Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve message

Please note: This is the message I plan to preach at our Christmas Eve service. There's a link in the text to the Rick Reilly story I referenced, in case you want to read the entire story.

A few years ago, I came across a list of famous people who had changed their names. Did you know that John Wayne was born Marion Morrison? I guess he figured Marion wasn’t a good cowboy name. Cary Grant probably wouldn’t have become a suave leading man if he had kept his birth name, Archibald Leach. And Fred Astaire would have had a harder time making it as Hollywood’s most graceful song and dance man as Frederick Austerlitz. There are plenty more examples: Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas. Reginald Dwight became Elton John. Leonard Slye became Roy Rogers. Joe Yule, Jr. became Mickey Rooney. Richard Starkey became Ringo Starr. Wynette Pugh became Tammy Wynette. Thomas Mapother IV became Tom Cruise. Roger Nelson became Prince, who then became the artist formerly known as Prince, who then became irrelevant. And then there’s Maria Rosaria Pilar Martinez Molina Baeza. You might know her by her show-biz name, Charo.

These people wanted to project a certain image, so they chose a new name. Interestingly, the Bible says that God goes by several different names. All of them are chosen by Him not to project a certain image, but to help us understand who He really is. There are names that speak of His sovereignty, like Yahweh, which simply means “I am.” There are names that speak of His power, like El Shaddai, “The Almighty God.” And then there is the name God chose especially for Christmas, Emmanuel. It means, “God with us.” That’s appropriate, because it was that first Christmas that God truly became one of us, entering our world as a baby, destined to redeem all who would believe in Him.

That name, Emmanuel, teaches us an important lesson. There have been religions on earth since the beginning of time, and most of them have presented a very skewed perspective on who God is. He has been depicted as aloof and angry, someone who needed to be pacified, lest He strike us all with lightning or the plague. Even Christianity has often goose-stepped its way into legalism and judgmentalism, presenting a cold, unsmiling, Hell-fire and damnation deity. But when God actually appeared to us in human flesh, He turned out to be quite different. Oh, Jesus was fiery in the face of injustice, and He could get angry when He saw things that weren’t right. But it turned out that He was a friend of sinners, the very sort of people that religion had been giving the cold shoulder for centuries.

Just yesterday, I read a story that reminded me of this. It affected me so much, I rewrote this message just to fit it in. It comes from a story written by Rick Reilly (which you can read at http:// The Gainesville State School is a maximum-security correctional facility for boys north of Dallas. Like most high schools in Texas, they have a football team. But the Gainesville Tornadoes aren’t very good. They only have 14 players. They have no cheerleaders or band. They have no fans, either, unless you count the 12 uniformed officers who come to their games. (all of which are on the road, by the way) with their weapons and handcuffs at the ready. The Tornadoes play with ancient equipment. And they lost every game this year. Late in the season, they were scheduled to play the Faith Lions, a Christian school in Grapevine. Faith had 70 players, brand-new equipment, hundreds of involved parents and other fans, and a much better record. And so Kris Hogan, Faith’s coach, had a very unusual idea. He sent out an email to the players and fans asking if they could do something to make this game a little different for the Tornadoes.
So when the game began, the 14 boys from Gainesville were stunned to find that they suddenly had fans…hundreds of them. They made a big paper banner for them to run through. It said, “Go Tornadoes!” During the game, the Faith fans cheered the Gainesville boys on by name, with the help of the programs. The Tornadoes lost, 33-14. But considering the fact that they had only scored two touchdowns all year, it was easily the best game they had ever played. Afterward, the two teams gathered at mid-field to pray, and Gainesville’s quarterback and middle linebacker shocked everyone by asking if he could lead. He prayed, “Lord, I don’t know how to say thank you, because I don’t know how this happened, but I never would have known that there were this many people in the world who cared about us.” As the Tornadoes got back on their bus, they were each handed a bag, containing a burger, fries, a drink, a Bible and an encouraging note from a Faith player.
Here’s the best part of the story: When coach Hogan first came up with the idea, his own players at first didn’t understand what he was trying to do. Isn’t the point of football to crush your opponent? But Hogan explained it this way: “Imagine you had no home life. Imagine if everybody had pretty much given up on you. Now imagine what it would mean for hundreds of people to suddenly believe in you.” That’s the story of Emmanuel. He’s a God who came to us when we didn’t deserve Him, didn’t even ask for Him, and said, “I believe in you. I love you. I want to redeem you. And so I will do whatever it takes, pay the highest price, to give you new life, life eternal.” He’s not aloof, and He’s not angry. In fact, He promises us access to the throne room of heaven. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Jeremiah 29:13, You will seek me and find me when you search for me with all your heart.
A lot of us here tonight are religious folks. We play by the rules, pay our taxes, replace all our divots. We tend to feel awfully good about ourselves. But this Christmas, perhaps the best thing we could do is to renounce our religiosity and get back to really seeking after Jesus. Maybe that means we get involved with a small group Bible study in 2009, so we can stop just sitting in the audience and start growing in community with other Christians. Maybe it means instead of just rolling out of bed in the mornings and heading off to work, we’ll carve out some time to connect with God through prayer and Bible study. Maybe it means we’ll start looking for opportunities to show the love of Christ to people around us, using our gifts to advance God’s Kingdom. A week from this Sunday, our entire church from the youth group up will begin a five-week study called Reaching for the Prize. If you are willing to put in the work, I believe that experience will help you truly seek after God with all your heart. If you do, you’ll find Him, and it will be the best Christmas present you could possibly give yourself.Chances are, there are also plenty of people here who don’t really fit into the church-every-Sunday crowd. We’re awfully glad you’re here, and I hope you feel welcome in this place. Maybe you came because you were looking for hope, for answers. Maybe someone invited you, and you didn’t want to hurt their feelings. Maybe this just felt like the right place to be on Christmas Eve. Either way, I want you to know that the God who made you loves you more than you can ever know. You may not know what you believe about Him, but He believes in you. And He wants to be your Emmanuel. His promise is true for you too: You will find Him if you’re ready to seek Him with all your heart. If you aren’t sure that’s for you, if you are more interested in other things right now, I understand. Someday, I pray, you’ll be ready to come home to Him. But if you are ready, right now, if you want to see what God has planned for you, come talk to me. Jesus wants to reshape your life. This Christmas, the birthday of God’s son, could be the day of your second birth. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Merry Christmas

I hope you're having a wonderful Christmas season. I look forward to seeing most of you in one of our two Christmas Eve services (5:30 and 7:00). I won't be with you next Sunday, but Randy will do a great job in my place.

When we see each other post-Christmas, we'll be starting Reaching for the Prize (see the previous blog posting for more info). I'm already praying that this campaign will draw us closer to God that ever before.

So until then, let me leave you with this thought about the birth, life and death of Jesus, from Eugene Peterson:

"Though there were auspicious signs that preceded and accompanied his birth, preparing the world for the majestic and kingly, the birth of Jesus itself was of the humblest peasant parentage, in an unimportant town, and in the roughest of buildings. He made a career of rejecting marks of status or privilege: He loved lepers, washed the feet of his disciples, befriended little children, encouraged women to join his entourage, and, finally, submitted to crucifixion by a foreign power."

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

...unless you're a music minister, that is. I get a Sunday off this week, but Kyle and his choir and orchestra are burning the candle at both ends getting ready for our annual Christmas concert this Sunday. I hope you'll be there. I know they will do an outstanding job reminding us of the glory of the God we serve...Emmanuel, God with us.

Don't forget about our two candlelight services on Christmas Eve. And yes, I will get to preach once more before then, on December 21. Next week, I'll give you a little preview of that message here.

In the meantime, here's news on Reaching for the Prize, the spiritual growth emphasis we'll start on January 4 (this article will also appear in your next issue of the Westbury Word:

If you watched the recent Olympics, you probably found yourself inspired as I did. No, I’ll never ran as fast as Usain Bolt, or dunk a basketball like Lebron James and the rest of our basketball team did. And I will never have abs like Michael Phelps (sigh), not to mention his eight gold medals. Yet I found myself marveling at the thought of experiencing a Christian life that would be that exciting and victorious. Imagine no more stumbling into the same old sins, wallowing in the frustrating quagmire of temptations we thought we had overcome. Instead, we conquer sins, standing in the glory of growth and achievement. Imagine a spiritual life where we always knew where God was leading us, and so spiritual disciplines aren’t dull and difficult, but refreshing as an early-morning swim.

Actually the analogy isn’t as ridiculous as it might sound. Paul was rather fond of comparing the spiritual life to athletics. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run but only one gets the prize? Run is such a way as to get the prize (1 Co. 9:24). Those aren’t just empty words meant to encourage people who are born losers; God’s Spirit is constantly working to make us spiritual champions: Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). All we have to do in order to experience that renewal, that victory, is to get on board with the training program God has already custom-designed for us.

With that in mind, Westbury will begin a spiritual formation campaign called Reaching for the Prize on January 4. For five weeks, all adult and youth members of WBC will be challenged in three ways:

· A daily devotional guide.

· Weekly Bible study lessons led by your own Bible study teachers.

· Sermons that tie into what you’ve learned during the week.

I designed Reaching for the Prize because I believe that WBC should be an Open Door to New Life. That means that people who don’t know Christ should meet Him through our influence. But it also means that every one of our members—from those who have been following Jesus a few months to those who have known Him for decades—should be experiencing new life, consistent growth, and amazing victory. My prayer is that by the time you finish the five weeks of Reaching for the Prize:

You will know exactly what God is trying to accomplish in your life.

You will have a detailed list of goals for your spiritual growth, along with a plan to achieve those goals.

Your Bible study leaders and staff ministers will have a better idea of how to minister to you and the rest of our church.

