Friday, October 31, 2014


One of the things that set Jesus apart from other teachers of His day (or this day, for that matter) was that most of His teaching was in the form of stories.  We call them parables, but they were stories--memorable, vivid, with an edge that challenged and enraged some of His listeners, while they delighted and invigorated others.  I've been talking about God's grace lately, a doctrine that is so wonderful, yet so misunderstood.  I decided this Sunday to preach an entire sermon as one long story; a parable of my own.  Below is the beginning of the story, just to whet your appetite...I hope you can be there to hear the rest, and that God uses my own creation to draw you to His truth:

The instant the bullet hit the chest of his friend was the very moment the change began. That was the precise point in time when he realized with shattering certainty that the world he had constructed, that carefully crafted facade, was swiftly crumbling.  He had always been one of those people who could convince everyone that he was a little smarter, a little stronger, a little tougher than all the rest, that he was somehow unbeatable.  Even as a child, other kids feared him…and he liked it that way.  His teachers were intimidated by him. They hoped to survive him, not to influence him in any way.  Once he was old enough, he found ways to make money…a lot of money.  Those ways weren’t legal, of course, like most ways of making serious coin; and some people got hurt, but then, if they had listened to him, they would have been alright.  With the money he made, he could build the life he wanted.  He could make himself the kind of man others either followed or bowed to, but did not ignore.  He could be somebody. 
And then came that moment when the bullet, so obviously intended for him, had instead ended the life of one of his few true friends.  As he lay in his bed that night, he thought of his mother.  His father had rarely been around, and when he was around, it would have been better if he’d been away.  But his mother was a devout woman.  She had tried so hard to instill in her only son a fear of God. She had died brokenhearted.  He had always believed in that God, but never loved him. In fact, now that he thought about it, his entire life had been an ongoing war against his mother’s God.  That God had chosen not to give him the advantages, privileges, and comforts he wanted, so he was determined to show that God, at all costs, that he could acquire those things for himself.  He wanted to show God that he could build a better life on his own, without those alleged divine powers.  But now he realized the war was over.  He had lost.  Someday, and maybe soon, he would have to answer to that God for the things he had done.  In desolation, he decided it was no use running or fighting any longer.  The only thing that made sense was to throw himself before that God and accept the punishment he deserved.  If God wanted to take his life, that was just.  If he wanted to take away his ill-gotten fortune, that was deserved.  He wasn’t sure how to approach God.  The little church his mother had forced him to attend had closed its doors long ago.  But there was a tall white steeple he could see from his window. Surely that church was as good a place as any other to get what was coming to him...

To be continued...

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thoughts on the Sermon Subpoena Scandal

                 Being a pastor is never boring, but recent events here in Houston have made my line of work especially interesting.  Last week, reports emerged that attorneys representing the city of Houston had subpoenaed, as part of the discovery process for a lawsuit, the sermons of five Houston pastors.  Suddenly, I found myself at ground zero of a serious debate over religious liberty, even though I wasn’t one of the five.  (Just to recap: This year the Houston City Council approved the Mayor’s Equal Rights Ordinance, which would extend equal rights protections to gay and transgender residents.  A group opposing the ordinance—mostly because of the provision that would allow men who self-identify as female to use public women’s restrooms—gathered signatures on a petition intended to force the issue to a vote in the November election.  The Mayor’s office declared the petition invalid.  The group then sued.  The Mayor’s attorneys subpoenaed all communications, including sermons, related to the gathering of signatures from five pastors who were key leaders in the opposition).  Within a day of the first report, the mayor’s office backtracked.  They seemed genuinely shocked by the reaction, and not just from the political right. To cite merely one example of the non-partisan nature of the response: The Houston Chronicle, which had endorsed the Ordinance, published an editorial denouncing the subpoenas.  

               Since then, I have read a lot of commentary, mostly from non-Houstonians, about this event, what it says about our culture, and how Christians should respond.  I’ve decided to add my own thoughts to that cacophony of voices, as one Christian living in Houston.  To me, there are two basic lessons we should take from this.   
                It is yet another sign we are living in a new world.  Some non-Christian observers have wondered why Christians were so outraged by sermons being subpoenaed.  After all, the attorneys were clearly following established procedure in a lawsuit, trying to find out what instructions were given by the organizers of the petitions.  Besides, these days, most pastors’s sermons are available online.  (This is true: You don’t need a subpoena to learn what I have preached on sexuality, or any other subject the Bible addresses.  Just go to   

               The reason for the outrage is that historically in our nation, government has stayed away from any attempt to dictate what religious leaders can and cannot say.  When a pastor’s sermons can be used against him in a lawsuit, that seems like a precedent-setting step toward tearing down that wall of separation between church and state—one of the best things about America. 

