A Break Through The Clouds

I am refreshed, recharged, and thankful.  I have the remnants of a Florida sunburn and a few bruises from intense NERF wars with my kids.  My phone is full of pictures and my imagination is soaring after hours of leisure reading.

This state of mind (and body) comes from a very generous church.  In an uncommon act of love, Calvary Baptist Church allowed my family a solid month of vacation to visit our family and friends in Florida.  I think the church saw my shoulders beginning to slump from shovelling snow and wisely prescribed a regimen of medicinal beach sand.

The experience was a new one for us.  A month to relax, to read, and to reflect. So what did I learn?

The two prevailing lessons for me were:

I.    Sharp thinking is essential in the pastorate

In the months leading up to our retreat, I found myself asking the elders to pray for me, because my mind felt so dull.  Our church is in a phase of newness.  New ministries, new members, and looking for a new place to meet on Sundays.  It’s wonderful, but it requires a lot of thought.  And sermons?  I can’t imagine anything that requires more careful thought than reading, understanding, and helpfully applying the Word of God.

The “dullness” showed up in my preaching and administrative duties.  I found myself speaking in broad generalities to avoid the pain of precise thinking.  When that happens, meetings are a waste of time because they lack focus.  And my attempts at application in the sermon started to sound a bit like:

                                   “So, there it is.  Let’s all just think about that this week.”


But during the second week of our retreat, I felt my mind starting to hit its stride again.  Fresh insights didn’t have to be churned out immediately, so I had time to follow a thought until it rested.  My friend, Clarity, broke through the clouds and showed me just how important he is to me.

My Action Plans to Make it Stick:

(a)  Improve intake. Limit the snippets.

While sitting on the white sand of Fort De Soto Beach, I thought long and hard about what clogs my brain.  I discovered that my brain gets dull when it’s too jumpy.  I thrive when my intake includes more books, fewer blogs.  More novels, fewer news feeds.  More writing, less tweeting.  More prose, fewer pictures.

In short, I need to treat the Internet like I treat Disney World.  It’s great to visit every once in a while.  But if I stay too long, I see it’s actually over-crowded, superficial, stressful, and far too costly.

(b)  Pray long.  Pray often.

Before the retreat, I think prayer had become very functional for me.  I prayed in preparation for the sermon, for meals, in hospitals, and as a way of processing distressing news.  Somehow I began to overlook the sheer joy of praying to my Father.  The break allowed me to linger in prayer.  Nothing kindles clarity like surrendering my plans and frustrations to the Lord.  As I prayed for the future of our church and our family, I tried to round off each request with “Your will be done.”  It reminded me that He is sovereign and I can trust Him.  But more than that, I once again enjoyed trusting Him.

And, by His grace, He taught me a second lesson …

II.    I am not defined by the pastorate.

Preaching has a vast importance.  The pastorate is a sacred trust.  It requires a deep personal investment, born out of a sense that God gave me breath because He wanted me to proclaim the riches of Christ.  But the pastorate does not define me.

God doesn’t just call me to be “a pastor.”  He calls me to be a certain kind of man.  I think I get tunnel vision sometimes, thinking that my identity  rises or falls by last Sunday’s message, or by the number of people who hear me preach each week.  I should strive for excellence in what I do, but the target is more holistic in scope.

Sometimes a pastor’s merit is best measured by the impact he has in the lives of people who don’t call him “pastor.”

At some point during the month away, I was driving along a familiar road in our hometown, holding my wife’s hand.  In the rearview mirror I saw my four kids dancing to the radio.  I would never say that the woman holding my hand was just “a pastor’s wife.”  The goofballs in the back were not “a pastor’s kids.”  While we have obvious responsibilities, my position in a church does not define us a family.  My hope for my children is that they would conform to the image of Christ, not the caricature of a pastor’s family.

My Action Plan to Make it Stick

Focus more on being a godly man, not just “A Man of God”

I know that seems like semantics.  But it makes a difference in my mind.  Especially when my mind is clear.


Workman’s Toolbox – 29.5.13

Peter Mead: How long does your congregation keep their bibles open?

Words of Wisdom From The Preacher on Preaching by Danny Akin. (Delivered at God-Exposed Conference). A great quote from Akin to preachers: “What you say is more important than how you say it. But how you say it has never been more important.”

Preach God and example by Tim Ward.

John Piper is reflecting on 33 years in the pastorate.

10 Ways To Squeeze The Juice Out Of A Sermon

I do believe in preaching. But I also believe – with equal ferocity – in the importance of hearing God’s Word. Ideally, a sermon should be listened to with rapt attention and deep affection. In its wake, the sermon should evoke both faith and action in the life of the believer.

Yet often we achieve less than this ideal.  Sermons can be ‘water off’ the Christian’s proverbial ‘back.’

So how can we make more of the sermons we hear? Let me offer ten recommendations to help us squeeze the juice out of the sermon.

Accept your relentless need for the Word of God.  What bread is to your body, sermons are to your soul. Essential. In this sense, sermons are unlike desserts. Desserts are tasty but optional; by contrast, sermons are life-giving and life-sustaining. Here’s the truth: we will benefit little from sermons if we do not first believe they are terribly important. Let the believer come to the preaching-moment utterly convinced of their need for God’s Word. May they say to their soul on sermon’s-eve:  “This a means of grace!  A necessity for growth in godliness!”

