Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Five Prayers I'm Praying

At the beginning of this year I resolved to pray for five things regularly in 2007, in addition to and among the many other various family, personal and ministry concerns that make their way to the head of my prayer line, so to speak. I decided to do this as an exercise of trust in what the scriptures say about prayer, namely, that consistent and persevering prayer bears fruit, somehow (i.e., sometimes in ways we didn’t anticipate). I share these with you not to trumpet my prayer life (it is still too feeble) but to reveal a little of myself to you and perhaps inspire you to pray likewise in some form or fashion.

#1 Lord, renew my passion for ministry. I am in my 15th year of full-time preaching. If I preach until age 60 I am at the halfway point. It feels like a halfway point. I feel a concrete sense of wanting to reflect mid-race and make sure I will run the second half well. I am not at all down or discouraged; on the contrary, I am asking God for a fresh burst of insight and passion for the second half.

#2 Lord, give me a vision for West Houston. Three weeks ago I preached that the elders’ and my vision for WHCC is to be a “community connected Church of Christ in northwest Houston.” That’s a great start, and quite helpful to me. Now I’m asking God to give me specific insights into what that could look like as we move forward in our journey together.

#3 Lord, give me a hunger for the Word. When I began preaching at age 30 I was a student of the Scriptures. Now I’m more a student of people (seriously). All well and good. But I am more convinced than ever at the half-way point that the Word of God is a primary way God grows people spiritually, feeds and strengthens his flock, and provides guidance, strength and direction for our lives. Without the Word of God we grow malnourished. The psalmist says “I treasure your word in my heart” (119:11). I want to say that too.

#4 Lord, give me a burden for the lost. I spend about 90% of my time with church folks, which is quite a blessing but also a danger. It’s easy to get increasingly insulated and apathetic about the lost in my neighborhood and area. This is compounded by the spiritual demographics of Houston, where most people (it seems) have some church affiliation, however distant or tenuous. But I know that the gospel without a message of salvation is lacking in spiritual power or integrity, and I want to have not just awareness in my mind but a burden in my heart for the lost. I believe burdens from God are blessings, and I am asking for more of this burden.

#5 Lord, give me an eagerness for relationships. I have shared my penchant for independence; I want to move beyond that to inter-dependence. This is what we invoke when we sing “Bind us together, Lord, with cords that cannot be broken,” and it is a beautiful thing. I want to be more eager for relationships in my life because I know they are a gift from God and not to be disdained.

In John Ortberg’s book, “If You Want to Walk on Water You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat,” he relates what he calls the “Bob Challenge,” which is simply this: Pray about something every day for six months and see what happens. It’s a lot harder than you might think to be that focused and persistent in prayer. I’m giving it a shot. Feel free to join me.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

What's Under the Ice?

Well we got through our week of frigid weather in Houston. I tell you with all the weather reports I saw on television and heard on radio I was ready to stock up on water, candles, canned food and Sports Illustrateds (not in that order) and wait for the National Guard. My sweet daughters were so excited about maybe-possibly-perhaps missing school on Tuesday that they ruined their holiday on Monday (MLK day) in premature anticipation. Imagine their dismay when the little scrolling line on the bottom of the TV news on Tuesday morning never showed “Cy-Fair School District.” Life is pain.

But wait! Cy-Fair schools did close on Wednesday (along with West Houston C of C) and we all got to experience a little break from our normal routines, with many people working from home or taking the day off. What’s that famous expression by the Marine general, “It’s not much of a war but it’s the only war we’ve got.” It wasn’t much of an ice storm but it’s all we had in Houston and we ought not to disparage the experience or compare ourselves enviously to the good folks in Dallas who closed everything in sight and huddled inside watching movies.

Apparently there was some protest about the decision to close Cy-Fair’s schools (no word yet on whether WHCC people protested cancellation of Wednesday night service), which led to a memo being circulated at warp speed via email around northwest Houston. I personally felt CFISD’s decision was a reasonable and prudent one though I wouldn’t have complained if they had gone ahead with classes. After all, it’s no small thing to cancel classes for a day -- that time has to be made up somewhere and it better not be on my kids’ Spring Break. And I was quite impressed to read how much work and consideration went into the decision. The memo said that CFISD’s inclement weather (fancy language for “bad weather”) protocol is for twenty staff members to drive the streets between 3-5 a.m. and assess safety conditions. This resulted in a 4 a.m. decision to go ahead with classes. But at 4:45 a.m. reports of icing on streets in northwest Houston began to come in, along with reports of a number of accidents. After a conference call at 5 a.m. the superintendent made the decision to cancel classes.

I was in a deep snooze at 5 a.m. so I appreciate the diligent work. And it brings to mind a larger issue, which is how often we look critically at peoples’ decisions or actions without knowing anything about the conditions or stresses under which they made them. It is a truism that we tend to judge other people by their actions and ourselves by our motives. How much more should we attempt to see other peoples’ motives behind their actions, and in regard to their motives, make charitable judgments about them? That is, assume until proven otherwise that the motives are honorable or, at the least, not dishonorable. After all, which would you prefer, that people make charitable or uncharitable judgments about you? This is one of the things Jesus means when he teaches, “Do not judge, lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1).

