Friday, April 27, 2012

The Lord is My Shepherd

I think we can all identify with 13-year old Natalie Gilbert. 

Natalie had won a contest, the prize of which was to sing the National Anthem before an NBA playoff game.  The game was just about to start.  The arena was buzzing with the energy of 20,000 fans charged up to watch the best athletes in the world play a do-or-die game.  Then the announcer introduced Natalie, and out she walked in her nice black and white dress, and began to sing.  When she got to words, “…at the twilight’s last gleaming…” she froze.  Somehow, the words to the song were gone from her mind.  Many in the crowd began to laugh, which only made the situation worse.  Have you ever spoken in public and gotten tongue-tied?  It is a terrifying feeling.  But imagine being thirteen, and having that happen in front of 20,000 fans as well as a TV audience.  For a few seconds, she just stood there, a look of absolute horror on her face.  You could see the tears beginning to form in her eyes when suddenly, her rescuer appeared.  Maurice Cheeks, the head coach of the Portland Trailblazers, walked up, put his arm around her, and began to sing.  Natalie began to sing along with him.  Then he urged the crowd to join in.  The 20,000 people who earlier were making fun of Natalie’s plight now began to sing along.  The camera showed coaches and players from both teams also singing with the crowd.  Together, they got through the song, and by its end, Natalie was singing with a full, strong, confident voice again.  Click here to see the youtube video of it.
 In weeks to come, everyone talked about this touching moment.  Maurice Cheeks was getting ready for the biggest game of the season.  His coaching career was on the line.  If you watch sports very often, you know that the athletes rarely sing the anthem; they are just focused, ready for the game to start.  Yet out of the crowd of thousands, this man with so much on his mind not only noticed little Natalie Gilbert, he sprang into action to help her.  Maurice Cheeks was a bit player in his days as an athlete.  He has long since been fired as coach of the Trailblazers.  I have no idea what he is doing now.  But he will be forever remembered for rescuing a thirteen-year-old girl from humiliation.

If you are a Christian, you have an even more dramatic rescue story.  The God of the Universe, who had much bigger things to worry about, redeemed your life from eternal condemnation through a spectacular sacrifice.  That rescue, our salvation, is the subject of so much of our preaching and hymnody.  But it's only the beginning of what God wants to do in our lives.  Psalm 23 is easily the most famous of all the Psalms, and the only full chapter of the Bible most of us can quote from memory.  David, the shepherd boy, wrote it to describe what life is like when God is in charge, like a shepherd leading and protecting His sheep.  This Sunday, we'll look at this familiar Psalm from a very different angle: What happens when we as God's people forget He is our Shepherd?  What are our lives like when we, like sheep, go astray?  My hope is that, as we hear this message, many of us will realize the unnecessary anguish we're putting ourselves through and return to the Shepherd and Savior of our souls. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

In God's House

I can't get no satisfaction
I can't get no satisfaction
'Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can't get no, I can't get no

Alright, let's just start with the obvious: As lyrics go, they don't exactly rank with a Shakesperean sonnet. But they were and are some of the most influential lyrics of the last 100 years. The Rolling Stones recorded (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction in 1965. It became their first number 1 hit. Forty years later, a panel of experts declared it the second greatest rock song of all time, behind only Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone."

We live in an a time and a culture of unlimited prosperity, comfort and affluence, but no satisfaction. The "Greatest Generation" survived the Great Depression and won World War II, and now their grandchildren and great grandchildren, living in the blessings of their sacrifices, can't seem to be happy. Why is that? Our own advertising culture argues against contentment...every TV ad or magazine cover reminds us that our car is too old, our house is too small, our waistline is too large, and our spouse is too unattractive. There is seemingly no reward for being happy with what we have. Even more problematic is the nature of life itself: If we are fortunate enough to have children, they eventually grow up and leave us. If we are blessed with money, it flies away at the first downturn in the economy, or the first poor investment decision we make. No matter how carefully we guard our health, eventually our bodies break down and die anyway. Who could be happy in a world like this?

Next week in our Bible reading, we will come across Psalm 84. This beautiful Psalm has been the inspiration for many wonderful praise songs, two of which we will feature in this Sunday's worship service. But in my mind, it's not really a Psalm about worship: It's about satisfaction. I have come to believe that the key to satisfaction is not finding the right blend of happy circumstances; it's training ourselves to hunger for the right thing. Read Psalm 84 sometime before Sunday and ask yourself, "What is the Psalmist hungry for? Do I hunger for the same thing?"

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Taming the Volcano

When I was a kid, there was a TV show called The Hulk. The main character was David Banner, just your average mild-mannered guy. Every week, it was the same thing. David Banner would run into some really bad guys. They would beat him up and throw him around. And then Banner got mad. His skin would turn green. His muscles would grow so much, his clothes would literally rip off his body. And suddenly, he was the Hulk! He would go around smashing stuff and throwing people around. Of course, when the Hulk was finally gone, David Banner had to put the pieces back together. Truth be told, we all have a little Hulk in us. We all occasionally lose it. And when that happens, we end up smashing things, doing serious damage. Several years ago, when they made a movie version of The Hulk, the money line was, “Don’t make me angry. You won’t like me when I’m angry.” The Bible says it this way in James 1:19-20, Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. I have lost my temper countless times in my life, and I can’t think of a single thing I’ve ever done or said while angry that I am proud of today. But I can remember, no matter how hard I try to forget, numerous things I’ve done or said that I wish I could erase from history.

