Out of the ditch

Growing up in Jackson, Georgia we got bored on the weekends. We didn’t have a mall, movie theater, or putt-putt course. But one perk about Jackson was a rainy day because we had a lot of dirt roads and four-wheel trucks. 

We called it mud-bogging. This particular Friday afternoon, we met in a local parking lot. A crew of guys brought their trucks. Most of them were in eleventh grade, and I was a tenth grader, and I wanted to impress them. 

My friend Robert had this white truck, tiny but mighty. We called it the Mighty Max. Now, I didn’t have a truck. I had a car that got 37 miles to the gallon. My friend Robert asked, “Will, do you want to drive the Mighty Max?” 

Robert held up the keys, and all the other eleventh graders were watching. One of them had a big wad of tobacco in his cheek. 

“You have driven when we’ve been mud-bogging before, right?” Brian asked. 

I said, “Of course I have.” I was lying through my teeth. 

“Well, do you want a chew while you drive?” I had never had tobacco before and said, “You better believe I do.” I dug through this foil package of tobacco like I was digging for fishing worms and put a wad of it in my mouth. 

I said, “Load up!” I drove to the edge of this muddy road with the other trucks. It was a monsoon, and I could barely see out the windshield. I tapped the gas, and the Mighty Max purred. 

Robert said, “Stay in the ruts. You won’t slide if you do. And whatever you do, don’t hit the breaks.” 

I gunned it, and we were off. We were bumping along. Mud was flying. I felt like Dale Earnheart (even though I never watched Racing). We were a half mile in, and that tobacco started to go to my head, and I was dizzy. This time, I stomped on the gas and thought I’d show off a little. Suddenly there was no tension in the wheel. No matter where I turned, the tires were not grabbing, and we were fishtailing. I slammed on the brakes. The truck spun, and the front lunged into the bank and jerked me into the wheel. We were all ok, but the front wheel sank ten inches deep into the mud, and the impact from the curb dented Robert’s truck.

I hopped out of the truck and buried my head in my hands. My dad was a prison warden, and while mud bogging was fun, it was also illegal. The tobacco was setting in, and I was getting sick. One of the boys said, “Dude, you got four feet of air. That was awesome.” 

At this point, I imagined the scowl on my dad’s face. I almost cried. Robert said, “You’ll be a legend tomorrow at school.” 

I said, “Or we can tell everyone it was you.” I took that tobacco out of my cheek and threw it out the window. I’ve never been mud-bogging again. 

It was the most helpless feeling. The truck was stuck, and it was because of me. I called my dad. He came out, and because he was the warden, all my other friends hopped in their trucks and left. He looked at the truck and then at me. He said, “Will, if you think I’m mad, wait til your mama finds out.” Then he said, “I’m not happy, but I love you. Let’s get you out of the ditch.” He called a friend with a winch, hooked it up to the truck, and pulled out the Mighty Max. The worst part is he made me tell my mother. I walked into the kitchen with my shoes caked in mud. My dad said, “Tell her.” Panicked, my mom looked at me and said, “Tell me what?” And I said, “Jackson needs a movie theater.” 

That experience taught me a thing or two about sin and salvation. I wanted to impress these eleventh graders, but I knew it was wrong. I didn’t know what I was doing when it came to mud-bogging or chewing tobacco, and I could’ve gotten hurt much worse than I did. Trying to impress people got me into trouble. But I also knew I could still call my dad. He wasn’t happy, but I knew he loved me, and I knew he would help. The same is true for life. When we mess up, there are consequences. Sin has consequences. We will all find our lives stuck in a ditch because of our sinful choices. But we learn from those mistakes. God will never waste a mistake. Here’s the good news. There’s a merciful God out there ready to save us and pull us out of the mud every time. That’s called grace. This grace goes with us wherever we go in our lives. My father’s words are the words I can imagine our heavenly Father would say, “I’m not happy, but I still love you. Let’s get you out of the ditch.”

You’ve made my year

Jesus once told his disciples, “Follow me and I send you out to fish for people,” (Matthew 4:19). Jesus was teaching his disciples to be evangelist. Evangelism scares people because they worry they are not equipped to evangelize. One of our vows for membership in The United Methodist Church is to witness. All disciples can witness to the good news of Jesus. Here’s a simple but impactful witness from one of our church members.

