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Over the past three months, I have been riding the city bus to work. I was fed up with rush hour traffic and paying $50 a month to park a half mile from my workplace.  The buses in Columbus have Wi-Fi which has been another nice perk in that I can get work done during my one hour commute.

I remember one of my first rides on the bus.  I sat on a sideways facing seat directly across a man who was staring at me.  I’m talking laser-focused, never-taking-his-eyes-off-me-for-a-sec kind of stare.  About thirty minutes into his staredown, he began talking to himself at which point I drew the line and relocated to a different seat.

Rarely a day goes by where I’m not made uncomfortable from someone’s poor hygiene or life choices on the bus.  Combine that with my introverted leanings and you get why my default upon boarding is to pop on the noise canceling headphones and get lost in my work.

However, I have recently observed a few things about my bus:

1. I board the bus in an upper class suburb of Columbus and am usually the only one on the bus when I get on.  Even moderately wealthy people don’t ride public transportation in Columbus.

2. My bus drives through the poorest parts of Columbus which is also, unsurprisingly, the parts with the worst crime rates. Most of the people who ride my bus are poor.  Many are under the influence of some substance. Many are unemployed.  Single moms with 3+ kids in tow… You get the point.  The I.T. professional on his way to a good job in downtown is not just the minority, I am the singularity.

I have the privilege of leaving my truck at home in the morning, saving both gas and money. I ride my electric scooter to the bus stop.  From there I get onto the bus and start my I.T. job while I ride into work. The rest of the people on my bus ride because they have no other option.

I have realized how much of a bubble I live in.  All my friends and family are middle class and above.  Most, if not all, of them are employed, law-abiding, substance-free, and happily married. I call many of them my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

When my Christian faith reminds me to care about the poor, I often think to myself, “Well, I guess I could send some money to Myanmar.”. I forget that there are poor right here in my city; I’m now with them two hours a day! If I could only see God’s heart for these people on the bus.

Y’see, we lower-middle class and above Christians are a dying breed.  Christianity continues to spread rapidly across Africa and Asia and most of them are, you guessed it, poor.  The majority of Christians around the world are not able to provide three meals a day for their families. And one day when God asks what we did with our first world wealth, many of us will stammer.

This realization has awakened me to the plight of my poor neighbors, but I can’t seem to stop hitting the snooze button. It’s far too easy to justify keeping my headphones on and focusing on my work. In an effort to break this default, I have begun to look for opportunities to take my headphones off and talk to people.  I want to start helping people on the bus, but I am often not sure where to begin.

Does anyone have any ideas on how I can share the love of Christ with my fellow bus riders?

 

I am, therefore I DO

Seven years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, a mama friend of mine warned me: “NOTHING can prepare you for motherhood.” I scoffed. I’ll be a great mom, I thought. I basically raised my 3 younger sisters, I’ve been babysitting my entire life, and I’ve been praised for my maternal instincts. I’m a pediatrician, for crying out loud. This is gonna be a walk in the park.

NOPE.

It’s true. Mommying is THE hardest thing I’ve ever done. Three kids later, it’s STILL the hardest thing I’m doing. And NOTHING could have prepared me for it. And the thing about it is, I never really know if I’m getting it right. It’s a swinging pendulum of two extremes. Some days, I wake up early, fix a hearty breakfast for everyone, pack a lunch for my husband, kiss the older kids off to school, and have dinner in the crockpot by 10am. My house is clean, there’s no laundry to be done, and I drink my coffee in glorious satisfaction, thinking what I’ll do with the kids later for our little crafternoon. Maybe we go to the zoo or have a playdate, and there are ZERO meltdowns. They eat ONE BITE of a vegetable and play sweetly with each other, the baby takes LONG naps, and everyone is in bed by 8pm. Mom of the year right here, like a boss. #blessed.

