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.

Monday, May 12, 2008

"This is it!"

I preached on community yesterday, then I read this article on the internet this morning. I think it makes an important point to tack on to what I said in my message:

A few years ago, a friend assembled a weekend work party to lay sod in his yard. The sun was shining. He had fresh coffee and cinnamon buns. And the crew he'd called together were all good friends. We liked each other immensely.

Then Al said, "Guys, do you realize something? This is it! This is it!" We stopped.
"Al, this is what?"
"This is community."
We all murmured our assent and congratulated one another. Yes. This is it.

But then I said, "Al, this is great, but I don't think this is it. I like you all too much. Add a person or two to this company who lacks social graces, who looks different, who's needy, smelly, and irritating. If we truly loved a person like that, then that would be it."

Silence. Then one of guys said, "Uh, Mark. We've accepted you, haven't we?"
We all laughed, but they granted my point.

We're always tempted to turn the church into a club. With our kind of people. With a strict decorum designed to keep up appearances and keep out the, shall we say, undesirables. But Jesus said it's no credit to us if we love those who love us—our kind of people. We don't need God to love them; natural affinities are sufficient. But you, Jesus said, are to love the least of these and the worst of these—losers, enemies. That takes God: a supernatural subversion of our own prejudices, and a heaven-borne infusion of God's prodigal love.

I preach that. I try to live that.

A year or so after our sod-laying party, Wanda arrived. Wanda was not our kind of people. She was thirsty alright, for beer, port, rum, vanilla extract, whatever. She had only one way to pay for that. I'll let you guess.

But she was desperate, and thirsty for something else. She called the church one day, wondering if she could see a pastor, and now! Two of us met with her. She told us her troubled story. I told her about the woman at the well whose life, like Wanda's, wasn't going well. But she met Jesus and he offered her living water. I explained what living water was, and asked Wanda if she'd like some.
"Oh yeah!" she said. We prayed. She confessed, repented, surrendered. Drank deep.

The other pastor said, "Now, Wanda, this Sunday will be your first time in church. Don't feel you have to fit in right away. You can sit at the back if you like, come late, leave early. Whatever is comfortable."
Wanda looked at him sideways. "Why would I do that?" she said. "I've been waiting for this all my life."

That Sunday, Wanda was the first to arrive. She sat at the front, and loudly agreed with everything I said. She was the last to leave. The next Sunday, same thing, except she brought a friend, one of her kind of people. I preached on servanthood. My main point: if you've tasted the love of Jesus, you'll want to serve. It was Communion Sunday. In those days, we called our elders The Servant Leadership Team. I asked the Servant Leaders to come and help with Communion. That day only two of our team were in church. They straggled to the front.
All Wanda heard was the word servant. And she had been listening intently to my sermon: if you've tasted the love of Jesus, you'll want to serve.

She walked straight up to serve Communion with the other two "servants."

I flinched.

Then I remembered Luke 7, Jesus' words to Simon the Pharisee as a woman, not unlike Wanda, washed Jesus' feet: "Do you see this woman?"

Do you see her?

I leaned over to Wanda and said, "Since this is your very first time doing this, do you mind if I help?"

So Wanda and I served Communion. The best part was watching the faces of the people I love and serve and pray for and preach to.

Not one flinched. They saw her.

This is it.

Mark Buchanan, "This Is It, " Leadership journal (Spring 2008)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

An Open Door to Community

I once received a pretty good sermon illustration from an online source I subscribe to. It described a man going to visit a friend who was a guard at a prison mental hospital. When he found his friend, the man was out in the prison yard with dozens of inmates. The friend told the guard, "I'd be scared to death out here among all these criminal types. There must be a hundred of them, and only three or four of you guards. Aren't you afraid they'll band together and overpower you?" "Naw," said the guard, "lunatics never unite." I used that illustration in a sermon at another church, making the point that the Devil doesn't fear the Church anymore, even though there are millions of Christians in America, and even though we have abundant spiritual resources at our disposal, because we never manage to work together.

Afterwards, a man in the church told me how much he appreciated the story. He had come to our church years before from another church in that same small town. He had been forced to leave that church because the people in control blamed him for his divorce, even though his wife was the one who had left. He chuckled and said, "You're right. Lunatics don't unite." His unspoken implication to me was that he was still waiting to see if this church would be different, if his new spiritual family would show the ability to love one another.

