Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Keeping Our Heads in the Economic Crisis


I just read this great article on preachingtoday.com. It's by Brian Lowery, and it's a meditation on Matthew 6:25-34. He approaches the financial downturn with wit, wisdom, and best of all, a fresh application of God's Word. Enjoy...

I always do something different after I've spent a little time in the Word each morning. Sometimes I'll read a chapter from a book. Sometimes I'll jot down a few thoughts that have been rolling around in my head—sermon ideas, article ideas, ideas for ingenious inventions to be sold on the Home Shopping Network. Sometimes I'll turn on the computer and skip around the Internet for a while. Last week, after pondering the words of Matthew 6:25–34, I chose that last option. I closed my Bible, fired up my laptop, and poured over CNN.com, USAToday.com, Time.com, and other news-related hot spots.

I only needed to visit one site, because they were all talking about the same thing—the economic crisis. The headlines were endless and exclamatory: "Stock markets respond poorly to latest financial news!" "Vice President says bailout plan only has 30 percent chance of working!" "Experts claim 'no end in sight' for financial woes!" The imperative was singular: "Be worried—very worried." The doomsday chorus was almost enough to make me wonder if I should be paying better attention to those Cash4Gold.com commercials. But then I remembered that I don't have any gold objects at home. And I remembered what I'd read long before Wolf Blitzer started barking in my ear.

Perhaps the greatest witness we can offer is to refuse to bow at the altar of anxiety.
Humbled, I once again considered the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. It was a little hard to do in the midst of a Chicago winter, but I was able to use my sanctified imagination. I reminded myself that Solomon probably did have quite a wardrobe. I weighed carefully the line of reasoning that says leave tomorrow alone, for today has enough trouble of its own.
All these things were comforting—as warm as those Snuggies they sell on the Home Shopping Network (which I totally could have come up with if I'd been more disciplined about jotting down my ideas in the past). Comfort was what I needed, I suppose. But God didn't stop at comfort. He seemed to think I needed a swift kick of conviction too.Don't act like a Gentile.
Here's the section of Matthew 6:25–34 that I felt the Spirit poking me with until it cracked open my heart: "Do not worry then, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear for clothing?' For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things." And here's the part of that section that was particularly convicting: "For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things." Among all the birds, lilies, and talk of Solomon, I had missed Christ's potent word about living as a "Gentile."

The Greek word (ethnos) that hides behind the English word "Gentiles" is most often translated as "nations." Why the decision by most translations to translate the word as "Gentiles"? Because within the larger New Testament context, ethnos is often used to identify nations that are set apart from the nation of Israel. Keeping this in mind, you begin to see that Christ is saying something quite significant: among all the nations, Israel ought to stand out as the one that doesn't worry. After all, she carries with her a story that ought to bat away the slightest notion of anxiety. Israel's rich history speaks of a God who has broken the back of political figureheads, split a sea in two, toppled kingdoms, and started revolutions out of a remnant time and again. As for the Gentiles? Well, they are the ones who have been broken, swallowed up, toppled, and rendered powerless by a nation that looks like a Chihuahua among Great Danes. It's easy to see why Christ offers the imperative "do not worry" at the beginning, middle, and end of the pericope. Israel's narrative demanded that she have a backbone. Hers was a God-filled story—quite the opposite of the Gentiles' godless tale.

Of course, all my reflections on this passage thus far are highly contextualized. As you well know, a great light has now been seen by the Gentiles, and Jews and Gentiles have become one in a grafting together of the nations in Christ. Now all believers share the same stunning narrative teeming with God's providence. In turn, this shared narrative means having a backbone in the face of fear is demanded of every believer, no excuses.
This is where the conviction really begins to settle in for me, for you, for all of us. Why wouldn't we show a little backbone when the rest of the world has gone limp with fear? Our great God deserves this credit. His track record is very good; even when his actions have seemed sketchy in the moment, they have proved brilliant in hindsight.

