Thursday, March 3, 2016

Thank you, Westbury

              For eight and a half years, I have had the privilege of serving as Senior Pastor of Westbury Baptist Church. That joy comes to an end on March 13, when I preach my last sermon here and begin my new assignment at First Baptist, Conroe.  Westbury is a wonderful church with an incredible history and a spectacular future.  In 53 years, there have only been four other men who’ve had the honor I have had; that’s how healthy this church is.  In my time here, we have experienced celebration and mourning, made some bold changes, and seen many wonderful new members join.  You’ve supported me, worked alongside me, watched my kids grow up, and treated me better than any pastor deserves.  I am excited for what God has next for me, but I will never forget you.  In fact, I wish I could bring you with me. 
               So what happens next?  The ministry staff will make sure there are good preachers in the pulpit every Sunday.  This staff has been serving together for almost eight years--and most have been here for decades.  The deacon body will lead the Wednesday night prayer meeting.  The church is in great hands, leadership-wise.  The regular programs of the church will continue to be excellent.  Events like Vacation Bible School, the summer mission trip to Donna, youth and children’s camps will all still happen.  Meanwhile, the church will select a Pastor Search Committee from among the members of the congregation.  Be thinking of men and women of different ages who would do a good job of selecting the church’s next Senior Pastor.  Once that group is formed, they will begin to do research, and will probably form a profile of the sort of person the church needs.  They will solicit resumes of potential pastors.  Through a process of prayer, interviews, and much discussion, they will arrive at a candidate to present to you.  On a particular weekend, you’ll meet this candidate, hear him preach, and have the opportunity to elect him as the new Senior Pastor.  No doubt, he’ll be different in many ways from me.  Let him be himself; He is God’s man for this church.  You allowed me to be myself and didn’t compare me to Bob or Milton; please do him the same favor.  Love his family. Pray for them daily.  Work alongside him, as you did me. This is the Lord’s church; serve Him gladly.
               There is never a good time to leave a great church like Westbury.  But I am thankful to God that I am leaving at a point of tremendous health, which makes me confident about WBC’s future.  The church is financially strong and debt-free.  The ministry staff, deacons, committees, and Bible Study leaders are vibrant, committed men and women ready to do what is needed.  Both of our worship services are strong and growing.  Here’s what I need for you to understand: Now is the time for you to commit yourself with greater diligence to God’s work here at WBC.  Sometimes during a pastoral transition, church members will “check out” for a while, thinking, “I’ll come back when there’s a new pastor.”  But now is when the church needs you most.  Keep attending worship.  Keep giving financially.  Join a Bible study group if you’re not currently part of one; if you are, be faithful to it.  Volunteer for ministries if you don’t already; if you do, serve with even greater devotion.  Westbury is a great church and an important one; this part of our city needs healthy, multi-ethnic, Bible-teaching, Christ-exalting local churches.  Westbury Baptist is that kind of church, and I believe her best days are yet to come!

               Finally, thank you so much for allowing me to be your pastor, your confidant, your co-laborer and your friend for these past eight and a half years.  I cannot express adequately how loved you have made me feel, or how much I admire you individually, and have enjoyed serving you corporately.  I am glad I will only be an hour up the road; I hope that means we’ll see each other occasionally.  And I will enjoy watching from a distance as Westbury continues to change lives for good and glorify God here in Southwest Houston, and wherever His Spirit leads.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Why I'm glad Spotlight won best picture

This year, my daughter Kayleigh wanted to see all the movies nominated for Best Picture in the Academy Awards.  I like good movies, so I decided we’d try to get this done.  It was a bit expensive, but  thanks to a dollar movie near our house, along with Redbox, I knew we had a shot.  Besides, she’s leaving home soon, so it gave me a great chance to spend time with her while I still can.  We were able to finish our goal with a day to spare.  Special thanks to my wife Carrie for allowing me eight dates with another woman!