We had a couple join the church recently. When I met with them about membership, I asked them, “What brought you to the church?” They said, “Well, someone from your church is in our neighborhood because I see their church yard signs. We even noticed they changed them seasonally. After seeing them so often, we thought we’d try it. We’ve loved it!”

We ask members to put those signs up to get the word out about the church.

When this couple joined in front of the congregation, I mentioned they joined because someone in their neighborhood had put a sign in their yard. After worship, someone told me, “I believe they saw Beth Ziegler’s sign because she’s the only one in their neighborhood.”

Beth is an older church member who lives alone. She lost her husband several years ago, and she loves our church. Beth taught children’s Sunday school for 20 years, but she’s had many health issues and surgeries lately. She needs a cane to move around and can’t attend church much these days except when her circle of friends brings her on the holidays. But Beth is the most committed person. She sends my whole family cards every holiday. She worships online every single Sunday.

I received an email from Beth on Sunday night. She said, “Please tell me that Zachary and Cameron live in Martin Manor, and it has been my yard signs that they were talking about! I would be so happy!”

I called Beth and told her it was indeed her sign. She said, “Oh, praise the Lord. You’ve made my year! I’ve been praying my signs would help someone find their way to our beloved Haygood.” She has put up every sign we’ve produced for the last two years. She said, “The first thing I do when I get a sign is have my yard man put it up. I can’t do much for the church these days, but I love putting up my signs. I sit down each morning at my kitchen table and watch people pass by and read them. If people don’t notice, I’ll have the yard man turn the sign in a different angle.”

And then she paused and said, “I caught one. After two years of fishing, I finally caught someone.”

She continued, “Jesus told us to fish for men. Well, I caught one.”

I said, “Actually, you caught two.”

Beth took her membership vows of witnessing seriously. She would not allow her limitations to stop her from serving Christ. Because of her dedication, we have two amazing people in Zach and Cameron finding a spiritual home in our church.

Everyone can evangelize because we all have good news to share.

The Guest Preacher

Can you remember a time of paranoia? It happens to all of us. A few years ago our family was vacationing, and I needed someone to preach for me while I was gone. I called up my colleague Jason, who is a United Methodist minister, and he agreed to preach for me. He preached that Sunday while our family was at the beach. 

The following Sunday morning, when I returned, people rushed up to me. “That guest preacher, Jason, was excellent.” 

One choir member told me, “He sang a verse of a hymn during his sermon, and his voice was pitch-perfect.” I responded, “I told you he was good.” 

One of our ushers said, “That preacher last week. You’ve got to invite him back. He didn’t use any notes and told a story that brought tears to my eyes. And when a baby cried, he came down and held the baby while he preached.” 

I said, “Well, good for him.” 

A seven-year-old boy approached me, “Pastor Will, that preacher brought puppets for the children’s message last week. Puppets! He was so funny, and he made everyone laugh.” 

“Wonderful. I love that Jason brought puppets.” 

It went like this all Sunday. 

On Sunday afternoon’s drive home from church, I made a little mental note, “Never invite Jason to preach again.”

Finding common ground in reducing gun violence

How should we respond to gun violence? The mass murder at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, more than three weeks ago shook us all up. We need our government leaders, law enforcement, and lawmakers to unite and help solve this epidemic of mass shootings in our schools. Our children deserve nothing less than our total commitment and attention to this matter. I recognize that people have strong opinions about gun control. I do not intend to address the totality of that discussion, but it seems there may be some common ground as I speak to people. People seem to favor offering more mental health resources, which I support. It also appears that groups are beginning to agree to limit the number of ammunition rounds an assault rifle can hold. Let’s start there. Here’s a quick story.

I hunted dove with my father and brothers as a child in Georgia. I remember sitting on a camouflaged bucket on a dove field next to my father. I saw a dove flying in the distance and heard five gunfire reports. My father said, “The game warden will get him.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Someone doesn’t have a plug in their shotgun. You only get three shots, and I heard five.” Bird hunters know the law well. Shotguns with a capacity to hold more than three shells must have a plug or filler to limit the number of shots to three. The Federal Government implemented this law for conservational purposes to protect the migratory bird population.

