When do you write your sermons?

I am asked this quite a bit. As the minister of a local church, a sermon comes along every week. There’s certainly an excitement to preaching and terror. To think that Jesus Christ is going to speak through my words befuddles me and sends me to my knees each week as I prepare. It is a holy mystery.

The more I have worked to figure out this craft the more I realize how much I need God. This task is too great on our own. To help situate this conversation, I can offer some questions and comments that people have offered me over the years.

“How do you come up with your illustrations?”

I have learned to collect stories. Jesus told stories. Stories capture our attention and help us find our place in the gospel. I write down some of these stories from my own experience. If you’re near a minister on Thursday afternoon be careful what you say or do. You might end up in the sermon. I keep journals and try my best to write down a story or two each week. I realize I will likely only use one out of every ten stories I write down. Sometimes that’s how writing goes. Some of the writing is just terrible and the stories bland but you got to write them anyway until you find the good stuff you’re trying to say even though you didn’t know the story was there to write.

I have also learned from friends to read a lot. In fact, that’s a goal of mine this year. Read a book each week. I have friends who do a much better job than me. I get caught up in the grunt work of church life. However, every time I read a book, a new idea emerges, a new word or phrase strikes the ear. Ernest Hemingway would write early in the morning and read in the afternoon. He believed his best writing occurred when his mind was rested. Reading in the afternoon refilled his writing well after he poured his heart and soul into writing throughout the day. If I read a good illustration in a book, I’m quick to save it in a digital file and categorize it by subject matter.

“What happens if you something big occurs in the world on Saturday night? Do you have to rewrite your sermon?”

I have certainly had to rewrite a sermon on Saturday. To be honest, it is grueling. Imagine spending 10-15 hours on a sermon draft throughout the week and then learn on Saturday night about a deadly shooting in the area. Of course, you want to speak to the tragedy and help people make Biblical sense of it, but it’s still hard. I remember several times tucking in for bed and checking my phone one last time and there’s news of a deadly protest. In those moments, I’m not sure of the details, but you feel the pressure to speak out one way or the other. I read the social media lines, “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough.” But the reality is that all I know is what I have heard reported and the reports keep changing. It’s a hard situation to be sure, especially when preaching God’s word requires so much prayer and discernment. During the pandemic, I had to re-film a sermon on several occasions. The last thing you want to feel on Sunday morning is irrelevant. If everyone else in the congregation is talking about a deadly shooting, it seems irresponsible to say nothing. In these moments, you just do your best and try to respond faithfully.

“When do you write?”

Everyone is different, but I usually prepare two hours each morning throughout the week. That’s the goal, but then January hits and there are so many meetings and end of year reports in the fourth week of January that it makes keeping this rhythm a challenge. I try to have the sermon done by Saturday morning. I’ll use Saturday evening to learn it by heart and add last minutes touches.

“Do you stick to your manuscript when you preach?”

I typically try not to bring the manuscript into the pulpit, but lately I have brought notes. The best part about not using a manuscript is that I feel more connected to the congregation with eye contact. I can tell a story more naturally. On the flip side, the good part about using notes or a manuscript is you can present your message more succinctly and with eloquence. (I have never heard a paraphrased Shakespeare play. The power is in the eloquence of the words). I really don’t like paraphrasing the scriptures so it’s nice to refer directly to the passage. In all, I prefer not using notes, but it requires a lot more time to learn it.

“Why do you even prepare? Shouldn’t you just get up there on Sunday morning and let the Holy Spirit speak through you?”

This line of thinking makes sense in some situations. I think about the women at the tomb of Jesus on Easter. They heard the news that Jesus was risen. They sprinted to proclaim the Easter news to the disciples. The gospel writers never said the women stopped at a coffee shop and prepared their Easter sermon to be delivered that night. No, they ran and testified to the risen Christ while in their moment of terror and joy. And sometimes, that simple, raw and honest proclamation is best. But if you ask most ministers, we put a lot more time into the Easter sermon.

I’ve preached on several occasions without much preparation and the sermon suffered. I have noticed that my reasons for preaching without preparation have little to do with theology. It’s simply a matter of will. When I’m not feeling motivated to write a sermon, I will refer to Matthew 10:19-21, “Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” It’s proof-texting at its best. It’s searching the scriptures to justify how you’re feeling. An unprepared sermon is a nightmare for the preacher and the congregant. I have heard it said, “You can suffer now and prepare the sermon or suffer later by not preparing it.”

