Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Month: June, 2010

What Makes a Good Sermon

I’m always a little sad when I see that sermons are starting to get weeded out of most people’s spirituality. I mean, I agree that sermons and listening to sermons should never be the main part of your Jesus-life, but I think they have a place. Or, at least, a use.

I’ve always liked good sermons. And I enjoy preaching them. But, as much as I like good sermons, bad ones kill me. And if they kill me, I often wonder what people are going through when I preach a bad one. So I started to think, what makes a good sermon?

  • A good sermon is exciting. I don’t think excitement is optional when we are discussing Jesus. If you can discuss the Jesus-life and Jesus himself without a raised pulse, then you’re doing a lecture, rather than a sermon. Jesus is exciting. People who think he’s boring have only heard boring people talk about him.
  • A good sermon makes me want to be a better person. If I walk away from a sermon the exact same person I was when I walked in, I have to wonder why I went. Sermons are tools to prod us on to doing wild Jesus-filled things. They aren’t lectures on impersonal metaphysics.
  • A good sermon is true. It’s a poor preacher that has to lie to get his listeners to do what he wants. A good preacher only wants his listeners to fall more in love with Truth and to live it.
  • A good sermon is honest. People can smell hypocrisy a mile away. Do you know what hypocrisy smells like? It smells like poo. And when people think of your sermons, you don’t want them thinking about poo. Trust me.
  • A good sermon is clear. Preachers gain no points in being vague or aloof. No one thinks you’re smart because you know words like supralapsarianism. The preacher’s goal is to communicate divine messages. Not to impress.
  • A good sermon may rock the boat. The sermon on the mount rocked the boat. Just because everyone nods theirs heads and mumbles ‘amen’ does not mean the sermon is of any use. A good sermon changes people and makes the world a better place. And to do that, it may need to rock the boat a little.
  • What do you think makes a good sermon?

    As You’d Be Done By

    So as Jesus is closing off his famous sermon he encourages us to do to others whatever we’d have them do to us. And he backs it up by saying that this wild ethic is the embodiment of the Law and Prophets (which, I imagine, would have bothered the religious people listening).

    It got me thinking about how I’d like other people to treat me. If I could work my way in the world and dictate how people treated me, I think my list of demands would look something like this:

  • Love me. Give me attention when I want it. Give me affection. Show me respect. Speak of me in a positive way.
  • Help me. Bend over backwards to help me whenever I need it. Support and encourage me and my wild ideas with consistently positive energy. Heal me when I hurt and own my dreams.
  • Empathize with me. Rejoice when I rejoice. Weep when I weep. Do your best to see things from my point of view, even when you disagree with me.
  • Pretty selfish list, eh? But I guess that’s the point. If you were to make a list it might look different from mine in some point, but the basic foundation would be the same. We want the world to revolve around us. That’s just the way it is.

    And so, when Jesus tells us to treat others the way we want to be treated, it’s a pretty tall deal. That list is no longer and expectation or a hope to be called on from others. It’s a model of how I should treat those I am in contact with.

    Thank you, Jesus, for such a wild ethic that proves you’re different from everyone else!

    How to Get to Heaven According to Jesus

    How do you get to heaven? How do you get to God? How do you get mercy and forgiveness? How do you get whatever it is that our hearts are yearning for? Jesus knows. He’s clever about stuff like that.

  • Be born from above (John 3:3). The classic answer to the age-old question. And it’s still a good one. Be new. Be new from above. Change.
  • Be spiritually destitute (Matthew 5:3). Not nearly so classic, but it’s still what Jesus said. It’s neat that he doesn’t say the kingdom of heaven is for people who know they are poor in spirit, but for those who simply are. Only the spiritually impoverished are eligible for what Jesus has to offer. Only the broken. Only the screw-ups. Thank God for that.
  • Be pure in heart (Matthew 5:8). Is that all?
  • Be more righteous than religious people (Matthew 5:20). At first glance this seems tough. I mean, look at all the stuff religious people do to stay righteous! But, when we take a first and second glance, we see that religious does not mean righteous. Religious does not mean good. In fact, I’m tempted to say that religion and righteousness are mutually exclusive.
  • Do the will of God (Matthew 7:21). And then Jesus went and lived a life that shone with the will of God. Thanks for the good example! I’ll need a hand with trying it out, though.
  • Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, invite the homeless into your house (Matthew 25:31-40). This is one of those sayings where I want to say ‘Hold up, Jesus! That doesn’t sound like justification by faith! What do you mean by that?’ But I’m not really going to ask Jesus that. I think he’d rather me assume that he meant what he said. I know I like it when people assume I mean what I say. I figure I ought to extend the same courtesy to Jesus.
  • Obey the commandments, sell your stuff, follow Jesus (Matthew 19:16-21). Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. What am I supposed to do with this one? I want to say that you were joking with this guy! I want to say that you were trying to be really subtle and, in your subtlety, didn’t actually mean what you said. But how can I say that? I cannot assume that you would be so subtle as to mean something other that what you said, can I?
  • Go through Jesus (John 14:6). Jesus is the enabler. He’s not the obstacle in the way. He’s the unlocked door. He’s the moving staircase. He’s how you get there. Yay for that.
  • There’s more, y’know. Jesus talked about how to be spiritually successful a lot. I wonder if all the different way he talked about it are really just the one way looked at from different points of view. In my circles we focus on rebirth and belief. But what is rebirth if there is no re-lifestyle to prove it? Maybe feeding the poor is a part of rebirth. Maybe shedding the superfluous is the arm of faith.