Then, there’s days when I just DON’T WANT TO GET OUT OF BED. I think about the day before, grooooaaaaannnnnn, and stuff my face back in my pillow. The 4-year old got a total of 8 time-outs and still body-slammed her baby sister afterwards. The 6-year old told me he has “a bad life,” and I realize I’m raising him all wrong. The baby was up every 3 hours the night before and STILL didn’t nap, so that meant nonstop YouTube, lots of goldfish, and frozen pizza for dinner. And the day ends with me vacuuming aggressively while yelling at both husband and children that I’M NOT YOUR SLAVE and WE’RE NEVER BUYING ANY MORE TOYS EVER AGAIN. #needmorewine

Of course, there’s a lot of days in the middle of those extremes, but you get my drift. I find this pendulum very exhausting. And yet there’s this utter dependence on it: a need to chase the bad day with the good day, to feel good about myself, and to prove to everyone that I’m still a “good mom.” I get that being a mom is a 24-7 job and therefore an inseparable part of my identity now. But why do I have to perform? Why does my self-worth swing helplessly to the tempo of my “good” and “bad” days?

We as a human race have this insatiable need to DO. It’s where we find our validation. Ever notice when you talk with strangers, it only takes seconds before they ask what you DO? I find this particularly true in America, where one’s value and identity are strongly tied to productivity. We glorify the self-made person and place higher value on those who contribute meaningfully to society (think of the converse if you don’t believe me). Other cultures have different values. For instance, Korean culture places greater value on men and women with higher education. In the Congo, a woman’s value increases with each child she bears. We DO, therefore we have <more> value.

I don’t believe God ever meant it to be this way. In fact, we have completely turned His design on its head. FIRST, we have value. That’s the starting point. If we truly carry the image of the Creator, then we have intrinsic worth BEFORE WE DO A THING.

At bedtime, my older daughter nestles herself into my arms at the end of the day for a story, because she knows—regardless of her behavior that day–I will wrap my arms around her. Because THAT’S MY BABY GIRL. Doesn’t matter if she sassed me all day or melted me with her sweetness, her good or bad day didn’t make her an ounce more or less of my daughter. Similarly, we don’t have to PROVE our value to anyone, and THAT. IS. LIBERATING. We can rest in this truth because it’s not subject to our day-to-day performance. Now because I have value, I DO. I do the best I can, knowing some days will soar and others will fall flat. But it doesn’t change my worth. Who I am is secure – a child of God, a daughter who is loved.

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Have you ever had to study for an impending exam and suddenly felt the urge to clean your room?  Or in my specific case, preparing on a Saturday for the sermon the next day and want nothing more than to veg out on entertainment?

In fact, I get this urge every time I prepare for a sermon.  It’s called escapism.

Dictionary.com defines it as:

the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.

I always feel attacked during the weeks that I preach.  I feel more temptation to sin, more tendency to lose hope in my church, more thoughts of inadequacy, and most of all, a stronger desire to indulge in entertainment of some sort.

I enjoy a good Netflix show every now and then, but something about preparing a sermon makes me suddenly want to binge on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Now I am no psychologist, but I think the escapist feelings that come during sermon preparation stem from two things:

  1. Entertainment is one of the least stressful sources of ways to spend time. A movie can make a couple hours just fly by. A video game can allow you to be a butt-kickin hero for several hours. A good novel can whisk you away into a fantasy world for hours as well.  And all of these don’t require focus or studying.
  2. Predominantly, preparing for a sermon is very stressful.  For me, it’s way more stressful than preparing for an exam or even a presentation at work.  In a way, it’s a combination of both of those things.
    First, you need to study hard.  Reading and exegeting the Bible passage takes time and effort. Can you understand it and then teach it to others effectively?  Then you should also study other things such as possible original language insights, commentaries, cross-references.  Then you need to take all these ideas and come up with a main thesis, put an outline together and if you are like me, write your whole sermon word-by-word into a manuscript.But that’s not all!  How about having good illustrations or stories to keep people engaged?  How about good applications so that people can respond?  Does your intro draw people in and help them “unpack their bags”?  Does your closing “close the deal”?