Here's what I can tell you: All eight were exceptionally well-done.  I found The Martian to be the most entertaining of the movies.  I wish I could have seen this movie when, as a kid, I wondered why I needed to study science and math.  Bridge of Spies was powerful; Critics scoff at Spielberg because his movies are about ordinary people who become heroic  and find hope in trying times.  But this movie reminded me how fortunate we are to live in a representative democracy instead of a totalitarian state (let's hope we remember that).  The Revenant had so many moments that will stick with me--An ambush scene early in the movie (one of the best battle scenes I've ever witnessed), a bear attack, a man cauterizing his throat wound with gunpowder.   But it's so grim, it's almost unwatchable. And it bothers me that a true story about a man who forgave those who had left him for dead has been transformed into a tale of revenge; is vengeance really more interesting than forgiveness?  Room is also tough to watch, but far more hopeful.  Brooklyn is the most old-fashioned movie I've seen in years...and I mean that as a compliment.  The Big Short helped me understand what really caused the Great Recession of 2007-8.  It has several funny moments, but I can't remember another time that a movie made me laugh and left me feeling righteously indignant at the same time.  Mad Max Fury Road is essentially a chase scene that lasts an hour and a half, but it's better than that sentence makes it sound.  

And then there's Spotlight.  I went into this one reluctantly.  I wish such a film didn't have to be made, that this story had never occurred.  I expected a long lecture on the evils of organized religion.  But when it was over, Kayleigh and I both agreed it should win Best Picture.  It's impressive stuff; the acting is fantastic, and the script takes a profound tragedy and tells it as a detective story, as a team of reporters doggedly seeks the truth, finding along the way that the scope of the horror is far worse than they imagined.  But the real reason I am glad the movie won is that I found Spotlight--against all my expectations--morally inspiring.  The reporters in the movie were all raised Catholic.  This is a personal story for each of them.  One worries about  what this will do to her devout grandmother.  Another (in a scene I found especially powerful), talks about how he grew up enjoying church, and always assumed he would someday come back, until now.  At one point, one reporter realizes he bears responsibility for this tragedy as well; the signs were there, but no one spoke up.  That, to me, is the real message of the movie: Evil exists, even in organized religion (after all, churches are made up of sinners who have only just begun to be redeemed), and we must be courageous enough to oppose it, to protect the weak...even if we're the lone voice that does so.  

This is a particularly sore spot for me.  I was raised to be polite; I like to get along with people.  Yet when I read the Gospels, I remember that Jesus wasn't always...well, nice.  He said harsh things to people, both to His enemies and His friends (remember the time He called Peter "Satan?").  He was prophetic; not just in terms of foretelling the future, but in the way that word is more often used: In declaring the truth no one wanted to hear.  His words were often comforting ("Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-burdened, and I will give you rest"), but almost as often, they were terrifying ("Whoever wants to save His life will lose it").  We have to have the courage to be prophetic too.  In saying that, I don't mean pointing out the evils of society; we're already too well-known for that.  I mean admitting and addressing the ways we disgrace the name of Christ and drive people away from Him.  Where are my blind spots?  What inconsistencies and hypocrisies exist in me and in my church that have to be confronted?  Lord, give us the wisdom and courage to confront them...for your sake.    

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Savior's Dysfunctional Family

There are no perfect families.  Let’s just put that out there from the beginning.  Sometimes in Christians circles, we make it seem as if a family of Christians should be blissfully loving and problem-free.  I don’t know what happens in your family on a typical Sunday morning.  Maybe there is usually a big fight in the car ride on the way there.  You all have to calm down and get pleasant looks on your faces before you came into the building.  Maybe some member of your family refuses to come to church, even though they know you want them there, even though you pray every Sunday will be different.  Maybe you’ve broken contact with some member of your family, and part of you is angry and thinks, “This isn’t all my fault.  They need to apologize.”  But part of you is deeply sad, and almost willing to do whatever it takes to bring them back.  Maybe some member of your family is suffering with a mental illness or an addiction that makes them a very different person than they used to be, and makes your home and your life chaotic.  I’m not giving away any secrets here; in any large group of people, there are stories like that, and more.  Maybe something else is going on in your family right now that keeps you awake at night, brings you to tears, or makes you furious.  And Sunday mornings, you sit in a room full of attractive, well-dressed people, including some couples who seem very happy together, and some families with children who look well-adjusted and beautiful.  And you’re tempted to think, “Everyone has it together but me.  What’s wrong with me?”
The same thing is wrong with you that’s wrong with me.  We’re sinners.  And that means every family is a collection of sinners.  Don’t get me wrong; God created the family, and it’s amazing.  I came from a wonderful family, and God has given me a family of my own that is a huge blessing to me.  Marriage is an amazing journey.  Raising children is the most important, most rewarding job I’ve ever had.  But we’re all sinners, and that leads to problems.  Worse still, in our families, we’re all sinners with our masks off; most of us at least pretend to be good when we’re out in the world.  But at home, we’re fully ourselves.  That leads to conflict and sometimes even heartache.  When I say there are no perfect families, that’s even true in Scripture.  Do a quick survey of all the families in the Bible; everyone has problems.  There’s polygamy, adultery, jealousy, deception, favoritism, infertility, murder, rape, children rejecting the teachings of their parents…and that’s just in Genesis.  You might say, “Well, okay. But how about the family of Jesus?  Surely that was a perfect family, right?”  Sunday morning, we'll talk about that.  We'll look at what we know of Jesus' family. You might be surprised to learn just how imperfect our Savior's family was.  Why?  What does that tell us about Him, and about how He sees us?

