left church BAREFOOT! The following weeks, people donated shoes by the hundreds, and we shipped them as a Christmas gift to the Soles4Souls distribution center!

Over the years, some of my favorite (and, I think, most impactful) preaching experiences have been those in which I remembered to employ multiple senses, especially those beyond sight and sound, and encouraged active participation from the saints. Like when we roped off sections of the crowd to indicate circles of influence. Or when I released a live butterfly as part of the message. Or when the Scripture reading included dramatic sound effects. Or when each worshiper received a small smooth stone or a coin or a dollar to drive home a point. Or when the front of the Easter Sunday auditorium was transformed into a luxuriant garden that not only looked beautiful but spread the fragrance of flowers throughout the room. Those are the moments I enjoyed best as a preacher, and the ones I think people remember best as participants. I only wish there were more of them.

Why I Value Contemporary Worship Music

It happens every so often. Most recently, a couple weeks ago at a writer's conference at which I was speaking. We were sitting at the table enjoying a nice meal, when someone started opining on contemporary worship music versus hymns. This person regarded hymns as theologically, musically, linguistically, and maybe even spiritually superior to modern worship songs. I'm so tired of these arguments, I couldn't even summon the energy to participate in the conversation. As one who cut my teeth as a child on hymns, and as a Christian on "contemporary Christian music," the discussion (as is typical) largely missed the point.

Hymns are great. The level of erudition and expression in the hymns of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and Fanny Crosby is unequalled in today's worship music. Because they are two different genres. Entirely. They are apples and oranges.

In my experience, at least, hymns enable me to worship with my intellect, by and large. There are exceptions ("Great is Thy Faithfulness," for example), but generally speaking, when I sing a hymn, my mind is engaged with lofty thoughts and divine truths, but my emotions, not so much (except when a hymn awakens nostalgia in me, which though it is a form of gratitude, is more likely to distract me from worship than aid me in worship).

Much of today's worship music, by contrast, does something else entirely for me. With some exceptions, these songs engage my heart and soul. They draw me into the presence of Jesus Christ. Some are theologically shallow--even questionable (but then so are some hymns, like "In the Garden" and "Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild"). Some are repetitive, even annoying (a little like the chorus of "Angels from the Realms of Glory" and the chorus "Be Still and Know That I am God"). And some are confusing or vapid or even comical (sort of like the song I remember singing forty years ago, "Standing Somewhere in the Shadows You'll Find Jesus;" I was never sure if it was supposed to scare or touch me, but I still chuckle at the image of Jesus as Phantom-of-the-Opera it inspires).

But many modern songs are far more like Biblical psalmody than the hymns I sang over the years (and still sing and pray today). A great number are actually Scripture set directly to music, while others are thoroughly Scripture-based. For example, the song “Knowing You” is drawn from Philippians 3, and the words of "Those Who Trust" are based on Psalm 125. And it is true that many of today's worship songs are written and sung from a highly personal, perhaps narcissistic frame of mind (the personal pronoun "I" does dominate some of them)...but then, even the most casual glance at the psalms will reveal precisely the same thing.

Most hymns were written with different instrumentation and venues in mind; they are great for pipe organ, piano, and choir. An entirely different music form might have resulted if Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley had written for guitars and drums, as many of today's songwriters do.

Moreover, a hefty portion of hymns are songs of testimony ("Amazing Grace") or sentiment ("The Old Rugged Cross") or proclamation ("How Firm a Foundation") as well as worship ("Immortable, Invisible, God Only Wise") and prayer ("Nearer, My God, to Thee"). While that is true of modern worship music, it seems to me that a much higher percentage of the worship songs we sing in church are designed to lead me into God's presence, keep me there, express my heart in prayer, and commune with him ("Draw Me Close to You," "Blessed Be Your Name," "Breathe"), in ways that even the best hymns seldom do.

Oh, and one of the voices at that conference table a couple weeks ago mentioned the point that classic hymns have stood the test of time, which ought to prove that hymns are superior as a music form. I must grant that BOTH the "pop" nature of today's worship songs AND the frequency with which they are sung (sometimes repeated almost every week for months or more, until worn out, whereas the same hymn is seldom sung two weeks in a row) make it less likely that they will last for decades, let alone centuries. BUT that is also true of tens of thousands of hymns. The hymns we still sing are classic because they are among the few that have stuck around...among a huge number that entered well-deserved obscurity long ago (like the number my friend Dennis recently found in an old hymnal, "If Men Go to Hell, Who Cares?" I kid you not).

And, finally, some of today's most popular worship songs adapt or incorporate ancient and classic hymns, like "Be Thou My Vision" and "My Chains Are Gone/Amazing Grace." So it's not a cut-and-dried either/or thing. Not by a long shot.

Most importantly, of course, the typical argument (whether for or against current worship music) misses the point. Worship is not defined or limited by musical forms. I worship regularly in Gregorian chant, a music form that is more than a thousand years old, not to mention hymns and more modern worship music. Each form assists me in worship in one way or another...but I am the worshiper, not the form I use. It's perfectly okay to prefer one form over another....but it seems silly and absolutely unnecessary to me to try to argue for or against any of the forms. If a certain way of worshiping is not your cup of tea, fine...but it's a cup of tea, not a hill to die on.

The Jesus Creed

I'm embarrassed that it took me this long, but I recently read The Jesus Creed, by Scot McKnight. The 2004 book was the 2005 recipient of Christianity Today's Book Award, and deservedly so.