Let's go a step further. In these troubled times, perhaps the greatest witness we can offer as the people of God is to refuse to bow at the altar of anxiety. Wouldn't it speak volumes if we didn't tremble like schoolchildren when the market takes another bear-ish turn? Isn't it crucial that we don't embrace the Gentile spirit? While countless others flit around without an anchoring narrative (besides the decidedly American narrative), wouldn't it be nice to stand out as a people who cling to a reassuring story that fuels nothing but confident expectation?
As of late, I've been forcing myself to read every section of the Sermon on the Mount in the cool shadow of how it begins—namely, the Beatitudes and the missional call toward being salt and light and a city on a hill. In keeping with that practice, I cannot help but offer this word to you and to those to whom I'll preach in the months ahead: a city on a hill should not be worried, especially for the sake of the surrounding cities watching it closely. If those who have hope lose hope, what witness is there for the hope that is in Christ.

Rudyard Kipling writes, "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs … you'll be a man, my Son." Should the church keep her head when all about her are losing theirs, she'll be much more than Kipling gets at in his poem. She'll be the very witness she's called to be in a trembling world filled with troubled headlines—and who knows how many headless people will suddenly find their souls by way of that witness.

Brian Lowery is managing editor of PreachingToday.com and co-editor of 1001 Quotations That Connect (Zondervan, 2009).

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What Is Heaven?

We’ve all heard funeral sermons on John 14:1-3. I myself have used that passage in dozens of funerals. Perhaps at a funeral, you heard the preacher say something like this: “Old Joe never had a mansion down here on Earth. But he’s living in a mansion now! And think about how long Jesus has been preparing that place. If the Master Carpenter has been working on Joe’s place for 2000 years, can we even imagine how nice it is?” I’ve heard some version of that countless times in my life; I’ve probably even said it at least once. And it is indeed very reassuring. But in recent years, I’ve realized that those sentiments reflect an inaccurate picture of what Heaven is. First of all, the word John uses doesn’t mean “mansion.” It’s the Greek word monai, which simply means “a place to stay.” Jesus is just telling His disciples, “My Dad has a house so big, there’s a room just for you. And I’ll make sure it’s ready for you when you get there.” But more importantly, it ignores these words: I will come again. According to the Bible, if old Joe was a believer in Jesus, he is indeed in a wonderful place right now. But he’s not home. Not yet.

So what is "home" for those of us who follow Jesus? If we don't get there when we die, when will we finally arrive? And what will it be like there? Those are the questions we'll address this Sunday in our message, "What Is Heaven?" Please be praying for this sermon series. There will be an ad about the series in this Saturday's Chronicle religion section. We've been handing our flyers to parents who use our Day School, Child Care and Mother's Day Out, and I even took a stack to the YMCA this week when I worked out. Hopefully we'll see plenty of new people this Sunday and in the weeks to come. Hopefully some of them will be friends, neighbors and co-workers you've invited. Let's pray and see what God does.

Busy week at Westbury

If you'll pardon the pun, "Hope"fully, you already know this, but...

This weekend, we all get to meet Hope McNeil, our candidate for Minister to Children. This Saturday, March 28, members of our councils and deacons (and their spouses) will get to meet Hope and her husband Brian in room C-109. At 10:30, all other church members (including children and parents) are invited to meet them in that same room. At 11:30, Hope and Brian will eat lunch with the workers in our children's ministry.

Sunday morning, just in case you can't make it to the church on Saturday, Hope will be in our Children's Building. If you'd like to meet her during the Bible Study hour (9:00), track her down there. During our worship service, she will give her testimony. Then at the end of the service, we'll have the opportunity to vote on calling her to lead our ministry to children and their families.

Personally, I am thrilled about this! Unfortunately, I am performing a wedding out of town for a dear family friend, so I will have to miss the Saturday activities. But I can't wait for Sunday, and I can't wait for Hope to start working here. We have a great children's ministry. But I think Hope has the right blend of skills and heart to take our ministry to the next level. Of course, I'm going to have to knock it off with the "hope" jokes, but that's okay....

BUT WAIT! THERE'S MORE! (in my best Billy Mayes voice)

Don't forget that this Thursday night, we're hosting the Baylor Men's Choir for a concert at 7:00. Saturday morning, many of our members will be participating in the Willow Waterhole Run/Walk (more info here). Our youth group will also be holding a Garage Sale that same morning, from 8-4. I just found out there is also a special sneak preview event for the garage sale on Friday night from 5-7. For just $5, you get dibs on all the great loot without having to fight the riff-raff on Saturday (okay, that's not exactly how they put it, but you get the point).

