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.