Thursday, July 9, 2015

What I've Learned in 20 Years of Preaching

20 years ago today I preached my first sermon. It was a Sunday night at Central Baptist Church in Prescott, Arkansas and I was scared out of my mind. The building's seating capacity was 300 or so but I'm certain there were at least 10,000 people there. At least, that's what it looked like from the podium. Somehow, though, I managed to get through the first of what has been many lousy sermons. 20 years later, I've learned a few lessons. So I guess you could say this post was 20 years in the making. Of course, the fact that when I started preaching there was no such thing as 'blogs' makes me feel old. And sad.
First, I've learned that God is far more faithful to me than I am to him. I don't know why God gave me this call, this desire to preach & teach his word but I know for certain it's not because of my unwavering faithfulness to him. I've tried to serve him with my life but I've not always been faithful. In fact, the times that I should have been most faithful are the times that I've tended to falter. Right after graduating from Central Baptist College (Go Mustangs!) I entered what has proven to be the lowest point of my life, spiritually speaking. I wasn't too interested in serving the Lord at that point. Pretty much quit going to church for a while too. I was cynical, skeptical and nowhere near where I needed to be with Jesus. The thing is, God knew about that when he gave me that desire to preach when I was a 17 year old kid who couldn't even grow sideburns. He knew that I'd fail then. He knew about every failure I'd be guilty of after that. But--and this is the staggering thing--he called me anyway. See, God's grace isn't given to us on the basis of how good we are or how good we'll be. It's given to us precisely because we aren't good and won't ever be. That's what makes it amazing. God looks at how jacked up we are and calls us to himself, and begins this process of making us more like Jesus-all the while knowing that we're still going to have times where we screw up. Over the past 20 years God has proven himself faithful to me over and over again. 
I've learned too that God's word is more powerful than we realize. I remember being overwhelmed when I first started preaching. I wondered how in the world I could be qualified to teach people who had been studying the Bible longer than I'd been breathing? How could I stand in front of them and tell them what to do? I was focusing on my ability to teach--which isn't a completely unimportant thing but it's not the main thing. What matters is not my ability, it's God's power. Charles Spurgeon liked the Bible to a caged lion--rather than needing men to defend it, one must only open the cage. The lion has power enough to defend himself! That's something God continues to teach me about his word. There have been times I've preached sermons that I was certain had been a blessing to others, had been powerful and well put together, etc. Those are the times that nothing ever really seems to happen. There have been other time I've preached where it feels flat, as though nothing I'm saying is having any impact. But without fail, those have been the times God has used his word to do amazing things. The lesson for me continues to be that the power doesn't lie with my ability, the power lies with God's word. 
I've learned I can't do this alone. There have been times over the last 20 years where I felt alone, like the call that God had given me was mine to bear alone. The problem though is that's not a biblical way to look at life. There's no biblical precedent for independent Christianity. God calls us to live in community with each other, to do life together. We do this through the church. The church is much maligned these days and is kind of an easy target. But it's important to remember that when we disparage the church we're talking about Jesus' bride. Jesus died for his church; there is an infinite love, bound up in the heart of King Jesus, for the church. And though there have been times I've forgotten it or taken it for granted, I'm so thankful for the churches I've been privileged to be a part of. I'm thankful for spiritual families who have been patient when I did dumb stuff and encouraging when I didn't mess up as badly as I could have. I'm thankful for the family I was raised in, for parents who who encouraged me to love Jesus and live for him. I'm grateful beyond words for my wife and children who bear the weight of being "The Pastor's Wife" and "The Pastor's Kids" with such grace.  Over and over again God has reminded me of my insufficiency, my inability to do this on my own. But I'm so thankful that he's always quick to remind me of Christ's super abounding sufficiency. Through his body, the church, God has continued to encourage and strengthen me. 
Finally, I've learned that what I don't know far exceeds what I do know. I don't want this to sound like false humility or anything because I've certainly gained a lot of knowledge (and hopefully some wisdom) over the past two decades. What I mean is that it feels like I'm just beginning to learn how deep is the well from which we draw. I'm just beginning to get a handle on the immeasurable depths of God's grace, of his goodness, his mercy & his holiness. I'm just starting to get hold of the majesty and grandeur of Jesus. The Christian life is not a life you can break down into simply formulas and patterns. It's a continual expansion of our knowledge of the surpassing greatness of Christ as we are further conformed to his image. I pray that, by God's grace, I'll continue to grow in my love for him and he'll keep chiseling away at me until, as David prayed, I awake in his likeness and am satisfied.
The past 20 years have gone by so fast! God is teaching me to number my days by showing me how quickly they pass. I'm so thankful for his goodness, and grateful beyond words that he's given me the privilege of teaching his word to others. I can only shake my head with amazement and echo Paul's words in I Timothy 1:17: "To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen."

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