My Ten Best Books in 2014

It is time once again to post the ten best books I read in 2014. I have done this in past years here on the Desperate Pastor (see 20132012, 2011, 2010, and 2009) so this should not come as a great surprise.

Rather than trying to rank them from 1-10 (which would take much too much wisdom...or effort...or both), I will post them here in the order in which I read them:

Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks)

Bootstrapper (Mardi Jo Link)

The Mad Farmer Poems (Wendell Berry)

The Well-Played Life (Leonard Sweet)

Money Secrets of the Amish (Lorilee Craker)

Boone (Robert Morgan)

One Summer: America 1927 (Bill Bryson)

The Memory of Old Jack (Wendell Berry)

Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand)

Let's see, that amounts to two biographies, one memoir, two novels (one a historical novel), one history, one poetry, and three nonfiction. And those had to be whittled down from a hundred books read in 2014, and nineteen I had starred as "favorites" throughout the year. 

A New and Wondrous Mystery

In what has become a Christmas tradition here on the Desperate Pastor blog, here is the earliest Christmas sermon still extant. It was written and delivered in A.D. 386 by John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople:
BEHOLD a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech. For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works.

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend.

Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature’. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ‘in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever. Amen.

A Christmas Greeting

The Hostetler Family Christmas Newsletter includes our greetings to all the readers (both of you) of The Desperate Pastor blog. Read it here:

Church of the Week: The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

This week's church is among the oldest in Christendom, because it rests atop the grotto that has been revered since the first century by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus. It's the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem. (I've featured this church a couple times before on this blog, but thought it would be good to revisit it, in honor of the coming Feast of Christmas).

Below (in a photo taken in 2000, one of the four times Robin and I have so far visited this church), my kids (Aubrey and Aaron) prepare to enter the church (behind their cousin, Elissa) through the Door of Humility, a small rectangular entrance to the church which was created in Ottoman times to prevent carts being driven in by looters, and to force even the most important visitor to dismount from his horse as he entered the holy place. The doorway was reduced from an earlier Crusader doorway, the pointed arch of which can still be seen above the current door. The outline of the Justinian square entrance can also be seen above the door.

The Basilica is a rectangle 177 ft. long, the nave is 86 ft. wide, and the transept is 117 ft. Entering the Church, one can notice 4 rows of pillars, 44 in total, 20 ft. high, and made of the white-veined red stone of the country with white marble Corinthian capitals.

A short history of the church: In 326, Constantine and his mother St. Helena commisioned a church to be built over the cave where Jesus was born. This first church, dedicated on May 31, 339, had an octagonal floor plan and was placed directly above the cave. In the center, a 4-meter-wide hole surrounded by a railing provided a view of the cave. Portions of the floor mosaic survive from this period. St. Jerome lived and worked in Bethlehem from 384 AD, and he was buried in a cave beneath the Church of the Nativity.

The Constantinian church was destroyed by Justinian in 530 AD, who built the much larger church that remains today.The remnants of the octagonal building which covered the Grotto of the Nativity can still be seen in the Armenian Chapel.

In 1852, shared custody of the church was granted to the Roman Catholic, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox churches. The Greeks care for the Grotto of the Nativity, pictured below, where a silver star marks the birthplace of Jesus.

After You Believe

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am an unabashed fan of the theologian N. T. Wright. He is one of a handful of people I would pay good money (and even travel more than ten minutes from home) to hear speak. So one of the books on my 2014 reading plan (see here for more about my annual reading plans) was his After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.

After You Believe is the third in a trilogy from Bishop Wright (he is a retired Anglican bishop), following Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope, which are among the best books I've read in recent years.

In After You Believe, Wright tackles the topic of Christian character and virtue. Using the wonderfully apt illustration of Captain "Sully" Sullenberger's heroism in saving lives on the ill-fated Flight 1549, he makes the case that "virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices have become 'second nature.'...Like an acquired taste, such choices and actions, which started off being practiced with difficulty, ended up being, yes, 'second nature'" (p. 21). With his usual thoroughness and eloquence, he leaves the reader no choice but to agree and to desire such character and virtue. He makes it clear that "virtue" doesn't "just happen," nor is it achieved by following someone's example--even that of Jesus. Instead, he depicts what he calls "The Virtuous Circle" (see photo), comprised of regular and intertwining

influences of scripture, stories, examples, community, and practices--the "habits of mind and heart which develop those corporate virtues of which we have spoken" (p. 278), such as shared worship (prayer, scripture, sacrament, and giving). When this "virtuous circle" is habitual (not occasional), cyclical (not sequential), and sincere (not rote), our characters will be transformed and virtue will result.