Please be in prayer for this campaign.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Do You Believe In Emmanuel?

I am currently preaching an Advent series on the biblical name "Emmanuel," Hebrew for "God with us." Anyone who's ever received Christmas cards is familiar with the source of that name, Isaiah 7:14. ("The the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Emmanuel"). But how many people know the story behind that prophecy? Who was Isaiah speaking to, and what was he trying to accomplish?

A 2003 survey revealed that Americans are more than 3 times more likely to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus than in the theory of evolution. As gratifying as that statistic might be to evangelical Christians, let's be honest: Believing intellectually that Jesus was born of a virgin is not true saving faith. Neither is the sort of presumptuous, "name-it-and-claim-it" faith we see promoted so often in the Christian world today. True faith is the ability to believe God's promises and obey His will even when it seems dangerous or foolish to do so. True faith is following Jesus into the valley of the shadow of death, when it would be easier to stay behind in the green pastures. This Sunday, we'll see the sort of faith God demands of us in the story of a little-known Judean king named Ahaz.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

One could make the argument that Thanksgiving is the most Biblical holiday we still observe. After all, we are never commanded to observe Christmas and Easter, but we are often urged in Scripture to be thankful. Of course, gorging on turkey, dressing and pie in front of a televised football game have little to do with thankfulness, but I'll continue to observe those little American additions, anyway.

Truth is, there are so many reasons to be thankful this year. So I hope you get to spend quality time with extended family, eat some good food, and enjoy time off from regular responsibilities. But most of all, I hope you rediscover how truly rich God has made you.

I am planning on taking the next full week off. Gale Yandell will preach in my stead this Sunday. Please pray for her. I know she'll do a fantastic job, and that the Lord will use her powerfully. We will spend part of the week with my family, and part with Carrie's family. It should be great.

As for the surveys you took in worship service last week, we will let you know what we learn as soon as we have those tabulated. I am very excited to see what they reveal about our effectiveness as a church.

When I see you next, it will actually be Advent! November 30, I plan to preach a message entitle "Jesus our Emmanuel" from Matthew 1:23. It will be the beginning of an Emmanuel series focused on the Incarnation of Christ--what it means to us today, and how it should change the way we live.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

An Important Sunday

Every time we come together in the Lord’s name, it’s an important moment. But I wanted to make sure each of you knew what was going on this coming Sunday. First of all, we will be hosting Tiffany Chenier, principal of McNamara Elementary. She is eager to thank us for our help on their campus, and show her excitement about the partnership between us which is just beginning. She’ll probably bring other teachers, students and guests, so be prepared to welcome some new faces this Sunday!

Second, I plan to preach this Sunday on the state of our church. There are so many good things going on at Westbury, and I want to celebrate those. I also want to talk about the direction we hope to go in the near future. Obviously, there’s a lot we as a church staff don’t know and can’t predict, but we want you to know our hopes, dreams and plans so that you can help us pray and work toward those exciting things.

Third, we want to hear from you about the effectiveness of our church’s ministry. In most churches, the measurement of success comes in three categories: Attendance, offerings, and baptisms. Those are indeed important statistics, but they don’t tell the whole story. A church can attract lots of people and bring in plenty of money without really making a difference for Christ. Even baptisms are not a sure-fire indicator. Our job is not just to bring people into the Kingdom; we are commanded to make disciples. So how can we measure whether or not we are helping people grow into the kind of people God wants them to be?

I had an idea a while back for a way to measure this. We could take a survey of our members once a year. Every year, this would give us a snapshot of where our ministry was effective at producing growth, and where it was not. This would help us to set goals, start new programs, and tweak older programs that aren’t getting the job done. It would also give us a way to measure improvement in our church. If we score higher in a certain category next year than we do this year, we’ll know we’re on the right track.

So this Sunday, at the close of my sermon, we’ll ask you to take a short survey that will be inserted into your bulletin. Our guests will not be asked to fill out the survey, as it is only for our members. I’ll have some special instructions for them. The survey has been written to reflect our purposes, and will cover three categories:

1. Worship: Do we help our members connect to God? (Loving God)

2. Community: Are our members connected to each other? (Loving others)

3. Outreach: Do our members reach the lost and hurting? (Loving those outside the church)

Please pray about this. We want this to be a tool that will help us enhance our ministry and make our church more effective in God’s work. I am excited about this Sunday, and I hope to see you there!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ruth: Redeemer

Boston's Charles Street jail used to be home to the city's most notorious characters. Among its former inmates was Frank Abagnale, Jr., the con artist portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the feature film "Catch Me If You Can" (Steven Spielberg, 2002). Once the paragon of prison architecture, the facility fell into disrepair by the 1960s, when it became overcrowded, riotous, and filthy with pigeon droppings. The building was condemned in 1973, and the last inmates transferred in 1990.

Seventeen years and $150 million dollars later, the Charles Street jail is now Liberty Hotel, which boasts luxury accommodations that cost from $319 to $5,500 per night. With restaurants named Clink and Scampo (Italian for "escape") and a bar named Alibi, designers celebrate the building's past.

Former inmate Bill Baird visited the hotel on the 40th anniversary of his arrest and was amazed at the renovation. "How you could take something that was so horrible," he observed, "and turn it into something of tremendous beauty, I don't know."

Sounds an awful lot like the kind of work our God is famous for. He is, after all, in the full-time redemption business. He takes what is worn out and condemned, and rather than flatten it all and start over, He begins the renovation process. When He gets done, the result is magnificent. Of course, unlike the architects who redesigned that prison in Boston, the materials God works with have a will of their own. We can choose whether or not to participate in the process of redemption.

Ruth tells us a story of redemption. She was a woman who was as marginalized as they come; a widow in a partriarchal society, a foreigner in a country that didn't like outsiders. Yet by the end of the book, we find that God has weaved her into His redemption plan. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Come this Sunday as we wrap up the story of Ruth. And remember this final quote from CS Lewis:

It costs God nothing, so far as we know, to create nice things; but to convert rebellious wills cost Him crucifixion.


Here's my article for the December version of our newsletter, The Westbury Word:

The little boy lay clutching his blanket in the dark, flinching with every clap of thunder, every violent gust of wind. He’d seen thunderstorms before, but somehow the darkness outside—and the way the lightning lit up his room every few seconds--made this one seem scarier. Finally, he got out of bed and padded down the hallway to his parents’ room. “Dad…” he called out in a plaintive voice. The father, disoriented, sat up in bed and asked what was wrong. “I’m scared. Can you come sleep in my room?” A loud sigh. “Son, you’re a big boy. You can sleep by yourself. Besides, don’t you know God is with you? Don’t you know He’ll protect you?” The boy leaned against the door frame, finger pulling nervously on his lower lip. “I know, Dad,” he finally replied. “But right now, I need someone with skin on.”

Can’t we all identify? The good news is that we worship a God who put skin on…theologians call it the doctrine of the Incarnation. Every year at Christmas, we celebrate that moment when our Creator “became what we are that He might make us what He is,” in the words of the early church father Athanasius. God Himself put it best in His prophecy through Isaiah, foretelling of a child who would be born to a virgin and named “Immanuel,” a Hebrew word meaning “God with us.”

This Christmas, we will celebrate Advent at Westbury by focusing on the miracle of Immanuel. We’ll sing songs about our wonderful God, who loved us enough to become one of us—so that He could die for us. And we’ll challenge ourselves to be Immanuel—God with skin on—in our relationships with people who don’t know Him.

Speaking of which, all of us know people who need Jesus. Christmas is one of the best times to invite them to church. Pray that God would open doors for you to share your faith with these friends and neighbors. Invite them to WBC this Christmas so that they can meet and experience Immanuel.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

From the world of sports

Three stories from the sports world this past week captured my attention. All of them, in their own way, preach truth to us.

First, Mike Singletary coached his first game as interim head coach of the San Francisco 49ers this past Sunday. Singletary grew up here in Houston and played football for Worthing High School before becoming a legend at Baylor. According to Baylor lore, Singletary broke several dozen helmets in practices with his ferocious hits. Drafted by the Chicago Bears, he lead his team to their only Super Bowl win in 1985. They called him "the Samarai," and NFL highlight video producers loved to show the intensity in his eyes on the field.

Singletary took over the 49ers this week after their previous coach was fired, and he made an immediate impression. In mid-game, Singletary ordered the team's star Tight End, Vernon Davis, into the locker room after a foolish penalty. In the world of multi-millionaire athletes, such things simply aren't done, so Singletary's actions provoked quite a bit of conversation among sports writers and fans. As for Singletary, he stood by his decision, saying (among other things), "I refuse to coach players who are all about themselves...I told him he would do a better job for us taking a shower and watching the rest of the game."

The lesson for all of us is that sometimes we need a friend brave enough to call us out. In our no-fault world, accountability is rare, so it shocks us when it actually happens. But, like King David in II Samuel 12, we all need a Nathan sometimes to tell us, "You've sinned and you need to get right before it's too late." Do you have any friends that wise and bold? Maybe you ought to pray that God would send a few into your life. Are you that kind of friend to anyone else? Maybe we all ought to pray for the wisdom and boldness to confront when necessary.

Second, this past Tuesday my Houston Cougars were hammered on national TV by Marshall. But that was just a game. Something happened in the midst of the humiliating loss that was far more significant. Patrick Edwards, a freshman wide receiver, was chasing an overthrown pass in the third quarter when he slammed into a cart full of band equipment that was sitting, inexplicably, a few yards past the end zone. ESPN replayed the gruesome impact several times, and post-game reports confirmed that Edwards had suffered a compound fracture. He had surgery that night to insert rods in his leg, and doctors hope he can play next season.

