Archive for category Reviews

Comic and Preacher Pens How-To Book on Sermon Prep  

Susan Sparks reflects on humor that is joyful and therapeutic in her book, “Preaching Punchlines.”

She is not speaking of humor that is scornful, rude, hateful or judgmental, but humor that lifts us up and honors. She quickly banishes any thoughts that she is advocating delivering sermons that are theologically light.

Sparks, who is pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, knew that her calling was to be a pastor at age 6.

Yet, her dreams were ridiculed and squelched by religious leaders in her native Southern Baptist upbringing, and so she delayed that dream until mid-career after becoming a successful attorney.

She delights in being a pastor, and this book stresses the hard work that delivering a sermon, speech or comedy routine requires. She is part of a standup comedy troupe that includes a rabbi and an imam.

The heart of the book is the fifth chapter, in which she demonstrates the humor of Jesus in example after example.

Sparks is enthusiastic about how Jesus uses ordinary circumstances to connect with his audience.

He uses every technique available: exaggeration, humor, voice, irony, timing, silence, parables and repetition to capture his listener’s attention.

Follow Jesus’ example, she urges. Use every means possible including humor. This is important because the audience will remember only 10% of what you say.

Providing step-by-step instructions on sermon preparation, she emphasizes always keeping your congregation in mind. What are members of your congregation interested in? What keeps them awake at night? What’s going on around you?

Observe people and listen to them, she advises. Always keep a notebook or recording device with you. Make a note about your observations. Develop a file system that will let you find illustrations that you have experienced, observed or read about. Talk about the hard stuff.

She stresses that congregations need more than they can Google. They need to be given real food by someone they trust.

“A sermon is bigger than us,” she writes. “In its purest form, a sermon should be a message inspired from a higher power given through you to a congregation. God is the power source. If we don’t feel the power, it’s not God.”

Learn to write like a comedian, Sparks says. Build your scenario. The punch line comes last. Wait a moment to let it sink in before you start talking again.

Boil your sermon down to your core message. Put that at the top of your page. Read your sermon out loud at least twice. This will help you weed out unnecessary words or extraneous material.

Narrow your sermon to what is direct and necessary for your one-line summary. Reserve the rest for another time.

Finally, she follows and recommends the practice of praying your sermon out loud.

One commandment Sparks gives is the one many ministers ignore, but its observance is essential: “Thou shalt not be exhausted by the Sabbath.” Rest and sleep are essential.

Sparks believes that being given an opportunity to preach before a community of faith is one of the highest honors one can receive. If one is to perform at her or his best, time apart, rest and reflection are mandatory.

So, she emphasizes that ministers must take a day off. Get away. At least stay away from the church once in a while. She and her husband take motorcycle trips.

Always remember why you are doing what you are doing, she says. Tap into the source. Always keep a copy of your sermons. Review them, taking note of common themes. What excites you? What do you preach about most often?

Her final commandment is my favorite, “Thou shalt have joyous communication.” This is true for comedians, motivational speakers and preachers. “No matter how we feel, we must radiate joyous communication into the rafters and far corners of the sanctuary.”

As I travel around and hear sermons from preachers in various denominations, this element most often is missing. Where is the joy of living the Christian life?

I already know my failures. If the joy is lacking in your speeches or sermons, Spark’s book will lift your spirits and help you rekindle your zest for preaching.

She reminds us that we are enough, and that God always has our back.

“Preaching Punchlines” contains ample references and numerous QR codes that allow you to scan even more. This book is pure gold for anyone who wishes to improve her or his sermons.

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Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World by Serene Jones

