Thursday, May 28, 2009

Prayer 101: Prayer that Transforms Us

There are so many great things going on at WBC right now. We're a little more than a week away from voting in a new youth minister, Stephen Ray. I'm thrilled about him getting started. I think the search committee did an excellent job of sifting through some really strong candidates to find just the right one for us. Hope McNeil is off to a great start in our ministry to children. She begins a new summer kids' program this Wednesday, and VBS is right around the corner. Attendance is strong, our financial situation is very solid (in spite of the uncertain economy), and we've got some exciting plans on the horizon.

But none of it means anything without the power of God. Our buildings, our trained staff, our programs and our money are utterly useless if God does not choose to empower us. The only way to ensure that we will accomplish what is needed is for each of us to pray daily. That's why we're in the middle of this series right now that I am calling "Prayer 101." We are going to look at several types of prayer in this series (see the list of sermon titles in the previous post). But this Sunday's may just be the most important message of them all. We will discuss praying for spiritual transformation. We'll be studying Psalm 51, which the ancient scribes believed was written by David after he had finally come clean about his affair with Bathsheba, and his murderous attempts to cover it up.

As I was preparing the message this week, I felt as though God were saying to me, "You have no idea how many people are carrying hidden stuff in their heart that separates them from me. This message could help them get right." Please pray for this worship service. I know that in any group of Christians, there will be folks who have rationalized their own self-destructive sins. There will be others who are terrified to confront their flaws, afraid that God and His church will reject them. If David could get straight with God after the horrible things he had done--and in such a way that God would call him "a man after my own heart"--then there is hope for all of us. Let's talk about how to pray in such a way that we're not just forgiven, but transformed.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Prayer 101

I'm beginning a new series this week on prayer. I'm calling it "Prayer 101." In our survey of the congregation last fall, many of you said you were dissatisfied with your current prayer life. We'll be looking at some of the many prayers that are listed in Scripture, and learning how to have a balanced prayer life.

Just a disclaimer: I am not a believer in the "Health and Wealth" Gospel. God is not a combination safe in the sky, who we can manipulate into giving us what we want if we pray the exact right words. Nor is He a capricious car salesman, who will give us a good deal if we haggle long enough to wear Him down. One of the best quotes I have ever read on the subject is this: "The point of prayer is not to bring about your will in Heaven, but to bring about God's will on Earth." Amen. So this series will not be about "How to get what you ask for." Instead, it will be, "How to experience the great things God has planned for us and the world around us by unleashing His power through prayer." Yeah, that's a long title. So I guess "Prayer 101" will have to do.

This week, we'll look at Jesus' words to His disciples when they asked Him, "Teach us to pray." It's found in Luke 11:1-3, if you want a sneak preview. The rest of the sermon titles are as follows:

May 31 Prayer That Transforms Us, Psalm 51.

June 7 How to Pray for Our Church Ephesians 3:14-21

June 14 When Your Prayer Isn’t Answered, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

June 21 Guest preacher, Mikado Hinson of University of Houston FCA

June 28 How to Pray For Those Who Don’t Believe, Romans 10:1

July 5 How To Pray For Our Nation, Psalm 46.

Year One of Our School Adoption

This morning, I had the honor of serving as the guest speaker at McNamara Elementary School's fourth grade graduation ceremony. Tomorrow, I will get to speak at the fifth grade ceremony, also. This is the first year McNamara has held two graduations. Next year, McNamara will be a pre-K through 4th grade campus. The current 4th and 5th graders will both be headed to the new Sugar Grove Academy, a 5th and 6th grade campus.

I had a great time, as I always do when I visit McNamara. Our first year adopting this school has been incredibly rewarding. I have been SO very proud of our people for rising to this new challenge. So many of you have volunteered in ways big and small. Last Friday, McNamara held its volunteer appreciation event, and those of us who attended were blessed beyond telling. If you were not able to come, please drop by the office and pick up a free gift from the staff at McNamara.

But here's the BIG news: Today Mrs. Chenier announced the preliminary TAKS scores. TAKS is the standardized test by which the state measures a school's effectiveness. These scores have a tremendous impact on school enrollment--parents will find a way NOT to send their kids to the neighborhood school if it's not doing well--and enrollment determines funding. So the TAKS is a big deal. Using TAKS scores, schools are graded on the following scale:

Unacceptable, Acceptable, Recognized, Exemplary.

