Which Way Does the Finger Point?

Preaching is as popular and unpopular today as ever.

I. Popular Preaching.

Preaching has always been a powerful and popular craft in America, whether it comes from politicians or preachers. Today, little “g” preachers (government) seem to go farther than big “G” preachers (God). Exceptions abound, but let me make my case.

On the merits of long sermons and little else, Barack Obama sailed through two national elections, preaching his way to the top. The vast majority of his communication came on a one-way-street–monologues on a stage, often with a sea of faces as his backdrop. Remember the Greek columns? Meaningful dialogue was avoided.

Some presume that sermons and lectures work for the 50-and-over set but not with young people. I’m not so sure. The “I don’t want to be lectured to” complaint comes from some of the same youthful listeners who swooned over our celebrity lecturer- in-chief. Again, exceptions abound. Still, a few sermons on hope and change propelled an inexperienced community organizer straight to the top of this world’s pecking order. Throngs of young people swooned over his presence and his preaching.

His “war on women” sermons during the 2012 campaign lacked substance but sounded good to enough political pew-sitters to get him re-elected. When four Americas (including an ambassador) were murdered in Benghazi, Libya, President Obama passionately preached against some film-maker in America as the villain. It was a false narrative but we immediately re-elected him. After all, he could preach!

President Obama preached about a “red line” that must not be crossed. It mattered little when it as crossed because the sermon sounded good. In a sermon to the American Medical Association in June 2009, he preached, “If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. If you like your healthcare plan, you’ll be able to keep your healthcare plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what.” Never mind the facts; preach the fantasy!

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have mastered the art of illustrating their culture sermons and making us laugh. They tap into the insatiable hunger Americans seem to have for hearing other people and their ideas skewered and ridiculed. Radio talk shows do the same thing to the raves of listeners, left and right. Sometimes, the ridicule is justified. Sometimes not. Either way, America loves it.

II. Unpopular Preaching

The apostle Peter preached to his Pentecost audience, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36). Ouch! I don’t know if they liked the sermon, but thousands repented! Later, he was not seeking high office when he preached, “But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses.” (Acts 3:14-15). He was not a warm and fuzzy preacher.

George Whitefield (1714 – 1770), the great open-air preacher during the Frist Great Awakening, put it this way; “It is a poor sermon that gives no offense; that neither makes the hearer displeased with himself nor with the preacher.”

In his commencement speech to the graduating class at Harvard University in 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918 –2008) said, “We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life.” He sounded like an Old Testament prophet, which did not make him popular with the elites. Still, America did not resent him as harshly as the Soviets who imprisoned him, stripped him of his citizenship and exiled him. In his Harvard speech, he said, “Truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.”

Persecuting prophets and preachers is nothing new in polite society.

III. Two Kinds of Preaching

There are two general types of preaching today:

  1. Other-people-are-the-problem preaching.
  2. You-and-I-are-the–problem preaching.

The first type is enormously powerful and popular today. The second is, well, not so much. The first wins elections, attracts popularity and raises tons of cash. The second got Jesus killed and eventually, most of his followers, plus Paul. It was Paul who said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). That word, “gospel,” is the ticket. It means good news but only to those who understand who their main problem is, and who the only solution is. And they are not the same person.

Which Scrooge Are You?

“A Christmas Carol,” written in 1843 by Charles Dickens, is a riveting fictional tale about the transformation of a bitter old miser named Ebenezer Scrooge into a renewed, joyful and generous man. After his conversion, Scrooge made a number of resolutions to help others and began to follow through on each one. Dickens wrote:

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.

A second father? Is that awesome? I have known this story for years and never caught that detail. The renewed Scrooge became generous with far more than just his money.

In 1843, the problem of fatherlessness was real. Most of it was caused by tuberculosis, scarlet fever, diphtheria, typhoid, cholera, whooping cough and wars. Today, fatherlessness flourishes more by choice.

My dad with my brother, Les.
Are you ready for a devastating statistic? Are you sure? In the mid-1960s, five to six percent of American babies were born out of wedlock. Today, it’s 41 percent. And over half of all births to women under age 30 are out of wedlock. Over half! A second father can be a huge blessing but more and more American kids need a first one.