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Refining Fire

Note: Since the start of the year, we’ve been studying 1 Peter with the theme “Making Progress,” asking the question, “How can we become better people in a culture that does not encourage our faith?”  This Sunday, we'll be looking at 1 Peter 4:12-19.  

            When my daughter Kayleigh was born, I made almost all of her doctor’s appointments.  These were not fun events.  Once, the doctor had to give her a round of shots.  He told me to hold her still.  Now, Kayleigh didn’t really like me much in those days.  Unlike Carrie, I wasn’t soft and gentle, I clearly didn’t know what I was doing--which she could innately sense--and worst of all, I didn’t produce milk.  But useless as I was, she somehow knew it was my job to protect her.  So when I held her down with all my might while Dr. Voldemort attacked her over and over with a razor sharp needle, she screamed and cried and stared right into my eyes with a look that said, “Why are you doing this to me?”  

             When life gets hard, there are two ways religious people tend to react.  We get angry with God, or we think God is angry with us.   We get angry with God because we feel like He has broken some sort of agreement.  We say things like, “Haven’t I done things the right way?  I go to church, I’m kind to others, I try to follow your commands.  Is this how you repay me?”  Actually, people in Scripture such as Job and David reacted this way sometimes, so you’re not a horrible person if you feel this way, too.  But Scripture also tells us, again and again, that pain and suffering are part of life on this earth.  God’s best people suffered in terrible ways.  That’s why Peter tells his readers not to be surprised at the troubles they are facing.  We are not promised a pain-free existence, not yet.  Those who think, “God must be angry with me,” are also incorrect.  In Scripture, God did sometimes use circumstances to punish people.  But every time He did, they knew why they were experiencing the pain.  They could draw a clear line from their sin to the consequences.  This is why in verse 15, Peter tells them to make sure that if they suffer, it’s not because of any crime they’ve committed.  If we get drunk and get behind the wheel of a car, we shouldn’t be surprised that we crash; if we don’t deal with our foul temper, we shouldn’t blame God because our loved ones don’t want to be around us anymore.  But if our pain seems random, it’s not the Judgment of God.  If it were, He’d let us know it. 

            The truth is, most of the time, we won’t know exactly why God allows a particular painful event into our lives.  Tim Keller pastors in Manhattan, and most of the people he meets have no Christian background.  Sometimes, they will say, “I don’t believe in God because something awful happened to me, and if God was real and loved me, He would never let that happen.”  Keller’s response is, “Is it possible that an all-knowing God has a reason for allowing this pain that you cannot comprehend?”  They have to admit that it is possible.  I think about that day in the doctor’s office.  Could I have prevented Kayleigh’s pain?  Absolutely, but I knew the pain was for her good.  Could she understand that, no matter how I tried to explain it?  Absolutely not.  Sometimes, we just have to trust Him without knowing what He’s up to.   

            Peter wrote this letter at a time in history when great persecution against Christians had not yet broken out, but it was coming.  The warning signs were there, and Peter wanted to prepare them.  His words apply even to people like us, who may never experience any physical persecution.  We will endure suffering; some of us are right now.  Actually, the story of Job is instructive; it reminds us that when we are suffering physically, there is also a battle for our souls going on.  So what are we to do?  Rejoice!  This doesn’t mean it’s wrong to feel sad, or to express sadness.  It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask for help.   When we experience pain, how can we make sure we rejoice in it?  Based on this passage, here are some things to say to God.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Killing the Old Man