“Are there any tricks of the trade?”

Of course. I have had the good fortune of learning from good speakers and writers. The famous southern writer Terry Kay was a member of a church I served when I was an associate pastor. Our senior minister invited him to meet with us about writing for worship services. In front of the other ministers Terry said to me, “Will, your pastoral prayers are monotonous.” “Glad to meet you too,” I thought. He said, “But they are wonderful prayers. Here’s a small tip. Vary your sentence length. If all the sentences are the same length, it lulls the listener to sleep. Start with a short sentence. A one word sentence. Like this. Breathe. Pause. Let them relax. Remind them of the beauty of a human embrace. Then they are prepared for a long dance of a sentence that waltzes to music and stirs their hearts.” I got the idea. He became a dear friend.

I once heard a comedian give a tip about responding to laughter. He advised that when an audience/congregation laughs at a funny moment, let the laughter almost die, but then start your next sentence before it does. That way you don’t lose the momentum.

There are plenty of others. It may sound too technical and gimmicky for someone delivering the word of God, but I also remember Acts 7:22: “So Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his words.” Moses, too, learned the tricks of the trade in order to glorify God in his speech.

Preaching is miraculous work. I marvel when a young man tells me after the sermon that it was like God was speaking directly to him as I preached about the call of the first disciples. You learn to accept the criticism too although it’s never easy. One person told me, “You’re preaching fluff. It’s all too spiritual. I need my preacher to talk about (insert relevant social topic).” Others have said, “That was too political” while others said, “That was not political enough” about the same sermon.

To all the preachers out there, let’s be encouraged and keep at it. Through our words Jesus gets up, walks around our sanctuaries, taps people on the shoulder and says, “Hey you, I got a new path for your life. Come follow me. There’s a world out there that needs saving. I need you to help.”

A teachable spirit

My brother Dan and I recently fished the Tuckasegee River. It’s a trout river in North Carolina. Dan is a masterful fisherman and I am decent. My brothers and I loved fishing as kids. Our dad would take us fishing on many Saturday mornings. We fished for bass back then with heavy lures and rubber worms. Dan traveled out west for a summer and learned to fly-fish. In fairness, my dad tried to teach both of us to fly fish as kids, long before Brad Pitt made it popular when he starred in the beautiful film A River Runs Through It.  

On our recent trip, we were riding along towards the river. He said, “Let’s stop at the fly-shop first. I want to ask where we should fish.” I told my brother, “I doubt we need to stop. It’s a smaller river. But if you feel like you need some help, we can stop.” 

We stopped at a fly-shop in Dillsboro. The owner said to us, “If you’re fishing the Tuck, you only need these three flies. I could sell you all of these other fancy ones, but these three will catch you fish. And here’s where you need to fish.” The owner circled the access points on the map he gave us. 

We purchased a few flies and off we went. I fished for an hour with very little to show except a few lost flies. I could see down the river that Dan was spending most of his time hooked on fish.

After he netted his forth fish he motioned to me, “Will, I want to put you onto some fish. Fish this spot. It’s where the owner told us to try.” I waded over. It was a smaller, slower moving section of the river that had been divided by an island. I fished the seams below the rocks near the bank and the water was slick and green from the reflection of trees. I landed three trout. My brother is merciful. 

At the end of the day he said to me while were loading up our gear, “When you’re fishing a new river it’s well worth the time to learn from a guide who knows what they’re talking about. Follow their advice.” 

I didn’t like to admit, but he was right. To master a craft you need a teachable spirit.

In the fiery seat of a barbershop evangelist

My hair was long and I could pull the front ones past my nose. It was COVID hair. I hadn’t had a haircut in six months. I was meandering through the Toco Hills shopping center when I noticed a sandwich board advertising this new barbershop. I stuck my head (and shaggy hair) inside. It was late afternoon in the spring and the empty barber shop had the smell of fresh paint.

Suddenly, I hear in the back, “Sweetie, go ahead and have a seat. I’ll fix you up.”

When I heard “sweetie” I turned to leave. I like quiet haircuts.

“It’s our grand opening weekend. You can’t be leaving me,” she said.

I sat in the barber’s chair. She snapped the collar and barber’s cape on me and locked the chair in place.

