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Tim Keller on Preaching

In his blog article “Lloyd-Jones on the Practice of Real Preaching,” Tim Keller gleans some points from Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers. I am not a preacher, but I found that much of what I’ve been thinking lately about church and service and the gospel for all of life is addressed in Keller’s article.

Keller draws two points out from Lloyd-Jones’ writing: that people will come to hear preaching, even in our contemporary culture, but that 1) it must be real preaching and 2) it must be done over the long term.

Keller describes the allure of real preaching: “[Vistors] will be shocked at how convicting and attractive the gospel message is, and they will feel like they’ve never really heard it before (even if they have been raised in a church)”. I find that, the more I think about the gospel and seek to bring it to bear on the questions that contemporary teachers, the more they resonate with the message–even when it is starkly convicting, which of course it must be. The gospel does not need to be manipulated to become attractive to outsiders–it merely needs to be clearly communicated and applied to the questions being asked by contemporary people.

Lloyd-Jones, Keller writes, was worried about the preaching veering into either of two extremes: on the one hand, adapting it too much into the image of the culture, and, on the other hand, making it so objective that it becomes dry and intellectual. Preaching should be “profoundly life-related, [and] the preacher’s tone must not be affected and ‘parsonic’ but genuine, passionate, and transparent. If you listen to the [Lloyd-Jones]’s evening sermons in particular, you learn that he was always referring to current events and intellectual trends, often expounding Scripture in order to answer the questions posed by the culture. So the preaching must not be just a ‘running commentary’ or an overly-cognitive explanation of the text, but must have shape and passion and connect forcefully with the heart and life of the congregant” (Keller).

One final connection I made with Keller’s article is that of the need for patience if we are to become fair communicators of the gospel. To be a preacher who does real preaching, Keller commends the unpopular notion that it takes a long, steady work:

“[I]t requires many years and hundreds of sermons before a preacher becomes as good as they have the capacity to be. Some of that means the preacher staying put and becoming involved enough in the lives of the people and city so as to be able to address their questions and issues well from the Scripture. Some of that means coming to understand the Bible well enough to always make it clear. Some of it means years of repentance and prayer that creates an increasingly holy, transparent character.”

Go ahead and substitute “teacher” for “preacher” in the preceding quotation, and you’ll have an idea of what I think it takes to become an increasingly gospel-centered, excellent public school teacher.

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How does the Gospel transform my professional life?

Here are some thoughts that came to me recently on how good the gospel is for those of us in secular workplaces, and in particular those of us working in public schools.

First, the gospel frees us to pursue excellence and fail, because God’s love for us is not based on our success–it is based on Christ’s success. For a success-driven man like me who loves being praised for my accomplishments, this is freeing. It means that I don’t need to take on solely the “safe” ideas or projects–I can take on whichever projects I know will have the most impact, even if they seem impossible. If I fail at an undertaking at work–let’s say, for example, that I plan a difficult unit or project, and my students totally don’t get it–the gospel means that I no longer am broken. Dave Stuart Jr. is no longer the sum of his successes; I no longer need to constantly prove myself through my aptitude at my job. Rather, I am the sum of Christ’s redeeming love for me on the cross; I am constantly and eternally and infinitely loved by God, due entirely to Christ’s death on my behalf.

And second, the gospel frees us to be honest on the job, even if such honesty will get us into trouble or cause us to lose our jobs. This type of self-forgetting honesty is possible because of our infinite security in the gospel. If Christ was willing to die for us–and remember, the death of Christ was an infinitely expensive death–then he really will care of us no matter what. God has poured all of his resources into us. Imagine the feeling of having your boss send you to a fancy conference across the country–it feels great to be invested in. It makes you feel secure. Infinitely moreso has God invested in us with the gospel.

What Do You Do When You Hear of Spectacular Student Sins?

Whether you teach on the Upper East Side of Manhattan or within the city limits of Baltimore or along a cornfield in Smallville, USA, you are bound to hear occasional reports of the self-destructive doings of your secondary students. I hate it when it happens, but, if you’re paying attention to your kids and seeking to know them better, you’re bound to come across reports of  students you love hacking away at their souls with pre-marital sex, substance abuse, or other foolish deeds. Yet, when we do, what should we do with this information?

One option is to ignore it. “I’m not a counselor,” we might rightly say, and then we move on with our instructional duties. This is true; we aren’t counselors. But, as Christians, we have the Wonderful Counselor residing within us; we have a constant communication link to the counselor who makes the most highly-paid counselors of our era seem like doddering fools. I don’t think that, as Christians, with access to the infinitely wise Creator of our students, we can simply ignore reports like these, though it surely may be a way to protect ourselves from emotionally draining information.