One of the many things I love about the Bible is that it is so honest about its heroes. These are real people, warts and all. Even though David was a man after God’s own heart—and I am using him as my example of living a life of holiness—that doesn’t mean he was perfect. We have already seen that David was occasionally afraid, even depressed. In 1 Samuel 25, we get to see the first real example of David’s dark side. We find that, like so many men of action, David had a fierce anger that almost got the best of him. I have named this sermon “Taming the Volcano” because so many people seem to think that anger is an emotion we cannot control. When something happens that makes us mad, we cannot be held responsible for our actions. Like trying to stop a volcano when it starts erupting, or like trying to turn the Hulk back into David Banner, once that trigger has been pulled, it’s too late. The best you can hope for is that, later on, you can pick up the pieces of whatever it is you are about to destroy. But that’s not Scriptural. Ephesians 4:26 says Be angry, but do not sin. Is that possible? Can David Banner really keep from turning green? Absolutely. In this chapter, David flat out loses it. He is about to do something awful, something he will regret for the rest of his life. Yet, by the grace of God, he gets control of himself. This Sunday, we'll see how it happened, because it shows us how to tame the volcano inside of us, as well.

What God is Doing

This week, I met with four men: Alvin Gipson, pastor of Family of Believers Church, Jair Campos, a church planting consultant from our state convention (BGCT), and Rickie Bradshaw, a church planter from our local association (UBA). As you probably know, we are the sponsoring church for Family of Believers. The four of us meet quarterly to hear how Alvin is doing, help him work through problems, pray for him, and offer support. I hope that you pray regularly for this man of God. Starting a church from scratch sounds difficult in theory, but it's even harder in practice. Alvin is a full-time employee of Harris County. He has a wife and children. And now he has taken on a responsibility that must feel like he has adopted 40 newborns. There have certainly been some bumps in the road. Family of Believers has already had to move their meeting location three times, and they are currently looking for new space. Until we and the BGCT began sponsoring them this past year, most of the funding for ministry came directly from Alvin's pocket.

But this past meeting was a time of celebration. Family of Believers had nine new people join on Easter Sunday morning. Soon, they will need to borrow our baptistry to baptize several new believers. The members are becoming more committed to Bible study. One young woman told Alvin, "I never thought I'd quit going to the nightclubs. But I can't get up Sunday morning for Bible Study if I go to the club on Saturday night." Pray for Alvin Gipson and his family. Pray for them to be continually encouraged in their ministry. Pray for God to raise up godly men and women in the congregation who will become disciple-makers themselves.

I have to share one story I heard that night from Rickie Bradshaw. In addition to serving UBA, Rickie is also pastor of Southwest Baptist Church. He started by saying, "On Easter Sunday, three-fourths of my congregation was unsaved." That got our attention. He then told the story: A woman in his community was a Madam. She lived with a man, originally from South America, who was a drug dealer. Recently, this couple came to Rickie's church, heard the Gospel, and gave their lives to Christ. After they were saved, the man moved out of the house and lived with a friend. They came to Rickie and said, "We would like to get married, but we want the wedding to take place in front the entire church on Easter Sunday morning." So that's what they did in worship this past Sunday. The pews were filled with people from the worlds of prostitution and drugs. During Rickie's sermon, after the wedding had been completed, he talked about how the Second Coming of Christ is the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, about how Jesus is coming for His bride. He talked about how Jesus spent a lot of his time with prostitutes. He used the word "Ho," and not in an agricultural sense (Rickie's wife thought he crossed a line with that one). Many people accepted Christ at the end of the service.

Can you imagine a worship service like that? It occurred to me that in Jesus' earthly ministry, that would have been an everyday event. God is still the same today. He is doing incredible things right here in our city...and we get to be a part of them!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Glimmer of Hope in the Cave of Despair

Recently, my 8-year-old son had a nightmare, in which he had been bitten by a black widow spider. Making matters worse, in his dream he called for help, but neither his mom nor I would come. When he told me this, I was astonished; I had a very similar nightmare when I was around his age. In my dream, I told my parents that I had been bitten by a black widow, and they laughed at me. I'm almost positive I never told Will about that, yet he was haunted by the same scary scenario in his sleep. I think I know why: There is nothing quite so devastating as feeling like you are all alone in your suffering. David knew that feeling. In Psalm 142, he wrote: Look to the right and see; for there is no one who regards me; there is no escape for me; no one cares for my soul.

Many of you know that feeling as well. You are still grieving the loss of a loved one, when people around you think that you should've been over it a long time ago. Or you look fine on the outside, but your body is racked with constant, driving pain. Or it's been so long since you had a really good friend, you're starting to think there is something wrong with you; something undesirable about you. Or maybe your suffering isn't so easy to define; maybe you just feel a sense of quiet, numbing despair that isn't related to any one circumstance. Our culture doesn't know how to handle people in pain. We want them to take a pill, get over it, stop bringing the rest of us down. Which just makes you feel worse, like the square peg who's raining on everyone else's parade. As we'll see in this week's sermon text (1 Samuel 22:1-5), David was in a cave when he wrote Psalm 142. And that is what many of you feel like: Stuck in the cave of despair with no hope of escape.

This Sunday is Easter. It's a day when we rejoice in the greatest gift we've ever been given. Let's just admit, however, that when we're stuck in the cave of despair, saying, "He is risen indeed!" isn't enough to take away the pain, no matter how true it might be. So what can we count on from God when we're stuck in that cave? We'll take a look at what David learned this Sunday.