It's impossible to do justice to what Commonweal calls "Wright’s close reading of Scripture, his clear prose, and his evident love for his Christian faith" in a short review, but After You Believe is a helpful and compelling book by one of the world's leading biblical scholars.

The Daily Routines of Creative People

Here (click on the link) is a fascinating graphic depicting the daily routines of numerous creative people--such as Balzac, Mozart, Freud, and others.

As a writer, I suppose I would aspire to Flannery O'Connor's schedule. As a pastor, my schedule looked nothing like any of these. I wonder how a similar chart of well-known pastors throughout history might look.

How does your daily routine compare? How should it look?

Pastors and Office Hours

This post by Thom Rainer is priceless. I never had a church leader stalk me to make sure I was putting in "office hours" like he did, but I did once lose a series of battles with church leaders over the issues he lists here. Read it. It's good.

(photo by Steve Snodgrass via

An Artist's Prayer

M. Craig Barnes made the case that pastors are minor poets, in his book, The Pastor as Minor Poet. And Walter Brueggemann has said, "The business of the church is poetry." I believe both of those things. I also believe that the church collectively and its members individually are artists, whether consciously or unconsciously, whether fulfilled or failed. So I was blessed to read the acceptance speech for the 2014 American Academy of Religion Award in Religion and the Arts by one of my favorite living artists, Makoto Fujimura. It begins:
This speech is a prayer: a prayer uttered in the liminal zone between art and religion, a prayer to repair the schism between the two, a prayer to be — in T.S. Eliot’s words — “reconciled among the stars.”

I pray that some day, in the near future, our children and our grandchildren will see an age when faith and life, art and scholarship, the rational and the intuitive will be so integrated that there will no longer be a need for this award.
Read the whole thing here. It's beautiful.

More Or Less

One of the things God has been doing in me lately is calling me to a life of greater generosity. More than that. He's been urging me toward more awareness of and sensitivity to the needs of those around me. More than that. He's been prodding me to reflect in my lifestyle what my Jewish friends call "tikkun olam," a Hebrew phrase that means "healing the world." So, when I happened upon Jeff Shinabarger's book, More or Less: Choosing a Lifestyle of Excessive Generosity, I knew I had to read it.

In fourteen very readable chapters, Shinabarger makes the case that, "if you are reading this book, you are rich," and can find tremendous blessing in facing that fact and coming to the conclusion that you have enough. Maybe he lays on a guilt trip, a little, but since I read his book on an iPad, it's nothing I don't deserve. But he does more than show that I have enough possessions, food, clothing, presents, transportation, time, access, and more. He also gives many practical suggestions for how to turn my excess possessions into generosity and blessing and wealth of a different kind.

It was not only his (and his wife's) generosity that interested and excited me, but also their ingenuity. He is an entrepreneur, and so when he and his wife realized that most people have gift cards just sitting around unused, they established And that's just one example of the brilliant and energizing ideas that enliven this book. And the book is supported by one of the best book-related websites--with videos, discussion guides, and more--I've ever seen.

If you're interested in living better, read this book. If you're tired of consumerism, read this book. If you're not convinced that you have enough already, read this book. If you're spending more and more but enjoying life less and less, read this book. If you don't think you can afford to buy this book, read it anyway. As Shinabarger says, "Only you can contribute what only you can give to the world."

Church Signs with Moveable Letters Should Be Outlawed (Pt. 21)

This church sign comes to the Desperate Pastor by way of @jesusneedsnewpr. I'm not sure, but I think the assumption behind the message is that people will be led to repentance by their love for turkey.