Edwards is a good kid, a guy who had walked onto the football team and then earned a scholarship. He also was a world-class sprinter who had hopes of trying out for the Olympics someday. Now all that is in jeopardy, all because someone carelessly left heavy equipment too close to the playing field. I pray Edwards will make a quick recovery, and that he will find strength to forgive. For us, the lesson is that carelessness can be costly. What we see as small compromises, a casual approach to less-visible sins, can ultimately cause great harm. Often, it is innocent bystanders who get hurt by our carelessness, while we get off scott-free...and carry the guilt from that time on. Are there any areas of your life where you've left things out of place? Let's deal with those "small" details before it's too late.

Finally, the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series last night. Brad Lidge pitched the final inning for the Phils. Lidge was one of my favorite players during his time with the Astros, so I was glad to see him get some measure of redemption. You might recall a few years ago, when a certain Mr. Pujols from St Louis hit a pitch from Lidge to somewhere near Orange in the ninth inning of a National League Championship Series. After that, it seemed like Lidge was never the same. The Astros gave him a few years to return to form, but ultimately gave up on him, shipping him to Philadelphia. Now Lidge is riding high again. Last night after the game, he thanked many people, among them Jesus Christ. I had no idea Lidge was a fellow believer--and I'd be happy for him either way--but it was good to know He understood the real source of His strength.

The lesson for us is that God never gives up on people. No matter how badly we mess up, or how much we may doubt ourselves, He is in the redemption business. By the way, we should be in that business, too. Who is there in your life who needs a little encouragement not to give up? Who do you know who needs to hear that God can redeem even the most hopeless situation. Let's spread a little good news this week.

Following God's Path

When I was younger, I was obsessed with the idea of finding God's plan for my life. In my mind, God's plan was a magical thing. It told me who I should marry, where I should go to school, what career I should choose, and all manner of other, lesser decisions. If I could just discern God's plan, life would go splendidly. So I prayed diligently that God would reveal His plan to me. I studied books like Experiencing God, which taught me how to hear God's voice. I waited...and waited.

Here is what I now believe: It's not about finding God's plan at all. It's about following Him. He's not a fortune teller, He's a shepherd. He's not a guidance counselor, He's our Father. When we follow Him, He leads us down the path of His choosing. We will rarely know where He is taking us next, and often the path He leads us down won't seem immediately more prosperous than other potential paths we might have chosen if we were living life on our own terms. But God knows what He is doing. Ultimately, following Him is the only way to live.

So how do we do that? In Ruth 2-3, we see how this humble young Moabite woman, a new convert to the worship of Yahweh, followed God's path and experienced His provision in an uncertain time of her life. We can learn a lot from Ruth, and I hope you'll be there to experience it with me this Sunday. Remember, it's a big Sunday for us, with our 45th anniversary observance, a business meeting afterward, and the organ recital that afternoon. It's so big, God must have figured we needed an extra hour to prepare, so He made it Time Change Sunday!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Is There Any Hope?

This Sunday, I plan to begin a short (three week) series of messages on the book of Ruth. It's a small, often-overlooked book that contains a fantastic story. One reason I think it's appropriate for us in these uncertain times is that Ruth's story is so familiar. She is struggling with grief, poverty and insecurity, yet God does not speak in an audible voice (If you have a Red-Letter Bible, note the lack of red letters in Ruth), nor does He perform any spectacular miracles. Ruth, a recent convert to the worship of Yahweh, has to trust in God step-by-step, only seeing His hand in retrospect.

Does that sound familiar? Most of us have never heard the audible voice of God. Miracles do happen, but they're rare (as one preacher said, they're rare by definition. If they weren't, we'd call them "ordinaries."). We, like Ruth, have to trust God step-by-step. We don't know exactly where He's leading, or what He has planned, or how all of the scary stuff we're going through can ever be part of something good...but if we stick with God, we'll see what He was doing on the other side. That's what Ruth teaches us. I hope you'll be there for all three messages. Invite someone you know who has been struggling.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

McNamara Update--October 16

Our ministry at McNamara Elementary is off to a great start! Just after Hurricane Ike, we were able to help a teacher and a volunteer at the school who had sustained substantial property loss with funds from our Benevolence account. This is in addition to the earlier help we gave to the school in purchasing uniforms for children from our Missions fund.

But I'm glad to say that our assistance will be more than financial. The last week of October is McNamara's 50th anniversary, and the school asked us for 10 volunteers to read to the children that week. When I put out the call on my email list, I got all ten in under 24 hours. They also needed 20 volunteers for a Fall Fun Fair fundraiser they're holding November 1. Again, our church responded quickly. We look forward to serving in this way.

Finally, I am so excited about the response of our church to mentoring opportunities on the McNamara campus. Forty of our members have indicated an interest in spending an hour a week with students at the school, investing in their lives. For those forty, plus anyone else who is interested in learning more, we will be holding a Mentor Orientation on Saturday, October 25 at 10 AM in room C-109. Fran Moore and Judy Richardson will be leading this event.

Many other church members have indicated a willingness to help out with work days and other projects like the beautification event we held in August. There will be more such opportunities, and I will let you know when we get them scheduled. In the meantime, I can't say enough about the heart of this church. I know God has great plans for us, and I know they will be done if we have this kind of enthusiasm about His work!

Election Advice

The following is my article for the November Westbury Word newsletter:

A presidential election is upon us. This is always such an interesting time. Now, I won’t be telling you for whom to vote, not in this article, not from the pulpit, not even in a private conversation. I have my opinions, but as a pastor, I feel that I owe you more than an opinion. I owe you the truth. The Bible is the only place I know of where absolute truth can be found, and the words “Democrat” and “Republican” are not found in there. But here is what I would urge you to do:

Vote. We Americans enjoy a unique privilege: the right to choose our own leaders. Pray diligently and do your homework in advance of election day. Consider not only the platforms of both candidates, but their character and competency. Then visit your polling station and thank God we have such a wonderful freedom.

Pray. Whoever wins this election will need our prayers in the days ahead, as we face an economic crisis, a war on two fronts, and the threat of terrorism, all in addition to the usual domestic and foreign political concerns. Pray that our president will work effectively with other leaders. Pray that he will have wisdom to make good decisions, courage to do the right thing even if it’s hard, and compassion to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. And while you’re at it, pray that God’s people would experience revival soon.

Trust. Here’s the best election news of all: Christ is still King. He’s still ultimately “the most powerful man in the world.” Let’s trust Him to take care of us, see others (even our political opposites) through His eyes, and look forward to the day we live in His World…where no campaign promises are ever broken.

The Sermon on the Mount: a Radical Decision

Have you ever been in a group of people who didn't want to make a decision? For example, three couples are walking out of church together and someone says, "Let's go get lunch." All agree, but no one wants to decide where they should eat. No one wants to seem pushy and demand their own choice. No one wants to take responsibility for recommending a restaurant that the others may not like. So ultimately, they all give up and go home without lunch.

Maybe your indecisive situations haven't gone that far...ultimately, SOMEONE chooses where to eat (after all, our gluttony usually outweighs our wishy-washiness). But in the spiritual life, this phenomenon is played out continually. The Bible is not a list of wonderful, winsome spiritual truths laid out simply for us to ponder and marvel at their profundity. It is a book that demands a decision. When people choose not to decide, they have in fact made a decision about Christ--the wrong one.

As we read the final words of the Sermon on the Mount, we see that Jesus is not content merely to share His wonderful words of truth with us. He wants us to decide. We'll wrestle with that decision and all its implications this Sunday as we study Matthew 7:13-27.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Sermon on the Mount: Radical Relationships

It's ironic, but we tend to "keep score" of our Christian commitment in a very different way than Christ Himself does. Think about do we religious types typically measure our spirituality? In my experience, it usually comes down to rules and rituals.

Rules like:

Don't cuss.
Don't get drunk.
Don't watch bad stuff on TV.
Be faithful to your spouse.
Tell the truth.
Hold your temper.

Rituals like:

Be in church whenever the doors are open.
Read your Bible.

And believe me, all that stuff is important indeed. But is that how Jesus measures our commitment to Him? Is that the kind of stuff we'll be judged upon when we stand before Him? I don't think so. Everything I read in the Scriptures tells me we'll be judged primarily by how we respond to people. If we love God, we'll love the people He created. If we want to show love to Jesus, we'll give a cup of cold water to those in need. If we don't love our brothers, the love of the Father isn't in us. You know those Scriptures as well as I do...we just don't tend to think of them very often. But consider this: The Gospels tell us very little about Jesus' religious life. We see a couple of times when He went to synagogue, a few fleeting references to His prayer life, and no references to Him reading the Scriptures (I'm sure He did these things faithfully, but the Gospels just don't make a big deal about them). As far as rules go, Jesus often did things that seemed to break the religious rules of His day (not the Scriptural commands, but the traditions of the time).

Instead of showing Jesus adhering to rules and observing rituals, the Gospels show Jesus relating to people. That's what He did: He showed the love of God to people who needed it. He told folks about the Kingdom. He mentored His disciples. He healed the sick. Jesus spent His ministry on people.

And as we near the end of our study on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us the most comprehensive principle on human relationships ever devised. What does it mean? How can we truly apply the Golden Rule in our daily relationships? Considering all we've just said, these are crucial questions. We'll talk about them this Sunday.

Ministry Opportunities at McNamara Elementary

Hello everyone,

I wanted to let you know about a ministry opportunity we have at McNamara Elementary. October 27-November 1 is the school’s 50th anniversary. That week, they would love to have 10 people (2 each day, Monday through Friday) to come read to classes between 9 and 9:30 AM. If you are interested and available, please email me or call me and let me know. Also please let me know the day(s) of the week that would be available to read. Remember, this is not a long-term commitment, just a one-time opportunity to share some love with elementary school kids through reading a book to them.

