Thursday, October 26, 2006

My Friend's Assurance

A decade ago I heard a preacher talk about one of his “life verses.” It became apparent that these were certain verses of scripture which he felt spoke to him on a particularly deep level and helped orient him to live faithfully and purposefully as a Christian and a church leader. I had been memorizing scriptures for years and thought that was a pretty neat idea, so I picked four scriptures to serve as my “life verses” too. I don’t know what kind of impact this has had on me; I frequently recite them when I am praying but other than that it’s hard to know. Still, it’s kind of nice, like having four close friends nearby at all times.

I was thinking of one of these friends recently. His name is 2 Samuel 12:7 and his message is “You are the man!”

Just kidding.

His name is Hebrews 11:6 and his message is “And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach God must believe that he exists, and that he rewards those who seek him.” This verse lives in the great “faith chapter” of Hebrews and refers specifically to Enoch, but of course its truth extends to all of us. The reason it means so much to me is because it speaks to my desire to “approach” God and continually “seek” Him in my life. And it helps, it really does, to believe that God “rewards” those who seek him. Do you believe that?

It is not just coincidental that West Houston’s slogan and implicit mission statement is “Seeking God, Sharing Jesus.” That is not original with me; it comes from the WHCC Youth ministry’s four S’s, which I think are superb: Seeking God, Showing Love, Sharing Jesus, Serving Personally (indeed, that might have been our slogan but it wouldn’t fit on a sign!). But the “seeking and sharing” resonated with me. And here is the thing. Throughout Scripture we see that God wants people to approach him, to seek him. God doesn’t generally force himself on people. Certainly he manifests himself to people in signs, wonders and angels, and most notably in the incarnation of Jesus. But even Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am?” and “Follow me.” Bottom line: We will usually have “as much of God” as we desire.

And so I want to seek God in my life, to know him more deeply and give more of myself to him, because I believe he rewards that, and I don’t believe it’s crass or self-centered to admit that’s my motive. My motive is more joy, more meaning, more purpose, more experience of the transcendent and beautiful and holy in this life, which I believe comes through knowing and serving God. I’ve got one life to live. That’s my life plan.

This weekend we are challenging WHCC’s men to “take the next step” in their life with God and to consider “the next step” for West Houston in our life with God. At some level, both will involve asking if we are willing to seek God and if we believe that he rewards those who seek Him.

My friend has a way of keeping that challenging assurance in front of us.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Let Us Morph

The author and pastor John Ortberg wrote an article a few years ago about transformation (Leadership Journal, 2002) and related the story of Hank, a member of his previous church who was a perpetual grouch. Hank grew so irritated by the volume of the church’s music that he reported the congregation to OSHA, the government agency that oversees safety in workplaces! Ortberg notes that some Christians like Hank have not learned that they are expected to be changed over time, to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2) as “Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). He writes,

“My son was once obsessed with the television show, The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. The teenagers on this show would yell, “It’s morphing time,” and then they would receive power to do extraordinary things. I liked that so much I tried to use it at my church. It wasn’t a liturgical congregation, but I tried to teach the people a liturgy where I would say, ‘Let us morph.’ The people were supposed to respond, ‘We shall morph, indeed.’ They encouraged me to move to Chicago not long after that.”

But Ortberg asks a good question: Why aren’t the people of the kingdom of God morphing? He suggests two possibilities: First, we have been led to believe (or chosen to believe) that the primary purpose of following Jesus is to get to heaven. More specifically, to be able to “meet the minimum requirement,” which is to answer correctly God’s “entrance question” at Judgment. But as Ortberg points out,

“Jesus never said, “Now, I’m going to tell you what you need to say to get into heaven when you die.” The gospel writers make it clear that Jesus’ good news was that we no longer have to live in the guilt, failure, and impotence of our own strength. The transforming presence and power of God is available through Christ, right here, right now.”

The second reason Christians too often don’t morph is because we focus on outward manifestations of spirituality. Amid first century Judaism Jesus decried the religious leaders’ emphasis on things like the dietary law, Sabbath keeping, and ritual purity not because they were bad but because they had become ends in themselves rather than disciplines by which to be transformed by God. There are numerous modern equivalents to these outward disciplines. To the extent that they help us obey and yield ourselves to God’s shaping hand, they are helpful and worthwhile. When they become ends in themselves they thwart our formation in Christ.

Part of the journey we are on together as Christians is the journey of being transformed into the image of Christ. As Dallas Willard notes, we are invited to practice disciplines of engagement (worship, service, prayer, scripture reading, relationships, etc.) and disciplines of abstinence (forsaking certain things) as part of this journey. Here’s how I think of these disciplines: they enable God to get a better “grip” on me so he can shape me more. Without these, I’m a bit slippery, if you know what I mean.

I’ve never seen the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (I have daughters). But I’m on board. Let us morph, indeed.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Universal Quest

John Stott has been at the heart of evangelical renewal in the United Kingdom for the last half century and now, at age 85, is increasingly recognized as a senior statesman of evangelical Christianity in the West. What Billy Graham has been to evangelical preaching, Stott has been to evangelical teaching.