“Ms. Janet is going to make you look good.”

“Anyone else here?” I asked.

“Just Ms. Janet.”

“Is she in the back?” I asked.

“That’s me.”

She pulled out her scissors and a straight razor from the cylinder jar with the blue disinfectant.

“Are you the owner?” I asked.

“Nah. This isn’t even my real job,” she said.

“How long have you cut hair?” I asked.

“Off and on for a few years. I’m just trying to take care of my grandkids.”

“What’s your real job?” I asked.

“I’m an evangelist.”

She set the scissors and razor down and turned on her clippers.

“What do you do, sweetie?” she asked.

“I’m an evangelist too. I’m a minister.”

She turned off the clippers.

“Well, sweetie we need to talk. We got some work to do. You smelled the weed outside, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t notice it.”

“Well, you’re probably not around it like I am. I’m trying to keep my grandkids away from it even though people are trying to make it legal. I tell them about the lake of fire. I tell everybody about it. Do you tell your congregation about the lake of fire?

“Ummm. Not lately. I have just been trying to encourage them during COVID.”

“If people don’t watch it, they are going to be encouraged in their sin and burn up in that lake. How short do you want your sides?”

“A number two,” I replied.

“What are you preaching about this Sunday?”

“Not the lake of fire,” I thought to myself.

“Well, I see this barber’s chair as my church’s pew and I’m the preacher. I got to teach them about Daniel. Remember Daniel saw God in a white robe, bright as snow, and he was sitting on a throne of flames.”

I began to squirm. Her agitate voice rose in lyrical cadence. Her hands pushed the clippers with escalated force and deliberate, confident strokes. She turned me to the mirror.

“That short enough?”

And at this point, I wasn’t sure what to do. I thought about jumping up and leaving with cape and all. I had half a haircut, but reasoned it could pass as a new metro look for the in-town crowd. I remained still. I didn’t want to get into a theological debate while she held the scissors. I was at her mercy. I nodded each time she made her point and tried to divert conversation. She finished with the hair cuts and unsnapped the cape. She used the straight razor on my sideburns. I paid.

She said, “I hope you enjoyed your hair cut. I’m going home here shortly to see my grandkids. You and me. We’re evangelist. I need you be an evangelists for our new shop. Tell them Ms. Janet sent you.”

“I’ll have plenty to tell,” I said.

Trophies can’t love you back

Several months ago our nine year old (at the time) came into our bedroom.

“Do you guys have any duct tape? My trophy fell apart.”

She was holding her soccer trophy from a few months before. The bronzed kicker had severed his leg. We wrapped it in duct tape and voila! The trophy was as good as new.

“What do you think?” I asked.

She said, “I was kind of hoping the player would say thank you.”

We laughed. I’m sure she meant her comment in jest, but I kept thinking about it. She was reminded that her trophy could not say thank you. The trophy was a symbol of her hard work, but ultimately could not love her back. Often we define ourselves by our accomplishments, our work and those moments of recognition. While it’s nice to receive them, they should not define our worth.

Through Baptism, God reminds us we are beloved children. That’s what happened to Jesus on the day of his baptism as the words echoed from the heavens above across the Jordan River: “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

Throughout his life and ministry, when his character was attacked, those words would call him back to himself as God’s beloved. As wonderful as recognitions like trophies can be, they cannot say thank you. They cannot be in relationship with us. When our character is attacked, our hopes are wrapped up in our achievements or the past haunts us, we can lose our true sense of self. Mistakenly, we can define ourselves by what we do or what others say about us.

Baptism draws us into relationship with the creator of the universe who wants to be in relationship with each of us. Our God calls us beloved. That’s who we are. For baptism, I say thanks.

Christmas is about people.

In 2007, Blair and I were engaged. She was still in seminary at Duke and I was serving a church in Athens and was living alone in a condominium. One night early in December, I was sitting in my living room alone. I did not have many Christmas decorations up besides the wreath from my mother and gumdrop tree on the counter. I was remembering my years of cutting down Christmas trees with my family at Ridgeway Christmas Tree Farm in Jackson, Georgia. In fact, I had worked there for several Decembers during high school. I missed the smells of the Virginia Pine Christmas trees and the joy of picking out our family tree and sawing it down together.

