Lessons from Donald Verelli’s Supreme Court choke

It’s the most important Supreme Court case in 30 years. The President’s legacy and electoral future depends on its outcome. And he’s chosen you to represent him before the justices. [Image from Time]

 You’ve had 18 months to prepare your opening speech with no limit to the resources or experts at your disposal. The Chief Justice calls you forward. This is the moment that Yale, decades of legal practice, and numerous previous Supreme Court appearances have prepared you for.

You open your mouth and…cough…and splutter…and stumble… and start again…and harrumph…and repeat yourself….and drink a glass of water…and so on. There goes your opening statement!

Solicitor General Donald Verelli’s performance last week has been widely panned, even by Obamacare supporters, with one commentator calling his brain freeze, “one of the most spectacular flameouts ever in the history of the Court.”

You can listen to the audio of his opening statement here, or you can listen to a rather unfair compilation of all Verelli’s fumbles here (please don’t let anyone ever do this to me with one of my sermons).

Anyone who speaks regularly in public can sympathize with Verelli to some extent – because it’s happened to most of us to one degree or another.

Recently I was watching an online video of a sermon being preached by a popular preacher in a large well-known American church, when this usually polished speaker started falling to pieces. He was stumbling over his words, failing to complete sentences, shuffling his notes all over the pulpit, and speaking at 100 mph.

With hands shaking and face reddening, he then tried a couple of unfunny jokes and quips. With toes curling all over the congregation, including my own, he eventually stopped, took a deep breath, apologized, and said he needed to slow down. He recovered quite well and went on to complete his sermon.

Something similar has happened to me, twice in fact. One time I was due to preach a 35-40 minute sermon, and managed only about 15 mins before I had to stop and sit down. I just couldn’t gather my thoughts enough to go any further. I don’t think I even managed the benediction.

The other time I was publicly reading a chapter from the Bible, when I started to stumble – once, then twice, then three times. The words started going out of focus, sweat started forming on my forehead, and I wondered if I would be able to complete the reading. Thankfully, on that occasion, I found a way to defrost my brain – by pausing, praying, taking a few deep breaths and slowing down.

Reasons for freezing?
I don’t know why Verelli or the popular preacher froze, but I know why I did – the first time I was mentally exhausted through various long-term stresses in my life, and the second time I was physically exhausted through sleep deprivation.

But there are other possible reasons too, and we should use these (thankfully rare) humiliating occasions to search our consciences and lives:

  • Lack of preparation: Perhaps I simply didn’t prepare enough, resulting in poorly thought-out material or a confusing presentation.
  • Fear of man: Was I so worried about what certain people would think or how they might react, that my mind was paralyzed with fear?
  • Bad conscience: Was there sin in my private life that rose up to accuse me in public ministry?
  • Out of depth: Did I try to deal with a passage or subject that was beyond my abilities? Or am I speaking to an audience that is above my capacity?
  • God’s sovereignty: Although the first time I froze was partly caused by worry and stress, it was also a season in my life when God was humbling me, and this experience was part of (probably the climax of) the humbling. God can, in His wise and sovereign providence, leave us to sink, as he did Peter, in order to expose the weakness and folly of our self-confidence and to remind us that we need His all-sufficiency.

Let’s just be so thankful that God never deals with us as we deserve. Otherwise, we would probably be left to sink, or freeze, or choke, or all three every time we stood in a pulpit.

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Content + Personality = Successful blog?

In this video Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution has some helpful advice on how to be an effective blogger (RSS and email readers click through to see video):

  • When I’m reading things, I’m always thinking, “Is this bloggable in some way?” If you’re going to have fresh material every day, the switch has got to be always on.
  • I don’t worry about, “This kind of post will draw in more readers.” I think that’s a big mistake. It makes the blog boring, least common denominator, less innovative, less entrepreneurial.
  • I try to make people think about old things in a new way…It’s about ideas and trying to open up horizons.
  • Blogs will last forever. I don’t think it’s a phase. I think the combination of information with personality will persist.

When I think of the bloggers I enjoy most, it’s definitely that combination of content + personality that draws me to their writing.

Some bloggers have lots of content, but it’s a character-free-zone – you’d think that a robot was writing the posts. Others have little to say, or just recycle the same message again and again, and hope that the force of their personality or the details of their personal life is enough of a draw.

It’s a very difficult balance to strike, but Cowen is right, it’s content PLUS personality that attracts us, interests us, and inspires us.

I’ve noticed an increasing number of Christian authors going down this route too (intertwining their own story with their teaching) and in some books it does enhance the final product.

However,  I wouldn’t like to see preachers taking this approach in the pulpit. A personal story now and again may help illustrate a point, but too much of that and the focus easily and fatally moves from God and His Word to the preacher and his life.

So, what do you think makes a successful blog? And should a preacher regularly bring his own story into the pulpit?

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Spurgeon on depression
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Email checklist
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Being a better blog commenter
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Blind man drives Google car


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1 +1 + 1 = 1?

Let’s just say that Math was not one of my strong points. However, even I know that this answer cannot be right. Can it?

Well, it cannot be mathematically right. But it is theologically right.

Math says, “No, no, no! 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 is wrong.”

But the Bible says, “Yes, yes, yes! 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 is right.”

I’m speaking of course of the Trinity, God in three persons.

STOP! Don’t click away yet. I know that word” “Trinity” sounds terribly complicated, and even boring, but with the help of the Shorter Catechism, I believe we can keep it simple and even interesting.

The secret is to accept we will never fully understand this, and be cool with that. We can get lots of enjoyment out of things we don’t fully understand. I don’t understand how a brown cow can eat green grass and produce white milk, but I can still enjoy a milkshake! I have no idea how a plane can fly, but I can still entrust myself to a metal cylinder and enjoy the awe of flying at 30,000 ft and 500mph. We don’t need to fully understand something to enjoy it, to be awed by it, or to benefit from it.

Same with the Trinity. I don’t need to fully understand it to trust God, to enjoy God, and to be awed by God.

So, with that, let’s note three facts about the Trinity.

1. Evident Threeness

Shorter Catechism 6 says: There are three persons in the Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost…

It’s very obvious from the Bible that there are three different persons all of whom are God.

It’s not 1⁄3 of a person + 1⁄3  of a person + 1⁄3  of a person = 1 God.

It’s 1 full person + 1 full person, plus 1 full person = 1 full God.

2. Essential Togetherness

…and these three are one God…the same in substance

Although there are three persons, all of whom are God, we don’t have three Gods, but rather one.

It’s not 1 person + 1 person + 1 person = 3 Gods.

It’s 1 person + 1 person + 1 person = 1 God.

3. Equal Throne

The three persons areequal in power and glory

We don’t have a small 1 + a medium 1 + a large 1 = 1 God.

No all the “1’s,” all the persons, are equal in power and glory. They all sit on the same throne at the same level and they are all to be equally worshipped.

Before I was converted, this idea of the Trinity was one of my biggest obstacles to believing the Gospel. I couldn’t figure it out at all and that put me off believing. When I was born-again, I started reading a book on the Trinity and it almost sent me back to unbelief again!

So I left it, trusted the Bible’s teaching (as simplified and summarized in the Shorter Catechism), and over time, through Christian experience, I have come to grasp the Trinity in a way that my mere intellect never could.

In my Christian experience, I have a relationship with three persons, each of whom is equally God, and all of whom are one God. I can’t explain it, and I’ve found no book that fully explains it. But it works!

Previous installments in the Shorter Catechism video series
Introduction: A Summary not a Substitute
Question 1: Why am I here?
Questions 2-3: What is Truth?
Questions 4-5: The Unanswerable Question