This month’s Christianity Today (October 2006) features an interview with Stott that includes one exchange I want to share with you. The interviewer asks him “What do we need to do to reach our own (meaning the West’s) increasingly pagan society?” Following is Stott’s response, which I think speaks directly to our mission at West Houston.

“I think we need to say that our secular culture is not as secular as it looks. These so-called secular people are engaged in a quest for at least three things. The first is transcendence. It’s interesting in a so-called secular culture how many people are looking for something beyond. I find that a great challenge to the quality of our Christian worship. Does it offer people what they are instinctively looking for, which is transcendence, the reality of God?

"The second is significance. Almost everybody is looking for his or her own personal identity. Who am I, where do I come from, where am I going to, what is it all about? That is a challenge to the quality of our Christian teaching. We need to teach people who they are. They don’t know who they are. They are human beings made in the image of God, although that image has been defaced.

"The third is their quest for community. Everywhere people are looking for community, for relationships of love. This is a challenge to our fellowship. I’m very fond of I John 4:12: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us, and his love is perfected in us.” The same invisible God who once made himself visible in Jesus now makes himself visible in the Christian community, if we love one another.”

This is the kind of clear instruction Stott is famous for. Our worship should engage peoples’ hunger for transcendence, our teaching their desire for significance, and our fellowship their need for community. Much easier said than done, of course. But the main point is simply this: don’t be fooled by how secular (re: pagan) our culture seems. Underneath the superficial surface people struggle with the same universal desires as always, perhaps now even more pronounced because of the superficiality of our age. They long to connect with something beyond themselves, to know their lives mean something in the larger scheme of things, and to experience meaningful relationships beyond the addictive but un-nourishing fare of cell phone-wireless internet-blogosphere acquaintance-keeping.

Here’s the irony. We all long for these things. So, as Christ-followers our most effective “outreach” is simply to pursue these as the people of God and invite people to pursue them with us. It’s not a program or a strategy. It’s about being a people who are experiencing the transcendent God, knowing our significance in Christ, and living out authentic community in the Spirit.

Simple. Not easy. But hugely worthwhile.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Our Journey Together

You may notice that in today’s pew sheet we are identifying new members at West Houston as those who are “joining us on our journey” instead of as those who have “placed membership.” This is a deliberate effort to replace rather sterile, impersonal wording with vibrant and personal language. It also reflects an attempt to connect our mission as a congregation with robust Biblical theology.

One of the most prominent metaphors in the Bible for the life of faith is that of a journey. God calls Abraham out of his homeland and his service of tribal gods to journey to a new place where God will establish him as the father of a new people. Later, when God delivers these people from bondage in Egypt and they enter into a covenant relationship with him, they embark on a journey though the wilderness to a Promised Land. The journey metaphor continues with Jesus as he walks from city to city to carry out his mission and continually invites people to “follow” him, which some do figuratively (transferring their allegiance to him) and some also do literally (leaving job, home and family). In fact, Mark’s gospel occasionally utilizes the double entendre of “road” or “way” to convey Jesus’ spiritual mission as well as his traveling lifestyle. The book of Acts refers to the Jesus movement itself as “the Way.” Christ’s disciples are “followers” who journey with Jesus while learning the way of life he models and instructs for them.

Listen, I don’t have a problem with “membership.” And to be sure, Paul talks in Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12 about the “members” of the body, referring to the physical body and its limbs and digits as a metaphor for the church body. So I’m not saying it is without Biblical precedent or meaning. It’s just that the common usage connotes static affiliation rather than dynamic formation. I’m a member of a fitness club, a neighborhood association, and an online forum. I use my gym as a means to stay in shape (using that expression loosely). It’s a tool. But does that really capture what the church is about? As Reggie McNeal puts it in his book, “The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church,” many churches in North America are doing the equivalent of selling membership packages rather than inviting people to join Jesus in a way of life (a formational journey) that opens us up to God’s transforming presence. Or, as he puts it,
“Evangelism is (too often) about churching the unchurched, not connecting people to Jesus.” And he points out that in doing this the church can’t possibly deliver on its implied promise: “Many church members feel they have been sold a bill of goods. They were promised that if they would be a good church member, if they would discover their gifts, or join a small group, sign up for a church ministry, give to the building program, learn to clap in worship, or attend this or that, they would experience a full and meaningful life.” But as helpful and good as all these may be, unless they connect us to Jesus and enlist us in his mission in the world they are all just part of a circular effort: support the life of the church so the church can enlist other “members” to support the life of the church so the church can enlist other “members” to…

I am thrilled to be on a spiritual and missional journey with West Houston, a journey in which we seek God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength and share Jesus with our community. Like all journeys, there will be peaks and valleys, victories and hardships, successes and failures, progress and plateau. But the point is that we’re going somewhere in Christ. Together.