McKnight, the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park College (Chicago), thoroughly and captivatingly presents the Jesus Creed (the Shema of Deuteronomy 6 plus Jesus' added priority of loving your neighbor as yourself) as the heart of what it means to follow Jesus and experience his kingdom. He divides the book into five sections:

1. The Jesus Creed ("a spiritually formed person loves God by following Jesus and loves others")
2. Stories of the Jesus Creed ("a spiritually formed person embraces the stories of others who love Jesus")
3. The Society of the Jesus Creed ("a spiritually formed person lives out kingdom values")
4. Living the Jesus Creed ("a spiritually formed person loves Jesus")
5. Jesus and the Jesus Creed ("a spiritually formed person participates in the life of Jesus")

I loved the book as a whole, but especially found the first few chapters compelling (due, I am sure, to my high degree of interest in the Jewish roots and background of Jesus' life and teaching, which figure repeatedly in the early chapters). I loved his wide choice of sources. I loved his sense of humor and his knack for story-telling. I agree with John Ortberg, who wrote in the foreword, "The Jesus Creed is both an invitation and a resource to put your spirit into [God's] hands, to dine at the Master's table." I found it so.

Eight Things I Wish I Had Been Taught When Training for Ministry

Charm would've been good, too...
Matt Damico posted recently on "8 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before Seminary." It's worth reading even if you have never gone to seminary. Even if you never plan to. Even if you pray daily that you won't have to.

But it got me thinking. I'm not sure I can remember eight things I wish someone had told me before seminary. But I can remember and reflect on eight things I wish I had been taught when training for the ministry.

Now, don't get me wrong, my ministry training taught me many things. How to preach, more or less (mostly less). How to visit the sick. How to do simple accounting tasks. How to offer basic pastoral counseling. Stuff like that.

But, looking back now on thirty-plus years of public ministry, these are eight things I really, really wish (somehow) my ministry training had taught me, but didn't:

1. How to pray. To be fair, we did have a seminar on prayer, and I knew there were faculty members who were men and women of deep and constant prayer. And it probably wasn't something I would have learned from a class or seminar, per se, but from the example of a mentor over a period of months and years. (And that's not to say I didn't pray or didn't learn things about prayer, but it was decades before I could say I had truly learned to pray, and that came from a multitude of sources and experiences that I wish I could have had as a twenty-something wannabe pastor).

2. How to read the Bible. I'm grateful for the many great Bible classes I had while training for the ministry, and I was a voracious reader back in my training days, but I think I could have profited from a course (or two, or three) on reading the Bible for personal spiritual profit as opposed to studying it for ministry purposes (maybe along the lines of Gordon Fee's How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth).

3. How to Sabbath. Granted, I trained for ministry in a very activist tradition, but I still wish I had been taught the importance and practice of Sabbath all those years ago. It would have been a boon to my soul and my ministry. And my family.

4. How to handle criticism. Even with my glaring youthful weaknesses, no one could have foreseen all the mistakes I would make in ministry, and all the criticism (much of it justified) I would face over the years. And this alone may have required an additional year or two of training. And I probably would have shrugged off much of it because I truly thought (when I was in my twenties) we could all just get along. But a thorough preparation for criticism would have been helpful, nonetheless.

5. How to say no. This was surely touched on at some point--perhaps in a class or two on time management--but I could have used an entire ministry track on the importance of saying no and the art of saying no.

6. How to get a life. Looking back on three-plus decades of ministry, I can see (now, sure!) how insulated my life (and my family's life) was. I was so absorbed in my church and ministry that I barely knew my neighbors, barely had any friends outside my church or denomination, barely had any life outside the bunker of my responsibilities. This probably goes with knowing how to Sabbath or say no, but I fervently wish I had known how to (and had the priority of) getting a life in my community and neighborhood.

7. How to speak another modern language. I can't count how many times I've tried to learn Spanish over the years. Nor can I quantify how many times it would have been a blessing in my interactions with others. I know there are only so many hours in the day and days in the week for seminarians, but I do wish I had learned at least one modern language before launching out in ministry.

8. How to be. This kinda goes with the Sabbath point, but I was trained to do all sorts of things in ministry. And I did them faithfully for decades. But it wasn't until sometime in my third decade of ministry that I learned--again, from a variety of sources and experiences, among them the monks of the Abbey of Gethsemane--to be. To rest in God. To repose on him. To be rather than do.

This is not intended in any way as a criticism of the wonderful men and women who did teach me way back then (or tried to, at least). Nor is it to dismiss or belittle many of the good things I learned (well, except maybe the music appreciation class). But I do think I would have been better off to substitute these eight priorities for ANY of the classes I did take (except maybe Bernard Ditmer's Old Testament class; his impression of Queen Jezebel was about the highlight of my experience).

Why I Value Structured Prayer

One of my favorite bloggers (and the author of the wonderful book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood) recently posted on the subject of structured prayer. To virtually everything in her post (here), I can only say "Amen." And "amen."

Why I Value Expository Preaching

I'm not one of those people who thinks only expository preaching (that is, preaching that relies on--rather than obliquely refers to--a passage in the Bible, explains what it says, and how it applies today) is good or valid. However, I much prefer it. Much. May I say to you: Much.

Here's one reason why: there is a whole lot of preaching in churches today that makes good points and says good things in entertaining ways....but which relies mostly (or even exclusively) on the preacher's perspective and opinions, rather than on sound interpretation and explanation of the Bible.

But when a preacher tasks himself or herself with a passage of Scripture and lets it decide and guide what is said from the pulpit (or, as is often the case, music stand or plexiglas lectern), it can be both limiting and liberating. When you preach from a text, there is far less room (if you're honest) for opinions and personal prejudices to creep in. It can still be done, of course, but not so easily without raising red flags in the preacher's soul.

The problem many of us preachers face, however, is that we want to preach what we want to preach. We want to make certain points that Scripture may not make--or may not make unequivocally. But that is exactly why I prefer expository preaching, because it forces me as a student and communicator to make the points Scripture makes instead of the points I really want to make. And that's a good thing.