    Once you’ve prepared the content of your sermon like a nice meal, it’s time to deliver it to your guests.  Will it be served with fine china or will you splatter the meal against the wall?  The delivery is that crucial.

    Do you have the sermon memorized or are you staring down at your notes the whole time?

    Is your speech and rhetoric dynamic or are you boring people with your monotone voice?  Are you nervous when speaking in front of a crowd?

    Is your sermon no more than 30 minutes (see my previous post on that) or are you annoying your congregation by going on and on?

    After you’ve delivered your sermon, did your congregation get anything out of it? Was there any response? Did they feel like God spoke to them?  Did they come out of it realizing that the Lord tastes good?

    I could go on and on myself now, but you get the point.  Preparing a sermon is very stressful.  Most people would rather binge on Netflix and they do.  Preparing a sermon regularly requires a mental fortitude, but it’s so important.

I firmly believe, even in our entertainment culture today, that preaching remains as God’s principal means by which to move the human heart. I know people will say that preaching can be done by acts of love, forgiveness, or serving and they are right.  But I’m talking about good ol’fashioned Sunday morning pulpit preaching.  It has a strong power to speak to the hearts of the listeners and that is why it is so important.

Let’s do our best to overcome escapism and know that all our hard work and preparation is done for the Lord.

 

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Thomas Keller, chef of the French Laundry, says in his book of the same name that his portion size for each course he prepares is just large enough to leave the eater wishing he or she could have just one more bite. It’s the law of diminishing returns; the first bite is always the best.

This law can apply to sermons as well. An estimated 37 million (say what?) sermons are preached every Sunday around the world, but far too many often leave us feeling overly full with indigestion like you just ate the Super Size Me diet. I can only think of a few preachers who are gifted enough to preach for 45+ minutes, but for the rest of the 37 million, we should rarely go over 30 minutes. Any more than that and we fall victim to the law of diminishing returns.

A sermon should end with the audience wishing they could have heard more or looking forward to next week. Sadly, it’s usually the contrary, where the listeners are peeking at their watches wondering when this preacher is going to wrap up and say, “Let’s bow our heads.”

If you’re a bad preacher (and they are legion), your congregation has a laundry list of issues they would like you to improve with your sermons, but none of them are going to complain about length if your sermons are less than 30 minutes long. Preach badly and go over 45 minutes, you may have a mutiny brewing.

I know that we are in the digital age of smartphones with access to entertainment and media 24/7 and that attention spans have decreased, but I still think a lot can be said in 30 minutes, even 20. Preachers are taught to keep to the main thesis and to keep driving in that one screw deeper and deeper into the congregation’s mind. If you think you need 45+ minutes to do this, you’re wrong and your audience checked out somewhere around the 30 minute mark. Make every point you need to make, tell every story you need to tell, and suggest every application you need to suggest; just do it in 30 minutes tops.

One day, you will hopefully hone your craft in the art of preaching and you’ll start to get complaints of the more agreeable kind. Your congregation will ask you to preach longer because they can’t get enough. When that day comes, maybe, just maybe, you can reach for the 45 minute mark, but that should still be the ceiling.

Imagine if Thomas Keller has painstakenly prepared his 10-course meal just for you. Every ingredient is sourced from the best of the best. Every dish is prepared with precision, skill, and genius. The courses are as much a work of art as they are delicious. But just as he is about to serve it to you, he takes all 10-courses and smashes them against the wall. He then says, “Bon Appetit,” and walks away.

If you were to still eat these courses, I’m sure they would still taste delicious, but you wouldn’t eat it. The content may be good, but the delivery was horrible. Preachers around the world put in many hours during the week to prepare the best meal for their congregations only to splatter it against the wall come Sunday.

Preachers, find a way to deliver your meal in the most appetizing way. For starters, keep it short.