Church of the Week: St. Gabriel's Catholic Church, Glendale, Ohio

A few weeks ago, I attended a family funeral at St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Glendale, a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. The church building is a striking sandstone structure with a red tile roof and a square crenellated bell tower. 
Worshipers entering through the front doors find themselves in the narthex, which on this occasion was quite crowded. The three slightly sloping aisles in the church are also quite narrow, but it is a beautiful setting. A barrel-vaulted ceiling is divided into squares by white beams. Plaster stations of the cross line the walls. The arch above the sanctuary carries gold letters on a blue background with “The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary” in Latin (referring to the archangel Gabriel, to whom the parish is dedicated). A beautiful rose window shines into the sanctuary from the rear wall.

St. Gabriel's is located at 48 West Sharon Road in the lovely Cincinnati suburb of Glendale.

There's Preaching, and Then There's Preaching!

I love this. I want to go to this church. I want to hear more preaching--and worshiping--like this! Call me crazy, but I love it when God's people have church, no less!

The Bible Tells Me So

Peter Enns's book, The Bible Tells Me So (Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It), is delightful, insightful, entertaining, and ultimately--for me--disappointing.

I agree with his premise. I do think the fundamentalist and evangelical approach to the Bible as a "divine rule book" and "instruction book for life" does harm to the book and its readers, as well as our frequent failure to read and study it for what it is and what it says rather than for what we want it to be and say. I agree that we err by "not asking ancient questions, but modern ones" when we read and study the Bible.

I also agree with so much of what Enns--an evangelical scholar and Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University--writes. For example:
I believe God wants us to take the Bible seriously; but I don’t believe he wants us to suppress our questions about it (p. 8).

This kind of Bible—the Bible we have—just doesn’t work well as a point-by-point exhaustive and timelessly binding list of instructions about God and the life of faith. But it does work as a model for our own spiritual journey. An inspired model, in fact (23-24).

Starting with the wrong assumptions actually devalues the Bible that we have by wanting something else (89).

Getting the Bible right and getting Jesus right are not the same thing (164).
Great stuff. As is his explanation of how (and possibly why) the Bible offers multiple and conflicting accounts of the same events. As is his elucidation of how Jesus quoted and alluded to the ancient Scriptures while also applying them in new and clearly revolutionary ways. As is his similarly insightful depiction of Paul's creativity with the Hebrew Scriptures (though speculative as to Paul's motives or thought processes to a degree I don't think he acknowledges).

But I couldn't shake the sense that he treats the textual record as authoritative when setting up problems ("what kind of God regrets what he's done?" 158) but malleable in order to solve problems ("[the Bible] doesn't lay down at every point what all the faithful for all time should believe about God. It shows us how Israelites understood God on their journey with God, in their time and place" 153), and seldom (if ever) mentions other plausible explanations for some of the challenges he works to solve (though, to be fair, to do much of this would surely have made the book less entertaining and accessible). He makes the Gospel writers sound like PR flacks who made up stuff to exalt Jesus. And though he affirms the Bible as the Word of God, I don't think he ever really explains what he means by that.

Having said all that, I'm very glad to have read it. And I'm still thinking it over and over in the days since I finished it, which is one of my preferred metrics of a good book. So it may well be that my disappointment is the result of having expected the wrong things of The Bible Tells Me So. Which, I will agree with Enns, is the kind of attitude I too often bring to the Bible. Point. Just maybe not "set" and "match."

(Please feel free to share this post with others using the Twitter, Facebook, and other buttons below. You can also subscribe to this blog in your blog reader or enter your email address at top right to receive posts via email)

Church of the Week: The Prayer Corner at Christ Church, Cincinnati OH

On a guided tour following my Sunday worship at Christ Church Cathedral a couple weeks ago, I was delighted by the "prayer corner" our docent made sure we visited. It is tucked away, literally, in a corner, but is nonetheless inviting. The altar was relocated here when the main sanctuary was renovated, and the colorful gold-flecked Tiffany ceramic tiles surrounding it (just distinguishable, I hope, in the photo above) were rescued from the apse where they once filled the wall behind the altar. Beautifully lighted and lovingly maintained, I wished I could have spent a prayer session there. Maybe someday.