It is legal for assault rifles to hold more than fifty rounds of ammunition. In mass shootings throughout the United States, perpetrators legally purchase and use assault rifles with large-capacity magazines. The results are deadly and massive. I recognize the argument that guns are not the problem but the men and women using them. However, banning large-capacity magazines can significantly decrease a perpetrator’s capacity for harm.

If we can make laws to protect birds, we can create laws to protect our children.

With fear and joy

The Easter news shook the world up with fear and joy at the same time. Easter is God’s big shake-up. The angel told the women that Easter morning, “He is not here and has been raised from the dead.” The women “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.” The first emotions of Easter were fear and joy. Can you think of news that shook you with those two emotions simultaneously? News that was so good it also scared you.

It was a Sunday morning several years ago. I was in my office and running a bit late for worship. It was 10:58 am and worship began at 11 am. I could hear the prelude on the organ beginning. One of my worst fears is to show up late to worship. I threw on my preaching robe and was racing out of my office, and suddenly I heard my office phone ringing. I wasn’t going to answer it, but that phone never rang. I thought, “What if it’s somebody important?” 

So I hurried to the phone and looked at the caller ID. I saw the name “Jesus Christ” on the caller ID. It looked like Jesus was on the other line. I froze! What if? I was curious to know who was on the other end of the line. If it was Jesus, what did he want? Did I need to change my sermon? I picked up the phone and answered in my most angelic voice, “Hello,” shaking as I awaited the person on the other line. 

The person on the other line said, “Yes, this is Mike from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Do you have a moment?” 

I said, “Mike, but I don’t, but I have never been so happy to hear from the Mormon church.” 

Do you know what I experienced that morning? Fear and joy at the same time. I feared hearing the God of the universe speaking directly to me, and I also felt a charge of hope that the savior of the world was speaking directly to me. 

That’s the feeling Easter evokes too. The God of the universe rose again in Jesus Christ. Jesus is alive. Jesus may not call us on a direct line, but the risen Christ will come calling to each of us.

It’s junk. Get rid of it.

We held our annual cleanup day at the church recently. We assembled our members to spruce up our church for Easter every year. It rained that morning, so we focused on our inside projects. We were going to remove junk from our church. We hired a truck to arrive at 1 pm to haul it away. Jimmy was our decision-maker about what was junk and what wasn’t. Jimmy was a church member and a member of the trustees. He had also been the CFO of a large hospital, so he was used to making decisions.

Jimmy, Barrie (Barrie was our staff member in charge of the facilities), and I did a quick tour of our rooms. Barrie had worked hard all week labeling things like old floor heaters, faded wall art, and broken chairs. But there was one room that had become the junk room. Every group in the church just piled their stuff in there, and it had become the default place to store strollers, chairs, wooden teaching stands, and children’s storage piles.

“What do you think needs to go?” I asked Jimmy.

“All of it. It’s junk.”

I said, “But what about this teaching podium?”

“It’s junk,” he said.

“But the church has had it for 50 years.”

“Yes, but we haven’t used it in 15 years. It’s junk, Will. We’ve got so much junk everywhere we got to make some decisions.”

I said, “What about this table? I know it’s old and heavy, but I don’t know if I have permission to throw it away.”

“It’s junk, Will. Take it to the curb,” he said.

Jimmy looked at Barrie, and he looked at me. “Will, I want you to go to your office for 30 minutes and let us take care of this room, and you can have deniability on all our decisions.”

Two hours later, the junk truck company arrives and loads up a curbside full of our church’s old relics. Two old wooden teaching stands were falling apart that were once used by Sunday schools that had disbanded years ago, but I kept thinking they were so beautiful we would one day use them or another church might want them. But we have two others just like it, and so do all other churches. There were heavy wooden tables with broken legs and hula hoops.

One of the church members said, “I had no idea there was that much stuff inside our church that we don’t use.”

After the junk truck left, suddenly, we could organize our closet and fit our new tables and chairs inside neatly.

