Thursday, March 31, 2011

Little Guys Rule

This week, we'll be looking at two short parables found in Matthew 13:31-33.

I want you to imagine that, a little over 2000 years ago, a group of highly intelligent, accomplished saints came to God the Father in Heaven’s throne room with their plan to redeem the world. I picture a couple of mega-church pastors, a few successful CEOs, a marketing guru or two, and maybe even a few military commanders and Hall of Fame coaches. I know they didn’t have any of those things 2 millennia ago…just work with me, people. I picture the conversation going a little something like this:

“Lord, the world you created is a mess. Something has to be done!”

Oh….you figured that out all on your own, did you? Well, what do you propose?

Funny you should ask, Father. We’ve come up with a wonderful plan to straighten things out down there. We propose a pre-emptive, unilateral, full-scale invasion. You charge in with some of these angelic warriors you’ve got around here in sort of a shock-and-awe thing and, frankly, Lord, just the sight of them will scare the sin out of most of the world. But there will undoubtedly be some hard cases, so you wipe them out, make an example of them, and poof! Hasta la vista, evil! But that’s just step one.”

“Step two is that we set up a new-and-improved way of getting your message across. I know that for centuries, you’ve had the Law and the Prophets to help your people know how to live. But with all due respect, it hasn’t so much worked out, has it? The Law is a beautiful thing, and you obviously put a lot of work into it, but honestly, it’s pretty hard for people to get into. We don’t like to use the word “boring,” but let’s just say there are more…appealing ways to present your core values than a bunch of rules carved on a rock. And we’ve looked into these prophets, and our one-word response is, seriously? You’ve got Elijah, a hairy man wearing a leather loincloth, roasting people with fire from heaven. Elisha’s basically Elijah, but bald. Moses has a murder rap, Isaiah runs around buck naked, Jeremiah’s a crybaby, and Ezekiel’s visions indicate he’s been eating the wrong mushrooms, if you know what we mean. Hosea’s okay, but his wife is a prostitute…really.”

“So we propose Covenant 2.0. You set up some very clear, concise, compelling guidelines for life. You get some real attractive people to spread your message for you…athletes, entertainers, successful business people. You want a good face on this thing. And you set your bar high. No more of this “Send me your widows, orphans and aliens” stuff. Make it an exclusive thing, like the club everyone wants to get into. It’ll feed on itself, you see.”

But that's not how God did it, is it? In fact, if you look back through the history of God’s actions in this world, He does His most important work through people who seem small, insignificant, or even disreputable. This isn’t something He does occasionally just to prove a point. It’s His standard MO. It’s not that He doesn’t love people who are wealthy, successful, or attractive. But every person He chose in Scripture had some serious mark against them. Yet He chose them anyway. That’s the point of these two parables: God’s Kingdom starts in insignificance. Why does He do that? And what does that mean for us as a church and as individuals? Those are the questions we'll be exploring this Sunday.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What God is up to at WBC

What is God up to at Westbury? Sometimes we get lulled into thinking that the Sunday morning worship service IS the main thing, and everything else is extra. Worship is indeed important, and I look forward to it every week. But there are other exciting, world-changing, Christ-exalting things going on at WBC. God is at work in and through our church in a variety of ways around the clock. For instance:

Our partnership with McNamara Elementary, in its third year, continues to be fruitful for both WBC and the school. Each Tuesday when I pray with Mrs. Chenier and Mrs. Taylor, I see the presence of God on that campus. Recently, Kristy Davidson, who volunteers weekly at McNamara, told me about a little boy who she has been helping with his reading all this year. It has been discouraging at times, since the boy is far behind his peers. But a few weeks ago, he volunteered to read aloud to the class. When he was done, his classmates gave him a spontaneous ovation, and he beamed with pride.

Our partnership with Braes Interfaith Ministries is just as important. Every week, WBC members help the poorest residents of our community in a variety of ways. Meanwhile, our deacons are helping people who cannot afford necessary house repairs through their His Helpers ministry. Sunday School departments and our Heart to Hand Ladies’ Bible Study are active in mission work around our city. And each Sunday, four ethnic mission congregations meet on our campus, reaching people in other languages and cultures. Our Hispanic mission, Iglesia Bautista Abarim, recently called a new pastor, Jose Gomez. Pray for him, and for our other mission pastors.