I was feeling a bit like Christmas was passing me by. Somehow, I was feeling like I was missing it. In a small way that Christmas, I could relate to the shepherds in the Christmas story. They felt forgotten. They were humble people, often pushed to the margins of society. They were poor and accustomed to being forgotten.

The next day, I took a half day for myself. I drove out to the local Christmas tree farm near Madison, Georgia. I wanted a tree. The worker handed me a saw. While the families around me laughingly picked out their trees, it was just me in search of mine. I cut it down. I hauled it to the cashier. They netted it for me. I placed it in the trunk of my Honda and set it up in my living room. There I sat and looked at the bare tree. There were no ornaments or lights. I told a colleague at work later that day what I had done. He said, “Will, that’s the saddest thing I have ever heard all year.”

I called Blair that evening. She said, “Will, we’ve got to get you some ornaments.”

The next morning, she finished her class work and drove down from Durham with three ornaments for our tree. She strung lights, white lights, even though I prefer the colored lights. That evening, Blair and I were in the living room and I heard a knock on the door. A friend from the church showed up. He had an ornament in hand. And then another knock and another. Scott brought a pickle ornament that is apparently a tradition in Germany. Karen brought a manger scene. Julie brought a creepy clown ornament. Blair had organized an ornament party. By the end of the night, the Christmas tree was full. But the people didn’t just leave. They hung around. It was a Christmas Party! 

That night, after everyone had left the party, I sat on the couch and looked at that full tree. I realized something. I thought I was longing for decorations and the smells of Christmas.  What I was yearning for that year was not the decorations. I was yearning for the people I loved. All of those ornaments were just too overwhelming, because I could not believe that so many people cared for me. That sort of good news just seemed too good. That’s what Christmas is about. It’s about a savior who came for people. Christmas is about people.

Maybe we’ve experienced those moments where we thought the good news was passing us by. We start to believe the good news will always be for someone else. Maybe that’s what those shepherds felt most of their life. But on this night, this news indeed was for them.

Each year, as we hang the ornaments on the tree, Blair and I are reminded of that first Christmas together. Christmas is about the people we love and the people God loves. That includes you.

A Touch of Mercy

Last year, our youth group hosted our Live Nativity for our community. A week before the production, our staff members constructed the stable out of lumber and tin. We stacked hay bales inside. The night before our production, I stopped by the church. The youth group had finished their final rehearsal earlier that evening. The parking lot was dark and empty. The rain had started and all you could hear was the rain flowing into the storm drains. There was a sheen on the wet asphalt from the streetlights. I could see there was a slight movement inside of the stable. I walked closer. I thought maybe it was the hay stirred by the wind. Or perhaps a stray cat. But I looked closer. It was not wind or animal. On the hay was a woman lying down with a dirty red blanket. She was asleep. Right where Mary and Joseph would lay down the babydoll Jesus the next night, she lay there peacefully. 

I stared for a moment unsure what to do. I had seen similar scenarios posted about church nativities in downtown areas, but our church is tucked in a neighborhood. Internally, I was replaying all of the conversations our church staff and congregation had recently about safety policies. We have a Weekday Children’s Ministry with more than 150 kids here each day and we wanted to ensure their safety which meant we did not want strangers on the property unattended and that included the homeless. We supported Intown Collaborative Ministries to help the homeless because we were not equipped. I’m sure there was much more I could have done. I could have called a hotel and gotten her a room.  But it was getting close to 9 o’clock. The stable was dry and the hay was warm and clean. It was the perfect place for her that night.

I walked to my car and got inside and called a church member. I told her the situation and we both agreed that by the letter of the law in our policies we should ask this lady to leave, but how could we, really? This church member said, “Well, we don’t need to make a habit out of it, but this just seems too much like the Christmas story. I’d say we offer a touch of mercy.“ So we did. I cranked the car and left. 

The next morning, I arrived back at church for work. The sun was out. I looked down to the end of the parking lot. I could see her gathering her belongings in grocery sacks. I approached her and she said to me, “Don’t worry. I ain’t staying, but it sure was nice to stay dry last night. The shelters were full.”  With those words, she continued on down the road. 

Later that night, our youth performed their live nativity for our community… with cows and angels and shepherds in their dad’s bathrobes. It was a wondrous night. Our neighbors sat on the hay bales watching Mary and Joseph make their way to the stable and I listened as the narrator read, 

When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (Matthew 1:19).