    But do you know what he never said? He never said to invite him into your heart. He never suggested to pray a prayer and sign a card. No matter how you slice it or define it, the Jesus way is a lifestyle, not a conversion. It may look like a conversion. It may start with a conversion. But, following the language Jesus used, it’s something that starts and lasts and grows and moves until we die.

    Falling for Utility

    When you were born, the very forests of Lordaeron whispered the name, ‘Arthas.’

    In 1994 Blizzard Entertainment released the original Warcraft game. It’s sequel was the first game I ever purchased. The storyline was amazing, and it keeps growing to this day with World of Warcraft.

    One of the most interesting characters in the franchise is Prince Arthas. He was a paladin in his youth, and son to the king of Lordaeron. He devoted his life to fighting against the forces of darkness, be they orc, undead or demon. From the beginning his zeal and passion for his people was apparent. Nothing could stop him from serving his realm. He would have made a decent king.

    And then the Scourge came. The Scourge is the army of undead, ruled by the Lich King and bent of the destruction of the world. Arthas threw himself against them, willing to die to bring them down. But when the Scourge defiled the entire store of grain at the capital city of Stratholme, Arthas was forced to pause and think.

    The defilement was going to turn every single citizen of Stratholme into undead minions of the Scourge. There was no cure. And such a large city would have bolstered the Scourges ranks so much that victory may have been impossible. So what was Arthas to do?

    He decided that the only fitting course of action was to kill the citizens of Stratholme before they became undead. His Paladin teacher opposed him, but he was stubborn. So he took his knights and began the culling of Stratholme.

    Arthas’ intentions were good. And you could even argue for the utility of his choices. But the choice led to his fall. In culling Stratholme, he damaged his soul. And this became the first of many choices that led Arthas to not only join the Scourge, but to become the Lich King himself – enemy of all living.

    Utility did him in. He thought only about the outward result, never wondering about what his choices would turn him into. I wonder if many of my choices have the same stench of dependence on utility. I may not be killing doomed civilians, of course. But do I refuse to help people, thinking utility instead of thinking of what Jesus would have me do? Do I refuse to help, thinking that my help will make them weaker and pander to their weaknesses? If I do, I imagine I’m ignoring my own soul. There must be a better way than strict utility. Maybe Arthas could have found a third way. A way to save the world, without damning his soul.

    Six Years Ago…

    Six years ago I married a funny girl from Pakistan. I count it as one of my better decisions.

    I try not to brag about the things that I’m good at. Bragging does not tend toward good relationships. But if I am going to brag about one thing, it will be about the quality of my marriage. With no word of a lie, I have not encountered a marriage as fun, happy, peaceful and exciting as mine. And I don’t say that sentimentally. I mean it. We are good at marriage. And, as with anything you can excel at, we have employed tactics that have made our marriage the best we’ve ever seen. Here they are:

  • A center on Jesus-philosophy. Not just Jesus ethic. Not just Jesus spirituality. Not just Jesus community. Jesus everything. A Jesus philosophy of life. His ethic shows us how to be kind. His spirituality enables us to pull it off. His community keeps our relationship great. The sermon on the mount informs practically all our marriage-related choices. And it works.
  • Being undignified. Dignified people have crappy marriages. I’m sorry, but it’s true. A person with dignity won’t dance in the rain with his wife. A person with dignity won’t play in the mud with his kids. A person with dignity can’t apologize quickly. A person with dignity can’t be a servant. And if you can’t do those things, you can’t have fun with your marriage. Thankfully, neither Ruth not I have any dignity that I can see.
  • Owning each other’s dreams. I think I’ve talked about this before. It’s one of the most important, and most neglected, aspects of marriage. Ruth is passionate about some things. I’m passionate about other things. We don’t expect each other to have that same passion or understanding. But we are both willing to take ownership of the other’s dreams. We are willing to work and sweat for each other’s dreams. And that kills conflict dead.
  • Dancing. As a family we often crank the music up and dance till we collapse. And we discovered that you cannot really be upset at a person trying hard to moonwalk. You just can’t.
  • Laughing at problems. In the words of the Joker, “Why so serious?” Too much seriousness will cripple a marriage. Most spouses take themselves far too seriously. If you cannot laugh or be laughed at, you will find marriage hard. When you laugh at your problems, they tend to lose their power. Seriously, they do. Try it!
  • A refusal to be malicious. We have noticed roots of malice in many marriages. And, as far as we can tell, a marriage with malice is a failed marriage. If you let that demon into your house, it will eat your soul. Kill it. Or it will kill you.
  • Empathy. There are always struggles that Ruth will have that I cannot understand, just because I’m a guy, or because I’m dumb. And that’s fine. It becomes unfine when I refuse to empathize with the things I don’t get. Like when she jumps on the couch when she sees a mouse. I don’t get that. But I empathize with it. I imagine what she must feel like if she jumps up on the couch like that. And, even though I couldn’t care less about a mouse in the house, since it affects her, I take it on myself. And she does the same for the things about me that she can’t quite understand.
  • Discontent. That’s right, discontent. If you are content your marriage will suffer for it. Content means enough. Content means settling. And I don’t like to settle. My marriage is the best one I’ve ever seen. But I’m not content with it just yet. I’m not content with the level of love I’ve attained. I’m not content with the massive level of peace and joy Ruth and I share. I want more. And I mean to get more. And so I’ll never settle. I’ll never sit back and say “Ah, now I have what I needed.” More, baby, yeah!
  • Openness. Cliche, I know, but true. I can tell Ruth anything. She tells me anything. There is no judging in my house. There is never a time when Ruth thinks less of me for a thing I’ve done or an opinion I hold. And so I am safe in my house, as is Ruth.
  • I feel like I could go on forever. So many wonderful tactics have come together to make my marriage the best I’ve ever seen. Marriage, I think, is whatever you make it to be. A lot of people have called it hell. Mine is like a little bit of heaven, and every year is the best one. So no matter when you see me, you can know that you are seeing me during the best year of my life.

    Things I Wonder

    Sometimes I just sit there and I wonder.

  • I wonder what would happen if the Church today made a point of sharing all their resources and living in close quarters like the Church did when the Spirit and the Apostles were running the show. Would things be better?
  • I wonder what would happen if the Church stopped spending 75% of its money on buildings, pastors and insurance and spent it on fighting destitution like the early Church did. Would we really wipe out poverty like the economists say we would?
  • I wonder what would happen if missionaries dropped their titles and benefits and tried making disciples instead of converts. Would more people start following Jesus?
  • I wonder what would happen if I really did sell everything superfluous and gave it to the poor. Would my life really be permanently hindered for lack of things?
  • I wonder what would happen if I tried to embrace Paul as he says “You are saved by faith alone” and James when he said “You are not saved by faith alone.” Would my brain explode?
  • I wonder what would happen if we sold the church building and used the money to save starving kids. Would we still get together on Sundays?
  • I wonder if we stopped being missionaries, and starting just living in strange countries and, while there, spread love and Jesus around. Would that be enough?
  • I wonder if the many things I own are good for me, or bad. Would Jesus have bought all the toys in my house?
  • I wonder what would happen if I tried to live out the Sermon on the Mount instead of trying to explain why it couldn’t possibly mean what it seems to mean. Would that be so bad?
  • I wonder what would happen if I stopped wondering and put these things to the test. Would I win?
  • When You Don’t Want What You Want

    Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever been overtaken by a dream so vast and shiny that it becomes nearly all you ever think about? A dream that is attainable, for sure, if not for that one problem you face every time you sit down to carry it out.

    You just don’t want to do it.

    And who can blame you? There are so many other things in the world that you could be doing. Reading books. Playing games. Sitting in a soft chair staring off into the abyss of the nether-realm. Lots to do.

