When Steve Lawson Told Me I’d Never Preached

IMG_0004About nine years ago when I was an associate pastor in south Louisiana, Dr. Steven Lawson taught a workshop for our local association on Expository Preaching. I was actually sick and had a headache at the time but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Dr. Lawson did a phenomenal job (as he always does) of explaining the nuts and bolts of Expository preaching and its Biblical mandate and model.

At the time I was still young(er) and had not had the pulpit time or pastoral experience I have now had. I was a good student at an undergrad Bible college and was currently enrolled in seminary and had spent a lot of time with biblical languages, background, and even travel in biblical lands. When I had an opportunity to speak with Dr. Lawson after the seminar I remarked to him, “I think I am really good at giving biblical background and an explanation of the text, but where I really struggle is the application of the text… ” Dr. Lawson, in a kind and pastoral tone, basically told me I had never preached. He responded, “well, I believe application is when a sermon becomes a sermon.” That gentle correction has helped me over the last near-decade in thought and preparation for sermons. Not that every sermon has been a “homerun” or that I’ve even felt good after every message preached, but I have made it a pastoral priority in study to consider how the text actually applies to the group I am speaking to and how the biblical truths touch our every day lives.

As Dr. Lawson himself would point out, the Puritans were quite effective with this and would’ve spent anywhere from a third to a half of their sermons on application (after textual explanation and doctrinal truths). We should never go to the pulpit claiming to be expository if we are not also explanatory in how these biblical truths speak to our lives.

I doubt Dr. Lawson would remember me, but I am thankful  he took a moment to be pastoral and prophetic in my life and I pray that it has resulted in pastoral benefit to many other lives. Thank you Dr. Lawson!


“Under Sixty”

Image                                                                                                                               A beardless and youthful Charles Spurgeon.

Charles Spurgeon was fifteen years old when he inadvertently preached his first public sermon.  A mentor had recognized his apparent calling and gifts and sent him to a Baptist meeting house.  Spurgeon was at that point unaware it had been arranged for him to be the preacher for the evening.  After encouragement from the pastor, Spurgeon preached to great effect upon the congregation.  This prompted one woman to call out, “how old are you!?” To which the flush-faced young but yet quick-witted Spurgeon replied, “Under Sixty!”   The woman replied with a smile, “And under sixteen!” This was well received by the congregation and Spurgeon was invited back.  He would enter the fulltime pastorate at seventeen.[1]

Though I am no Charles Spurgeon, I was unquestionably called into the ministry at fourteen.  I preached my first sermon at fifteen, I was in my first “pastorate” at eighteen.[2] I have grown accustomed to being the youth up front, but am still growing comfortable with it. One intangible piece of advice was given me by my pastor at the time of my call. It went something like this, “John, if the Lord is calling you in to the ministry, He is not calling you in to ministry when you graduate Seminary, when you are ordained, when you graduate college or even high school, He is calling you in to ministry right now, and you have to figure out what that means.”  That set a trajectory in my life that raised what others expected of me, and even more so what I expected of myself.

It did not take me long to come across what the Apostle Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” This has, throughout each generation, become somewhat of a mantra for youthful congregants everywhere: “let no one despise you for your youth. . .” However, I had to mature a bit before I realized what I taught my own youth group over and over: If you are setting an example in speech, conduct, love faith and purity you will not (in most cases) be despised. If you are despised, then it let be for those reasons.

Spurgeon certainly does not stand alone as a youthful example of leadership. History, even recent history, is replete with young leaders. One of my favorite examples is William Pitt who became Prime Minister of Great Britain when he was 24.  His friend, William Wilberforce, was the same age when he set out on his lifelong battle against the African slave trade. George Whitefield was ordained and began evangelizing at age 19. David Brainerd, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, nor Jim Eliot ever reached the age of thirty.  Dr. Duke McCall was 28 when he became President of the Baptist Bible Institute in New Orleans, LA (destined to be become the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary), Dr. Albert Mohler was 32 when he became the President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and most recently Dr. David Platt was 27 when he became the pastor of the Church at Brookhills in Birmingham, AL. What is more, is that Jesus’ public ministry began when he was around thirty years of age. How often do we stop to think that means the disciples were most likely younger (if not a lot younger!) than He was. It is possible that the Apostle Peter was still a minor (by modern standards) when he preached at Pentecost.