We're in the middle of a three-part sermon series at WBC asking the question, "What if our church really followed Jesus?" Last week, we learned that a true Christ-following church would be an open door for people to experience and know God in worship. But there's more to the Christian life than loving God; Jesus (you'll recall) said that the greatest commandment was really a two-parter: Love God and love your neighbor.

It's amazing how much time is spent in the New Testament epistles talking about that very subject. It seems God designed the Church in part to be a laboratory where we learn how to love other people. A local church is supposed to be a place where we pray for each other, support each other, rebuke each other when necessary, learn to forgive and overlook others' mistakes and foibles, rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. The Greek word for that is koinonia. In Baptist life, we've traditionally called in fellowship, but that word has lost its snap over the when people hear "fellowship," they think of covered-dish dinners. Instead, we're going to use the word community. Ironically, in our fast-paced, digitized world, an old word like community captures the longings of people's hearts.

Why do we need community in order to be true followers of Jesus? What does real community look like? That's what we'll talk about Sunday.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Special Sundays

Since this is my first Mother’s Day at WBC, it’s probably a good time to talk about my own philosophy of how churches should treat “special days.” Many pastors feel that it is important to preach a special, holiday-specific sermon on days like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and the Sunday nearest July 4th, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Valentine’s Day, and so on. Many people expect their pastors to do so. And so perhaps many of the people who will attend Westbury this Sunday will come expecting a message on motherhood, perhaps from Proverbs 31 or the story of Mary.

I am of a different philosophy. I am fine with such holidays being observed in another part of the worship service. For instance, this Sunday we will recognize all mothers early in the service. On July 6, we will sing some songs that speak of God’s goodness to our nation. On other Sundays, we recognize veterans, graduates, and other people as the situation requires. But I rarely refer to these events in my preaching. I hope that doesn’t disappoint you. But if it does, I want to explain why I do not observe holidays in my preaching (aside from holidays that correspond with specific biblical events such as Christmas and Easter), and give you a chance—through your comments on this blog—to let me know how you feel. So here is my (admittedly rather long) explanation:

1. I believe preaching should be as biblical as possible.

The Bible does not speak of holidays like Mother’s Day or Independence Day because they did not exist in the biblical era. One could easily make the argument that if we want to be biblical, we would preach an annual Passover message or Pentecost sermon. True, the Bible does speak of mothers and duty to our country, and so there is certainly nothing “un-biblical” about a preacher addressing these subjects and tying them to specific holidays. But the sheer amount of biblical content on these subjects is so limited, I feel that a preacher who feels compelled to preach on them every year would be giving his people essentially the same message annually, to the exclusion of other important scriptural themes. My job as a preacher is to help you get a balanced diet of God’s Word.

2. I believe preaching should be as inclusive as possible.

In one church I know of, there is a pair of ladies who skip church every Mother’s Day. They rent a hotel room somewhere else and have their own spiritual retreat. Why? One of these ladies is childless, in spite of years of trying with her now-deceased husband to produce a baby. Every year, as the church celebrates motherhood, she feels like a bit of a failure as a woman, especially since the message is directed only to women who are raising children. Don’t get me wrong; I was raised by an outstanding mother, and I am married to another one. I strongly value godly moms. But when we focus on a narrow group such as mothers, we exclude singles, the childless, and…well, men from the message. I believe I should “cast a broad net” in my preaching, speaking to the life situations of as many people as possible, instead of focusing on select groups.

3. I believe preaching should be as God-centered as possible.

Early in my pastoral ministry, Carrie and I took a vacation. I was looking forward to going to church on vacation, worshipping without having a sermon delivery hanging over my head, and being fed from the Word rather than being the one doing the feeding. We arrived at church ready for a true worship experience…not realizing that we had walked into this church’s annual Memorial Day service. After a long slideshow presentation recognizing the graduating seniors, we had several congregational songs which were very patriotic but which had no spiritual content. Then an old deacon got up and recited (from memory) a poem about “The Ragged Old Flag.” By the time the pastor got up to preach, all he had time to do was give a brief devotional thought encouraging us to write a letter to someone who had lost a loved one in a war. We left feeling cheated. Don’t get me wrong; As the son and grandson of veterans, I am all for patriotism. But I go to church to praise God, and we hadn’t even remotely done that. A few years later, we went to the same town on vacation, and attended the same church. At the start of the service, their new pastor got up and said (I promise I’m not making this up!), “Welcome to our annual Flag Day service.” Then we had the same patriotic songs, the same old deacon, the same poem.