(Please feel free to share this post with others using the Twitter, Facebook, and other buttons below. You can also subscribe to this blog in your blog reader or enter your email address at top right to receive posts via email)

Whole Truth

“The ‘eye gate’ and the ‘ear gate’ are no longer enough. There must now be as well a smell gate, a taste gate, and a touch gate. Truth is not just for the ears, eyes, hands. Truth is for the whole body” (Leonard Sweet, The Dawn Mistaken for Dusk).

For a related post, see here.

(Please feel free to share this post with others using the Twitter, Facebook, and other buttons below. You can also subscribe to this blog in your blog reader or enter your email address at top right to receive posts via email)

Last Child in the Woods

I debated reviewing this book on the Desperate Pastor blog, because it's not a book on leadership, pastoring, ministry, etc. But I could not shake the belief that it is an important book for the Church and for church leaders.

I'm talking about Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. The author's premise is that today's children face a "nature deficit," one that negatively affects imagination and creativity and leads to numerous dysfunctions and disadvantages for them and for the society they will live in as adults.

The book hit home with me. Though I grew up in the Cincinnati suburbs, I spent more waking hours in the woods than in my house, it seems. I fell in love with Creation. It shaped me in many ways, as it did most kids of my generation. These days, however, only the most aware, conscientious, and involved parents can tear their children away from TV, computers, video games, smartphones, and other indoor and relatively sedentary pursuits to go outdoors and explore creeks, climb trees, turn over rocks, and get dirty.

Louv explores the current and coming outcomes of this "nature deficit." He warns of effects on education and national parks, science and society--all of which concerns me. But I couldn't help but consider the impact of this deficit on the church, as well as the possible role the church has played in the problem and can play in the solutions.

Sure, much of our children's church experience and Christian education takes place (and maybe always has) indoors. But what will happen in a generation or two if church leaders have a shriveled sense of the splendor, beauty, intricacy, and majesty of Creation? What effect will a "nature deficit" have on how future Christians and church leaders read and understand and teach the Bible? Will our theology suffer? And what role should the church be playing in addressing this societal shift? Are there ways for the church to champion Creation in constructive ways? Should more churches--even in urban settings--be helpful in getting kids outside, taking them camping, teaching them to garden, taking them hiking, giving them never-to-be-forgotten experiences in nature? Is this one of the ways for the church to connect our spiritual mission with a cultural need?

I think these are important and urgent questions. I recommend Last Child in the Woods, and hope it will spark something for you.

Church of the Week: Centennial Chapel, Christ Church, Cincinnati OH

On my recent visit to Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Cincinnati (see here), I was delighted to be taken on a tour of the church, without which I may never have seen the church's beautiful Centennial Chapel.
The Centennial Chapel opened in 1917, the year of the church's centennial. During World War I and World War II, it was open to the public twenty-four hours a day. After World War II, it was re-dedicated as a memorial chapel for all fallen soldiers. 
The side altar (above) contains a painting of the Holy Family that has been attributed to Rubens, the Flemish Baroque artist. 
Opposite the main altar in the chapel is a tapestry created from a Raphael sketch of the miraculous draught of fishes. 
It also happened that I got to see the Holtkamp organ in the Centennial Chapel the day before it (the console and pipes) was scheduled to be disassembled and donated to Trinity Lutheran Church in Medina, New York! 

The Centennial Chapel is the site of Christ Church's 8 a.m. Sunday Holy Eucharist Rite, as well as the weekly "Music Live at Lunch" programs presented every Tuesday, I believe. The acoustics in the chapel must be amazing. 

It is a lovely setting and I would love to worship someday in this distinctly medieval chapel. 

(Please feel free to share this post with others using the Twitter, Facebook, and other buttons below. You can also subscribe to this blog in your blog reader or enter your email address at top right to receive posts via email)

A Prayer Milestone

For decades as a pastor, I worked hard and long and spent myself over and over again in the service of God and his people. In that respect, I was like most of the other pastors I knew.

And also, like most of the other pastors I knew, I advocated prayer, preached on prayer, and taught prayer, while knowing full well that my prayer life was no model. Though that eventually changed, I know what it's like to live with that contradiction.

