Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Disicipline of Study


Last week, after the blog on “The Challenges of Preaching the Word” I had a couple of things happen that has helped create this idea for this particular blog. First, I had a pastor (David Bethel) to send me an e-mail basically discussing the sometimes ups and downs of disciplined study. He admitted that there were some weeks that all seemed to flow well and then there were other weeks of poor study due to the demands of the unexpected of pastoral work. Secondly, one of our members was in the hospital for close to a week and in addition to seeing her, I went down to the Radiology Department and saw quite a number of people that I used to work with. One of those days, I ran into one of the physicians (Sibley Turner, M.D.) that I used to work with and had a good time reconnecting with him. While I did not work with him as much as with some of the other radiologists, his partners almost to a man had told me numerous times that he had the sharpest mind of their group.

So between this pastor and this physician, a thought begin to jell in my mind over the weekend concerning active study. The rigors of pastoral ministry can often be more reactive than proactive because you respond to things as they happen. Then there are times that time seems to drag by and those times cannot be wasted on the frivolous things that don’t really matter. That was what the pastor’s e-mail brought to my mind. The side that this physician brought to my mind again was not a new one. Medicine is a practice but it is a skilled practice that works with strong elements of knowledge. What a physician knows is often what makes him the healer that he is. Far too many patients are always worried about the bedside manner of a physician and while that may be important to some, it is not crucial. What is important is how much knowledge does he have and can he take that knowledge and use it with skill to correct the malady he is treating. To do this there has to be a life of constant study and refreshing of the mind. A physician does this with medical journals, seminars, and collaboration with other physicians. A preacher will do the same thing with his prayer, his study, his Bible, and his books.

The first thing to know about study is that it is hard work! My own interaction with study has caused me to realize that one can be extremely inspired about working through a passage, book of the Bible, or even a topic but when it gets down to digging it out, it is hard work. Much of inspiration is perspiration in fact one man said that inspiration is 90% perspiration. Many men can get inspired about taking the Bible and preaching through it and then do not settle into the hard work of staying in their chair to work it out. If you are constantly in and out of your chair, nothing of eternal value is ever going to be accomplished for just about the time the smooth flow of inspiration is mixing with the interpretation and interruption causes it to fail.

I always have a bit of hesitation about telling you how I do things personally simply for the fear of appearing presumptuous and a know-it-all. However, I also know that I have gleaned much from other good men who were willing to share with me their own habits and patterns which made me a better man. Now I realize that those who listen to me preach/teach every week may be wishing to goodness that it would get shorter and better but all in all they keep coming back every week (which is good).

I am currently working on a long series that I have spent more time with than any other venue in preaching. I have been working on 1st John since January 2007, although it has primarily been on Wednesday nights and every other month at that, I still have spent 45 nights on this series. I have 21 sets of notes on this particular book and have logged more than 160 hours in preparing for these 45 sessions. If you use Microsoft Word, you can look under the Properties tab, under the Prepare section and you can find out the exact word count of the document and how long you have been working on the notes. For the 1st John series, I start with a legal pad and scribble out the notes and then compose it into the Word document. So whatever time is shown, there is actually more time involved because I have worked through the passage and worked through commentaries prior to creating the document.

There are some rewards of the hard work of study. One that I have found is that when I am working through the passage, the Word simply presses me into other avenues that I would have never found if I had not been involved in the discipline of working through the passage. Another benefit that I discovered is that often what is popular in the bookstores and is popular fare on “Christian” television frequently is something totally different from what the Bible says. This is very scary for our lazy and biblically illiterate population. First and foremost, one must ask himself, “What does Scripture declare?!”

In addition to this long series on 1st John, I have taken breaks from it. During those breaks, I have pursued other subjects. I have in started a series on the OT Tabernacle on another legal pad which I intend to start either late summer or early fall after I complete 1st John. The first lesson is complete and is simply waiting. In the meantime, I have allotted some time to work through this very rich subject, when I am not studying 1st John. I have another legal pad that is in the early stages on the life of Elijah. In addition to this, I am frequently preaching single messages on single passages primarily on Sunday nights.

To do the hard work of study, you have to be very judicious about time. In fact, time is your most valuable commodity. I have worked very diligently to keep the mornings clear and free so that I can use those to pray and to study. My afternoons are usually spent with various other responsibilities but I always try to keep the mornings free to study. Great preachers will be great students. Great students are more often than not great readers. A great student will understand the commitments of time needed to work through this important task.

The hard work of study may require one to sit down and develop some written goals to help you reach the mark. No man will ever meet the hard demands of weekly preaching if he is not given to constant and earnest study. A man who does not study will find that he is preaching the same thing over and over although the text may vary he rides a very tired and dilapidated hobby-horse. One thing I have told a lot of preachers over the years was something that J. R. Ensey told us in my senior homiletics class at TBC. He said, “Poor preaching is a heavy cross to bear.” I took that thought to heart and determined that the congregation that I served might complain about long sermons but they would never be able to say, “We ain’t being fed.”

The hard work of study causes one to be observant every day. Potentially every aspect of a preacher’s life has the availability to become a good illustration or opening introduction to a sermon. You have to look about your path because there are pearls all around hidden in oysters and there are diamonds in the rough that long to be picked up and shaped into something useful for the congregation. The hard work of study keeps sermons fresh. The hard work of study will also help you to be a worker who will stand without embarrassment before God (2 Timothy 2:15). . . .

More to come. . .

(NOTE: The pulpit at the top was drawn by Stephen Kovach who attends our church in Dothan.)

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