Absence Makes the Heart Go Mayan


So the world didn’t come to an end after all. Shocker.

Even the Mayans thought the whole thing was ridiculous. But in the midst of all the jokes on Facebook and around the proverbial water cooler, many people did take the whole thing seriously; and that’s no laughing matter. They called NASA, stocked up on food and ammunition, and just generally freaked out. No matter how moronic the rest of us thought it was, these were real people who were really scared.

How do we explain this crazy behavior? One answer might be that without belief in a loving, personal God who has an intentional plan for his creation, otherwise rational and decent people will continue to easily to fall for such delusions as the Mayan calendar doomsday prophecy.

You see, there is the old adage that if you stand for nothing you’ll fall for anything. And given the fact that standing for nothing in terms of any serious belief in God seems to be the hot thing these days, it’s pretty easy to see how an increasing number of people will be led astray by strange and fanciful predictions like this one.

Despite all the efforts to convince humanity that there is nothing more in the universe than the cold hard facts of Science, people still hunger for the spiritual. They want the transcendent – which is exactly what Science can’t offer. There is nothing wrong with Science, its just that it isn’t enough. So give them some awareness of the Great Beyond, even if its tragic and scary, and they’ll run after it. Especially in the absence of any other spiritual foundation that would offer some type of truth to counteract it.

More to the point, however, perhaps the fascination with doomsday prophecies such as this erroneous apocalyptic prediction reveals something deeper: in the absence of a Creator, the only thing left to worship is the creation. And what a dangerous and brutal god the creation is!

The apostle Paul warns of this in the book of Romans when he speaks of the human condition: “…they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” (Rom. 1:25)

The point is, we have to worship something, and what we worship we usually fear. When there is no God who is in charge of his creation, both in power and purpose, then the creation itself becomes a god – a god with no ear to listen, no heart to love, no eyes to see. It is wild, unpredictable, and ultimately destructive.

St. Patrick noticed a similar fear of creation among the Irish when he arrived there as a missionary in the 4th century AD. He found a people who appeared brave and barbaric, but on the inside they were deeply fearful of the world around them. Thomas Cahill, in is book How the Irish Saved Civilization, describes how the Irish believed in the idea of shape-shifting – that everything in nature could change its form and turn against them. In Irish life there was nothing real you could depend on. Everything was a threat. The creation itself was the enemy. Cahill writes, “[shape-shifting] suggested subconsciously that reality had no predictable pattern, but was arbitrary and insubstantial.” (p. 113).

So when St. Patrick began to convert the Irish to Christianity, one of the results was a belief in the authority of God over nature. And if a good God is in charge of nature, then nature can be “trusted” to serve his purposes. So in Genesis 1:1 it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens the earth.” Right out of the gate the fundamental idea is that nature is not God; God is God. The sun, moon, and stars are inanimate objects created for God’s glory and our good. They are not to be feared because they have been fashioned by God for his purposes.

This same theme is what drives the famous prayer known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate, which asserts a confidence in God’s created order:

“I arise today

Through the strength of heaven

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon, 

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea, 

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.”

All of these elements are part of God’s world, and while they might still be dangerous, as we live in a fallen world, their threat is mitigated by the opening line of the prayer: “through belief in the threeness, through confession of the oneness of the Creator of Creation.”

What does this have to do with the Mayan apocalypse of 2012? Everything, really. The fear of a failing, chaotic creation will continue to be repackaged and resold to every generation until the end of time. This latest one just happened to have its basis in the calendar of an ancient civilization. But there will be others. For years we’ve been told to fear the constant threat of man-made global warming and its implications. It is the most sophisticated of the doomsday prophecies – you will always be cool if you let global warming frighten you to the core.

Does Christianity have its own apocalyptic vision? Absolutely. But the difference is that we are told to take comfort in, and not to fear, the second coming of Jesus Christ. Christians believe that the end of the world will come when God’s purpose is accomplished. And with that, the earth is not so much destroyed as it is redeemed. Thus, the end is truly the beginning, and a better life awaits those who have believed.

Until that time comes, however, those who have faith in the God of St. Patrick and St. Paul can sleep peacefully at night and not fear comets, meteors, aliens, unrecycled bottles and cans, and everything else that we’re told is going to wipe us off the earth. As for tomorrow, my money is on the fact that the sun will rise, the Earth will turn, and the laws of physics will remain intact. Our God is good, and the Psalmist says, the earth and everything in it belongs to him.