We have a second opportunity as well: McNamara needs 20 volunteers to work their Fall Fun Fair, an annual fundraiser, that Saturday November 1. This event lasts from 10 AM to 3 PM. There will be refreshments available for the volunteers. Again, please let me know if you are available to help.

Mr. Porter Renfro sent me this request, and he needs to know by Friday how many of us he can count on. I am confident that we here at Westbury can provide all 30 volunteers for these two events. But I need for you to let me know. Whether you can or can’t help in this case, please continue to pray for our school adoption program, and for our church as strive to become An Open Door to New Life through:

Knowing God (worship)
Community (Bible study)
And transforming our world (Ministry outside the walls).

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Good News...and Then Some

It was so, so good to be back in worship--with full electric power--last Sunday. For that matter, I enjoyed our post-Ike service September 21 with the generators provided so generously by Greg Carlson. It was the first--and hopefully last--time I ever preached on a karaoke machine.

This week, we'll interupt our Sermon on the Mount series for our quarterly observance of the Lord's Supper. Our text is Matthew 20:28, and we'll be exploring the concept of guilt.

In Shakespeare's McBeth, the character of Lady McBeth is so guilt-ridden, she obsessively washes her hands. The Bard may have been more perceptive than we once thought. Psychologists have identified what they call "The McBeth Effect," which causes people who are feeling guilty to also feel physically dirty. I am sure all of us can identify. We've all done, said or contemplated things that left us feeling as though we were covered in a film of filth. Sadly, most people think of organized religion as being an institution that fills people with guilt, instead of freeing them from it. Even more tragically, many people think of God as being a purveyor of guilt and shame. Is this true? Does God want us to feel badly about our sins? What are we to do when we feel the overwhelming desire to be clean? If you aren't asking those questions yourself, it's likely someone you know is. We'll talk about it this Sunday.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Aftermath of Ike

Hello everyone,

Well, a few hours ago, power was restored here at my house. So I send this out to anyone who is able to read and respond. I hope you’ll get in touch with me. I have been very, very concerned and prayerful for each of you, wanting to know how you did in (and after) this storm.

As for me and mine, we fared pretty well. We lost power, but thank God for this wonderful weather! Who needs AC, anyway? We lost a little bit of our fence, and thanks to the power loss, we’ll start from scratch in our fridge and deep freeze, but we’re blessed to have come through relatively unscathed.

As for the church, the news is good there, too. There was no major damage as far as I know of. The steeple is bent. A couple of signs got blown down. There were some water leaks in the Family Life Center, in the hallway outside the choir room, and in the children’s building. There may be other stuff that we’ll be able to see when power is restored, but that’s all we’ve been able to find.

The news isn’t so good for a sister church. I heard from a fellow minister that SW Central Church of Christ suffered major storm damage. Keep those folks in your prayers. If you have time and the ability to volunteer to help them, your help would be appreciated.

On that note, I hope and pray that each of us will have opportunities in these trying times to help out our neighbors, to show the love of Christ. I hope also that we’re taking the time to check in on some of our elderly and homebound members. I have definitely been praying for them. It’s been frustrating for me…With no church on Sunday, spotty cell phone coverage and no power, I feel paralyzed ministry-wise. But I keep praying, and I know God is taking good care of each of you. Again, report in when you can.

As for our upcoming schedule, we’ve made the decision to go ahead and cancel Wednesday night activities. Sunday morning, we WILL offer a worship service at 10:30. We’re exploring the best way to pull that off if power doesn’t come back online this week, but we’ll praise and preach, even if it has to be in the dark. I don’t know about you, but I just need to be among God’s people. As far as Bible study goes, we’ll make that decision soon.
Even in a difficult time, there are so many ways we see God’s goodness, faithfulness and love. But I’ll talk more about that Sunday. Hope I see you there.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hurricane Ike

Well, here we go. Many of us remember Hurricane Alicia 25 years ago, and at this point, Ike looks very similar. Of course, we don't know what will happen over the next 24-48 hours. We should all pray diligently that the storm will weaken, that the current evacuations of coastal areas will go smoothly, and that God would protect us, our loved ones and our homes.

Here's what I do know: Our church offices will be closed on Friday. Sunday morning, we will NOT have Bible study (Sunday School), but if there is power and we are able to get to church, I plan on having worship at 10:30. Other than that, I'd like to share the following safety tips from Gale Yandell:

Okay, being the safety person that I am...a few last minute details to think about:

1) Put important papers in a zip lock and/or waterproof/fireproof box. Make a copy of your medical papers, driver's license, birth certificate, credit cards, a few blank checks and such.

2) Close all blinds and drapes. That will help slow flying glass should your windows blow out.

3) Unplug your electrical appliances.

4) Dip matches in candle wax, that makes them waterproof.

5) Keep some cash available. If the power goes out, the ATM machines won't work.

6) Outside stuff, think flying missiles. Secure everything!

7) If you have a medical condition, PUT YOUR MEDICAL ALERT TAG ON!!! If you have a condition that requires a medical alert tag and you don't have one; 1) don't let me find out about it, 2) write it down as well as medications you take for it and put it in your pocket in a zip lock bag.

8) Take the mattress off of your bed and cover yourself with it in the bathtub should things get really nasty.

9) Pray

This list is in addition to batteries, water, food, a full gas tank and such.

I have already been out scouting this morning and the lines at the gas stations are long! The parking lot of several grocery stores are packed. If you need to go to these places, do it NOW. The lines will only get worse.

I know of some folks who need help boarding up their houses, if you are available to help, please call me on my cell at 713.501.4899.

If I think of other things, I will forward them to you.

Take care & be safe.


You are in my prayers and, God willing, I will see you again on Sunday. I am sure we'll all have some interesting stories to tell!

Reaching for the Prize

Note: Since I first posted this a few weeks ago, we've decided to reschedule Reaching for the Prize. We'll start the year off with this emphasis in January.

If you watched the recent Olympics, you probably found yourself inspired as I did. No, I’ll never ran as fast as Usain Bolt, or dunk a basketball like Lebron James and the rest of our basketball team did. And I will never have abs like Michael Phelps (sigh), not to mention his eight gold medals. Yet I found myself marveling at the thought of experiencing a Christian life that would be that exciting and victorious. Imagine no more stumbling into the same old sins, wallowing in the frustrating quagmire of temptations we thought we had overcome. Instead, we conquer sins, standing in the glory of growth and achievement. Imagine a spiritual life where we always knew where God was leading us, and so spiritual disciplines aren’t dull and difficult, but refreshing as an early-morning swim.

Actually the analogy isn’t as ridiculous as it might sound. Paul was rather fond of comparing the spiritual life to athletics. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run but only one gets the prize? Run is such a way as to get the prize (1 Co. 9:24). Those aren’t just empty words meant to encourage people who are born losers; God’s Spirit is constantly working to make us spiritual champions: Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). All we have to do in order to experience that renewal, that victory, is to get on board with the training program God has already custom-designed for us. With that in mind, Westbury will begin a spiritual formation campaign called Reaching for the Prize on October 5. For five weeks, all adult and youth members of WBC will be challenged through preaching, discussions and a personal devotional guide.

I designed Reaching for the Prize because I believe that WBC should be an Open Door to New Life. That means that people who don’t know Christ should meet Him through our influence. But it also means that every one of our members—from those who have been following Jesus a few months to those who have known Him for decades—should be experiencing new life, consistent growth, and amazing victory. My prayer is that by the time you finish the five weeks of Reaching for the Prize:

You will know exactly what God is trying to accomplish in your life.

You will have a detailed list of goals for your spiritual growth, along with a plan to achieve those goals.

Your Bible study leaders and staff ministers will have a better idea of how to minister to you and the rest of our church.

Please be in prayer for this campaign.

The Sermon on the Mount: Radical Ambition

I have always admired people who were cool under pressure. Years ago, I read a story about Joe Montana, the great quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers during their glory years. In one Super Bowl, the team was losing with little time left on the clock. They had to drive the ball the length of the field to take the lead. As Montana looked into the faces of his teammates in the huddle, he could see the apprehension, the anxiety. Then he looked over their shoulders and said, "Hey. Look at that fat guy in the stands. Isn't that John Candy?" The team all turned and looked for the comedian. Whether it was him or not, it made them all laugh. It released the tension. And they scored the winning touchdown.

I have learned one thing about overcoming worry and fear: You can't do it by sheer willpower. Simply saying, "I'm not going to be afraid," won't cut it. Jesus addressed worry and fear--and how to have satisfaction and joy--in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6:25-34. As I read those words, He seems to be saying that our ambition is the key: What is most important to us? This Sunday (Lord willing), we'll take a closer look at those words of wisdom.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Radical Resource Management

Anyone who grew up in Baptist churches remembers the dreaded "Stewardship Sermon." On this infamous day of the year, the pastor would wax eloquent (cough, cough) about tithing, while we all fought drowsiness and hoped there weren't any visitors at church that day. Some of us were even unfortunate enough to attend churches that featured an annual Stewardship Series.

I have heard it said that Jesus talked more about money than about Heaven or Hell combined. I haven't done the math, but it sure seems to be true when I read the Gospels. Yet when I read what Jesus has to say about earthly riches, it isn't dry and boring like the old Stewardship Sermons, or spiritual pollyannaism like the current "Prosperity Gospel" preaching. Jesus spoke about money with a strong tone of realism, mixed with a willingness to challenge the way we think. Our Lord certainly wasn't about fleecing His followers; He died virtually penniless. Instead, He wanted to set us free from the bondage most of us feel toward our finances. And He wanted to show us how to be rich eternally.