It struck me as fiercely as ever that over two thousands years ago Joseph had a decision to make. Would he choose to punish Mary to the fullest extent of the religious law or dismiss her quietly without public shame? He chose to show a touch of mercy. Because of his righteousness and Mary’s, God intervened and brought us the savior of the world. 

The night before in the cold rain in a parking lot in Morningside, the nativity was as alive as it had ever been. It was a living picture of the Christmas story.

Like Joseph long ago, we had to rethink what righteousness means. Is righteousness enforcing the letter of the law or is it showing a touch of mercy? And throughout your lives, dear friends, you will face that question too. 

Who needs a touch of mercy this Christmas? 

A rough but redeemed day.

Yesterday was a tough day. Blair needed to leave early. It was Monday which meant I had staff meeting and I needed to prepare for it. And I needed to get the kids to The Hut, their summer childcare at the church.

“Can we have homemade waffles, dad?” asks my seven year old Bethany.

I say, “No. You will have sugary cereal that has not one gram of nutritional value and will probably cause cavities and I will need you to slurp it down quickly.”

I drop them both off. During staff meeting there is a knock on the conference room door. It’s one of Katie’s teachers. “Katie’s not feeling well.”

I tell the staff to hold tight and I’d be right back. I set Katie up in my office with Netflix and she grabs my trash can in case she gets sick. After we finish our meeting, Blair calls me. “I hear Katie’s sick.”

“How did you know? It’s like you have a radar. But don’t worry. She’s got a trash can.”

“What? I’m going to call my mom.”

And my mother-in-law Jo Ann is at our house in twenty five minutes. I gather Katie’s things up and take her home to be with Jo Ann, who has already started washing a load of our clothes.

I return to church and I get settled in my office and I get another call from Blair. “Bethany ran into a pole. Can you check on her?”

I hustle across the street to find Bethany sitting with her friends and holding an ice pack. She’s got a shiner on her right eye. Her teacher tells me, “She was playing Marco Polo in the fellowship hall and had her rain jacket over her eyes. She ran into one of the columns.”

I drive her home. Jo Ann has cleaned out and reorganized our refrigerator. I set Bethany up with her iPad and she starts playing a game where another character is shooting her character with a gun. “Bethany, you can’t play games with guns.”

“I play it all the time dad.” I have a meeting that runs late that night at the church. Blair will be at a work function hosting colleagues at a Braves game.

Jo Ann says, “Will, I’ll take care of dinner tonight. You go to your meeting.”

The meeting is a good meting but it runs long. I open the back door at 9:30 and the girls are on the couch watching, Britain’s Got Talent and laughing. “What about America?” I ask.

Jo Ann has bathed the dog and cleaned the dishes from their dinner of mac and cheese because that’s what we had left in the pantry after being on vacation the last couple of weeks. Katie has miraculously recovered and is bouncing on the bed after I shewed them upstairs and said thank you to JoAnn. Bethany attaches herself to my leg so I can’t lead her to her room. And I know in this moment that one day I’ll say, “This is the best day I never want to have again.”

But instead I call Blair and say, “Hurry. It’s getting ugly.” I get these sweet girls to bed and even have time for a song with them on Alexa. I fall into bed and before I know it Blair is waking me up. It’s 11:30pm. And she looks at me and says, “I’m sorry about today. I got you something.” She pulls out this black box and I open it. And there in all of its sparkling bling is an Atlanta Braves World Series Championship replica ring. And I slide it on my finger and drift calmly to sleep.

The next morning I woke early and cooked waffles.

Fly fishing on the Missouri River

Last Friday, I fished on the Missouri River in Montana. I was alone and the waters were high. The rest of the state seemed almost unfishable from the snow runoff. The Missouri waters, though high, were clear and the mountains rolled along to its side with wide meadows between them on both sides of the river.

I was wade fishing. I enjoy wading more than fishing from a boat and wasn’t willing to pay the price of a guided trip in a drift boat. I found a gravel area along the road and parked. It was private property but the ranch owner gave fishing access. You had to lock the gate behind you by wrapping a chain around the wooden fence. After walking a few hundred yards, the meadow dove down and there was overgrowth and high grass along the bank. I introduced myself with a loud call to warn any bear who might be near and startled by my presence.