Let’s take one more look from the other end: Charles Spurgeon was still “under sixty” when he died. So were Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Calvin, Urlich Zwingli, and John Bunyan. This is not to mention the countless martyrs ranging from Stephen (Acts 7) to Lady Jane Grey, to countless Romans, Chinese, and Indonesians whose names we will never know this side of glory and youth has been made immortal, due to their seemingly early deaths.

I am still under 60, and will be for quite a while. In fact, if someone is born today who is called to preach, he will also be under 60 with me (for a few months anyway.) There are days when I am asked about my age I am tempted to answer like the younger Spurgeon. In the meantime, in an age of prolonged adolescence, regardless of which decade we find ourselves in, we must be ever mindful that days are fleeting, life is but a vapor, and there is work to be done.  As we set an example in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity, let no one despise us for our youth, including ourselves.

[1] Recounted in Arnold Dallimore’s Spurgeon: A New Biograpy. Banner of Truth Trust. 1998.

[2] I was pleased to preach for a small and aging congregation called White Bluff Baptist Church in Marion County, MS that met once every two weeks in the afternoon.

An Open Letter to My Pastors

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. – Ephesians 4:11-13

A Note

As Providence would have it, I have, in my present state in life, found myself in ministry in close proximity to a friend who I know from earlier in life.  With that said, it is also true that we have greatly benefitted from a common pastor who poured into our lives (he moreso than I for obvious reasons to us).  Still, our conversation lately led me to the following thoughts.  I am thankful, very thankful, for the men that God put in my life to Shepherd me.  I could only hope that I could have the opportunity to influence others a fraction by which these men have influenced me.

My Pastors

Brother Billy was my pastor at the most awkward stage of my life.  I was disproportionate, as most teenagers generally are, growing facial hair at an early age, and hoping the South would rise again.  All of this did not prevent a former chemical engineer called to preach from being a strong influence in my life when God called the boy out in the field to the ministry.   I decided I would like the opportunity to go to a church camp that had been planned for quite some time because of girls there.  Brother Billy went to the trouble of getting my name on the list within a week or so before departing.  I had no idea that that week God would speak to me, break my little fourteen year old heart, and beckon me to preach.  I returned home, meeting with him as soon as I had the opportunity.  He was relieved.  Because of earlier issues I’d had and some of the things going on in the world in 1998, he said he had no idea what I might have to talk about.  He immediately began discipling me and giving advice. He told me If God is calling you into the ministry, then He isn’t doing so when you graduate high school, college, or seminary, He is doing so right now.   Brother Billy gave me every opportunity available in this way from having me make announcements on Sunday morning, to sharing in our youth classes, and even (yikes!) allowing me to stand in the pulpit as a fifteen year old boy.  That lesson in the immediate call into ministry has been one that I have now had the opportunity to share with others in similar calls later in life. Brother Billy also admonished me not get married until, “you have finished four years of college;  If you can help it, do not get married until you have finished seminary; if you do get married in seminary, by all means, wait to have kids.”  He himself had a wife and three kids and commuted to Seminary every day of the week (a little over 2 hours away.) After my one semester of commuting from a close location, I cannot express my admiration for what this man was doing as he faithfully pastored our flock.  I was married one week after I graduated from Seminary.

Brother Wayne was my Pastor at the most impressionable stage of my life.  I left our small country church as a junior in high school to join with the First Baptist church of our small town.  I would not advise most teenagers to take  this route, but it is what happened to me.  Whether by my own stubbornness or a sure call at the time, the Lord knew I needed a pastor, and he gave me Brother Wayne.  Before I joined, I loitered a bit after a service and he asked me if I wanted to come to his office and chat.  I did, and we did.  I shared with him my call to preach and my concern knowing that Brother Billy was about to go to another church (something I also understand so much more now later).  Brother Wayne prayed with me and began immediately pouring into my life.  I did join First Church, and he immediately told the congregation of my call to preach.  For the few years we were there together, he would drop everything and invite me into his office to do a little more investing.  He told me he had a pastor that said he always had a coke in the refrigerator for any of the young people who would come by, and that he wanted to do the same for me, and I am  so glad he did (though we never had a coke).  However, our relationship would continue into my college career where he taught as an adjunct, and we would share several cups of coffee after his night class, where he continued pouring to me.  Here was a former Seminary professor (now a University dean) who sat in his office memorizing scriptures (that he had me pick out, and he obviously already knew), advising me and listening to me.  He gave me several opportunities to preach as a high school student, and as a college student, ensured that I was licensed and ordained, and even came to hear me preach at a small family chapel where I preached in college.  He endeared in me a love for the Word of God, pulling an oil lamp out of his desk and visibly illustrating Psalm 119:105, by pointing out if the Psalmist said Thy Word is a light and lamp unto my feet, then he had this little clay lamp in mind, and that meant he could not see far in front of him, so we have dependence upon the word of God.  Ultimately I believe because of inadvertent influence of Brother Wayne, I would study Biblical Languages in college, and major in the same in Seminary.  This has proved to be the best oil I could find for my lamp.  He also advised me on how to preach, “John, never preach to step on people’s toes, preach where the Lord leads you, and if you step on their toes, then their feet are in the wrong place.”

