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.