So this would be a shameless plug if it weren't for that. I recently posted the three thousandth prayer on my daily prayer blog, One Prayer a Day. Whether or not you're as desperate as I have been as pastor, it could be a helpful resource to you. Simply subscribe to it via email or your blog reader (or add it to your browser's bookmarks) and every morning you'll have at least one prayer to start the day.

Church of the Week: Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati, OH

I had the pleasure of fulfilling a long-time goal just over a week ago, when I worshiped with the church at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. I grew up knowing of this nearly two-hundred-year-old church (they celebrate their bicentennial in 2017) but had never attended.
I was immediately and warmly greeted upon entering fifteen minutes or so before the start of the 10 a.m. service. A family at the front was receiving final instructions for a baby baptism to be held in the service, and the choir was warming up. 
The church filled quickly. Following the stately processional, complete with incense (oh, yeah!), the organ and choir provided accompaniment for the liturgy of the day which was printed in a sixteen-page program (with an additional four-page insert for announcements). The organist was finestkind. The choir was excellent--especially the sopranos. And the liturgy was ably and feelingly presented. 
I loved that the program included helpful explanations and elucidations of the liturgy, its components and its meaning (see above).
The baptism (above), performed by the Very Reverend Gail Greenwell (dean of the cathedral), was delightful, a perfect blend of formality and informality, deep meaning and familial comfort.
I learned by reading the program (yes, I'm one of those few who actually read the program) that since I was there on the first Sunday of November (which was also All Saints' Sunday), a guided tour of the church was offered following the service. So I stayed.
I'm so glad I did. The docent, whose name I forget, is also a former history teacher, retired lawyer, and the church archivist. He could not have been kinder, more thorough, nor more knowledgeable. He offered numerous fascinating details of the church's history, architecture, and art, and took me (and one other participant) many places I could never have found or appreciated otherwise. Having been fascinated throughout the service by the glass rosette in the ambulatory (visible past the altar in the first two photos, above), which glimmers with a rose or pink hue as light shines through the crystal design, I was glad to get a closer view.
The cloister and columbarium (above) provides a beautiful setting for prayer and contemplation.
And I got to visit the library, too (above), which is not just well stocked with religious books but also benefits from a long-ago endowment that provides for the purchase of every New York Times bestseller. I love churches with libraries intended for actual use! 

Two other stops on the tour will be featured in the weeks to come on this blog. Christ Church Cathedral is located at 318 East Fourth Street (though the entrance to the church on Sundays is from Sycamore St. Sunday services are held at 8 a.m. (in the Centennial Chapel) and 10 a.m. (in the main sanctuary), with a 5 p.m. Sunday Evensong service on first Sundays of the month, October through May). 

(Please feel free to share this post with others using the Twitter, Facebook, and other buttons below. You can also subscribe to this blog in your blog reader or enter your email address at top right to receive posts via email)

Simple Sermon Outline: When You Face a Difficult Decision

Here is another "Simple Sermon Outline" intended to ignite (not replace) the process of prayer, study, and creativity for any desperate pastors out there in Pastorland who take seriously the task of study and preaching but may be up against a wall and fresh out of ideas. The entire original script for this one is available at SermonCentralDOTcom, here. But the simple outline is as follows:
When You Face a Difficult Decision
Numbers 11, Exodus 18

1. Acknowledge the problem and define it clearly (Numbers 11:10-13)
2. Admit your limitations (Numbers 11:14)
3. Accept wise counsel (Numbers 11:14, Exodus 18:18-21)
4. Assess your resources (Exodus 4:2)
5. Allow others to help (Numbers 11:16-17)
6. Act accordingly (Numbers 11:24-29)
7. Abandon all else to God’s care and wisdom (Numbers 11:26-30)

(Please feel free to share this post with others using the Twitter, Facebook, and other buttons below. You can also subscribe to this blog in your blog reader or enter your email address at top right to receive posts via email)

(image: MorgueFile free photo, courtesy of "OldGreySeaWolf")