                 By the way, I have met the Mayor.  Last year, I was part of a small group of leaders from Union Baptist Association who met with her to discuss an initiative to help our city that we called Loving Houston.  She was cordial and helpful, and instructed her staff to give us all the help we needed.  She also was present for the launch of Loving Houston.  I found her to be bright, cooperative, and genuinely desiring the best for our city.  On the other hand, I understand she is a politician, and all politicians must satisfy their political base. So these subpoenas were either: 1) An attempt to annoy, embarrass and intimidate people whose religious views are unpopular with her base.  OR 2) A legal maneuver that turned out to be a massive PR snafu for the Mayor and her office.  Only the Mayor, her legal team, and God Himself know which one is true.

               What bothered me more than the subpoenas were comments I read afterward on social media, such as, “If these guys were preaching politics, their sermons are fair game.”  If I understand the law accurately, that’s incorrect.  The IRS stipulates that a pastor or church may not endorse a political party or candidate without endangering their church’s tax exempt status.  But we are free to preach on how the Bible speaks to issues in our world.  Should abolitionist preachers have been free to use their pulpits to call slavery immoral?  Was it wrong for Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders to stand in churches denouncing segregation?  I read other comments that went further than the legalities of this case, instead using this as an example of how organized Christianity is toxic and hateful and should therefore be marginalized for the good of society.  There is nothing new about such comments.  But I am hearing—and reading—them more and more often these days. 
               So when I say we are living in a new world, this is what I mean: Christianity no longer holds the cultural respect it once did.  To borrow an image from another writer, we have traditionally had the wind at our backs as we tried to follow the commands of Christ and make a difference in our society.  Now the winds have shifted.  For the first time in American history, the wind is in our face, and that wind is likely to get fiercer.  The good news is that we still have it much easier than the first Christians, and they “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).  Which brings me to my other point…  

               We should always respond as Christ would.  In the past week, I have read some eloquent, God-honoring statements from Christian leaders about this issue.  This open letter from myfellow Houston pastor, Chris Seay, is my personal favorite.  I’ve also seen letters, emails and social media comments from professing Christians that made me deeply ashamed.  It’s obvious that the people in the latter group are not interested in persuading anyone.  They don’t have Christ’s command to “love your neighbor” at heart.  They’re just rallying the troops, attacking straw men, making a big noise.  Instead of overcoming evil with good, they are being overcome by evil themselves (Romans 12:21). 

               You might say, “Jesus got angry at evil. He called people snakes and whitewashed tombs.  He flipped tables and chased people out of the temple.”  True, but notice who was consistently the target of His anger: The religious leaders, who should have known better.  The hated Romans would have been a much easier target.  After all, the Romans held religious and moral views (including on sexuality) that would have been contemptible to Jesus.  Plus, they were occupying His homeland.  Jesus could have “played to His base” by attacking Rome, and His popularity would have soared. But Jesus never criticized the Gentiles. In fact, His final instructions to His followers were to take His saving love to those same idolatrous, amoral outsiders.  A guy named Saul, formerly a hyper-religious, conspicuously moral Pharisee, took those instructions more seriously than anyone.  Others followed in his footsteps.  That’s how our world was changed.  From its start, Christianity set people free NOT by attacking them for not measuring up, but by loving them genuinely, while living in a consistently compelling, utterly distinct way.  If they could see us today, I suspect they would wonder why we waste our time getting angry at people who don’t know our God…for acting like people who don’t know our God.

               So here is my hope and prayer: That we would live out our faith, preaching the whole counsel of God’s Word (including the unpopular parts)…and, that in doing so, we would show an uncommon, counter-cultural love for those who oppose us.  I pray that we would get our marching orders from Jesus Christ, not from people on TV, radio and social media whose ratings, blog hits and fundraising efforts depend on stirring up controversy, inflaming serious situations into catastrophes.  

               Speaking of which, one pundit was trying to convince every Houston pastor to preach about the subpoenas this past Sunday, and then send copies of our sermons to the Mayor’s office.  Before any of this hit, I was planning to preach on grace this past Sunday.  I decided to stick with grace.  I may not know much, but I believe that’s always a good choice. 

New Life

A while back, I posted something on Facebook about prayer, just a quote I read that made sense.  Several people, including some of you, posted kind and helpful comments.  Then one of my Facebook friends posted this: “Prayer is worthless.”  I tried to engage him, asked him to tell me what had happened that made him feel this way, but I got no further response.  I cannot tell you this man’s story.  But I have seen this many times; people who have tried to seek after God, and have concluded, “God either doesn’t care about me, can’t help me, or doesn’t exist.  I give up.”  On the other hand, I know many more people who have found in Christ the joy they've been looking for all their lives.  What is the difference between these two groups?  I don’t think the second group of people is more sincere than the first, or more deserving. So what is it?