So that is what I learned during the Great Houston Ice Storm of 2007. That and the fact I’m glad I’m not one of the people driving the streets from 3-5 a.m. during bad, um, inclement weather.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Simply the Best

When I lived in Los Angeles I periodically drove up to the Serra Retreat Center ( in Malibu to spend a half-day or so in solitude, prayer, reading and reflection. It was the equivalent of a whirlpool and sauna for my spirit, and I have missed it since moving to Houston in 2003. So I recently visited the Cenacle Retreat House ( in the west Memorial area of Houston for the same purpose. The sceneries are different (a mountain top and grand views of the Pacific versus pine trees and soft grass next to Buffalo Bayou) but the effect is the same: a sense of wonder at the beauty of creation and a renewing restfulness in the midst of stillness.

The other day I was working at home and reading the book on marriage from which Angela and I teach our Wednesday night class. After I finished the chapter I put my head back on the recliner chair next to the open window on a spectacularly pretty blue-skied day with wispy clouds and temperatures in the 60’s and drifted into a half-asleep, half-awake day-dream that I was lying by the ocean and the waves were softly cresting onto shore and I had all the time in the world and life was peaceful and good and then my idiotic dog started yapping at a squirrel and I awoke with a jolt and grudgingly lumbered back to my desk.

After my dog’s funeral I wondered again why these kinds of moments are so fleeting, why I allow myself to get sucked into the crazy busyness and frenzied pace that so many of us find ourselves maintaining. Just the other day I saw a mother driving a minivan with two children in back watching a video on the overhead screen while she talked on her cell phone and raced to make a left turn across traffic as the light turned red. I remember thinking, how will those kids ever learn to be alone with their thoughts if they can’t ride in a car without being entertained by a video? The price we pay for all this is evident in the stressful and fragmented lives we lead; I am wondering, what is the benefit?

In 2007 I will be preaching once a month on the classic spiritual disciplines which serve to help us cultivate the soil of our life for God to pour out his life-giving nourishment into us. Today I will talk about the discipline of simplicity, by which we clear space in our hearts and in our lives for God. Simplicity’s cost is to slow down and de-accumulate, which takes some doing in our society. Its benefit is to open us up to God’s promptings and to help us relish the God-given beauty of life.

Retreat centers are wonderful, and I highly recommend periodically spending time at one. But within each of us there is the ability by God’s spirit and our own purposefulness to cultivate a rhythm of life, and values for life, that better connect us to the One who want us to have life in His name. Minus the yapping dog, may he rest in peacefulness and tranquility.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Clued In

Clued In

Legend has it that when Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 he put a sign on his desk that said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” He had been elected for his domestic economic agenda and the sign was a reminder to keep his focus on what he was elected to do.

Last month I was having coffee with a good friend and mentioned to him that I had recently articulated a set of goals for 2012 (when I turn fifty and our youngest child graduates from high school). I was pretty excited about these and he asked to hear them. After I finished he said, with a measure of pity and puzzlement, “There’s not a single inter-personal goal in there!” After I endured his scolding I asked him to help me set a few of those, which he since has done.

I probably ought to have a sign on my desk that says, “It’s about relationships, Bozo.” Think about it. Relationships are what make life most worthwhile. Not possessions. Not accomplishments. Not hobbies. All these are good and satisfying, but they’re side dishes, not the entrée. Nevertheless I, and perhaps some of you, often assume that while it is good to be intentional about work, health, retirement planning, and Tivo, relationships will take care of themselves. I honestly had never set a relationship goal in my life other than to somehow, anyhow get a date to my prom, but my friend’s comment jolted me into thinking seriously about this over my vacation break at Christmas, which just happened to be the same time of year we all watch (or ignore since we’ve seen it so many times) reruns of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” whose ending, and signature lesson, tells us that “No man is a failure who has friends.” Gee, there’s a thought.

This week I am preaching a vision message which articulates four cornerstones of West Houston’s vision. I will tell you in advance that one of them specifically involves being intentional about relationships, about keeping our focus on people, about making sure that programs and plans serve people and relationships instead of vice-versa. A friend of mine used to observe wryly that at his law firm it was easy to develop the feeling that “We could get a lot of work done if it weren’t for our clients” (i.e., calling with questions and demands). The irony of course is that the clients were the reason for the work! So it is with people and relationships and life. There’s a reason that fifty-seven times in the New Testament we read the phrase “one another.” The reason is that the Christian life is all about relationships. God’s plan and purposes are people-focused. Our faith centers on our relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and our relationship with one another. Period. “Love God and love your neighbor.” Everything else is commentary.

So count me a convert. It’s been too long coming. I should have clued in a lot sooner. The scales fell from my eyes slowly. But I finally see it. I’ll let the president worry about the economy.