After this month, we’ve experienced in the flesh why Chicago is considered the 6th major city with the worst weather in the US. It has been VERY cold and we are officially sick of the snow. Come Spring, come…

friob

Besides the cold we’ve actually had an enjoyable month. In particular, we were delighted to have a close friend from Spain, Dan, over for a week. It is so relaxing to speak in Spanish and, for a moment, no longer feel like aliens in a strange land. We’ve also been able to spend time with friends from Chicagoland, which becomes more significant as we realize that soon we’ll be far away from here.

Looking forward, this semester will have a high concentration of preaching. Because I want to grow in preaching God’s word faithfully, I’ve seized a number of opportunities to get better at it. I’m taking specialized preaching classes (in difficult biblical texts like poetic and prophetic books) and will be preaching in a number local churches. Two weeks ago I was also able to attend a Simeon Trust workshop that provides ongoing training for people in ministry to preach better. Finally, Dan, our friend from Spain, encouraged me to write guidelines for preparing a sermon. You can see it here.

I still have a lot to learn about preaching, but a few things have become evident. First, if the Bible is God’s word, it is essential that preachers learn how to read the text carefully to understand not only what it is saying, but also what it is claiming on the reader – what we are called to do in response. Second, the preacher is to clearly communicate that to the church, calling them also to respond to God’s word. This is a sobering thought, actually communicating God’s word to people. That’s one of the reasons I need a lot more training.

Please, keep praying with us:

  • to enjoy this last semester, especially to spend time with friends that we might never see again
  • to keep strong in studies, work and church
  • for my preaching times, that God would keep me faithful to his word and that I speak through him while I continue learning

We love you,

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prepare

A few people have asked me recently how to prepare a text to preach or teach in a Bible study. In the next few posts, I will share some tools that I have learned to help to read the biblical text better, understand its meaning and purpose, and share that with others.

This first post gets to the most important part: the need to understand our text well and identify its main claim. The idea is to find out the central motivation in the text. What is it trying to get done? This will be what we want to communicate in a sermon, not our own ideas. Doing this part well will give power and authority to the message, because you won’t just share your words, but you will open the Word of God for your hearers.

The tool I propose below consists in six questions to ask your text to get to its main claim. These are taken from Greg Sharf’s book, Prepared to Preach, (Christian Focus, 2005).

Once you have your text (a basic logical unit), read it a few times, in different translations, and try to answer the following questions. While you study the text, jot down notes in another notebook or text file: things that are strange, that surprise you, that you don’t get, that could be a good illustration, etc. These notes will be useful later for preparing the presentation.

This phase can take from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the text.

1. What is the text I am reading functionally?

E.g.: a poem, a letter, a historical narration…then go more specific: an exhortation, a command, a story, an illustration, a hymn, etc.

2. What is the main subject?

E.g.: faith, perseverance, the magnificence of God, etc.

Note: identify only one main subject. There will be more things, but there is one that will be prominent amongst all the rest. This one controls the text. If there really are a few different ones, you might need to cut down the chunk of text you are going to share from.

3. What is the author saying about the subject?

E.g.: Faith is a gift from God, perseverance marks the Christian life, etc.

Note: many times the sub-themes that you found earlier enter into this category. They help explain the main subject.

4. What response is the Holy Spirit requiring from believing readers?

E.g.: Increase their faith, encouragement by remembering God’s work, to abandon an idol that has substituted Christ in their life, etc.

Note: It is helpful here to think of the historical context to find out what response was sought in the original listeners.

5. How is the Holy Spirit eliciting the intended response?

E.g.: With a story of someone who didn’t have faith but God gave her faith anyway, with a logical argument, etc.

Note: Often in this phase you finally get the grammatical structure of the text: how the pieces are fitting together to prop up the main point (e.g.: the three arguments Paul uses to convince his reader to believe the gospel). Try to write this structure down, or draw it out. This will be very useful for the sermon or presentation later.

6. How does this particular passage contribute to the large picture, that is, to the story of redemption?

Ask yourself, What would be missing in this book if this passage wasn’t here? What would be missing in the canon (the whole Bible) if this passage wasn’t here? Considering the period when it was written ask, How does this contribute to point towards the cross and the gospel of Christ (is it before his death, resurrection or ascension or after it, how does that influence our understanding of it)?

Note: this is a step that we often forget, but it is absolutely crucial for a Christocentric sermon (i.e. a Christian sermon). We must see how Christ is seen in this passage. Remember that he is the fulfillment of all the law, the prophecies, and the stories. If it is a command, how is Christ reflected and how has God’s grace in him affected it?

After answering these questions, What should I have?

  • The text’s “proposition” or main claim: This is the central purpose of the text, what it is trying to get done. Write it out in a sentence with only one verb. This is the focus that is going to control your presentation of the text.
  • A basic grammatical structure: Here is where you put together the pieces, answering the question, How does the author present his proposal?
  • A bunch of notes of stuff that can be included in your presentation, such as application ideas, insights, even illustrations that may have come to mind.

