The secret to grace under pressure

So how do we avoid the kind of public speaking brain freezes I highlighted yesterday?

Time Magazine suggests two strategies:

Play it down
The last thing you should do is tell yourself: “This is really important.”

Instead of  spurring you to new heights, it’s likely to increase anxiety and undermine your confidence. Research shows that reminding yourself how unimportant the event is in the big scheme of things is a better tactic, and psychologists have come up with a variety of ingenious ways to help us do so.

Well, this is hardly an acceptable strategy for preachers of the Gospel. Because this really is important. Nothing more important.

Next strategy please…

Remember your ancestors
Yes, apparently students who “thought and wrote about their ancestors did better on subsequent intelligence tests than members of the control group (who were asked to think instead about their most recent trip to the supermarket).”

Why should remembering our great-great-grandparents help us perform better?

Normally, our ancestors managed to overcome a multitude of personal and societal problems, such as severe illnesses, wars, loss of loved ones or severe economic declines. So, when we think about them, we are reminded that humans who are genetically similar to us can successfully overcome a multitude of problems and adversities.

Now there’s something that preachers could learn from.  Next time we start sweating, choking, freezing, or sinking, let’s think back through Church History and through Biblical History to remind ourselves of the great army of preachers who have blazed the trail before us, usually in much more difficult circumstances.

Certainly a bit more inspirational than the last trip to the supermarket.

Check out

It’s been a year
After living a life that blessed multitudes, a dear friend to so many is coming to the end of his journey.

How eternity shapes the mundane
Parental amnesia is where we forget about two things: tomorrow and eternity.

A Guide to staying Christian in Seminary
Here’s an index to some of the multiple recent posts on this subject that have been appearing all over the web. Although there’s some excellent material in here, I do think this subject has been a bit overdone. I can think of a multitude of other environments that are significantly more dangerous, but have not been given such treatments.

Affective Preaching
Fascinating post, but particularly appreciated this line: “Those preachers whose sermon outlines made it difficult for their hearers to remember it for later were not viewed as popularly as those whose outlines made remembering it easier.”

Do eBooks make it harder to remember what you just read
Think the answer is probably “yes” but the highlights/notes features in the Kindle help preserve the fruits of reading much more efficiently.

One third of US High School students own an iPhone
And this is supposed to be the worst recession since the Great Depression?

What’s a steal and what’s junk at the dollar store
Hope my wife reads this one

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.

Check out

Christianity in crisis
Trevin Wax responds to Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek cover story that encouraged Christians to“forget the church” and just “follow Jesus.”

BBC Czar says “race always trumps religion.”
Looks like BBC Director-General took a truth pill before this interview.

The importance of writing letters
Sigh! I think I’ve written one letter in the past year.

Forgiveness is not enough
“God did not just promise a deliverer who would leave us mired in our brokenness. No he promised a Messiah who would pour out God’s Spirit on God’s people so they could be transformed from the inside out.”

On Preaching the Old Testament
“A  preacher would be much better served combing his Old Testament and understanding how it points to Christ for the good of his people rather than combing the newspaper for pithy illustrations that keep his peoples’ attention.”

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
Phil Johnson picks out a gem from The cost of being a soul winner: “Some years ago, I was the subject of fearful depression of spirit. Certain troublous events had happened to me; I was also unwell, and my heart sank within me. Out of the depths I was forced to cry unto the Lord. Just before I went away to Mentone for rest, I suffered greatly in body, but far more in soul, for my spirit was overwhelmed.”

30 things to remember in Seminary
Burk Parsons says “Satan is at work in Seminaries” and provides 30 defenses and counter-attacks.

Email checklist
It’s obviously a day for long lists, 36 points long in this case.

An Open Letter to My College Students
Good one to ponder during the Spring break.

Being a better blog commenter
Don’t have too many problems on this blog, but here’s a helpful compilation that could apply to most of our communications.

Blind man drives Google car