I'm preaching a series of sermons right now about God's grace. Last week, I talked about aspects of grace that some of us have a hard time with intellectually.  This Sunday, I'll talk about another reason people miss grace.  I call it the "if only" syndrome.  People say, “I could be happy if only…if only I could get that job; if only my boss treated me differently; if only my sick loved one got better; if only my child could be happy, well-adjusted and successful; if only I had friends; if only I could get that person to love me; if only the person I love would stop playing golf every time he has a day off, or stop drinking so much, or start loving me for who I am instead of expecting me to change.”  We all have an “if only.”  We bring our “if only”s to God, but sometimes God doesn’t deliver what we ask.  And we conclude that prayer is worthless.  God is no good to us, if He’s even there at all.

Here’s the main problem with the “if only” syndrome: What it really says is, “God, I know what I need, and I’ve managed to build the life I want just fine on my own.  Now, if you will just give me that last little boost over this one final barrier, I will be there.”  The if only syndrome makes God into our concierge in obtaining the life we want.  That’s not grace.  This Sunday, we'll look at a man who met with Jesus and found out the difference between his “if only” and what God really wanted for his life (John 3).

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Our Sacrifice

Imagine a surgeon so skilled in his ability to save lives, so dedicated to his craft, so tireless in his devotion to helping people, that his patients, staff and colleagues look at him as something more than human.  Now imagine that surgeon is on his regular rounds when a new patient is brought to him in critical condition.  Based on all the tests, it is obvious this man’s heart is terribly diseased, but no one has ever seen anything like this illness before.  The surgeon immediately opens the man’s chest.  When he looks at the heart, he says, “I know what this is.  It will kill this man soon. There is no way to fix his heart.  But there is a way to save his life.”  He orders his surgical team to extract his own heart and transplant it into the man’s body, and to discard this man’s diseased heart before it kills him.  The team members are horrified.  They begin to protest: “But doctor, why would you give your life for his?  You’re the best person we know; he’s just a stranger.”  The doctor says, “My job is to save this man’s life. I could cut out his diseased heart, but that would only kill him.  I could wake him from surgery and speak compassionately to him, but that wouldn’t save him either.  The only way to destroy his illness and save his life is to trade my heart for his.” 
 In my parable, the surgeon is God.  The patient is humanity.  And the disease that is slowly, surely destroying us is sin.  God loves us more than we can possibly comprehend.  He hates the sin that is killing us.  And it takes both His love and His wrath to save us.  He can’t simply tell us, “I love you,” or shower us with heavenly gifts, because that doesn’t address our key problem.  And He can’t simply punish our sin, because that would kill us.  The only way for His love and wrath to be perfectly displayed; the only way for Him to be both just and the one who justifies, is for Him to offer Himself as the sacrifice.  It’s not a perfect analogy. The disease we suffer from is our own fault; we’re not innocent victims.  And thankfully, unlike that surgeon, Christ rose from the dead.  So we can still have a relationship with the one who saved us.  But just like the patient in that parable, we can’t do anything to save ourselves.

This is the message of Romans 3:25-26, which I will be preaching on this Sunday.  I'll be talking about three truths about grace that we just can't seem to handle.  I hope you'll be there.  

Thursday, October 2, 2014

All Things New

They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 11:9

I don’t know about you, but when I am going somewhere I’ve never been before, whether it’s a family vacation or a trip to a ministry conference out of town, I want to know everything I can about the place I’m going.  If I’m staying in a hotel, I’ll visit the hotel website and look up pictures of the rooms and the lobby.  I’ll scout out things to do in the area.  Where are the best places to eat?  Does the hotel have an exercise room?  What kind of bed will I be sleeping in?  I do my best to picture myself there and anticipate what it will be like.  When my wife and daughter went to Disneyworld years ago, Carrie bought a book about the place and carefully researched it to make sure they would get the most out of their stay.  If we would do that for a place we’ll only be for a few days, how much more curious should we be about the place we’ll stay for all eternity?  Yet if you ask most Christians, “What will heaven be like?”  You won’t get much information.  It’s true we don’t know much about the place believers go when we die; we know Jesus will be there and sin won’t be, and that Jesus called it Paradise.  But Scripture describes, over and over again, a place called the New Earth that will be established after Jesus returns.  God has told us far more than a hotel website about The New Earth, because this knowledge is supposed to change us, make us hopeful in the midst of the very worst our world can throw at us.  We should be obsessed with this stuff; it should be on our minds and lips every day.  So this Sunday, as we wrap up our look at the book of Revelation, we'll examine chapters 21-22.  We'll take a tour of our future home.  And hopefully, you and I will be able to picture ourselves there.