I believe we should keep our worship God-centered. Our primary concern should be enabling as many people as possible to have a genuine encounter with the real God. We love our mothers and our country, but what we do on Sunday mornings at 10:30 is about Jesus.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

An Open Door to Knowing God

All this year, I have been preaching on the theme, "What if we really followed Jesus?" We've looked at the difference that would make in our relationship with non-believers. We've also looked at how it would affect our relationship with God. But here's a tantalizing thought: What would it look like if an entire church were not merely religious, not simply moral, but were all unaminously, radically committed to following Jesus? Can you imagine such a church?

This Sunday, I'll begin a three-part series on what that kind of church might look like: An Open-Door Church. The first thing about such a church is that it would be a place where people would meet God in worship. Anyone--no matter their background or predispositions--would know in our worship services that God was present and would know that they could have an encounter with Him. How do we get to be that kind of a church? Let's pray together, and we'll talk about it this Sunday!

WBC on your TV

We recently shot a television commercial that will soon air on Comcast. Yes, that's right, we'll be on TV (even if only for thirty seconds).

Here's how it all happened: As you may be aware, last year our church was blessed with a significant budget surplus. As a result, we were faced with a rare and wonderful problem: What should we do with all that extra money? The church made the wise decision to give the surplus monies to our administrative and church life councils to find the proper way to use them. Some of this money has already been spent on addressing physical needs on our church campus apart from the sanctuary renovation. The Church Life Council voted a few months ago to set aside some of this money for television advertising. Our thought was that we would try this out...if it helps us reach some people, it will be worth it.

Randy Mitchell researched TV advertising and found that we could afford to shoot and air an ad on Comcast cable TV. I met with the Comcast folks a few weeks ago and found out more about the process. I wrote up a script (my Radio-TV degree from UH finally came in handy), they tweaked it a bit, and we set up a shoot time. Two weeks ago, Ricardo Amell from Comcast came out to shoot the ad. It took a couple of hours (and required an unexpected cameo from our receptionist, Harriet Ward), but I think the end result is good.

In designing this ad, I wanted to avoid the trap that most church TV ads fall into: The "Look at all our great programs...our church is better than yours!" trap. I wanted the ad to specifically appeal to non-church people, not to members of other congregations. I wanted it to speak of Jesus, more than about Westbury. In other words, I wanted this to be something God could use to draw people to Himself, whether they ever come to WBC or not. So, tell me what you think:

Our Ad

I'd love to hear your comments. Also, ideas for other types of ads we could do would be welcome. Please forward this link to your friends. Use it to invite people to WBC.

As for the broadcast schedule, here is how it will go; The ad will only air on Comcast, so if you use an antenna or a sattelite dish (or another cable company), you won't see this on your TV. It is scheduled to air on Fridays and Saturdays between 6 AM and midnight during May, June and July on the following channels: ABC family, ESPN2, Liftetime, The Learning Channel, and TBS. Hopefully, that gives us a wide enough range to reach a variety of people.

Pray that God will use this ad to reach many "pennies" with His amazing love.

National Day of Prayer

Today (May 1--goodness, is it already May?) is the National Day of Prayer. All across our country, people will gather to pray for their families, their communities, and for our country. If you are interested in participating in such a prayer gathering locally, you can find information at the National Day of Prayer task force website: click here.

This Saturday, we'll be having our annual National Day of Prayer breakfast at WBC. The breakfast is free of charge and will be held in Parlor D (email me at if you need more information about how to get there). In addition to good food, we'll hear a message from Gary Long, pastor of Willow Meadows Baptist Church. We will also have corporate prayer times for our church, local, state and national leaders, and other issues of concern. I hope to see you there!