What is going on? Let’s not mince words. Much of America holds marriage in disdain. Day after day, we watch pundits, politicians, judges and journalists work hard to devalue fatherhood and decompose marriage at its definitional core. The notion that children have a right to a married dad and mom in a loving home is all but lost on today’s America, a nation otherwise obsessed with “rights” for ourselves.

We are becoming a nation of unconverted Scrooges.

Restoring fatherhood and family is a mission with ancient roots. Listen to the last words in the Old Testament on the mission of a prophet yet to come:

He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse. (Malachi 4:6)

Children need fathers more than money, government, orphanages, television and schools combined. Growing up with a dad generally yields better academic performance and lower rates of poverty, alcoholism, crime, promiscuity, homosexuality, depression, suicide, drug abuse and more. Fatherhood is central not only to what children need, but also to who God is in relation to His children. Jesus understood this.

We need more Scrooges, whether they have kids of their own or not, to honestly face their past, present and future ghosts (a picture of genuine repentance) and become a second dad to a needy child. This takes so much more than money.

To the Grave and Beyond!

I like mottos. Here are a few of mine:

  • “Be joyful in hope.” (Romans 12:12)
  • “If you love to learn, you’ll learn to love.”
  • “It is good to be smart, but it is better to be good.”
  • “Love the sinner, not the sin.”

If you don’t have a life motto, take any of mine! Better yet, come up with your own. Or borrow one from a historical hero. Just make sure it is one worth carrying to your grave. Mottos are handles for holding on to our principles. Good ones keep us focused and on track. Yet, a motto does not make a man (or woman). First, we must have a mission. Without that, a motto is just a “muttum” (Latin for utterance).

The most famous motto ever may also be the best. Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Luke 6:34). Similar golden sayings are found in the ancient writings of Isocrates, Aristotle and several religions. Jesus simplified it: “Love one another.” (John 13:34).

Mottos motivate! In 1775, Patrick Henry gave the American colonies a motivating motto: “Give me liberty or give me death!” Many carried it to their graves in our War for Independence. John Paul Jones uttered some famous fighting words in 1779 when he replied to a British admiral, “I have not yet begun to fight.” The U.S. Marine motto is, “Semper Fidelis (always faithful).” The old Navy motto, “Don’t give up the ship” is taken from the dying words of Captain James Lawrence in 1813 after a skirmish with a British frigate. “Remember the Alamo!” inspired Sam Houston’s troops in 1836 fighting for Texan independence. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” harkens back to Admiral Farragut’s orders at Mobile Bay in 1864. “Hit hard, hit fast, hit often” was the Halsey cry, inspired by Admiral William F. Halsey in World War II.

Where there is a mission, we usually find a motto. To better educate pastors, Harvard College was founded in 1636 with the lofty motto “Veritas” (Latin for Truth). Believing that Harvard was getting lax in her mission, some New Haven citizens founded Yale in 1701 under the expanded motto, “Lux et Veritas“ (Light and Truth). Here are a few more educational institution mottos:

  • Azusa Pacific university: “God First.”
  • Brandeis University: “Truth even unto its innermost parts.”
  • Brown University: “In Deo Speramus” (In God We Hope).
  • Montreat College: Esse Quam Videri (To Be, Rather than to Seem).
  • Pepperdine University: “Freely ye received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8).
  • University of Oregon: “Mens Agitat Molem” (Minds Move Mountains)
  • University of Oxford: Dominus Illuminatio Mea (The Lord is My Light).

Living up to our mottos is another matter. The official motto of the United States of America is “In God We Trust.” How are we doing? Here are a few good state mottos:

  • Colorado: “Nil Sine Numine” (Nothing Without Providence).
  • Idaho: “Esto perpetua” (It is forever).
  • New Hampshire: “Live Free or Die!”
  • Ohio: “With God All Things Are Possible.” (Mark 10:27).
  • South Carolina: “Dum Spiro Spero” (While I breathe, I hope).
  • Virginia: “Sic Semper Tyrannis” (Thus always to tyrants). John Wilkes Booth allegedly shouted this after shooting President Lincoln.