A couple of years ago, McNamara was declared unacceptable. How about this year? I'll let Mrs. Chenier's email speak for itself:

"Pastor Berger,

I want to share some good news with you. McNamara’s preliminary TAKS scores (percentages of students passing) are as follows:

TAKS Reading – 80%
TAKS Math – 81%
TAKS Science – 89%
TAKS Writing – 93%
"This gives us a preliminary rating of ‘Recognized’ for next year. We are so excited and thank
God is faithful."

He is indeed! Now, let's be honest: Mrs. Chenier and her faculty had McNamara on the upswing before we got involved. But isn't it great to see that our ministry there has already had such a positive impact! What an amazing answer to prayer, and confirmation that we're doing the right thing! Please do me a favor: Write a card of encouragement and congratulations to Mrs. Chenier and her staff this week. Let her know you're from WBC. Here's the address:

McNamara Elementary
8714 McAvoy
Houston, TX 77074

One more thing: I met the principal of Sugar Grove Academy today at the graduation ceremony. He said, "If you think your church is up to it, I'll be in touch with you about partnering with us next year." Hmmm...could God be up to something bigger than we anticipated here?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

How Should We Live in Light of Eternity?

Larry Ramsour is an evangelist who has done substantial mission work in Nepal, a country where the Gospel is spreading rapidly but the vast majority of the population practices Hinduism. One day as he rode in a taxi in Nepal, the driver honked his horn and bumped a cow in the road, trying to force her to move. Ramsour said, "As a Hindu, aren't you supposed to treat cows as sacred creatures?" The driver mumbled something about the difference between beliefs and life in the real world, and continued honking.

As Christians, are we any different? This Sunday, we'll conclude a series of sermons on Heaven. I hope you've learned half as much as I have, and that you are inspired to continue studying this subject in the Scriptures and through books like Randy Alcorn's Heaven and N. T. Wright's Surprised By Hope. But if we really believe what the Bible teaches about Heaven, it will have a powerful impact on the way we live. We'll see how in this final message, as we look at the life of Paul, a man who made a profound impact on Earth because He knew what was awaiting him in Heaven.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

What About People Who Don't Know Jesus?

This is the sermon in my series "The Truth About Heaven," that I didn't want to preach. By nature, I'm an optimistic guy. I don't like to dwell on stuff that brings me or others down. But there are realities in our world that aren't sunshine and roses. There are hard questions about life here and the life beyond that we cannot ignore. It would irresponsible for serious Christians not to face such issues.

This is as real and hard an issue as there is. Missiologists estimate that up 1/3 of the world's population hasn't even heard the name of Jesus. At least 2/3 are not professing Christians (to say nothing of those whose "faith" is nothing more than a baptism when they were infants). In our own country, a recent study shows that the number of professing Christians in our own nation has declined rapidly in the last decade, and the fastest growing religious group in America are those who profess no religion whatsoever (for more on that, see the post below this one, "Snapshots of Faith in America"). Beyond all these statistics, we all know of friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers who have no relationship with Christ, many of who show no interest in obtaining such a relationship. What will become of these people after this life is through? To ignore such a question, we would have to be heartlessly indifferent, intentionally obtuse, like the prosperous, oblivious Germans who lived within walking distance of the death camps.

This Sunday, we'll explore what the Bible says--and doesn't say--about these difficult issues. And we'll find out what God truly expects us to do about it. Please be there if you can!

Snapshots of Faith in America

Since this week's sermon is about the eternal destiny of people who don't believe in Jesus, I thought this article was especially appropriate. It comes from one of my favorite blogs, "Out of Ur," and is written by my favorite preacher, John Ortberg. Whether you've seen the study it references or not, you need to read this.

John Ortberg: Snapshots of Religious Life
What do the recent surveys tell us about the future of faith?

by John Ortberg

Snapshot: The recently released American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) indicates that faith is going down across the board. The number of people who identify themselves as Christian has decreased by 11 percent in a generation. The single fastest-growing category when it comes to religious affiliation is “None,” which grew from 8 percent to 15 percent since 1990.

The “Nones” are the single biggest group in the state of Vermont, at 34 percent of the state’s population. And “None” was the only religious category to grow in all 50 states.One of the other fastest growing categories is “Don’t Know/confused.” (You can supply your own mainline humor here. In fact, the “two-party system” of evangelical versus mainline Christianity that I grew up with is collapsing. In an ironic return to Reformation language, in the United States “evangelical” will soon be synonymous with “Protestant.”)

Barry Kosmin, who co-authored the survey, commented that more than ever before “people are just making up their own stories of who they are. They say, ‘I’m everything. I’m nothing. I believe in myself.’” He said that faith is increasingly treated as a fashion statement that serves as a vehicle for self-expression rather than a transcendent commitment which demands costly devotion.