My wife is a church consultant who works with churches like ours. She said, “Jimmy, I’m going to hire you to meet with other churches and help them throw away their stuff.”

And Jimmy said, “Well, here’s how I look at it. When Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem, they didn’t haul a trailer full of their stuff. They traveled light, and they didn’t have many possessions. Christians have to let go of our possessions.”

During the season of Lent, we all need a Jimmy. We need someone to tell us what is junk. We need someone to help us let go of our possessions and our past, our destructive habits.

You watch that Netflix show, and it’s got a lot of foul language, violence, and sex, but you justify it because everyone else seems to be watching it. Let Jimmy help, “It’s junk. Take it to the curb. Get it out of your life.”

Lent is our forty-day cleanup, and it’s our chance to eliminate the junk in our lives.

The difference between hope and false hope

“I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live,” Ezekiel 37:14.

Ezekiel proclaimed God’s word to a valley of dry bones. He spoke of a lively hope for their future despite their circumstances. Ezekiel’s hope was rooted in God.

There is a difference between hope and false hope. We find true hope in God’s calling and plan for our life; false hope is when we pursue our dreams instead of God’s. Think about times when we sought hope that we knew was not part of God’s plan for our life.

For instance, our church hosted a movie production team this past week. Apple T.V. rented out our parking lot and fellowship hall. On Monday, the A-list cast members gathered in our fellowship hall to review their lines.

I spoke with the onsite manager. I said to him, “I’m the pastor here. But I need a backup plan in case preaching doesn’t work out. Do you think they would notice if I sat down with the actors and started reading lines with them like I was supposed to be there?”

He said, “They are missing one actor today. So there’s an empty seat. Why don’t you peek in?”

I walked to the fellowship hall entrance and could hear the fifteen or so actors volleying back and forth with their lines. I edged my way into the room. Suddenly everyone stopped and stared at me with serious looks on their faces. One of their security people hustled to me and asked,

“Can I help you?”

I paused, and the hush in the room became deafening. I said the only thing a minister knows to say in moments of crisis, and I said, “Let us pray.”

The gig was up. God reminded me my calling is to minister. I had no hope as an A-list actor. There is a difference between hope and false hope.

We are a people of lively hope. Have we searched for hope on our terms? God’s hope is here. God will put a new spirit within us, and we shall live.

“Dad, you killed my bike.” 

How many of us are stubborn? We can all be stubborn.  

For instance, my 8-year-old daughter received a bike a few Christmases ago.  She was thrilled.  It was a pink Schwinn with a basket on the front and palm palms on the handlebars.  It was a cold, blustery day, but we wouldn’t let that stop us. We were getting ready to take Katie to the park for a first ride on Christmas afternoon, but first, I had to pump up the tire. 

I got the bike pump from the shop and returned to the living room.  The bike was among all of the other toys the kids had opened.  The tire was as flat as could be.  I started pushing down on the pump.  Katie was smiling, and Blair was smiling—a few more pumps.  Katie looks at me and says, “It looks full, dad.  That’s enough.” 

I said, “Katie, no!  It just looks full, and it’s not even half full.”

I kept pumping. 

Blair said, “I think Katie’s right.  I bet it’s fine.” 

I said, “I’ve pumped up a lot of bikes in my life.  Feel it.  It’s still got some room.  That tire needs to be rock solid.  Trust me.  I’m a pastor.” 

At this point, I had to push down hard on the pump.  I leaned on the pump and gave one more big push. 

Pow!  The tire exploded.  The girls fell to the ground.  The dog tucked her tail and hid.  It was like a gunshot had gone off.

After getting up from the floor, Katie looked at me and said, “Dad, you killed my bike.” 

Sure enough, her bike was dead. 

Do you know what caused this outcome?  Stubbornness.  Blair was stubborn.  Stubborn is when you are determined not to have anyone change your mind despite their many logical reasons to do so. 

The people of Israel could be like that too.  They found themselves in the wilderness with Moses.  God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt and rescued them from the onslaught of the Egyptian army by parting the Red Sea.  They had every logical reason to trust God in this new chapter of their life.  But just a few days into their newfound freedom, they began to grumble because they had no water to drink.  They filed a complaint against Moses.  Why?  They were stubborn.  But we can all be stubborn. 