Not surprisingly, Jesus spoke about money in the Sermon on the Mount. This Sunday, we'll see what He had to say in Matthew 6:19-24.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Pray for New Orleans

The city of New Orleans is rather close to my heart. Although I never lived there, I did attend receive my doctorate from New Orleans seminary, and therefore visited the city several times. Some people dear to me don't really like New Orleans--it's not their cup of gumbo, so to speak. They feel uneasy with all the partying and the casinos and the general run-down nature of much of the city. I look at New Orleans differently. I love the history, the food, the Creole accents and the French Quarter. Mostly, I love the "differentness" of New Orleans. More than any other city I've visited, it has a unique character. It's the closest one can come to going to a foreign city without leaving the US or having to learn another language.

There are some wonderful people in New Orleans. One of them is a man named Joe McKeever, who I have blogged about in the past. He is the director of the Greater New Orleans Baptist Association, and writes an outstanding blog every week. This past Spring, I took our staff to New Orleans for staff retreat (yet another excuse for me to visit the city), and I was privileged to meet Joe for the first time. He took our staff on a tour of the city, including the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, as well as some areas that didn't get nearly the media attention, like St. Bernard Parish. He also told us some amazing stories about how pastors and churches were rebuilding lives and ministries.

Now another hurricane is headed into the gulf, and this one might hit New Orleans. As we all get ready for the possibility that Gustav might strike us, let's remember to pray fervently for the people of New Orleans. Joe wrote about this in his blog this week, and you can read his comments here. His post gives a very good perspective on how New Orleanians feel about this possible disaster. Here's an excerpt, if you don't have time to read the entire article:

One thing we can pretty much agree on: if New Orleans gets hit anywhere near the way we did in Katrina, it's all over for this city. The federal government is not going to want to invest another 100 billion dollars in rebuilding the city, the state government is going to tire of it, and churches and denominational groups around the country are surely going to say, "Sorry, New Orleans. Been there; done that. No more."

If we incur massive devastation again, thousands of citizens who are "on the bubble" about leaving will decide "that's it for me" and relocate.

You can see why a direct hit by a hurricane is the last thing we need around here.

Thanks for praying for us. Not that we wish a hurricane on anyone else. But in some respects, we're still on life support around here and do not need Gustav to unplug the IV.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Sermon on the Mount: Radical Religion

Bill Maher is really starting to get on my nerves.

The comedian, who has previously hosted the TV show Politically Incorrect, will star in a documentary called Religulous, scheduled to open October 3. According to an interview Maher gave Larry King, "the title of the film is a portmanteau derived from the words "religion" and "ridiculous," implying the satirical nature of the documentary that is meant to mock the concept of organized religion and the problems it brings about." Indeed, according to Los Angeles Times blogger Patrick Goldstein, the movie presents religion as "a big crock of spit," "a destructive force," and "a neurological disorder."

The problem is that I know plenty of people who agree with Maher before they even see the movie. For them, such a documentary will be preaching to the choir (and that may be the most ironic usage ever of that cliche!). I speak to far too many people who not only have no use for the Church, they actually think our impact on society is more good than bad.

And here's the worst's our fault. Yes, I know Scripture teaches that the world will hate those who follow Christ. But as I read those passages, I realize that Jesus and His early followers were hated for living by what they believed. Their message of universal grace and God's unconditional love were so counter-cultural that, when backed up by lives that were radically concordant with the message, people were disturbed. That's where the hatred and persecution came from.

In our case, however, skeptics seem to hate the Church for the exact opposite reason: Because we don't practice what we preach. Many of Christianity's most strident critics (I can't speak for Maher himself) profess great admiration for the person and the teachings of Jesus. What they see in Christianity, however, is a movement that bears little resemblance to its founder.

Now I know Christians a little better than these critics, most of whom base their judgments on televangelists and other fringe examples of our faith. I know that most Christians are devout, sincere, loving and lovable. They are a pleasure for me to work with. But we should be bothered that so many of the people Christ wants us to reach will not consider following Him because of their negative perception of His followers.

Jesus grew up in a very religious Israelite culture. Yet for all their biblical knowledge and moral rectitude, the religion of His fellow Jews was far from the heart of God. In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus stressed how His people should be religious...but in a radical way. What must we do in order to make our religious activities more pleasing to God...and in order to become people who more accurately represent Him? We'll talk about that this week as we study Matthew 6:1-18.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Sermon on the Mount: Radical Self-Defense

And now we get to perhaps the most controversial section of the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:38-48. Of all the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon, this might be the most misunderstood.

--Does this mean that we should never fight back?

--Does such a pacifism include social organizations such as police forces and armies? Therefore, is any use of physical force or retribution wrong?

--If so, why does God call David--a man who fought in almost endless combat throughout the prime of his life--"a man after my own heart?"

There are other tough questions regarding this passage, and we'll attempt to answer them all this week. Prepare to be challenged yet again by the standards of Jesus.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Sermon on the Mount: Radical Honesty

One Sunday morning years ago, I had a startling realization just before I got up to preach. I remembered that, earlier that week, I had gone to a restaurant in our small town, had eaten my meal, and only then had realized that I didn't have any money. The owner, who knew me well, had told me to bring back the money when I had time. I had left the restaurant and promptly forgotten all about it...until now. During the worship service. Just minutes before I was to preach a sermon on....wait for it...integrity. (Quick aside--Assuming it was the Holy Spirit who reminded me of my slip in integrity, couldn't He have done it at a more convenient time? Who says God doesn't have a sense of humor?)

In the sermon, I confessed my sin to my church members. I asked them to hold me accountable; as soon as church was over, I needed to head to that restaurant and pay my debt. And I did just that. Then I heard an unusual sound: applause. I turned around and found that at least a dozen of my church members had gone to that same restaurant and had seen me finally buy back my integrity.

Someone has said that if life is like juggling, then our integrity is a ball made of glass...once we drop it, it's awfully hard to put back together. Matthew 5:33-37 is often seen very legalistically, as applying only to the taking of vows. But I believe Jesus was calling for His people to be outstanding in their much so, people believe us without asking for proof. This Sunday, we'll explore what that kind of "radical honesty" looks like.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Sermon the Mount: Radical Purity

Well, I have been at Westbury now for nearly a year. Everyone has been great. We've made so many good friends, seen so many great things happen...and it's only beginning. But now, this Sunday, I'll get to see how much you all really like me as your pastor. Now, I dive into dark, dangerous and controversial waters. This Sunday, we'll be talking about sex, lust, marriage and divorce...places where angels fear to tread. Fortunately, I have the words of Jesus Himself on the subject, from Matthew 5:27-32, and I will stick as closely as possible to what He said, not trying to give my own opinion. Still, I know how people feel about the bearer of bad news. So this Sunday, think of my children. They're cute and sweet and adorable, aren't they? You wouldn't want anything bad to happen to their daddy, would you?

I jest, of course. Although the things we'll be talking about Sunday will be uncomfortable for us to hear, and some might disagree with my interpretations in this place or that, I know this congregation well enough by now to know I won't be taken out and stoned (right?). At any rate, this won't be a sermon that will leave its listeners struggling to stay awake.

I am approaching this passage with a belief that the lust issue and the divorce issue are linked. In both cases, Jesus was talking about His original vision in creation for sexual relationships. When we vary from that purpose, massive destruction is the result. On the other hand, the response of the Church for much of history--a repressive, prudish judgmentalism, has done more harm than good in restoring sex to its proper place. So how would God have His children behave? That's the topic of the entire Sermon on the Mount. We'll see specifically how that applies to sexual purity.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Sermon on the Mount: Radical Conflict Resolution

Last night, I finished watching a three-part documentary on PBS called The War of the World. (Yes, I am a bit of a history geek.) The question that drove the documentary, based on a book by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, was this: "Why was the 20th Century the bloodiest in human history?" Ferguson's conclusion was that the violence of our times (including two World Wars, countless smaller conflicts, genocides, and terrorism) was not based on ideaologies like fascism and communism, but on ethnic and class differences. Germans sending Jews to the death camps. Stalin's Russia persecuting ethnic minorities. South American killing squads murdering Native American peasants. Serbs sniping at Bosnians. Hutus eliminating Tutsis in Rwanda.

We often look on such events with a detached sadness. After all, none of this is our fault; none of us has engaged in genocide or started a war. But we must admit that the same heart of darkness exists in us. It may not manifest itself in bloody ways, but it rears its ugly head at inopportune moments, destroying our relationships, dividing our churches, disqualifying our witness for Christ, and poisoning our lives. If you think I am being overly dramatic, ask yourself the question: Has anything good ever happened when you became angry?

What are we to do? Jesus has a high standard for His people in every area of life, including the way we are to respond to the attacks and insults of others. Believe it or not, Christ did not preach pacifism. Nor did He espouse a macho, "don't get mad, get even" mentality. His way is far more difficult, more courageous...and more effective. This Sunday, we'll explore Christlike conflict resolution in Matthew 5:21-26.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Sermon on the Mount: Our Radical Standard

How many jokes can you think of that start like this: "A man died and stood before the gates of Heaven. He was told, 'We can only let you into Heaven if you pass this short test...'"

I try to avoid telling those kinds of jokes simply because I don't think Heaven is anything to joke about (nor is Hell, for that matter). But they do bring up a valid point: When we pass on from this life to the next, there will be certain standards we must meet in order to spend eternity in the presence of Almighty God. When one considers the concept of eternal life, it is obvious that finding out those standards is the most important topic of all.