Another option is to laugh to ourselves or with a colleague. “These kids,” we might say. Using humor to cover up the intense hurt that our students are doing to themselves is just another form of self-protection.

A common option in these situations is to gossip about it. Gossip is the telling of unpleasant truths. Any time we share information about a student’s self-destructive exploits with someone besides the student or someone who can help the child, we gossip. Alarmingly, I find myself participating in this far too often. Just like the previous options, this is a form of self-protection. By telling someone, I get it off my chest.

Ultimately, this is a moral decision that cannot be joyfully made apart from the Gospel. Christ makes moral decisions both incredibly easy and infinitely challenging. He tells us that the first law is to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. We go to God with these disturbing tales; we seek and receive true comfort from our talks with Him, not the counterfeit comfort that comes with the thrill of sharing a dirty secret with a colleague. And the second command, Christ says, is similar: we are to love our neighbors just as we love ourselves.

But our students are not our neighbors… right? Asking “Who is my neighbor?” in response to Christ’s second command is as old as the command itself—and Christ responds with the parable of the good Samaritan, which effectively says, “The person right in front of you is your neighbor, whether they are of the same class, job, status, gender, or whathaveyou.” Our students are our neighbors, and we are to love them as we would want to be loved if we were them.

So, when we hear these secrets and are tempted to either ignore them or divulge them to colleagues, we can simply “put ourselves in their shoes.” If we were the student, making similarly terrible decisions, yet knowing deep down that these decisions were destroying us, what would we want done? First of all, I wouldn’t want someone to ignore or laugh about it; at least, deep down I wouldn’t. And second, I certainly wouldn’t want it spread around fruitlessly. What good would all of my teachers knowing my sin do for me? Nothing except do what I find teacher gossip most often does: create a tiny voice in the teacher’s head that says, “That student is unreachable. Move on to someone else.”

No, I wouldn’t want that. Instead, knowing what I know now, I’d want two things: first, for the teacher to pray for me; second, for the teacher to prayerfully pull me aside and ask me how things were going, perhaps even confronting me in a humble-bold manner.

The next time we hear of a stomach-churning, debaucherous deed done by one of our students, let’s put off the temptation to ignore it or laugh about it or gossip, instead turning to God with joy that we are able to be part of the redemptive work that Christ’s infinitely powerful blood and resurrection have made possible.

What do you do in these situations? What do you do when a colleague comes to you and begins gossiping about a student’s sin?

How the Gospel Makes Any Job a Joy-filled One

One day as I was walking to my car after a long day of work, I smiled and thanked God. It had been a good day. Despite the challenges and frustrations that had inevitably come, God had given me the grace to talk problems through with Him, to seek Him for help, and to pray for students. Because of the closeness that this gave me with Him, my day was exciting–not because of the content of my work (for example, I spent nearly an hour filling in bubbles on Scantrons)–but because of the One with whom I shared it.

This isn’t a pat on the back anecdote. During the day, I sinned repeatedly–I harbored anger against students, avoided numerous unpleasant tasks, complained in my heart, wasted countless minutes on worrying or inbox-tidying… and that was before lunch! No, the fellowship I enjoyed with God at work had nothing to do with me. Were it up to my performance, I would be alone at my job completely, and I would only be able to find satisfaction in my work when everything was going my way. As a public school teacher, that would mean I would almost never find satisfaction in my work! I’m sure you can relate regardless of your occupation.

So why do I get unlimited access to my Maker, whom I habitually turn away from in my heart? Why am I able to be filled with joy in my job, no matter how bad it gets?

There was once a man–Jesus–who did his job in perfect obedience to God. He held a secular job as a carpenter and a service-oriented job as a travelling teacher and healer. Despite the constant temptations each day to ignore God, this worker never forgot about Him. But then, at the pinnacle of his career, this worker was given an impossible assignment. It meant losing his reputation, his friends, his family, his comfort, and his body–and, worst of all, it meant losing his connection to God.

Ever obedient, Jesus took the assignment. On the cross, he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-46), because he was literally being cut off from God–his connection with God was being severed; his ability to be filled with joy was smashed; the eternal joy of being a part of the Trinity was being torn from Him.

Because of this, no matter how bad my job gets–if they take away my benefits, take away my raises, cut my salary, give me the worst classes filled with the most unruly students for the rest of my career, move me to the basement, sue me, accuse me, slander me, spite me, betray me–God will never leave me. Because Jesus lost him, I will never lose access to Him. Because Jesus was cast out of His presence, He will always be present for me.