Where does this stubbornness come from? This stubbornness comes from the people of Israel dealing with change.  With change comes uncertainty about the future.  We often lash out at our leaders when we don’t deal well with change. In times of change, God calls us to trust. God’s never failed us yet.  

Singing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land

I remember a challenging time for Blair and me during our first year of marriage. My dad was very sick that year with ferocious cancer. He had tried three different chemo treatments. None of them worked. He made an appointment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He arrived in October for tests. October rolled into November. The doctors decided he needed radical surgery.

They scheduled it for the week of Thanksgiving. I was torn because my favorite holiday in our family had always been Thanksgiving. My extended family, over thirty of us, would gather at my grandparents’ home on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. I sure didn’t want to miss it, but I also didn’t want my parents to be alone in Rochester.

So Blair and I decided to forego our family celebration and instead to fly out to Rochester. As a southern boy all my life, Rochester was colder than any place I had ever been and I didn’t have heavy enough coats to stay warm. I remember registering in the hospital and walking those long hallways to find my dad’s room. As I knocked on the cracked door, I was torn to pieces when I saw him. He had tubes coming out all over his body. He hardly had any hair left. Medical machines were beeping. Even though my mother and father had encouraged us to spend Thanksgiving in St. Simons, I could tell they were both happy to see us. 

After catching up for an hour or so I gave my mother the night off from sleeping in a foldout chair. She slept in our hotel room with Blair. I stayed with my dad. I fed him ice-chips. I called the nurse when his colostomy bag was full. I shared with him about our wonderful first year of marriage. 

The next morning, I woke to find my mother sipping coffee and reading the local paper. 

“Oh, yes, Will, I keep up with the local news. The high school football team is in the playoffs.” And then she said, “I read too where the United Methodist churches in the area are getting together for a Thanksgiving service on Tuesday. Can we go? I need to go to church.” 

I said, “How will we get there? It’s 20 miles away.” 

She said, “Call the church and see if they can recommend a good taxi service.” (These were the days before Uber).

 I said, “Mama, I’m not calling the church about a taxi.” 

My mom gave me one of those looks. I called the church. This dear church secretary organized two church members to pick us all up. I really wasn’t sure how I felt about worshiping. My heart was sick. I felt slightly like those exiles in Babylon who cried out, “How could we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?”My dad stayed behind in the hospital. Blair, Mama and I waited at the hotel entrance. Sure enough, a black Oldsmobile rolled up at 6 o’clock sharp and parked. An older gentleman in a leather coat and wool cap got out and said, “I’m  Harold Butterball and this is my wife Vicky. You must be the Zants.”  

Did you catch their last name? Butterball…like the turkey company. Surely God was working. This wonderful couple drove us 20 miles to their church. The greeters welcomed us up the steps and took our coats. The ushers seated us. The pastor shook our hands. In that warm and full sanctuary, we sang the Thanksgiving hymns with strangers who did not feel so strange at all in that place. “Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices.” The pastor delivered a simple message about our need to thank God in the good and the hard times. We prayed together and said the Apostles’ Creed. After the service, the church hosted the congregation for coffee and desserts. And then we grabbed our coats and headed for the car. The Butterballs dropped us off at the hotel. 

Vicky said to us, “I know it must be hard to be away from your family this Thursday, but we will be praying for you.”

The surgery was successful on Wednesday, but there were still many questions unanswered. Thanksgiving arrived the next day. While our family in Georgia devoured sweet potato souffle and cornbread dressing, Blair, mama and I ate boiled shrimp and vegetable medley in a hotel ballroom in Rochester, Minnesota. Take it from me. Do not try the shrimp in Minnesota. 

That whole week felt like we were living in a foreign land, except for Tuesday night. Tuesday night felt different. 

As difficult as that time in my life was, I’ll never forget the power of the Body of Christ and a couple named the Butterballs. God was indeed with us. I thought about the Apostle Paul’s words from I Corinthians 12:27, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” Because even though in Rochester we were thousands of miles away from our family in Georgia, that night among our Christian brothers and sisters gathered for worship, we were home.

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.”