Reviewed by Mitch Carnell – ethicsdaily.com – April 15, 2019

“God Will Take Care of You” was a very popular hymn when I was growing up.
Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, makes it clear this is not the case in her new book, “Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World.”
God empowers us to take care of ourselves, she says, in this theological reflection that is as true as the author can make it at the time of its writing.
She is a product of Oklahoma and its broad sweeping plains, burdened by the racist history of the state and especially that of her family – though her father breaks that mold.
Her own struggles with racism play out in a teenage fit of disappointment and anger. She wrestles with her grandfather’s not-so-subtle sexual abuse.
Jones is also a product of the teachings of Calvin, Niebuhr, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, Barth and Tillich and later of feminist theologians. She is steeped in the doctrines of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
There is no doubt that she belongs at the helm of the Union Theological Seminary. They are blessed to have her and so are we.
Her story is so compelling that it is difficult to put the book down. We get to watch as she takes what she experienced in India and processes those experiences to weave her own spiritual formation. She learns quickly from other cultures and other faith traditions.
The one major flaw is that in the story of Freddy (a boyfriend of Jones during high school who dropped out of school), she substitutes what she wishes were the truth for the real truth.
She mistakes raging teenage hormones for true love and then enshrines that image in her brain. She attributes Freddy’s death to his condition of poverty.
In reality, Freddy had all the elements he needed to escape poverty: a motorcycle, intelligence, talent, work, money and the role model of Serene and her family. He made a conscious choice to remain stuck.
She says that it was Freddy’s death that sent her into the study of theology. It was more likely the influence of her father because her younger sister also became a minister.
Despite this shortcoming, her telling the story of Freddy is exquisite and sets the pattern for an unrelenting search for meaning.
Jones also reflects on her marriage, which seems like it never stood a chance of success.
Yet, her love for her daughter and what being a mother birthed in her is truly inspirational.
Her oneness of spirit with her daughter is a case study in mother-daughter relationships.
Her struggles with the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and how she works through her hatred of Timothy McVeigh to come out of that struggle on the side of being opposed to the death penalty is a lesson in transformation for us all.
As much as Jones loves and respects her theologian father, she neither respects nor adores her mother. who was a bitter, harsh, mean person.
I suspect the mother was sicker for a much longer period of time than anyone suspected. She was brutal in the verbal abuse of her brilliant daughter and later she almost destroyed her adoring husband.
It is against this harsh reality that Jones’ theology is tested and reforms.
Jones comes to the conclusion that we are all held in God’s love. That the space between us and the breath that flows through us and unites us is God’s grace. We are all a part of God and that God is a part of us.
“It also allows us to see God not as another object, distinct from us, but as the air, the flow, the spirit, the life force that moves between us and through us,” she writes.
Her father’s mantra is referenced often, “We are all children of light and children of darkness. We are all children of the same God.”
The concluding lines of the book carry her message: “Love has become a trifling word, but it still, as a theological concept, has the power to redeem if we can grasp that it exists within and yet comes from beyond desire, language, need and want. That is the simple reason, really, why we call that love ‘grace’.”
My summary is found in her words, “Grace is older than sin.”

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Faith: A Journey for All – Jimmy Carter – ethicsdaily.com

 

Mitch Carnell – 

'Faith: A Journey for All' | Mitch Carnell, Jimmy Carter, Book Reviews, Baptists, Social Justice

Jimmy Carter comes down solidly on the side of social justice with our obligations to the poor and disenfranchised at the forefront, Carnell says. (Photo: EthicsDaily.com)

One of my birthday presents this year was accompanied by a great compliment.

My son gave me Jimmy Carter’s new book, “Faith: A Journey for All,” and said, “Dad, this sounds like you.”

It was an over-the-top compliment, but I sincerely hope that it is true.

There is not much that surprises in this new volume, but it does remind me of the Baptist faith that surrounded me in my formative years.

Yes, segregation was in full flower, but, even then, it was beginning to fray at the edges.

My parents were products of their time and place, but to their everlasting credit, they never taught my sister and me to hate. They knew that we would not live in the same world that they had experienced.

The message of love for all people was preached from the pulpit every Sunday, just not practiced toward the local African-American population. One of the great ironies was that we took our offering to support missions for those living in Africa.

Carter touches on all of the hot-button issues, especially the struggles within the Southern Baptist Convention that moved this great body from a position where the Bible was the only creed to a hard-and-fast creedal denomination.

The before-unassailable belief in soul competence of the individual was trampled along with the time-honored independence of the local congregation.

Carter says that three words describe this type of fundamentalism: pride, domination and exclusion.

He contrasts these views with the teachings of Jesus: humility, servanthood of leaders and breaking down barriers between people.

The most important statement in the book is, “Christians should be known by our love and our laughter.”

Carter’s love for every human being and the planet shines through loud and clear.