In addition to Hope, the worship service on Sunday is going to be special for other reasons. The jazz band is playing, the youth choir is singing, and the message will be "What Is Heaven?" I didn't say the message would be Heaven...but you knew that already. Can't wait to see you there!

PS: Don't forget that next Friday, April 3, is Don Piper night.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Truth About Heaven

Studies show that--even in our increasingly non-religious society--a vast majority of people believe in life after death. But there are an endless variety of opinions about what that life will be like. Our images of Heaven are influenced by classical literature (Dante's Inferno, for instance), popular culture (movies like Ghost, Heaven Can Wait, What Dreams May Come, and bestselling books like The Five People You Meet In Heaven), world religions, and even some kooky ideas that Christians tend to believe. But what does the Bible say about Heaven? This Sunday, we'll begin a series of sermons called "The Truth About Heaven."

I have two goals for this series: First, that we followers of Christ would get an idea of what our future home is like. That vision is what the Bible calls hope, and when hope becomes vivid in our hearts and minds, the world and Devil have no weapons to defeat us. That hope transforms us and motivates us to live eternally significant lives. Hope is a foolproof solution to spiritual mediocrity.

Second, I hope that these messages will help persuade people to give their lives to Christ. I want to challenge each of our members to invite someone to church during this series. Here's a link to the page on our website that gives the sermon titles and dates: The Truth About Heaven You can send that link to a friend through email, or print it out and hand them a copy. We'll have some paper copies this Sunday for you to use in inviting friends as well. Please pray with me that this series will accomplish those goals.

Do you want to do some personal study on the topic of Heaven? I can recommend two books that have been enormously helpful to me in preparing for this series. Heaven, by Randy Alcorn, is a look at biblical teaching on eternal life. Alcorn is such an engaging writer, and his topic is so fascinating, the book is hard to put down once you start. Then there's Surprised By Hope, by the English scholar N. T. Wright. Whereas Alcorn is mainly concerned with giving his readers a guided tour of Heaven, Wright is more concerned about the question: "Based on what we know about Heaven, how should we live right now?" Wright is a great writer, as well, and when you read his books, the voice inside your head has a British accent. At least, it does for me.

For now, you may enjoy reading this brief article on Heaven by one of my favorite authors and preachers Joe McKeever: Get Ready, Heaven!

I can't wait to start this series. I hope to see you there.

Set Your Minds on Things Above

The late Lewis Smedes used to ask his students a question: "Who wants to go to Heaven?" Everyone would raise their hand. Then he would say, "Be honest, now: Who wants to go to Heaven today?" Most hands would drop. A few students, cautiously, would keep their hands in the air, wondering if that was the "right" answer, looking around to see if they were the only ones. They were.

I think most Christians feel the same way. Of course, I've met Christians who were nearing the end of a long, painful battle with terminal disease who couldn't wait to go to Heaven. I've heard testimonies of martyrs who rejoiced at the prospect of leaving this world. But most of us are far too comfortable in this world to yearn for another one. Especially one we've never seen, and know little about. Yet according to Colossians 3, we're supposed to "set our minds on things above." In other words, we ought to think about Heaven all the time. It should be our favorite place in the world, the uppermost goal in our lives, the inspiration and motivation for everything we do. The hope of Heaven should empower us to overcome every obstacle. As the old Baptist preacher Vance Havner put it, "It's the thought of dying that makes life worth living."

But how can we set our minds on a place we've never been? Can we even comprehend such a place? And isn't there a danger that we'll become "so heavenly minded we're no earthly good?

As we begin this series called "The Truth About Heaven" this Sunday, we'll consider all of those objections. We'll talk about what it really means to set our minds on things above. And maybe, just maybe, we'll walk out of church on Sunday with a new, living hope...a hope that doesn't depend on the stock market, that doesn't require a bailout, that won't depreciate over time. That hope--true Hope--doesn't disappoint. I hope to see you Sunday, along with many, many guests.