    And the dream tickles and pokes you from behind. “Hey! Look at me!” it says. “You said you loved me, so where are you?”
    “I’m right here, I just don’t feel like drawing you into existence just yet,” you say as you fill your mouth with candy.
    “When, then?”
    “In a minute.” But in a minute you’ve passed out, and when you awake you have nearly forgotten your dream.

    What gives? Why don’t we want to do what we want to do? Or, better yet, how can we want it?

    I don’t really know, but I have some guesses. For whatever they’re worth, here they are.

  • Discipline is the price of freedom. That’s an old adage that has clung to me since college. The truth of it seems stronger every day. Without discipline, you’ll never get out of the chair. The trick is getting it. Wooing discipline is like trying to flirt with a nun.
  • Remind yourself of why you love your dream. When you can’t seem to work up the will to work, close your eyes and imagine the day when the work is done. In fact, take a second and do it now. Nice, eh? That could actually happen, y’know. Fall back in love with the dream.
  • Look at the next step only. I once heard that imaginative people are the worst procrastinators because they can very clearly imagine all the work required to finish a project. And that drains. So quit looking at the whole thing. Just look at what needs to be done today. Look at tomorrow’s stuff tomorrow.
  • Stay in shape. The body and mind and spirit are all woven together in a beautiful and frustrating dance. When one goes, they all go. So jog or something. And stay away from the donuts!
  • Do it now. Quit planning. You don’t need to plan nearly as much as you want to. Good plans are useful, but not nearly as useful as doing the work. So just do it. Now. Don’t worry, this blog will still be here when you’re done.
  • Don’t be perfect. They always say ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing well.’ True enough. But anything worth doing is also worth doing is also worth doing half-arsed, too. Better a shoddy dream that lives than a perfect dream that’s dead. Besides, with most things you can always go back and tweak it when you’re done.
  • Stop talking to others about it. We want others to endorse our dreams. And so we blab and tell them. But the response we get is almost never what we’re looking for. In fact, it seems that most people can’t understand our dreams. And why should they? The dreams are yours and yours alone! So keep it to yourself, or a small group who thinks like you, and truck on!
  • Enjoy it. I often don’t know how to do this. But having it as a goal in my head seems to help a little. Enjoy your work. Enjoy building your dream. Heck, if you can pull that off, you won’t need to worry about any other strategy.

    PS – Congratulations to Eric and Alex Edwards who won the shameless contest. Send me an email letting me know which book you want and it’ll be shipped out to you pronto!

  • Statement of Faith[fulness]

    I was a bit of a punk in Bible college. If you knew me well during that time you’d probably agree. I was high on theology, I think. My drug of choice was Calvinism mixed with a bias against anything popular. Not so good, looking back.

    Whenever I was introduced to a new ministry or organization I would look it up in order to decide whether I liked it or not. How would I make that choice? Was it by looking at what they did? Was it by finding out how they had made a difference in the world? No, of course not. It was by checking out their statement of faith. The closer it was to what I had already decided was true (I had all of theology figured out back then) the better I liked it.

    I look back at all that and I realize I was looking at the wrong things. I wonder, now, how I could have possibly thought that a statement of faith would have been able to tell me anything useful about a group or person. Isn’t a life of faithfulness better than being right about the inner working of the Trinity? So I had an idea. Instead of making a statement of faith for our lives, why don’t we make our lives statements of faithfulness?

    A Statement of Faithfulness:

  • We will be born again from above and strive to be filled with the Spirit, as he was filled with the Spirit (John 3:5-8).
  • We will live a life of service, as he lived a life of service (Matthew 20:28).
  • We will lay down our lives to benefit others, as he laid down his life to benefit others (Mark 10:45).
  • We will love God with every fiber of our being, as he loved God (Matthew 22:37).
  • We will love our neighbours in the same measure and fervency as we love ourselves, as he loved his neighbours (Matthew 22:39).
  • We will live out the Sermon on the Mount, as he lived out his own preaching (Matthew 5-7).
  • We will shun religion, as he shunned religion (Matthew 12:1-8).
  • We will salt (preserve) the world, as he salted the world (Matthew 5:13).
  • We will identify with the scum and outcasts of society, as he identified with the scum and outcasts (Luke 7:34).
  • We will agree that anyone not against us is for us, just as he said (Mark 9:40).
  • We will forgive all and hold grudges against none, just as he forgave while being murdered (Luke 23:34).
  • We will assume suffering is normative, just as he assumed it to be normative (John 15:20).
  • We will live simply, just as he lived simply (Matthew 8:20).
  • We will rejoice with the rejoicers and weep with the weepers, just as he was also empathetic (John 11:35).
  • We will make disciples, not converts, just as he made disciples (Matthew 23:15).
  • We will refuse to commercialize or politicize this lifestyle, as Jesus also refused (John 6:15).
  • We will turn no one away, as he turned away no one (John 6:37).
  • We will pray long and hard, as he prayed long and hard (Luke 6:12).
  • After praying, we will serve long and hard, as he served long and hard.
  • We will take and make opportunities to attack injustice and hypocrisy and make things better, as he also did (Luke 11:37-38).
  • We will be Spirit-filled and wild, as he was Spirit-filled and wild (John 3:8).
  • We will make no apologies and will not conform to what the world or what religion demands of us, just as he refused to conform.
  • Instead of working hard to find the right words to explain what we believe, I want to work hard to live out what I believe.

    When It’s Not a Heart Matter

    Okay, so Jesus is giving his sermon and he says some pretty wild stuff. One of the wild things was that you can be guilty of cheating on your spouse without actually doing anything physical with anyone else. How so? If you do it in your heart, he says, you did it. He says all sorts of other things in the same vein. Jesus focused on the intentions of the heart in a way that revolutionized ethics forever. His cry was not just ‘serve God and help your neighbour.’ It was ‘love God and love your neighbour.’ Wild, eh?

    But is it possible to focus on the heart too much?

    Jesus said, “If someone hits you, let him do it again.” How should we take that? Well, obviously it means that we ought to have an attitude of peace and love even in the face of people who are mean to us. Right? It is, after all, a heart issue. Right? So much of a heart issue, in fact, that I don’t really need to do what Jesus is suggesting here, so long as my heart is in the right place. And the same goes for his idea that we should help thieves rip us off, give to every bum who asks from us and become new people. Right? Right?

    So, give to whoever asks = Have a giving spirit (actual giving optional).
    Don’t retaliate = Have a non-retaliatory heart (and retaliate if you feel the need).
    Be born again = Be willing to become a new kind of person (and it will happen in some intangible, non-real kinda way).
    Love your neighbour in the same way you love yourself = Love him internally (little outward action necessary).

    Does any of this make any sense?

    Can I actually say, when the dude on the street asks me for money, ‘I gave him money in my heart, just like Jesus told me to’? Only if I can say, after being caught cheating on my wife, that I didn’t really do it because I didn’t do it in my heart.

    Not a chance – it’s not just about the heart. When Jesus gathered the people together and separated the accepted from the rejected he didn’t say to the accepted:

    Come, you blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you, for I was hungry, and in your heart you gave me food, I was a stranger, and in your heart you welcomed me in…Whatever you did in your heart to the least of these, you did in your heart to me.

    And he didn’t say to the rejected:

    Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry, and you did not feed me in your heart, I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me in your heart…Whatever you didn’t do in your heart to the least of these, you did not do it to me.

    The focus on the heart was meant to spur us on to deeper good works, not give us a cop-out.

    Almost Shameless Contest

    I like books and I think people ought to read a lot of them.
    +
    I find it hard to justify owning anything superfluous.
    +
    I own superfluous amounts of books.
    +
    I own a blog that gets very little traffic.
    +
    I’d like more traffic.
    =
    An opportunity for a contest of glory!

    I have made a list of 101 books pulled off my shelf that I deem superfluous. Would you like one? I will hold a contest over the next week in which you will have a decent chance of getting the book of your choice, delivered to your house for free. Sounds like fun, eh? You bet it is. Here’s how you enter:

    For one day, make this your status in your social media of choice (Twitter, Facebook, etc.):

    The Illiterate Scribe is giving away free books! Check it out: http://alturl.com/d78a

    After you make that your status, leave a comment on the blog itself or on the Facebook feed I’ve made for it letting me know that you’ve done it. Then I will collect your name, put it into a hat and pick a random one exactly one week from now (June 14, 2010). If you win, I’ll let you know from the blog and through e-mail and you can tell me which book you want.

    Does this seem shameless? Does it feel like some sort of cyber prostitution to change your Facebook status for gain? Maybe. But we all win, don’t we?

    Here is the excel spreadsheet with the 101 books. If this is successful I’ll do this every month until I run out of books. Enter early for you best chance of winning!