Considering the current arguments against social justice, Carter comes down solidly on the side of social justice with our obligations to the poor and disenfranchised at the forefront.

The press often wondered how such a spirit like Jimmy Carter’s could emerge from what most considered a dark, provincial, unsophisticated background.

If one grew up in the same Southern Baptist churches at the time that Carter and I did, it is not a mystery.

The gospel lessons were presented in such a way that they took hold in a receptive soul.

There was no doubt in my young mind that God loves every human being. The problem was reconciling the teachings with the practices I saw around me.

Jimmy Carter had the great influence of his mother and her social involvement as a model.

In addition to his mother, he was greatly influenced by the theological writings of Karl Barth, William Sloane Coffin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Abraham Joshua Herschel, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich.

He also gives great credit for his way of thinking to Millard and Linda Fuller, Dr. Bill Foege and Admiral Hyman Rickover.

One name on his list of influencers that surprises me is that of his brother, Billy. He pays great tribute to him.

Carter has taught Sunday School classes for most of his adult life. He has written extensively about his faith and has practiced his humanity before the entire world.

In this book, he states his basic philosophy very succinctly, “My general attitude toward life is that of thanksgiving and joy, not anxiety or fear. In my weekly Bible lessons at our church, I teach that our Creator God is available at any moment to any of us for guidance, solace, forgiveness or to meet other personal needs.”

He also emphasizes the importance of prayer in his life. At 93 years old, Jimmy Carter states, “Faith is not just a noun, but a verb.”

I cannot recommend this book too highly. Reading it and reflecting on its contents constitute pure joy.

Mitch Carnell is a member of First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina. He is the author of “Our Father: Discovering Family.” His writings can also be found at MitchCarnell.com.

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Baptists in Early North America: First Baptist Church, Boston, Massachusetts,

Edited by Rev. Dr. Thomas R. McKibbens.  Macon, Mercer University Press. ©2017. $60.

Reviewed by: Mitch Carnell

Reading about the beginning struggles of the First Baptist Church of Boston should cause every Baptist heart to swell with pride. These pioneers in the faith suffered unbelievable persecution. Massachusetts was simply not a good place to be if you believed in freedom of religious conscious. Decenters were publicly whipped and jailed.

The founding members worshiped in people’s homes before erecting a meetinghouse. The doors to their first meetinghouse were nailed shut by the authorities on March 8, 1679. At least for one week the congregation met outside in the cold. Religious freedom did not come to Massachusetts until a new constitution was adopted in 1833.

The Boston Church was not the first Baptist Church in New England but it grew to be one of the most influential spreading its influence from Boston to South Carolina. The connections between the First Baptist Church of Boston and the First Baptist Church of Charleston are strong. The first pastor of the Charleston church was ordained by the Boston church. William Screven established a church in Kittery, Maine before moving his flock to Charleston. When the Boston church was without a pastor in 1707, he was invited to return to Boston as pastor but declined the offer.

The most successful pastor of the Boston Church, Samuel Stillman, was trained by the pastor of First Baptist Church Charleston, Oliver Hart, and ordained by him in 1759.  Stillman served the Boston church for over 40 years. The meetinghouse was expanded twice during his pastorate. He and his Charleston mentor were both originally from Philadelphia where Baptists were more welcome.

The minutes of the First Baptist Church of Boston, 1635 -1830, provide both informative and interesting reading. The handwritten minutes are contained in two leather bound volumes currently located in the Franklin Trask Library at Andover Newton Theological Seminary. McKibbens, has meticulously and painstakingly transformed these priceless records into a form accessible to every interested scholar or layman. These minutes faithfully record insights into church doctrine, politics, finances, church discipline and church personalities. McKibbens speaks of his joy in being able to handle these documents. He served as interim pastor while preparing the manuscript.

Dr. McKibbens has produced a volume of great value to anyone interested in religious freedom and the growth and history of Baptists in America.

The Rev. Dr. Thomas McKibbens is no stranger to South Carolina Baptists. He was a speaker for the Charleston County Baptist Association and at the John Hamrick Lectureship. He delivered the sermon at the 325th Anniversary Celebration of First Baptist Church of Charleston.

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