            I want to teach you a new word today.  Mortification.  It’s an old, old word, rarely used anymore.  If it sounds familiar, it’s because we use some words similar to it.  We sometimes refer to a funeral director as a mortician, someone who works with the dead.  If something embarrassing were to happen to you, you might say, “I was mortified.”  In a way, you’re saying, “I was so humiliated, I wanted to die.”  Mortification has to do with death, or more specifically, the process of something or someone dying. We get the term from the writings of Paul originally.  In Romans 8:13 he wrote, For if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  Paul pictures our sin as a cancer.  You can’t decide to peacefully coexist with cancer.  You either deal with it aggressively--cut it out through surgery, poison it through chemotherapy--or it will consume and kill you.  That’s the way it is with sin in our lives.  We have to say, “It’s either you or me, sin, and I’m not going down without a fight.”  In Colossians 3:5, he gets more specific: Therefore, put to death what belongs to your worldly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry.  Paul was following the teaching of Jesus, that to follow Christ means to be born again, to become a new person.  If we want to enjoy this new life, we have to do away with our old lives.  That isn’t something that happens overnight; it’s a lifelong battle.  In the old King James version, “put to death,” was translated, “mortify,” and theologians started using that term.

            Why do I bring this up?  Two reasons.  First, because we’re talking here at the start of a New Year about Making Progress, becoming better people in real, lasting ways.  The hard truth of Scripture is that you can’t make true progress without ruthlessly attacking areas of your life that are out of God’s will.  Second, because in the letter of 1 Peter that we’re basing this sermon series on, Peter actually talks about mortification.  He doesn’t use the same term as Paul, but that’s what 1 Peter 4:1-5 is about.  And I want to warn you: Mortification is messy and painful.  Think again about the idea of cancer treatment.  If a doctor told you, “I think it would be a good idea if I put you to sleep and cut out some parts of your body, then have you ingest poison once a week for a few months,” you’d run screaming from his office.  You would only allow him to put you through it all if you were sure you’d die otherwise.  There will be pain involved in attacking your sin; it’s my job this Sunday to convince you that pain is worth it. 

            I want you to think about a sin that you commonly struggle with.  Maybe it’s a part of your personality that you wish you could change, or a habit you wish you could break, or a mistake you keep stumbling into.  Perhaps you’ve never really called it sin; but it’s something about yourself that embarrasses you and may hurt others.  Now think about what you would need to do in order to put that sin to death.  The woman who holds grudges knows she could start praying for the people who hurt her.  The man who can’t stop looking at porn knows he could set up filters on his computer, could invite some trusted male friends to monitor him.  The woman who drinks too much has thought about entering rehab.    The guy with a bad temper knows he could get counseling, or avoid the things that make him angry, or just exercise some self-control.  Most of us, if our lives depended on it, would do something drastic to change.  Whatever that something is, why haven’t you done it yet?  We make excuses: It’s not that bad.  Anyone else would have done it.  I can stop anytime.  They had it coming.  Nobody’s perfect.  This Sunday, I want to show you from Peter’s words three realities which, if we understand them, will motivate us to do what it takes.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Redeeming the Ridicule