I fished for an hour at the bend in the river that was sized down by an island. It was full of beauty and slick water in parts and a seam of riffles in the current where the fish tend to gather. I caught nothing, not even a bite. I wore the neoprene waders and felt-bottom wading boots my family gave me for Father’s Day. Neoprene waders are hardly worn by fishermen now because of how heavy and hot they are. Good and bad fishermen tend to wear the light-weight Simms waders that are triple the price. But I’ve always been stubborn about expensive equipment. I have always thought they were more for show than for use. In my baseball years, I opted for rubbing dirt on my hands over batting gloves. But in reality I needed to get over my judgmental posture. My legs were sweating.

Two fishermen, in shorts, passed by on their way to their car and said to me, “The fish are in those riffles over there. I promise you they are there.” I said thanks. He said, “But tell me one thing. Why in the hell are you wearing waders in this damned heat? You must be from the south.”

“Georgia,” I said with my stomach in knots. “I was going to say Tennessee,” he said. They left and I thought about avoiding the area he recommended, but decided I would rather swallow my pride than to catch no fish. But still no fish. I said to myself, “You have caught trout before and you will catch some today.”

There were many boats that passed me with guides and they were out in the middle past the island, away from the bend and moving swiftly. On three occasions I could hear the echoes of excited voices, anchors dropping on the rocks and fly rod reels cranking. The guides were netting big trout. I kept fishing.

Minutes later a boat came my way at the bend. I gave room and they slowed. A woman, in a fishing hat, with a flustered voice asked me, “Are you catching any fish?”

I said, “No. I have caught nothing all day.”

“Me either. And we’ve been out here for hours. I’m almost ready to call it a day.”

I instantly liked her.

Her guide said, “The water is high and it’s midday.”

I felt better.

Then she said, “Put the anchor down. Hurry. I am hung on something.” She twisted her rod and contorted her body.

“You’re not hung. That’s a fish. It’s a big brown.”

She fought the fish and her guide, who seemed to be her husband, netted the trout and they kissed.

Looking at me she said, “You must have been our good luck charm.”

“Glad I could help.” I didn’t like her anymore.

They lifted the anchor, tipped their hat and drifted towards the swift water. But as they moved along, the guide yelled back over the hum of the river, “It was a green PMD. You might try one. Make sure it’s green.” I tied on the closest fly that I had and thought to myself, “People out here aren’t so bad.”

Are we a Pentecostal church?

Will Zant

Acts 2:1-21

6-5-2022

Haygood has an intern this year. We have welcomed Sangeon Kim to our staff. He’s a student at the Candler School of Theology. He’s helped lead our worship these past few weeks and delivered his first sermon ever in the United States! We were in my office two weeks ago and I asked him. 

“Sangeon, how would you compare our worship at Haygood to other churches you’ve been a part of?” 

He said, “In my previous Methodist church, they are a little more…how do I say it? Pentecostal.” 

I said, “Really? What do you mean by Pentecostal?” 

He said, “They raise their hands.” 

I said, “Well, ok. We could do that.” Alright congregation, let’s see if we can be Pentecostal this morning. Let’s raise our hands high!

I said, “What else, Sangeon, do they do that makes them Pentecostal?” 

He said, “They holler out and sometimes yell” 

I said, “We could do that. We can holler.” 

Right congregation? Let’s try it. Give me a Hallelujah. You see, we can be Pentecostal. 

I said, “Sangeon, what else about that other church made them Pentecostal?” 

He said, “Their worship services last a minimum of two hours.” 

I said, “We can do that. We can have a 2 hour service.” 

Right congregation? 

Come to think of it, we might not be Pentecostal. 

But friends, today is Pentecost in the church. If we define Pentecost by hand raising, shouting and long services, we are not a Pentecostal church.  There is a diversity of worship styles. Pentecostal, Liturgical, Revival, Modern to name a few. We celebrate them all. But I do believe we can be Pentecostal as we define the church by some of the aspects of that first church in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost.  

Let’s give some background. Jesus has been resurrected from the dead. He appeared to the disciples for forty days before he ascended to heaven. Before he left disciples, he told them to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit would give them power to be his witnesses in Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). If you add that timeline, it’s fifty days since Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. That’s where you get the word “Pente” which means fifty. It was also a Jewish celebration that commemorated Moses giving the Ten Commandments. Jewish people from all across the world were gathered for Pentecost. There are three aspects of Pentecost that happened that give shape to the mission of the church. A Pentecostal church relies on the power of the Holy Spirit, amazes the community and proclaims the good news about God. 