Brother Terry was my pastor in the most unsure stage of my life.   It was my senior year of college.  Hurricane Katrina hit, I was in a class on the Holocaust, and I endured what seemed to be a major break up.  I felt dry and allowed my academically spiritual exercises to become more academic.  Brother “Fudd” (as he is better known) and I would meet at a Pastors conference featuring Brother Wayne after he had once again became an Academic dean.  I shared that I had no idea what I was doing when I graduated but was thinking about living on my best friend’s couch while he attended summer school not far from where Fudd was a pastor.  He told me to look him up if I came that way, and we would talk about the possibility of me serving with his church and working with youth and some other stuff.  In the mean time I went back, graduated college, wrestling with the thoughts of where to go to Seminary or Divinity school.  I walked in the back door while they were having Bible study.  Luckily before calling the police, Fudd recognized me.  He then loaded me up  afterwards, drove me around the area and painting the picture of how tough, and what ministry was like there.  I came back the next week, the deacons voted, I was there, for an eternal three months.  He was my pastor, but we became friends.  Through Fudd, I realized that Seminary is not what makes a pastor.  God does.  This man loved the Lord, the word, and people – and he understood them.  I survived a lot with Fudd, even being on a bus when the accelerator was stuck, and coming down a mountain when the breaks on the same bus went out.  I learned humor, and the necessity to laugh, even at myself.  I had become prideful and academic, and here was a humble student of the Word.  As I struggled with thoughts of school he challenged me, “If the Lord told you, ‘John, do not go to school’, would you be comfortable with that?”  At that time, I would not have been, and this prophetic word cut to the heart of my pride.  It was not until this deep cut that my heart was again open to the leadership of the Lord (though he lead me even when I did not perceive it).  While up there, I left in August to tour New Orleans Seminary, came back, told him that is where God wanted me, was in orientation the next week, then went back for the greatest send off and commissioning a church could ever give.  Fudd taught me how to deal with hard people.  He taught me how to visit hospital rooms, how to minister to the very recently bereaved (the body was still in the room), how to pray for everything immediately, and to love Jesus even in a hard place.  He is why I survived Seminary still determined to pastor.

My Thanks

I cannot express my thankfulness to the Lord for these men.  If you are a pastor, I hope you will consider the models of these men of God who invested in the least of these.  If you have benefitted from the ministry of such a pastor, I urge you to thank him. 

Thank you Brother Billy, Brother Wayne, and Brother Fudd; you now pastor people you may never meet this side of glory, because of your investing in an awkward, impressionable, and unsure young man.

Dirty feet and a pedegg Savior, or Theology of the towel

Washing feet has to be one of the craziest things Jesus ever did.
Spending a while attempting to smooth out my rough and smelly feet with a pedegg got me to contemplating this strange feat of a moment in the earthly ministry of God.

My filthy and caloused feet are presently the result of a long summer of flip flop wearing. How much grosser must have been the muddied, caloused, donkey pooped, sandled feet of Bartholomew. John the Baptist said he was unworthy to even remove Jesus’ sandals and here the Son of man is washing feet.

Pastor – How do I preach better Lord?
Jesus- clip some toenails
Pastor- they don’t seem to hear my forty five minutes of Biblical verse by verse exposition
Jesus- Clean a toilet
Pastor- I have to wait for them to leave to turn out lights and lock doors
Jesus- get there early unlock em and fix a pot of coffee
Pastor- I hear you Jesus, but tomorrow they will not care who I am, and they won’t acknowledge me in public and this guy Brother Jud has all but stuck a knife in my back.
Jesus- wash their feet, take them out to eat and pay for it

A few years back I heard a sermon from Dr. Robert Smith on the passage in John 13. He called it the Theology of the Towel. What if we made ourselves available not with (as he said) a title, but a towel?