Read the passage beforehand. Does my pastor preach consecutive sermons? Then the opportunity before me is great! Let me read the text when Sunday is still far off. Let me ponder it in my home, even as the pastor ponders it in his study.  This creates in our soul the same sort of desire that is aroused when reading a menu. Ponder the passage in prospect and you will more eagerly await the meal!* 

Rest well the evening before. I’m probably not the only pastor who often looks out on a tired congregation on Sunday morning. There can be many reasons for this, but some of them are controllable. Could it be that Sunday morning worship is often being ruined by Saturday evening leisure? Television, internet and smartphones are keeping many of us awake till the wee small hours. Does this make for sharp concentration on a Lord’s Day morning? If you cannot keep your eyes open during the sermon, it may be a sign that  your Saturday night routine needs changing.

Sit nearer the front. This might not apply to everyone, but I would say that if:  a) your hearing is not so good, or b) you are easily distracted, you would be well advised to sit near the front of the meeting room. This always baffles me: we want to hear preachers clearly, yet we fill church halls from ‘back to front’. Should it not be the other way around?

Look and listen. Besides your mind, the most important parts of our body during a sermon is your eyes and ears. Listening is a challenging skill. Truly hearing with our ears takes concentration, an undistracted mind, and of course the help of the Holy Spirit. Our eyes can also help our ears. Looking at our bible can help us follow what the preacher is saying. Looking at the preacher can help us grasp his message, which isn’t just conveyed with verbiage, but with facial expression and body posture.

Take some notes.  ​There are different schools of thoughts about this, I know. But many people have found that taking limited notes can aid concentration during the sermon. As well as helping listeners focus, notes also enable the hearer to review the sermon later. I do have one caution though.  Remember that a sermon is not an academic lecture. God is addressing us through His Word! Every once in a while, note-takers should drop their pens in wonder and worship!

Be aware of typical distractions.  Crying babies, fainting fits, coughs and splutters etc! Wherever there are people, there will always be distractions. At one level, this is part and parcel of worshiping in community.  Yet we must be prepared for typical distractions, and re-divert our distracted minds whenever we find them wandering.

Think about the sermon but don’t stop listening to it. Although our primary posture during sermons is one of listening, it is inevitable that we will often find ourselves ‘conversing’ with the sermon. Questions will arise. Something the preacher said (perhaps incidental) will send our thinking down some avenue or other. We may even have a “quibble” or disagree with something the preacher said. All of this is well and good; but perhaps one word of caution. Don’t be so absorbed in your own thoughts, that you stop following the thoughts of the preacher. Listen to the whole sermon.

Talk about the sermon afterwards.​ A great way to maximise sermons is to talk about sermons.  I frequently talk about the sermons I preach with my wife. This is less on a “critiquing level”, more on a personal level. How does the passage affect us? How does it speak into our thinking, our faith, our practice? This is hugely beneficial. Whether with a fellow member, friend, or in the family, some kind of brief discussion will promote application and a prayerful response to God’s Word. Try it!

Review the sermon during the week.​ This is an extension of the last recommendation. Why not download and listen to the sermon again on Monday? Or read over last week’s sermon notes in your morning devotions?  In our church, I am often encouraged to hear members referring to Sunday sermon themes during the Wednesday evening prayer time. However you do it, some further reflection on the sermon will surely be beneficial.

* Even where the minister ‘chooses’ his text week on week, you can usually find out what he is preaching on by asking him.


Workman’s Toolbox – 23.5.13

In recent months I have started to use Evernote as a tool in pastoral ministry. Here Brandon Hingleman explains 5 ways he is using Evernote in ministry.


Some of the newly available recordings of the Gospel Coalition National Conference 2013 (and the auxiliary conferences) are particularly relevant to pastors. For example:


8 advantages of choosing expository preaching



Workman’s Toolbox – 7.5.13

Great stuff here from David Helm. Dealing with the challenges of contextualisation, exegesis, theological reflection.

Text or full notes?  Tim Ward gives us the pros and cons of both.


I know these are pretty well known, but pastor you are missing a trick if you are not listening to the latest 9marks interviews. There have been a few superb ones recently with Carl Trueman and Zane Pratt.


Here is an interview with our own blogger Paul W Martin on his preaching. He discusses, among other topics, his struggle to produce illustrations, and tells us why he doesn’t see his wife as his main sermon critic!

How Long Does Your Sermon Cost You?

Charles Simeon took a long time to prepare sermons. Speaking of the sermons of the great preacher, Bishop Daniel Wilson claimed that,

“Few cost him less than twelve hours of study – many twice that time: and some several days. He once told the writer that he had recomposed the plan of one discourse thirty times.”

This encourages my soul. While I prepare sermons more quickly than I used to, an average sermon still costs me between 10 to 15 hours.

Sometimes we might wish we could give more time to other aspects of the ministry. But preparing to feed the flock will always be a labour costing us many hours of planning, perspiration and prayer.

May we always be willing to pay that price.