Mail carriers work long and hard under the motto of the U.S. Post Office: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their chosen rounds.” The U.S. Supreme Court motto is, “Equal justice under the law.” The CIA looked to Jesus for their motto: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32). The Boy Scout motto is, “Always be prepared.” The Salvation Army marches to the motto, “Blood and Fire.” Even the media have mottos:

  • “Be Silent, or Say Something Better Than Silence.” Pawtucket Times (RI).
  • “Once a week but never weakly.” The Capital Reporter, Jackson, MI.
  • “Where There Is No Vision the People Perish.” Newsday (from Psalms).
  • “All the news that’s fit to print.” New York Times.
  • “What the People Don’t Know WILL Hurt Them.” Johnson City (TN) Press-Chronicle.

Back in the 1960s, the motto, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” was popular, as if nothing could be learned about life and goodness from experienced people–as if trusting one’s own heart was enough. It’s not. Bad mottos can carry you to an early grave.

Parents teach timeless truths through simple mottos kids can grasp. My mom quoted such gems as “If you don‘t work, you don’t eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10), and “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” When things got silly, she threatened; “The rod will drive your foolishness far from you!” When frustrated, she sighed, “This too shall pass.” Forrest Gump’s mom had a good motto: “Stupid is as stupid does.” I also like, “Love is as love does.” Jesus said that “wisdom is proved right by her actions.” (Matthew 11:19).

I like Jesus’ mottos best, but He did not live and die to give us mere mottos. We can take a motto to our grave but it cannot take us any further. Beyond all His inspired mottos, Jesus had a higher mission which He carried it to His grave. In fact, his mission was that grave! In three days, however, He rose from that lowly grave so that we too could have a mission to take to our graves, and beyond.

That’s why I can “be joyful in hope.”

A Primer on Proverbs

“I have found that the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and advise them to do it.”
Harry S. Truman (1884 –1972, the 33rd US President)

Where can you get good advice these days? Talk TV? The news? The net? Consumer Reports can advise you on buying a car. Books with advice on handling the opposite sex are falling off the shelves. Every commercial you see and hear is geared to advise you on what you need. Advertisers often target the young because they presume their advice-filters are not yet well developed. Be wise.

Harry Truman’s wit in the quote above is worth a smile but passing wisdom on to the young is serious business. Advising the young is as old as recorded history.

  • In 44 BC, Cicero (Roman statesman) dedicated his essay De Officia (on Duties) to his son Marcus. His fatherly advice became a classic of Western literature. He loved his son enough to want him to love learning and learn virtue.
  • In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act One), young Laertes received such fatherly advice as: “Neither a borrower nor lender be” and “To thine own self be true.” In context, however, the fictional father was more concerned with superficial appearances than character.
  • In 1599, about the time Hamlet was written, King James (of Bible translation fame) wrote Basilikon Doron (Kingly Gift) in 1599 to implant royal ideals in his four-year-old son.
  • Sir Walter Raleigh penned Instructions to His Son and to Posterity while in prison in 1611. His advice included warnings of betrayal by beauty or flattery. Of money, he wrote, “Don‘t spend it before you have it.”
  • Lord Chesterfield (1694 – 1773) wrote over 400 letters to his sons. One letter in 1748 said, “Wear your learning, like your watch, in a private pocket.” A 1766 letter said; “Be sure never to speak of yourself, nor against yourself, but let your character speak for you.”
  • In 1783, George Washington (1732 – 1799, 1st US president)) advised his nephew; “True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity before it is entitled to the appellation.”

Parents (and uncles like Washington) will never stop trying to pass on good advice to children. Much of that advice has ended up as great literature, even if the author’s own kids ignored it. In any case, wise advice needs to go beyond just finding out what they already want. Sorry Harry.

Standing above all other noble attempts to enlighten the young is the biblical book of Proverbs. It is a father’s “instructions to his sons” (4:1), written to give “knowledge and discretion to the young” (1:4). It is God’s letter to young apprentices on the art of living.

