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.