Our church’s impact outside the stained glass windows is going to become even greater in the near future. Our Church Life Council recently voted to sponsor a campus missionary at the University of Houston for the next academic year. This will be a recent graduate who decides to give a year to mission work on Texas’ third largest college campus, and by far the most diverse and international school in our state. Meanwhile, the missionary will serve as a liason between our church and the campus, enabling us to minister to new believers and helping us with our own college ministry. Shortly after we voted to approve this ministry, an anonymous donor gave the entire amount needed to sponsor this missionary. Needless to say, I was pretty excited about that!

That doesn’t include the many individual church members involved in powerful ministry outside our walls on a regular basis. Nor does it include the money your tithes send to mission work around the globe. I pray that WBC will continue to become more and more an Open Door to New Life for people in our city and around the world. But for now, I think it’s important to praise God for the work He’s already doing through our church.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Count the Cost

I read a story about a first grader on his first day of school. At noon, he started putting up his books...after all, in kindergarten, he had gone home at noon. But his teacher informed him that it wasn't time to go home yet. There was lunch, and then there were a few more hours left in the school day. The kid put his hands on his hips and said, "Who on earth signed me up for this program?"

That's how some of you may feel by now. We're spending on Sunday mornings in 2011 on the parables of Jesus, and for the last month, we've been talking about some of His stories of commitment. After a month of hearing about how Jesus commands complete obedience, how you have to sell all you have to follow Him, how we shouldn't desire to be rich by the world's standards but rich toward God, you may be thinking, "Who on earth signed me up for this program?" The answer, of course, is that you did. If we are Christians, we are called to be disciples, and that is a radical thing. It doesn't often get preached that way these days. Here in American Christianity, we want to make everything glossy and attractive and marketable to that key 18-34 year old, upwardly mobile demographic. So we play up all the easy, inviting stuff in the Bible, and ignore the difficult, challenging stuff in God's Word. All so we can get more people in our pews than they have in that other church. This week, as we finish off this section of the parables, we'll look at Jesus' radical call, with two short parables in Luke 14:28-33. Note also vv. 25-27.

Looking for a good book to read?

I am on a tremendous book hot streak. So far in 2011, I have read four fairly recent books that were all excellent. Here are my brief reviews, for those who are interested:

What Good Is God? by Philip Yancey. This guy is my favorite author, but he hasn't been exceptionally productive lately. His high point was in the 90s, when he wrote The Jesus I Never Knew and What's So Amazing About Grace, two utterly life-changing books, back-to-back. But this is a strong effort. As usual, Yancey refuses to avoid the hard questions or settle for easy answers. His premise in this latest book is that for many American Christians, it seems like God is no longer active in the world. Where are the miracles? Why are dramatic conversions so rare? Has God stopped caring about this world? Or were the old stories of His amazing works just legends from a more religious, less sophisticated time? Yancey answers our doubts with amazing, inspiring stories of what God is doing in our world today, from house churches in China to persecuted believers in the Middle East; from recovering addicts to a ministry to women trying to escape lives of prostitution. Yancey has been invited to all of these places to speak, and he gives a record of his visit to each--which gives the book a bit of a travelogue feel--and includes the message he delivered at each location.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a brilliant German theologian and Lutheran pastor who courageously opposed the Nazis, and paid for it with his life. This is a very large and exhaustive, but highly readable and exciting look at Bonhoeffer's life.

The Hole In Our Gospel, by Richard Stearns. Stearns was the CEO of the Lenox dinnerware company and a devout Christian. Then God called him to be the president of World Vision. This book starts with the story of how he made the remarkable transition from selling expensive dishes (and getting very rich doing so) to caring for the poorest children in the world. But that's just the start of the book. Stearns then takes us all to task for ignoring the full gospel, in which Jesus called us to care for the least of His children. Stearns writes as one of us, since he has lived "the good life," but he is not afraid to challenge our luxurious, self-centered lifestyles. The book is challenging, but also inspiring. Stearns offers hope and strategies for people like you and I to make a real difference in the world today. In short, this book will change the way you look at the world.

Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream, by David Platt. This is one of the "hot-button" books in the Christian world today. Google the title, and you'll see what I mean. Yeah, about that title: It's provocative, and so is this book. Platt is a young pastor of a large church in Birgmingham, but he writes more like Elijah than your typical megachurch preacher. Simply put, this book is one of the most challenging things I've ever read. But as with Stearns' book, it's not about simply heaping on the guilt. There is a very real and attainable strategy in this book. The reader can't help wondering, "What would happen if American Christians really started living this way?" I get chills just thinking about it.