With what you have now, we’ll go on to the “bridge” phase, which will take you from the biblical message to a message to share with people here and now. I’ll talk about that in the next post.

toothbrush

Each year, Operation Christmas Child mobilizes millions of people to fill shoe boxes with presents for kids that probably wouldn’t receive presents on Christmas otherwise (especially, since many of them don’t live in Christian-tradition countries). It astounds me how many churches have embraced it, so I’d like to have a few words.

Before continuing, I’d like to say that I really admire and appreciate when people, churches or other organizations have a desire to help, we can’t do it enough. What I’d also like to say, is that sometimes we need to think twice if what we’re doing really helps… because intentions are NOT all that matter. And please let me know if I’m just not getting this Operation Christmas Child right.

This program is part of a “relief organization,” meaning, they don’t seek structural changes to global problems, but rather to temporarily alleviate the symptoms of those problems. People often argue about which system is better. I think both, structural changes and alleviation of symptoms, are needed, but let me explain why Operation Christmas Child doesn’t qualify as a relief program:

  • Relief programs meet the immediate needs of particular groups of people. How does a shoe box full of random stuff qualify as meeting immediate needs, especially when the packer doesn’t even know what country that box is going to end up in? Yes, I’ve also heard the story about the freezing boy from a freezing country among the crowd, who opens his box and pulls out a down jacket just his size. I can’t help but think about two things: 1, how on earth do you fit a down jacket in a shoe box, and 2, the face of freezing kid next to him who only receives a toothbrush, which brings me to my next point.
  • These kind of programs are extremely exclusivist: because of the limited number of questionably useful shoe boxes, they don’t reach everybody in the village so, on top of the down toothbrush next to the down jacket kid, who knows how many other kids don’t even get boxes? Who determines which kids receive boxes, and why? What kind of conflicts does this inequality and exclusivity create, and what happens when the organization leaves the village? Please, don’t get me wrong. 1 kid with a toothbrush is better than 0 kids with a toothbrush, but, at what cost?
  • At an extremely expensive one: the cost of shipping all those boxes full of questionably helpful stuff around the globe. For each box they pack, people are asked to donate $7, which in Nairobi is 3 days salary or 14 loaves of bread.
  • Oh but they evangelize! That worsens things: ok, so kids with boxes get to hear the gospel. What about the kids that don’t get the boxes? No box, no Jesus? But let’s forget for a second about the no-box kid. What about the yes box, yes Jesus kid? What kind of gospel are we transmitting? That of a Santa Claus Jesus? That of white wealthy Christians that give useless presents and then leave? I don’t know about you, but when I was 5, I’d have embraced Zoroastrianism for a present. This blackmail evangelism is not exclusively Christian. Islam has drastically advanced in Africa exchanging food for Allah. Thanks to some Christian missionaries who used the same method in Asia, we coined the term “rice Christians.”

Why is this Operation Christmas Child so popular then? Honestly, I think it’s because it’s too easy. It helps our conscience more than it helps the kids who receive the boxes.

I do not mean this post to be an excuse for not doing anything, since we can’t change the world. And we can’t, but if you agree with me on this one and you’re not sending a $7 toothbrush God knows where, DO SOMETHING ELSE. But what kind of organizations or programs should we support? Charity is always the easy option, but I’d encourage you to look for organizations/programs that seek structural changes, and whose work focuses on:

Why this emphasis on “local” stuff? Because only by empowering local people to improve their communities, will they be able to survive in this dog-eat-dog world. And that’s why Capitalism prefers charity: it’s a paternalizing kinda-help. It is a bandaid that will never solve real problems on its own, ergo, it eliminates competition, it’s safe. If wealth doesn’t change hands, we can keep ruling the world. Don’t misunderstand me, I think that charity can meet urgent needs that can’t wait for the structural change that will make that need disappear, but these are my objections to charity alone:

Inequality objectively exists, and I don’t intend to make a case for it or against it. Throughout history, inequality has given birth to many stories about poor stealing from the rich to give it back to the poor. I don’t intend to make a case for or against stealing either. My case is against this charity that, after having stolen from the poor, they give (some of) it back to them, and expect to be praised for it. History shows us how privileged countries have systematically raped the rest of the world to be where they are. “I don’t steal” you may say. Well, as participants of the economy of these countries, we are (maybe indirectly but still) partners in crime. History is only our fault if we perpetuate it, and as you can see if you turn on your tv, that’s exactly what we’re doing.

My advice (for free!), instead of spending 10 extra minutes at Walmart buying toothbrushes, invest some of your time to research organizations that are making real changes. And when you find them, support them. I know we’re busy, but hey, I though we wanted to make a contribution here. It’s easier to give leftovers, but good stuff comes with a price, so let’s pay it.

Marta


*Disclaimer: Supporting organizations that are creating changes is just the beginning of what we can do to help. I have no personal interest in any of the specific organizations listed above. They’re just examples of the many that are out there making changes. Except for Kiva, they all are Christian organizations, but there are also secular ones, and also others that focus on evangelizing. If you’re looking for that, I always prefer to support individual missionaries I personally know, rather than agencies, but that’s your call.