Since Jesus is the One to whom we will answer on that day, His standards are the only ones that count. Early in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus tells us what it takes to enter His Kingdom. These are tough, challenging, even terrifying words. What do they really mean? That is what we will explore this Sunday morning.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Sermon on the Mount: Our Radical Impact

Last Sunday, I began a series of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7. It's going to be the longest sermon series I've ever preached (It will last into September), and rightfully so. The Sermon on the Mount is the most famous speech ever delivered. Jesus sat down with His disciples and revealed the radical way He expects for them (and us) to live. I hope you'll committ to hearing every one of these messages, not because of the quality of the preaching but because of the importance of the subject matter.

This week, we'll look at perhaps the most well-known section of the Sermon: Matthew 5:13-16. What did Jesus mean by comparing us to salt and light. Some believe this means we should be distinct from the world. Others believe we should live attractive lives which show the world the benefits of following Christ. I believe Jesus meant more than that. Have a great week, and I'll (hopefully) see you Sunday.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Book Review: "The Shack"

A good friend gave me a copy of William P. Young's novel The Shack a while back. I hadn't heard of it at the time, but since then, I have read numerous articles and blog posts about this book. Originally self-published by a first-time author, The Shack has become a sensation largely through word-of-mouth buzz, and is in the top ten sellers on Amazon. I just finished the book myself, and since you're sure to be hearing about it soon (if you haven't already), I thought I'd share my thoughts here. If you've read the book and want to comment, or have further questions, please chime in.

The Shack is the story of a middle-aged Christian named Mack, who due to abuse at the hands of his churchgoing father has grown up with some problems with God in general, and institutional religion in particular. As the story opens, it has been four years since Mack suffered an unspeakable tragedy, and he finds himself in the midst of what he calls "The Great Sadness." He receives a postcard in the mail from someone claiming to be God, inviting Mack to a meeting at the desolate shack in a State Park where his tragedy took place. Inexplicably, Mack decides to go to the Shack, where he is stunned to find God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit waiting to change his life. The rest of the book is Mack's meeting with the Holy Trinity.

The writing in the book is adequate, on par with most popular Christian fiction (which if you're familiar with the genre may be interpreted as faint praise), but because of the subject matter, this book feels more emotionally heavy than anything you'll read by Ted Dekker or Frank Peretti. Some portions of the book drag, but near the end, there are sections that I found very moving and powerful.

The Shack is intended to be more than a novel; Young says he wrote it originally for his children, to help them know God better. Essentially, it is a theology in fiction form. That's an interesting idea (although not all that new...Pilgrim's Progress has been around a few centuries). This could be the new trend in Christian writing; rather than write a book that reads like a sermon, authors are beginning to write their lessons about God and the Christian life in the form of novels (see also Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian).

So what is it Young wants us to know about God? His dominant theme is that God loves us and desires a relationship of intimacy and trust with us. Young's presentation of the godhead is very unorthodox (more on that later), but it's obvious that Father, Son and Holy Spirit love each other, and love Mack intensely. Young wants us to see that all of our problems are due to our desire for independence from God. When we choose not enjoy this relationship we were made for, our lives suffer. That is true on a worldwide level as well; the wars, pain and suffering in this world are entirely due to our stubborn yearning to live apart from God and His plan. Although Young never uses the word "sin," that's exactly what he's talking about, and he makes his point very effectively.

Forgiveness is also a major theme. At the start of his meeting with the Trinity, Mack is an angry man: Angry with himself, God, his father, and most of all with the person who caused his family tragedy. God brings Mack into a confrontation with each of these resentments, gently but relentlessly. Along the way, there are some very interesting discussions regarding the problem of pain: How could a good God allow such bad things to happen? Young's answers may not satisfy all Christians, but I thought they were well formed.

The Shack has stirred up quite a bit of controversy on the Christian blogosphere. Check out the reviews on Amazon, and you'll see that many people credit this book with changing their lives for the better. This book also has many critics. Tim Challies has written a very thoughtful, much-read critique of The Shack, which you can read here. Southern Seminary president Al Mohler also devoted a portion of his radio program to discussing the book. Both men feel that Young is skating on the edge of heresy, at best. Readers who commented on Challies' blog had many other criticisms. Both Challies and Mohler are from the Reformed/Calvinist tradition, which I respect but do not share, so I don't necessarily agree with some of the things they say, such as:

--The Shack 's presentation of God is unbiblical and irreverent. Spoiler Alert! In the book, God reveals Himself to Mack in three forms: As a large, sassy African-American woman named Papa, as a young Middle-Eastern man named Jesus, and as a small, enigmatic Asian woman named Sarayu (who is supposed to represent the Holy Spirit). Some readers had a real problem with this presentation. I didn't, since God can choose to take any form He wants. But then again, I loved Morgan Freeman's portrayal of the Lord in Bruce Almighty, so maybe I'm just lacking in discernment.

--The Shack encourages a cheap, unbiblical forgiveness. In the book, Mack is challenged to forgive a man who has hurt him deeply, and who has not repented of his sins. Challies says that there can be no real forgiveness without repentance. But didn't Jesus forgive His enemies from the cross while they spat in His face? Didn't Jesus command us to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us? I believe Young's emphasis on forgiveness is a very biblical, healing thing.

On the other hand, I do share one major concern with Young's critics. At the start of the book, Mack is angry with the Church and is doubtful about what he has previously learned in Scripture. I believe if God really did meet personally with someone in this condition, He would correct both of these spiritual dysfunctions. After all, the Church is His bride; with all her warts and problems, God wants His people to love her as much as He does, and to build her up, not abandon her. And the Bible is His holy, inspired Word. He wants us to feed ourselves on it, for this is how He has revealed Himself to us. Yet in The Shack, God seems to brush all of that aside, implying that a relationship with Him is personal, something we can best experience on our own. Never does this God urge Mack to rejoin His spiritual family, or to open the Word. This is very, very troublesome to me. Although I found the book very faith-affirming, I worry that Christians and non-Christians alike will get the incorrect idea that God can be fully known apart from study of His Word and active participation in His Body. In addition, Young says some things in the book which veer perilously close to universalism.

So should you read this book? I think it's a thought-provoking book for biblically knowledgeable Christians to read, to ponder, to critique and to discuss. I would NOT recommend it to a non-Christian or someone new to the faith, for this simple reason: If you want to know who God REALLY is, He's already written the Book Himself. A fictional presentation of one man's idea of God simply cannot compare.

A winning culture

Here's a look at the article I wrote for the August version of the Westbury Word newsletter:

In just a few weeks, an annual rite of passage will begin in every city, town and hamlet in Texas. The Friday night lights will blaze once again over thronged masses rooting for their local heroes. Bands will march, drill teams will strut, cheerleaders will bounce and shout with preternatural enthusiasm, and mascots will sweat it out under their wooly costumes. Meanwhile, boys as young as fourteen will carry the hopes and dreams of their communities, clad in modern-day armor proudly bearing the colors and emblem of their teams.
I am talking, of course, about High School football. It’s a pastime I have a particular appreciation for, in part because it is so simple…and so fair. Professional and College football—while enjoyable—are very much multi-billion dollar businesses. But High School football features young men who play for free—most will never even earn a football scholarship. Since each town and district must play with the boys they have (without recruiting), there is a certain justice, a sense that everyone starts on level ground.
However, there are still teams that consistently dominate the others. My brother-in-law, a football coach, was visiting a football practice at Katy High School a few years ago. Katy is one of those schools which somehow produces big winners every year, and Steve wanted to see what he could learn from them. When he got to the practice, the team was scrimmaging (playing a “practice game”). Normally in such situations, the boys in the scrimmage run their plays halfheartedly, while the boys on the sideline sit disengaged, chatting aimlessly with one another and enjoying their rest. But this practice felt like a real game. The plays were crisp, the hitting was hard, and even the boys on the sideline were on their feet, shouting encouragement. Steve asked one of the boys standing near him, “What’s at stake here? What do you get if you win?” Coaches often use bribes to motivate their players to practice harder. Steve wondered if maybe the group that won the scrimmage got free Gatorade, or could sit out the windsprints that day. The boy looked at Steve like he was from another planet, then said, “We get pride!”
It was then obvious what made this such a good team. Somehow, they had built a culture of excellence. Every player was constantly challenged to give his all, even in practice. That story makes me wonder how we can build a culture of holiness in our church. In such a church, every member would feel a constant challenge to strive for a greater level of commitment to Christ. Not from the pulpit only, but from his fellow members. I’m not talking about a legalistic contest in “who can be more outwardly religious.” I mean people consistently maturing in their ability to really love God and love others. That’s my job as pastor: To build a culture of holiness at Westbury Baptist Church. What can you do to help?

  • Pray daily for God’s Holy Spirit to renew us. This isn’t something you and I can do on our own. It is a supernatural act. Pray that the Spirit would build a culture of holiness in our church.
  • Feed yourself. Too many people see church as a spiritual feeding trough, where they get spoon-fed by trained professionals. A church with a culture of holiness is a gathering of people who have spent the week studying God’s word, praying and serving God on their own.
  • Get involved. If you don’t already have a ministry of your own, consider joining our School Adoption initiative. I foresee a day when every WBC member feels a subtle push to find a ministry outside the walls of our church, when service is as much a part of our identity as is worship and Bible study. Let’s make that part of our culture.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Back in the Saddle Again

If you're now humming the tune from "Back in the Saddle Again," it's a pretty good sign you're old (by those standards, I am, don't feel bad). If you're not, here's a little hint so you won't feel left out.

What I mean to say is that I'm finally back in the office. Three weeks ago, we had Vacation Bible School, and that meant being in the children's building and the gym much of the day. Two weeks ago, I accompanied our high schoolers to youth camp. And last week, I took a blessed 7-day vacation. Seven days in the beautiful Texas Hill Country. For seven days we:

--Ate some really good food (The Grist Mill in Gruene is even better than I remembered).
--Slept late.
--Tubed the Comal river.
--Hiked...sometimes carrying a four-year-old (which was probably a good thing, considering all that good food I ate).
--Swam in the Pedernales.
--Basically bummed around. I read two books for sheer was great.