Let’s start with the first. A Pentecostal church relies on the power of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 1, Jesus tells the apostles to wait for the promise of the Father. (Acts 1:4). That promise was the promise of the Holy Spirit. They were not to chart out on their own power to begin their ministry. They prayed for the power of the Holy Spirit to be given to them. After 10 days of prayer, the Holy Spirit filled the room with a power that is compared to wind and fire. The Holy Spirit gave them the power and ability to speak. Even though they did not have the education and training of others, the Holy Spirit gave them the ability. 

This is true for today’s church. This is true for your personal life. The Holy Spirit is what gives us power to carry our calling in life. It gives us the power to make it through the good times and the hard times. If we attempt to carry out the mission of the church or our own life callings on our own, we will grow exhausted. As many of you know, our church recently went through an eight month process for developing a master plan for our campus. Our team that led this effort made a commitment to pray. We wrote out a prayer that we repeated every time we met. Part of that prayer said, “Help this vision not be our vision. Help this vision be your vision God.” We prayed for God’s power and guidance every time we met. I personally witness that this process unified our congregation and we believe in the outcomes of it. It was fueled by the Holy Spirit.

The same is true for our own lives. When we get in a bind or are confused, we grow exhausted and sometimes seek out our own answers. As you think about your own life, have you stopped long enough to ask for God’s direction and power to help you? What if you took a pause for a few days, wrote a prayer and prayed every day asking for God’s guidance?

Let me give you a quick metaphor. I remember when Blair and I were on our honeymoon in Jamaica. One afternoon, we decided we would go sailing. The resort had these small sailboats. I asked the life-guard, “Do you have to know what you’re doing to take one of these out?” She said, “Oh, anyone can do it.” 

I lugged that sailboat to the water. Blair hopped in and off we went. The wind was blowing us pretty good. We were trying to make it a mile or so. About halfway to our destination, the wind just quit. We stopped. We sat there for ten minutes without moving. There were motor boats and jet skis zipping by us. We didn’t know what to do. A man on a jet ski came by. I said, “Well, we’re stuck. What do we need to do?” He said, “You can either pay a lot of money to have one of these boats to tow you back. Or you can pray for the wind.” 

I looked at Blair and I said, “Let us pray.” 

Pray for the wind. Thankfully, the wind did kick back up and we made it back to shore. Wind is powerful. It’s no wonder the Holy Spirit is compared to wind and its force. Maybe in your own life, you feel stuck. You’ve tried everything you know. My invitation to you is to pray for the wind of the Holy Spirit. It’s what directs our life and gives us the power as a church. As a church and an indiviuals, we are called to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit. That makes us a Pentecostal church. 

A Pentecostal church amazes the community. When these apostles began to speak, a crowd gathered and they were filled with awe and amazement. The people were hearing in their own languages. They were amazed because they knew these Apostles were simple and uneducated Galileans. They were astounded! There are some traditions who believe that to be a Pentecostal church means you need to speak in other languages by speaking in tongues. I respect that belief. But for today’s purpose, I don’t want us to focus on the language aspect as much as I do the community. 

The presence of the Holy Spirit found a way to stir up this group of gathered people in the area. It’s my belief that a church that is on fire with the Holy Spirit will stir up the community. The community will notice. Because the Holy Spirit has a mission. The mission is to get the news out to the people who need to hear it. 

That’s part of our hope here at Haygood. We believe God has called us to stir up this community. Make them notice that God is up to something. God is not bunkered inside the building. God is trying desperately to help people experience the good news about Jesus. The Holy Spirit wants people to find forgiveness and redemption. This is why we do a Parade on Palm Sunday in the neighborhoods and invite our neighbors to join us.  It’s why we offer a Live Nativity so that our neighbors can witness the story of redemption at Christmas. It’s why we offer a community Christmas concert that helps bring together people who normally would not step foot inside this church. When the Holy Spirit is present it stirs up the community. 

Lastly, a Pentecostal church has a message. A Pentecostal church is about making a claim about God. In today’s scripture we have normal people like you and me declaring the good news about God. There were no ordained preachers in this mix. There were no rhetoricians. They simply made themselves available to God and the Holy Spirit helped them speak for God. Some of you might not feel holy enough. You got baggage! 