This is one way that the Gospel completely changes how we look at our work. This is why we can no longer partake in idle complaining about our jobs. We should always seek to improve the places at which we work, but never with complaining hearts. The Lord we follow got the worst work assignment in the world, and he took it for us. Now we can go to our jobs with an unshakable joy that no circumstances can touch.

Alex and Brett Harris Point to Keller’s “Meaning of the City” Sermon

Alex and Brett Harris (Do Hard Things; Start Here), whose www.therebelution.com inspires a lot of my approach to being a gospel-centered teacher, recently had this to say about Tim Keller’s hallmark city sermon:

“[The] concepts [in the sermon] are vital for rebelutionaries because they touch at the heart of why we do hard things, why we rebel against low expectations, and why we pursue character, competence, and collaboration. Is it for personal gain or glory? No. Is it to ensure “our team” wins the culture war? No. We do it so others might see our love and come to know the Source of that love. We do it so others might see our good works and give glory to our Father in Heaven (Matt. 5:16).” (See full post here.)

Here are some notes that I took on this sermon this past Sunday.

Series: How to Stay in Our Jobs “with God” — Confirming the Spoken Gospel

So far, we have looked at staying in our secular jobs “with God” by:

  1. Enjoying Fellowship with Him
  2. Pursuing Creative Productivity for a Purpose
    1. Consciously Relying on Him

These insights have been reflections and notes from “Making Much of Christ from 8 to 5,” a chapter in John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life.

The third way that Piper lists for staying at work with God is:

3. We make much of Christ in our secular work when it confirms and enhances the portrait of Christ’s glory that people hear in the spoken Gospel.

It can be easy when talking about faith and work to overemphasize the work and forget about the gospel. As Piper says,

“There is no point in overstating the case for the value of secular work. It is not the Gospel. By itself, it does not save anyone. In fact, with no spoken words about Jesus Christ, our secular work will not awaken wonder for the glory of Christ” (Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life, p. 142)

The core of this teaching is that the way we do our secular work “will increase or decrease the attractiveness of the Gospel we profess before unbelievers” (p. 143). When I as someone who seeks to be a Gospel-centered teacher engage with my colleagues and students and community members with respect and humility, I am allowing any mention of Jesus from my lips to be met with attention and consideration rather than scorn and dismissiveness.

Of course, the great assumption is that they know we are Christians. Yet, if they don’t, if there is no Good News of a saving, sacrificing God for our work to adorn, our work falls painfully short of its calling (Titus 2:9-10). It is like a good commercial that never mentions the product. “People may be impressed but won’t know what to buy” (p. 143).

On the flip-side, our work can remove stumbling blocks. Everyone has had the unfortunate experience of hearing the Gospel from someone who is well-known for their laziness, or their dishonesty, or their gossip. In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Miss Stephanie Crawford is a self-proclaimed Christian woman, yet she is equally famous for her nosiness. As Christians, if we content ourselves with doing slipshod work, we put a stain on the gospel rather than adorn it.

Childhood Self-Control a Factor in Future Success

A colleague forwarded this interesting piece from NPR on self-control in children.

Some notes:

  • Sociologists find that there are three factors that determine one’s overall success as an adult:
    • IQ
    • Family socioeconomic status
    • Self-control (the easiest factor to change)
      • “The researchers define self-control as having skills like conscientiousness, self-discipline and perseverance, as well as being able to consider the consequences of actions in making decisions.”
  • Researchers studied 1,000 kids from birth to age 32; they found:
    • A child with self-control at age 4 is more like to be a happy and healthy adult
    • A child without self-control at age 4 was three times as likely to have problems as an adult with things like financial management, criminal records, and single parenting.
  • Teaching self-control
    • In a model pre-school, students are expected to do many tasks without the help of an adult; various resources (such as a “Solutions Kit” with pictures of ways to handle conflicts) are present around the classroom to aid in this.
    • For teens, establishing clear rules helps them regulate themselves.
  • Researchers find that the earlier self-control is learned, the better.

This article is especially interesting in light of “self-control” being a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). One aspect of being a Gospel-centered public school teacher is teaching kids skills or character traits that will someday aid them in the sanctification that we pray will be theirs. When public school students have had Gospel-centered teachers along their path to graduation, at the time of the salvation that we pray will be theirs, they will be able to say, “Ohh, now Mr. So-and-So’s emphasis on self-control makes that much more sense.”

In the meantime, may this research encourage us to continue searching for ways to build self-control in our students.