What sagely advice does Proverbs offer young people? First of all, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (9:10). Start there! Secondly, be open to good advice and shun the nonsense. My favorite proverb is: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” (4:23). Keep your advice-filter clean and well oiled. Also, develop a hunger for wisdom and a passion for learning. Wisdom will not just land in your lap. It must be pursued. I think that’s why wisdom is portrayed (like “Liberty” on the Hudson River) poetically in Proverbs as a woman — a most worthy woman. It’s simply an ancient literary devise, so the call to wisdom in Proverbs rings loud and clear for both girls and boys. So, incline your ear to her. Set all lesser things aside and purse her as a young man would a decent woman, or a wise young woman would desire a virtuous man.

Go for it!

The legacy of Barton W. Stone

At the far end of the handle of the Little Dipper is Ursa Minor. Pilots and navigators have long called it the Polar Star. You may know it as the North Star.

While all the other stars rotate around the heavens, the Polar Star is always in the north. It is the one constant in the constellation of the northern hemisphere sky. Ancient mariners and explorers relied on it for a fixed point of reference through the night.

An artist needs a fixed reference point to establish perspective in a composition. Pitchers need a plate. Soldiers need a flag. Serious politicians need something besides opinion polls. Justices need a Constitution to trump their personal preferences. Without a reference point, we get lost.

What is your Ursa Minor?

For Barton W. Stone (1772 to 1844), it was Christian unity! His lifelong conviction was that unity among Christians could be found only through the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In The Christian Messenger (Stone’s monthly pamphlet, Dec., 1829), Barton expressed his passion for destroying “sectarian props, creeds and names.” Instead, he sought to promote “love, peace and unity among Christians.” He referred to his passion as “the polar star to which our attention and exertion shall be chiefly directed.”

Stone was born on Christmas Eve in 1772 in Maryland. His family moved to Virginia in 1779 after his father died. People lived close to nature then. As a boy, Barton learned early how to use the North Star to find his way home at night. At 19, he converted to Christianity and dedicated himself to ministry. He was soon called to Kentucky where he ministered at the Cane Ridge Presbyterian Church. At his ordination in 1798, he was asked if he accepted the Westminster Confession of Faith. He replied, “I do as far as I can see it consistent with the word of God.”

He was already realizing that creative creeds are not the key to unity.

At Cane Ridge, he was “alarmed” (his word) to find such a low level of interest in faith on the frontier. The time was ripe for what is now known as the Great Awakening. In 1801, he organized a revival meeting at Cane Ridge attracting 25,000 seekers over five days. It famously featured such exciting phenomena as jerks, shouts and faintings. But there was much more. Denominational lines blurred as, according to Stone, “all united in prayer [and] all preached the same thing.”

The Presbyterian hierarchy was not amused. Their critical stance deepened Stone’s desire to be free from Presbyterian strings while remaining subject to God‘s Word. He wanted to “just be Christian” as did others in his circle. They were losing confidence that denominational ties, terms or creeds could guide Christians toward unity. They began to see a return to simpler yet deeper conviction rooted in God’s Word as the key to unity.

Seeking freedom from sectarian pressure, Stone and some kindred spirits, drew up The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, in which they said, “We will that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.”

This established Stone as one of the founding fathers of the Restoration Movement.

Years later, Stone saw his famous handshake in 1832 with “Raccoon” John Smith as the noblest act of his life. It merged the “Christians,” represented by Stone, with the “Disciples,” those in the sphere of Alexander Campbell’s influence (represented by Smith). Stone’s preaching increasingly zeroed in on the need for believers to promote the unity and purity of the church through humility. Over the years, he learned how selfish pride was the bane of union in all ages.

At the Disciples of Christ National Historical Society in Nashville, Tennessee, there still stands a statue of Stone (yes, it’s carved out of stone) with the oft-spoken words of Brother Stone inscribed on it: “Let the unity of Christians be our Polar Star.” That’s his legacy in a nutshell.

Mariners watch the Polar Star for guidance with a destination in mind. Barton Stone watched for the unity of Christians through the Holy Spirit. “To this let our eyes be continually turned,” he wrote in 1832.

Stone was a first-things-first kind of guy and for him, unity came first.