The Art of Preaching

My job rocks. Every Sunday the challenge is to produce a 40 minute presentation of fresh, engaging material based on any passage in the Bible to hundreds of people who are hoping to catch something that will convince them that waking up before noon on a Sunday wasn’t a waste of time.

Preaching gets a bad rap and understandably so. The most common perception people have of “sermons” is that they are long, boring, irrelevant lectures droned out by marginally well-meaning but hopelessly out of touch individuals who had the unfortunate curse of being born in the wrong century.

But preaching is supposed to be an amazing and unique art form, primarily because the goal is not merely information but transformation. You don’t want people to leave saying, “I learned something I didn’t know.” You want them to leave saying, “I must change, and change now.”

There’s also a deeply spiritual dynamic inherent in preaching. The preacher, if he’s worth anything, believes, that because his sermon begins and ends with Scripture, it’s not merely his words, but the words of God coming out of his mouth. He is merely the interpreter, the translator, in a conversation between God and every single person listening. God is guiding the preacher’s words, using them to talk to each person, and connecting his truth to each unique need and circumstance. At its core preaching should be supernatural.

That’s not to say that whatever a preacher says is infallible. Preachers make mistakes all the time, and they can often be downright dangerous. But the goal of the preacher should be to communicate what God wants the people to hear, how God wants them to change, rather than just spouting off his own ideas.

Effective preaching is ultimately a result of the power of God. However, there are a bunch of practical skills preachers must have if they hope to truly engage their audiences. Here are a few I’ve learned:

1) Credibility is everything. What’s important is not that your hearers believe everything you’re saying. What’s important is that they believe that you believe everything you’re saying! Bottom line: If you don’t believe what you’re saying, get off the stage and give it to someone who does. Sadly, there are preachers in America who admit they don’t really believe what they’re preaching, but I guess they can’t find anything else to do at the moment. Nice.

2) Even the President needs… Passion!! I remember hearing Bill Hybels relay a conversation he had with Bono, where Bono told him that there’s one thing his fans expect when U2 hits the stage: energy. I’ve always remembered that. To have life oozing out of you is essential if people are to connect with you. Even if you’re a little nuts once in a while… at least you’re not boring!

3) Be clear. To clarify, be really, really clear. General Colin Powell described his approach to speaking like this: Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. But in order to do that, you gotta know what you’re going to tell them. Dr. Howard Hendricks is famous for saying, “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew.” The reason so many sermons fail so miserably is because no one can follow what the preacher is trying to say. He might crack a few jokes and have a magnetic personality, but that jig will be up really fast if know one, including himself, knows what in the world he’s talking about!

4) Crack a joke, the earlier the better. Laughter is the universal language of connection. Two people don’t even need to speak the same language, but if they can laugh together, a greater bond is possible than through hours of conversation. Don’t make those poor people sit there and listen to you for 30 or 40 minutes (or longer) without saying or doing something funny. They got up and got their kids ready because they trust you have something to say to them – the least you can do is crack them place up once or twice, lighten the mood, and help them engage with you even more.

5) Cut one major point entirely rather than hollowing out two or three major points. I learned this axiom from Dr. Don Sunukjian, my brilliant preaching professor. The idea is this: if you have to cut something due to time, don’t cut sub-point “c” out of points 1 and 2. Just cut all of point 3. If you cut your sub-points, you don’t get the opportunity to drive home your main points, leaving your message shallow. You know what you had to cut, but no one else does, so who don’t worry about it being incomplete. Most people will remember once salient sentence or story more than they’ll be able to recite all three or five of your main points anyway.

6) Use descriptive language instead of generalities. What’s more interesting? To say, “My brother has an old car with a big engine that’s a lot of fun,” or “My brother Matt has got a fire engine red 1967 Mustang with a .302 liter engine that literally sends a chill down your spine when you hit the gas.” It easy to be lazy with language.

7) Use slides sparingly. You’re not giving a lecture on the intricacies of grey matter in the human brain. You’re communicating for transformation, which is hard if you’ve got 85 Power Point slides to get through. Every time you transition a slide the eyes of the audience move off of you and on to your whatever is you’ve written. I want everyone’s eyes on me as much as possible. I limit my “slides” to main points (usually two or three), key verses of Scripture (for those who didn’t bring a Bible), an occasional significant quote, and sometimes a picture.

I love and believe in effective preaching and I think it is still the primary method which serves to transform the hearts of men and women who desperately need the touch of God.  Romans 10:14 says, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?

We who preach just need to get better at it. Thoughts?