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.