Well, think about Peter. Peter had denied Jesus three times during Jesus’ most trying hour. But Jesus forgave him. When the Holy Spirit is poured out on Peter, he is given a new courage to share the gospel with this crowd. Now, I know some of you are nervous about telling others the good news. But the reality is that people can’t come to faith in Jesus unless they hear about it. That means Jesus needs us. You can share the good news in your own way, but share it we must!

During the Pandemic, many of you helped us share an encouraging Bible verse with our community. We had these yard signs that said, “Walk by Faith…Keep Walking” which is from 2 Corinthians 2:7. So many of you put these signs in your yard to encourage people to keep walking and to keep their faith in the midst of the Pandemic. You saturated the neighborhood with God’s word. God would get us through it. A few months ago, I received an email from a neighbor named Mary Ann Downey. Some of you may know her. She expressed how appreciative she was of seeing these signs. The signs inspired her so much that she wrote an article about it for a large Quaker publication. 

She said, 

“Dear Will, 

Thank you for your signs at the church and in our neighborhood with the message ‘walk by faith…keep walking’. I’m a neighbor and often walk by your church with my husband.  We are members of the Atlanta Friends Meeting and I was inspired by this sign to write an article for the Quaker publication “Friends Journal” about my spiritual journey guided by scripture. Walk by Faith…Keep Walking was just the message I needed the first time I saw it, and it stayed on my mind. I felt directly spoken to by God. It offered inspiration and encouragement, and I sent the words to family and friends. It was during August and the Delta variant was increasing. The number of people dying from COVID-19 was increasing and the number of children filling hospitals was increasing. We were wondering where we could find the strength and courage to go on. Here was my answer.” 

Friends, let’s keep relying on the Holy Spirit for our power and for direction. Let’s keep stirring up the community. Let’s keep walking. Better yet, let’s keep telling the good news! 

Can you do that Haygood? If you can do that, will you raise your hand? Better yet, can I get an amen? Wow. You sound Pentecostal! 

What is grace?

I talk about grace a lot. I talk it about most days. But lately, I have not experienced nor extended the grace about which I have proclaimed. What a quandary. The good news is we are in the season of Lent and I’ve been doing some repenting of my own. As part of my faith journey, I thought I’d remind myself of what grace is. I want to make it personal. I remember years ago a colleague reminded me there are two ways of defining theological terms that is determined by two words. “to me.”

Let me explain. You can ask the question, “What is grace?” Or you can the ask the question, “What is grace to me?” I’ll seek to answer the last question. Both questions are necessary, but the personal form is more suited for today.

Grace to me is the experience of a love you do not deserve. A person who extends grace does not let you off the hook. They know you have done wrong. They know you have said harmful words. They know you are acting outside of your character. They will willingly listen to your anger and frustrations. They will challenge you when your words harm them, but even so they will willingly hear them because they understand the need. There may not be much merit in your rational for feeling the way you do. But the person offering you grace does understand there’s merit in honoring how you feel. That’s grace.

There’s a lot of grace in the Psalms if you read them closely. The Psalmist will often complain to God and about God. Read Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?” God does not forsake us. But there are times when we feel an absence and we mistakenly associate that absence with God. God shows grace and honors how we feel. That’s grace.

Grace is most manifest in this person of Jesus. My claim is a bold one. Jesus is the savior of the world. He is both human and divine. He has felt the human pain of betrayal. He has experienced the grief of losing a friend. He too has cried out, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”

He’s divine too. He can view us in the way that only way that God can view us. Jesus can see past our pettiness, our lack of trust, our misguided anger towards our loved ones. Jesus can peel back the hurt and awaken that good part of us that God created. Jesus can see the beautiful parts that bring out the best in others. Jesus can see into that person that faithfully followed his call and prayed each morning for mercy.

Jesus can see my devotion to him and the way my heart swells because it’s in love with God and longs to be home there, tucked deep in the safety of a merciful, joyful and just God. In those moments where I lack grace, grace spills over in the life of God. I’m thankful that Jesus is human and can understand my all human moments where my cup does not overflow with grace. I am thankful Jesus can see past all those sins and destructive forces. I’m thankful Jesus can awaken and call that faithful part of me that he’s witnessed time and again throughout my life. He calls to me, “You are forgiven.” That’s grace.