22 Questions to Ask Every Time You Preach

Years ago I developed a list of twenty questions to evaluate a sermon during the preparation and practice phase (here is the original list). Today much of it remains a mental checklist (though more intuitive for me than mechanical), and one I have revised for the new realities of preaching and demands on preaching in this Third Millennium in which we now live and preach. So here are my current list of twenty-two questions:
 Do I grab the listener’s attention as soon as I start speaking?
 Does the talk start where people are (with their culture, needs, problems, issues, questions)?
 Does it avoid assuming any prior knowledge on the part of the listener?
 Am I teaching the listener something he or she didn’t already know?
 Am I communicating what God says, not my opinions?
 Have I offered an elementary (but not condescending) explanation of the text that will help orient even a Bible newbie?
 Have I avoided "church" lingo, jargon, inside jokes, and platitudes?
 Have I revealed something of myself in the talk without revealing anything inappropriate? (so much the better if it’s vulnerable, self-effacing, and/or winsome)
 Do I interact with my listeners in the talk (e.g., mentioning people’s names, asking for responses, etc.)?
 Have I included humor?
 Have I employed story, metaphor, or meaningful symbolism into the message?
 Am I being realistic instead of shallow? Will my listeners believe I understand what they're really going through?
 Have I given my audience something memorable to look at (besides text in a Bible or on a screen)?
 Have I given my audience something to touch, taste, smell, or do to drive home the main point of the message? (not everyone's learning style is sequential and verbal)
 Have I touched (not manipulated) my listener’s emotions?
 Is my talk focused enough (instead of rambling)?
 Have I played a part in meeting a felt need?
 Is the “solution” or response I propose realistic? Life-related? Biblical?
 Does the structure of my talk logically lead to the conclusion/application (or have I gone down any rabbit trails)?
 Have I left out anything important, crucial?
 Have I given clear application for both a seeker and a Christian that answers the question, "OK, what am I supposed to do with this information now/today/this week?”--or even (ideally) helped my listeners actually begin (now, in the sermon itself) to apply the message?
 Have I made reference to how my listener can find further help (e.g., prayer counselors, websites, resources, etc.)?
Now, not every sermon will necessarily hit all twenty-two. But this pretty well summarizes what I shoot for every time I preach. 

So what questions would you add or subtract? Or revise?

(Please feel free to share this post with others using the Twitter, Facebook, and other buttons below. You can also subscribe to this blog in your blog reader or enter your email address at top right to receive posts via email)

Church of the Week: Beth Messiah Synagogue, Loveland, OH

Until ten days ago or so, I had never worshiped with a messianic Jewish congregation, though I had long wanted to. So I made my way on a Friday evening to Beth Messiah Messianic Synagogue in Loveland, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati. As I entered the building (it was after dark, so I took no pictures of the exterior, which was unremarkable except for the Star of David over the entrance), I was intrigued by the Jerusalem timeline decorating the walls of the large lobby.
Just outside the entrance to the auditorium was a rack of tallit and a bowl of kipas. I availed myself of the latter and entered about fifteen minutes before the scheduled 8 p.m. start of the service.
I was greeted quickly by the Rabbi, Michael Wolf, and sat in the second row. I was one of the earliest arrivals, and so got to listen to the worship band practicing.
The service was not all that different from most contemporary church services. The worship music, however, was all from the messianic movement (I knew none of the tunes but was able to sing along easily, and recognized the author of one--Joel Chernoff--as one of the members of the group, Lamb, whose debut self-titled album was once in my collection). Several worshipers danced throughout the singing, which delighted me. After an announcement by Rabbi Wolf of the death of a synagogue member's mother (whom he had visited), we said Kaddish. We recited the Shema in both Hebrew and English, and a woman came onstage to light the Shabbat candles and recite the Shabbat prayer, also in both Hebrew and English. Rabbi Wolf preached on Isaiah 42:5-7, a sermon which spoke to me.

I learned that the Torah scroll is used only in the Saturday morning worship service (which the rabbi said is the more well-attended of the two services), so the ark (at the back corner of the stage) and the Amud were unused.

I was given a welcome packet and encouraged to fill out a visitor form, which I did.

It was a unique blessing, and one I hope to repeat soon--perhaps next time at 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning.

Beth Messiah Messianic Synagogue is located at 9054 Columbia Road in Loveland, Ohio.

(Please feel free to share this post with others using the Twitter, Facebook, and other buttons below. You can also subscribe to this blog in your blog reader or enter your email address at top right to receive posts via email)