                 We’re in a series called Making Progress, talking about how we can actually be better people in 2016 than the people who woke up on January 1.  We’re studying 1 Peter, and last week we saw God’s plan to use us to change the world.  I hope you found that as inspiring as I did.  But even if you did, it’s very likely you left here and pretty quickly saw and heard things that brought you back down to earth.  Let’s face it, outside the walls of a church, we don’t find much encouragement in our walk with Christ.  In fact, I think it’s safe to say we’re more likely to face ridicule for our faith now than at any time in our nation’s history.   America has always been a land where people were free to believe anything they wanted; our founding fathers wanted to separate us from the old country, where state churches had the power to dominate public life.  But, culturally if not legally, the Christian faith always had a home-field advantage in this country.  Politicians knew that, in order to win election, they had to at least make a show of religious piety.  Movie studios often made big-budget, biblically based films Major corporations would refuse to advertise on a TV program that might offend Christian sensibilities.  Of course, there has been a long tradition of poking fun at religion in America, with people like Mark Twain and Sinclair Lewis pointing out hypocrisy.  When I was growing up, reporters and talk-show hosts loved to expose the flaws of televangelists.  But even as they did so, they were drawing a contrast between wing-nuts and con men on the one hand, and sincere, devout believers on the other.  We could all agree with them, to a certain extent. 
            We’re in a new day now.  More and more, we see people publicly ridiculing not hypocrites or religious con men, but the very idea of faith in Christ.  Perhaps you’ve encountered this through the media.  Recently, I saw the story of a policeman who pulled over a man who was speeding.  He noticed the man crying, asked him why, and found out the man’s daughter had cancer, which had recently taken a turn for the worse.  The policeman decided not to give the man a ticket.  The man then asked, “Can you pray for me?”  Right by the side of the highway, the cop knelt on the pavement and prayed for this man, then promised to have his entire church pray as well.  It was a beautiful story that brought tears to my eyes.  Then I clicked on the public comments.  Most were positive.  They were from readers who were touched just like I was.  But I also saw comments like this: “Any cop who brings superstitious nonsense to the workplace needs to be fired. This is disgusting and an effort to force his indefensible, cultish credo on people who have no choice but listen.”  And “It would (make me angry) if he tried to pray for me.  I don’t need an invisible sky fairy.”  But for many of us, our encounter of this attitude is more personal.  We’ve met ridicule for our faith from someone close to us: A classmate, a co-worker, a neighbor, a teacher, even a family member.    
            The people who first read 1 Peter were in a similar situation.  Like us, they weren’t yet experiencing any physical persecution for their faith.  But their beliefs were misunderstood and ridiculed widely.  In 1 Peter 1:11-12, Peter writes…so that, in a case where they speak against you as those who do what is evil… Christians were accused, for instance, of not being patriots because they didn’t worship Caesar or the Roman gods.  In Ephesus, a riot broke out led by people who made their living selling little idols; they said if people turned to Jesus and away from polytheism, it would wreck the economy.  For us today, we tend to be accused of ignorance and intolerance, two of the few remaining sins our culture is still willing to condemn.   So what should be our response when we face ridicule?  Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that…they will, by observing your good works, glorify God on the day of visitation. Peter is saying that our response to ridicule should be so outstanding, it changes the lives of our critics.  How can we do this? That's what I'll be talking about on Sunday.  

Friday, January 15, 2016

Review: Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus

Nabeel Qureshi's memoir was a pleasant surprise for me.  Qureshi is an excellent writer; I listened to the Audible edition, and he makes a very effective narrator, as well.  But, having read and heard many Christian stories of conversion, I found Qureshi's story more moving than most.  He spends a good deal of time early on telling us about his upbringing in a loving, devout Muslim home (The Qureshis are Ahmadi Muslims, a branch with which I was not familiar).  Nabeel's father was a Pakistani-born officer in the US Navy; he was descended from Muslim missionaries, and Nabeel was raised to rigorously defend his Islamic faith in the "Christian" west.  This part of the book did two things: 1) It helped me understand what it's like to be Muslim in America as well as how foreign-born Muslims view American culture (which they see as "Christian" culture).  It was heartbreaking to realize that, although Nabeel had many religious conversations with self-professed Christians during his upbringing (most of which he initiated), no Christian ever attempted to befriend him or his parents, until he met one genuine Christ-follower his freshman year of college.  2) It helped me feel the emotional turmoil of a young Muslim considering faith in Jesus.  With our individualistic Western mindset, we see the choices of a college-aged person to diverge from the views of his/her parents as a natural part of growing up; but for Nabeel, leaving Islam wasn't simply a personal choice. It was a profound insult to his parents, and brought incredible shame to his family among their peers.  Qureshi's storytelling is so skilled, I felt that tension, and while as a Christian I was thrilled every time he took another step closer to faith in Christ, I also felt deep sadness for the pain that his choice would inflict on his loving family.

Qureshi also does a fantastic job of recreating the long intellectual journey from committed Muslim to faithful Christian.  He includes recreations of several deep theological conversations, debates, and even arguments with his Christian friends.  He had to overcome several intellectual barriers: The idea that the Bible had been changed by church authorities over time, and was nothing like the original writings; that Jesus was merely a human prophet and not divine; that the idea of the Trinity was blasphemous.  Once those barriers were broken down and he was willing to consider the claims of Christianity, he then had to research his own Islamic faith, and see if the things he had been taught about Muhammed and the Quran were indeed true.  These sections of the book are intellectually deep, but Qureshi makes them highly readable, and includes enough personal detail to bring you along for the emotional ride.

When Qureshi's story is done, we are left with a blend of satisfaction and sadness.  He has dedicated this book to his parents, who remain devout Muslims.  It's clear that his conversion is still, and perhaps always will be, a barrier to their relationship.  But even more so, we are filled with a yearning to reach out to our foreign-born neighbors with the genuine love of Christ.