One respondent to a version of the story in USA Today said: “None of my friends believe in God. When the subject of religion comes up around the table, we all just mock it. It’s a source of ridicule.” 27 percent of Americans do not even expect a religious funeral at their death. The survey doesn’t indicate how many are hoping to skip death altogether.

Snapshot: In the entertainment section of The San Francisco Chronicle recently, someone asked Mick LaSalle, the movie critic, what kind of movie will never be re-made. He answered by pointing to films like Going My Way, and forties films that starred Bing Crosby as a young parish priest. Religion is simply no longer accepted as part of the national fabric, he said. The one kind of movie that is most unlikely to be re-made today is one that assumes faith as a kind of national backdrop.

Snapshot: I was talking to some young church leaders recently about how, twenty years ago, if someone wanted to look for a model of what an effective church might look like in the future, they would generally go to a place like Willow Creek or Saddleback. But these younger leaders said it was no longer apparent where they should go to see what church might look like in another twenty years.

Snapshot: Tom Klegg and Warren Bird noted that if the unchurched population in the US were its own nation, it would be the fifth most populated nation on the planet, after China, the former Soviet Union, India, and Brazil.

Snapshot: A religion reporter for the LA Times wrote an article, and later a book, describing how he lost his faith in the process of covering his beat. He said that article brought in exponentially more positive emails than anything else he’d ever written.

All of which leads me to ask: Are we witnessing the process of secularization here in America similar to what Europe experienced in the middle of the twentieth century?
It’s not a matter of new evidence being introduced that makes the message of Jesus less likely to be true. What makes a living faith cease to be a live option is much more subtle and complex. It often has more to do with cultural shifts and attitudes that move gradually over time until a tipping point suddenly reveals them.

The question is not one of Kingdom Anxiety. The Kingdom of God has been doing very well, and will continue to flourish no matter the ebbs of flows from one century and continent to another. Phillip Jenkins has aptly chronicled how the explosion of the church in our day has shifted East and South.

He has also, in his most recent fascinating book, chronicled how Christianity was deeply rooted in much of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa for over 800 years, only to die out over centuries.
I hope what we are witnessing in the United States is not such a trend. I don’t have any magic answers if it is. But it’s a good thing to lift our heads up out of our own churches and projects, and look around the neighborhood.

By the way, if you’re involved in helping to lead a church, and you wonder whether giving it the best you have to offer matters—it does.

John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.

The National Day of Prayer

Today is the National Day of Prayer. I'll be part of the program at the city of Bellaire, at the gazebo behind city hall. Join me if you're able. But whether we pray today or any day, I think we should understand just how seriously God takes our prayers:

In Revelation 5:6-8, the apostle John gives us a glimpse of what he saw in his time in Heaven’s throne room:

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

There’s a lot of great detail in that passage, but notice the final image John gives us: golden bowls of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. Incense was an important part of worship in the Old Testament era. Fragrant herbs “beaten small” according to a specially designated formula, were to accompany every offering brought by the Israelites. This same incense was burned every day on the altar of the tabernacle, as a constant reminder of the holiness of God. Later, incense was one of the three gifts brought by the Magi to the home of the infant Jesus, God’s greatest sacrifice. John calls on both of these images here in Revelation.

Did John see literal bowls of incense in Heaven? I doubt it. Jesus isn’t literally a lamb that has been slain, and there aren’t literally seven spirits of God. But he chose this image deliberately. It tells us at least two important things about prayer: first, that it is a pleasing sacrifice to God. When we pray, we are communing with our Father. Think back to our childhood. Our dad knew the difference between the times when we came to him for the car keys or for money to give the ice cream man, and the times we just chose to be with him…to go with him to work, to go watch a ball game, or just to sit in his lap. Our God knows the difference, too. And we are rewarded with the gift of His presence and the assurance of His love.

The second thing this image tells us is that our prayers matter to God. He keeps them in His bowls. When I was a young boy, I spent a week with my aunt. She loved to shop. One day, when she was drifting through what my parents would call a “junk shop,” I saw a couple of things I thought my parents would like. It made me feel very grown up to buy souvenirs for my parents, as they had often done for me when they were away from me. I don’t remember what I bought my mom, but I remember buying my dad a small wooden box. My childlike idea was that he would keep special stuff in there. A few years ago, I was going through my dad’s bathroom drawer looking for something else, and found that box. I opened it, and inside were notes that I had written him, long forgotten by me. It made me realize how much my dad loves me. It also made me wish I had written him more notes over the years. God hears our prayers. Not a single word goes unheard or unheeded. They are never forgotten. So let us pray today, and every day.