That's my idea of a vacation: One where you actually come back rested. Yes, friends, it is indeed possible.

I have already heard from several people that Dr. Tom Billings preached a wonderful sermon. I'm not at all surprised, but I am grateful to hear it. I look forward to returning to the pulpit this next Sunday, but for now, I'm glad to be home.

This morning (no kidding), I thanked God for two things: A vacation that truly refreshed me, and a church I am glad to come home to.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

God is Still Here

My father-in-law's favorite saying is, "Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see." That wary attitude has served him well in life that has been successful from both a business standpoint and (more importantly) a spiritual one.

That saying has some good practical application: It's good to be wary of the latest "hot new thing" in spirituality or in life. It is also wise not to be blindly optimistic about our circumstances: Just because someone believes things are going to work out doesn't mean there won't be pain along the way. Many Christians have had their own faith wrecked by this kind of spiritual Pollyannaism that says, "If I believe it, it will be."

So wariness is wise...but when it becomes skepticism and doubt, it can be one of the most destructive things in the Christian life. When we start to doubt whether God can do anything good with our circumstances, when we give up on the notion of being useful to His Kingdom, when we fail to dream of greater things and settle for a life LESS abundant...then we fall short. We fall apart. We fall away from Him.

On the day Elijah left this earth, his protege Elisha must have faced some serious doubts. How did he respond? How can we overcome the doubts, fears and natural skepticism that tends to attack our faith? That is what we'll discuss this Sunday.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Youth Camp

I'm spending the week at youth camp! Carrie and Kayleigh are with me, while Will accepted a last-minute offer to spend the week with my parents in the country.

We're on the campus of Howard Payne University in Brownwood. Our bus ride here yesterday was pleasant (believe it or not), and I am looking forward to a wonderful week. Hey, I've even got internet access out here, so I should be able to keep in touch with you all via email.

A few observations from the short time I've been here:

  • Our kids are great. They were well-behaved on the bus ride here, and have been that way ever since. Maybe it's because this is a high school only camp, and the kids are more mature (Middle-school camp is next week). Or maybe our kids are just great.
  • The food is really quite good so far. If you've never been to youth camp before, trust me on this one: The food is never good. Let's hope this camp breaks the trend.
  • I'm old. Yesterday, someone asked me how old I was. When I said 37, one of our youth girls (her name shall be mercifully withheld) said she assumed I was in my forties. She quickly said that was only because she didn't know any pastors in their thirties, but the damage to my fragile ego was already done. Sigh.
  • Our speaker this week, Craig Tackett, is very high-energy and entertaining. He gave a great message last night on John 21, focusing on how Jesus' love chases and confronts us. I was enlightened by the message, but I was also thinking about how hard it would be to speak to youth for a living. A few years ago, the youth group at South Avenue Baptist in Pasadena (where I pastored previously) attended a camp where the speaker was boring. They came back saying, "We would've rather listened to Jeff all week." You have to have heard the tone of voice in which they said it, but trust me: They meant it as a slam on the youth speaker, not as a compliment to me. Hence the fragile ego.
  • The theme of the week is "I am," focusing on the unchanging nature of Jesus. It's going to be a great week. If I get time, I might post some other news from camp. Keep us in your prayers!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Watch out for slippage

I have been on a through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan since my seminary days, and it has benefitted me immensely. Most of the time, my daily Bible reading is like taking goes down easily, and I don't feel any immediate effects, event though I know it's doing me good over time. But sometimes, the Spirit reaches out to me through the pages of His Word and grabs me by the throat. I had one of those moments last night. I thought I'd share it with you.

I am in 2 Chronicles right now, and last night I read the story of a King of Judah named Asa, found in chapters 14-16. Asa was a good king (so good, he gets three chapters worth of ink!). He reversed the idolatry of his predecessors and brought spiritual revival to the land. He also led the Jews to resounding victory over an invading force of a million Ethiopian and Libyan soldiers, armed only with the power of God.

When Asa had been king for 36 years, the king of Israel invaded Judah. Asa responded by making a treaty with the king of Aram (Syria) to fight on his side. This did the trick--Israel retreated back to their place, and all was well. But a prophet approached king Asa and asked him, "Why didn't you trust God to help you this time? He gave you victory over a much bigger force when you were younger. Why now do you feel you need to turn to a pagan king?" Asa was so enraged at this impertinence, he had the prophet thrown into prison. His health later declined, and along with it, his faith in God. The Scripture tells us that in his last days, he refused even to pray about the pain he was experiencing.

This story hit me hard because I have a tendency to think that my own spiritual growth is a given at this point. I am old enough that the raging hormones and vain personal ambitions of my youth seem silly. I am aware of a new maturity and wisdom that I didn't previously possess. And so it would be very natural for me to relax in the area of spiritual discipline. But I must realize that the same thing that happened to Asa can happen to me. He did far more in his youth than I have, exercised far greater faith than I have ever been called to use. But later in life, his faith was weak.

I suppose the old preachers were right: Faith is like a muscle that grows weak with disuse. Let's not forget to exercise!

Our God is Not User-Friendly

I remember taking Church history courses in seminary. I found them very interesting (I'll confess...I'm a history nerd), but also a little frustrating. Every generation of the Church had some glaring theological blind spot, some belief or practice that made me think, "How could they do that? Weren't they reading the same Bible I am?"

I am certain our generation has its share of blind spots, too. I sometimes wonder what future generations will say as they study 21st century American Christians. I suspect one criticism they will have is that we have defanged our deity. We have made God into a doting, generous grandfather-figure who never gets angry with us, never punishes us, and never wants anything but our comfort and happiness. Future generations will hear that in our songs and sermons, read it in our literature, and track the results of this unbalance view of the Almighty. It doesn't take a seminary degree to see that such an image isn't biblical.

Of course, God IS a God of grace. Hallelujah for that! Yes, He loves us infinitely. But that infinite love is balanced by an infinite holiness. The author of Hebrews reminds us, "It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." And that holiness produces some stories in the Bible that are downright scary.

We'll look at two such stories in our series, "The Difference Maker" this Sunday. The first takes up much of 2 Kings 1. The second is found in 2 Kings 2:23-25. I've never heard a sermon preached on either of these passages, so pray for me...I'm going where angels (and far better preachers) fear to tread.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The God of Justice

Take a minute to read the first Psalm. There will be a test afterward:

1 Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.

2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.

3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.

4 Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Okay, here's your test: What do you think that Psalm means?

If you said that Psalm is a promise that God is on the side of the righteous, that He's opposed to the other words, if you said that Psalm means He's a God of Justice, I would say you're right.

So...why does it so often seem that people who flagrantly flout God's laws, abuse innocent people, and live selfish, greedy lives seem to prosper, while good people can't seem to get a break? That is the subject of the message this Sunday, based on a story from 1 Kings 21. We'll see why it really does pay to do the right thing...and if you're like me, you need the encouragement!

See you Sunday.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Dallas bound

Keep me in your prayers. I head to Dallas this afternoon for a week of training in the National Church Adopt-a-School Initiative. I am excited about the opportunity to learn more about this ministry from people who have been doing it successfully for nearly 30 years. I can't wait to get started on this, but there is a lot of work to be done this summer in getting us ready for the fall. Lord willing, I'll see you on Sunday!

God of the Gentle Whisper

There's a popular praise song being sung in churches across the country these days. The chorus goes: "Every day with you, Lord, is sweeter than the day before." Like most contemporary praise choruses, it's exceptionally catchy and fun to sing. Unlike most, it's not entirely accurate (in my opinion).

In a spiritual sense, our lives DO get better every day. Though we age outwardly, we are inwardly being renewed day by day, and every day we live brings us one step closer to the great and final reunion with our Lord. But even the most committed followers of Christ will have bad days from time to time. Take a moment to read Paul's "resume" in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29. Does it sound like Paul had some rough moments in serving Christ? Jesus even promised us: "In this life you WILL have tribulation."

Even Elijah had bad days. We'll look at an extended session of darkness in Elijah's life when we study 1 Kings 19 this Sunday. Ironically, his season of depression came right after the high point of his life.

Please be prayerful for this sermon. There will surely be people there Sunday (including, perhaps, you) who are going through the valley of the shadow of death themselves. I don't expect this sermon to cure all their ills, but I hope it can inspire them to move towards hope. All of us will experience difficult times, just like Elijah. This Sunday, we'll see how God responds to us in those moments.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

How Big Is Your God?

Don't you just love Elijah? In my sermon last week, I described him as "the Dirty Harry of the Old Testament." Most of you, I'm sure, remember those Clint Eastwood movies of the 70s and 80s. In real life, Dirty Harry Calahan would be a menace to society. But in fictional terms, a lot of people resonated with a guy who would break the rules in order to get the bad guy.

Elijah was like that. He didn't care whose feelings he hurt...even King Ahab's. He was going to tell the truth. If he had to call down a little fire from heaven, so be it.

I enjoy reading the life of Elijah because I like his courage. I find it inspiring. I watch him do battle with Jezebel and her prophets, and I live vicariously through his daring moves, like a kid watching a superhero movie.

All that said, I imagine Elijah is the biblical hero I would LEAST like to meet. Why? Because he'd surely have some harsh words for me. One thing he might ask me is the title of our message this week: How big is your God? Do you really believe in the God of Israel, the God of Jesus? Do you believe in a God who is concerned about the state of the world and has the power to do something about it? Or is your divine image that of a distant old man who gives us some nice commandments to ponder, and some nice rituals to perform?

The reason he might ask me such a question is that he would find precious little evidence of the power of God in my own personal life and ministry. He would kick me in the tuchus, spiritually speaking (well, knowing Elijah, he'd probably kick me literally) and say, "If your God is Yahweh, then get out there and act like it!"

I promise there'll be no literal tuchus-kickings at Westbury this Sunday. But I hope that you'll be as inspired by Elijah's actions in 1 Kings 18 as I am.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Good Grief

I buried my dog on Memorial Day.

We adopted Rudi when she was just a puppy, and I was a youth minister who had dragged his elegant young wife to a trailer house in rural North Texas. The lady at the shelter said, "I have the sweetest little puppy for you," and she was right. When Carrie picked the little brown mutt up, the dog laid its head on her shoulder, and I knew it was love at first snuggle.

We had her for fourteen years. We weren't the type to buy her little outfits and get our family pictures taken with her (well...maybe once or twice). Still, she was every bit our first child. So much so, my wife (for whom "Cleanliness is next to godliness" is not a cliche) let her get up on the furniture whenever she wished. She was a smart little dog with one ear that pointed straight up, while the other flopped over. Our family has so many great Rudi stories.

At first, we thought she was having trouble adjusting to our new house. After weeks passed and she still wouldn't eat, we knew something more serious was wrong. We put her to sleep on a Wednesday. The vet was very sensitive, and told us about a cremation service...this would give us time to figure out what to do with Rudi's remains.

Carrie and I were both very interested in how Will would handle this. It was really his first experience with death. A child's world is full of cartoons and video games that don't show the reality of death. It may seem odd that we as parents wanted to expose our young son to something so morbid, but I believe one job of parents is to teach children how to grieve...and how to approach the end of our own lives. God seems to have the same concern. 1 Thessalonians 4:13 says, Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. That verse implies there is a distinctly Christian way to grieve.

I knew a guy once who taught at a Christian school. When a teenager at the school died tragically, teachers and students passed around a petition asking people to pray that God would raise the child from the dead. My friend didn't know what to think of such an idea. It reminds me of something I've often wondered about: How did Lazarus feel about being raised? The Bible doesn't say, but I suspect he had very mixed feelings. He probably knew that Jesus needed to raise him to prove He was the Son of God, but he surely also wished he could've stayed in heaven.

I can't say I know everything about the Christian way to grieve, but I'm pretty sure acceptance is part of it. Weeping is, of the few times Jesus weeps in Scripture is at Lazarus' tomb. God's not offended by our tears; in fact, there's a Psalm that says He keeps them in a bottle. Also, those who grieve should lean on the community of believers...let them help in practical ways. And pray...for healing, for the ability to find a "new normal," and for God to use this time of grief to deepen your own relationship with Him.

We buried Rudi at my parent's house. Ironically, their dog Schatzie had died last week, so we placed Rudi next to her, just a few feet away from Freckles, a special dog from my childhood. They haven't had much rain at Mom and Dad's this year, so the ground was rock hard. Dad helped me dig. Will asked what was in the box. When we told him it was Rudi, he said, "Let's get her out." We had to explain why we were burying her, and I told him this is what happens to everyone someday. We talked a little about heaven, too. When I finished burying the box, Will softly said, "I want Rudi." He didn't cry, but I feel like he understands just a little better.

I don't know where you come down on the whole "do dogs go to heaven" question. I'm not even sure what I believe. I want to think God has a place for dogs in the next world. If the lion will lie down with the lamb in the New Earth, maybe we'll see Rudi again. But I don't have any hard biblical evidence on my side, so that's just conjecture. On the other hand, I am absolutely sure I will see friends and loved ones who died in Christ...that's what hope is. And nothing can take that away.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

God is up to Something

This week, I read an online article written by David Crosby, pastor of First Baptist, New Orleans. It's an inspiring read, and I highly commend it if you have a few minutes: Click here.

Here's my favorite part of the article:

Sometimes, around some people, it is hard to get a thank you in edgewise. I suspicion that people who are busy trying to change their world are also very grateful as a matter of disposition.
Our environment here in New Orleans is being changed one hammer stroke at a time. For us, the progress is visible and palpable. It may be hard to extrapolate our progress to the rest of the world, but all the same principles apply whether we are looking at changing a city or changing a world. The accumulated effect of millions of tiny hammer strokes is the rebuilding of a devastated region. If multiplied throughout the world, the goal of eradicating poverty housing seems truly within reach.
Of course, the only people who hope for and expect such a transformation in our city or our world are the people swinging hammers. Hope springs eternal only when we are busy building what we hope for. If despair or resignation benched us, our inactivity reinforces the despair and quells the hope.

What I get from that is that there are three kinds of people in the world: 1) Those who do nothing about the problems all around them, 2) those who do nothing...but gripe, and 3) those who make a difference. The people in category 3 are the ones who I want to be around. They have hope and joy and a vision for the future.

Unfortunately, many of the people who have read the article instead got hung up on the fact that former president Carter is a main subject. If you read the comments below the article (including mine), you'll see they missed the point of the article entirely.

Here's the thing about category 3 people: They are the ones going with God, because God is a difference maker. That's the name of my next series of messages: The Difference Maker. They will be based on the life of Elijah, but the real subject of the sermons is God. Even when all the world seems to be in chaos and we can't see a hint of the divine, our God is up to something. He does not rest; He always finds a way to redeem. This week's first message in the series is based on 1 Kings 17. Pray with me that this series will inspire us to make a difference in our world for the Kingdom of God.

Monday, May 19, 2008

School Adoption--More Info!

After much prayer and a couple of dead-ends, we've found the local elementary school we want to adopt. McNamara Elementary is located at 8714 McAvoy, very close to Westbury. The school is around fifty years old. Three years ago, they had around 200 students who were evacuees from the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, of which around 75 still remain. In addition, many students are children of undocumented immigrants. Click here to learn more about the school. Last week, I met with principal Tiffany Chenier and Mr. Porter Renfro, who works with Communities In Schools on the McNamara campus. Both told me that the idea of Westbury adopting their school was an answer to much prayer. I left with a strong confirmation that this is indeed the place God has in mind for us to begin impacting our community in a new way. I wish we could start now! But first things first...

The first week of June, a small group of us will head to Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas to attend training in their National Church Adopt-a-School Initiative. The folks at OCBF have been working in public schools since 1985, and I have no doubt we'll learn a great deal from them. Pray for our training that week, and pray that God would call out a person or persons to serve as lay coordinators for the school adoption.

In the meantime, here are some ways you can look forward to participating in this new ministry for us:

1. Pray. Mrs. Chenier said that prayer was her school's biggest need. We'll come up with ways that folks at WBC can serve as prayer partners in this ministry. Remember, if all you can do is pray, you can do a lot!

2. Serve as a tutor or mentor. Adult involvement is a huge need at McNamara. Some kids need help with homework. Others just need an adult to take an interest in them.

3. Help beautify the campus. Mrs. Chenier showed me areas of the campus that desperately need the touch of a skilled landscaper. A more attractive campus can make such a difference in the morale of students and teachers.

As we get involved in this campus, in the lives of teachers and students, we will learn about other needs, which will lead to more ministry opportunities. My dream is that we would be a blessing to this school and to everyone associated with it. I hope this transforms us into a more outwardly focused church that is truly An Open Door to Transform our World. With God on our side, why not dream big?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

An Open Door to Transform the World

A few years ago, when violence broke out between Israel and Lebanon, a certain famous preacher who shall go umentioned here immediately proclaimed that it was a sure sign the Second Coming was imminent. "His hand is on the door!" he gleefully and confidently intoned. Some of my church members at the time asked what I thought about that. In response, I scrapped my sermon plans for that week and preached a message about how God's people should respond to disasters in the world. I don't think Jesus would have us publically express joy about the suffering of others, simply because we think it's a foreshadowing of our own exit strategy from this sorry world. What does that communicate to the lost? Something like, "So sorry to hear that people are dying...but it's all good for us. We're heaven bound and you're not--whoopee!" Don't get me wrong, I am as excited about the return of Jesus as anyone. That is our true hope. But when Jesus was here in the flesh, He responded to human suffering with compassion, not glee. And His compassion--let us not forget--was more than mere emotional pity. It was action. So, I preached, our first question when we hear of "wars and rumors of wars," famines, earthquakes, and other disasters, should not be "is this a fulfillment of prophecy?" Christ will come back at the pre-determined time, and we won't see it coming in advance. Instead, our primary concern should be, "What can we do to show Christ's love in the midst of this?"

I bring this up because we have witnessed two devastating disasters in recent days, in Myanmar and in China. Incidents like this should provoke us to pray and seek to respond. Baptist disaster relief teams are already mobilizing to address these calamities (although they, like other relief agencies, are meeting much beauracratic resistance in Myanmar), and your offerings to WBC will help with these efforts. But these incidents should also remind us that there is suffering and lostness right near our doorstep, and God's people are uniquely gifted and called to make a difference.

In the last message in our series, "An Open Door Church," we'll look at the third step in our ministry process. We want to be an open door to know God through worship, and an open door to community through Sunday School. But if we stop there, our church will be entirely inwardly focused, offering ministry only to its own members. Our church would therefore be almost completely irrelevant to the people outside our walls. Instead, we must be An Open Door to Transform the World. That idea comes from something Jesus said to the Philadelphian Christians in Revelation 3:7-8, and from Paul's use of that "open door" imagery in 1 Corinthians 16:9, Colossians 4:3, and other places.

Admittedly, this is going to the be the toughest of the three steps for us at Westbury. How will we become this kind of church? What kinds of actions will we need to expect of our members? That's what we'll talk about Sunday.