Thursday, February 22, 2007

Deep Down Somewhere

I remember watching the Today show lead-in around 2001 and hearing that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were divorcing after ten years of marriage. My first thoughts were derisive and scornful – another Hollywood glitterati power couple throwing in the towel. Then Katie Couric’s comment to Matt Lauer went something like this: “It’s hard enough to get divorced, especially with kids involved, but when the whole world is watching it must be really tough. I wish them well.” I remember being sobered by how much more gracious her reaction was than mine.

I reflected on this recently as new headlines detailing Britney Spears’ rapid further descent into even more bizarre and pathetic behavior blared from the web news sites and grocery store magazine covers. One morning while listening to KSBJ the announcer suggested that instead of laughing and rolling our eyes at Britney’s increasingly alarming behavior, maybe we ought to pray for her. Once again I had to admit that this was far more of a Christian response than I had been feeling.

Here’s the thing: everyone is someone’s daughter or son. Everyone at one time was a tiny, adored (hopefully) child with their whole life in front of them and dreams and aspirations of who they could become. Then life happened, and often things turned out much differently than they expected. I’m not saying that people are not responsible for their actions; of course they are. I’m saying that the expression “Christian charity” means trying to see the best of what people want to be or could be, or once were.

Consider that Britney Spears was born in Mississippi and raised in a Baptist family in Louisiana. She practiced gymnastics and performed in local dance reviews and Baptist choirs. By age 11 she was performing on television on The New Mickey Mouse Club. At age 14 she went home to finish high school and continue singing. We’ll call that the end of her childhood. By age 17 she was on the cover of Rolling Stone and selling millions of records worldwide. By age 20 she had signed a huge endorsement contract with Pepsi. By age 21 Forbes magazine named her the most powerful celebrity (male or female) in the world. How many people do you think can capably handle fame and fortune on that scale, that quickly, that young? When I was twenty-one I bought a motorcycle for $1500 and began my senior year of college.

Her increasingly sexually provocative, then raunchy, then pathetically narcissistic and destructive behavior leaves her at age 25 divorced, with two young children, and in her third attempt (at this writing; it changes daily) at detoxification. Hollywood is a tough, tough, place. Fame and outrageous fortune are not for the faint of heart. Instant mega-success is far more a curse than a blessing.

So say a little prayer for Britney Spears. Teenage girls deserve better guidance and protection than she got. We’ve watched her life become a train wreck and we’ve rolled our eyes. But she’s got a Mom and a Dad and she’s a person behind the celebrity. Just like everyone’s a little kid in their heart deep down somewhere.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

It Always Works

In the movie “Remember the Titans,” which everyone ought to see a few times, Denzel Washington plays black high school football coach Herman Boone, who is transferred to a newly integrated school and installed as the head coach over the previous (white) staff. Boone arranges for the former head coach to run the defense while he runs the offense and directs the overall team. When Boone shows up for the first meeting the other coaches remark how thin his offensive playbook is. He replies, “I run six plays, split-v. It’s like Novocain. Give it time, it always works.” In other words, do a few things and do them well.

When I lived in the Los Angeles area I became a fan of a very successful fast-food chain (In-n-Out) that is flourishing in the western states, a burger place with a cult-like following that serves only three things. No tacos, salads, chicken sandwiches, egg rolls, McRibs, chili, muffins, breakfast biscuits, pancakes, cookies, or Shrek-toys. Just great burgers (single, double, or triple, with or without cheese), fries and shakes/drinks made fresh to order. Do a few things and do them well.

Southwest airlines has flourished for forty years by flying one kind of plane (the 737), flying direct, and flying domestic. Do a few things and do them well.

I have been thinking of these examples as I read a book called “Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples” (by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger) which analyzes thriving churches and finds that they have remarkably simple ministry processes. Do a few things (worship God, make disciples, reach and serve the community) and do them well. Resist everything that pulls you away from or dilutes these things.

Simple works, friends. Simple is refreshing. Simple is powerful. The first spiritual discipline I preached on this year (I will preach on spiritual disciplines periodically through 2007) was simplicity. I hope you have taken the occasion to think about ways to simplify your life and clear space for God and the really important things. Simplify the clutter in your life. Focus on a few things and “do” them well. Down-size your spending and your schedule. It is a powerful step.

In Luke 4 Jesus is beginning to draw a lot of attention because of his teachings and healings. People try to convince him to stay in Capernaum, where there are many more needs to address. But Jesus replies, “I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (v. 43). Jesus could have been pulled in all kinds of different directions to good avail; people have a lot of legitimate needs. But he knew his main purpose.

That is the power of effective simplicity; it emanates from a strong sense of purpose. And that is why it is always a valuable exercise to ask ourselves, “Am I spending my best time and energy on what God has purposed me to do?”

Thursday, February 08, 2007


Over the last year I learned about a theory of organizational dynamics called Appreciative Inquiry which has intrigued me and changed some of the ways I do things. Appreciative Inquiry can be most directly contrasted with Change Management theory, in which a group looks for the problem (in an organization, process, curriculum, etc.), does a diagnosis, and finds a solution. Appreciative Inquiry, on the other hand, suggests that we look for what works in an organization, or what we like about a process or curriculum, and then determine how to replicate the values under girding it. Here’s a great tag line: Change Management looks at an organization as a problem to be solved; Appreciative Inquiry looks at an organization as a mystery to be unraveled. You can see what a significant difference this kind of thinking could make in our marriages, work relationships and friendships.

At any rate, this week at our full staff meeting, instead of surfacing problems and glitches we saw in the last month (which are an inevitable part of church life), we considered the following question: “What about West Houston is especially positive and promising to you right now?” I thought you would enjoy hearing some of the responses:

· I feel very comfortable inviting my friends to West Houston. I am confident they will find it to be a meaningful experience.

· West Houston members are willing and generous about helping.

· We have great people (members) and great placement (location). We are going to make a bigger and bigger impact in this area.

· There is great interest and involvement in the Youth Ministry. People are really stepping up.

· Our administrative assistants have a great attitude; they are positive and eager to help. That sends a good message and is a joy to be around.

· We are a family at WHCC and there is a real hunger for God.

· West Houston is concerned about peoples’ well-being.

· We are receiving a lot of guests each week, many of them not from the churches of Christ. This is a great opportunity.

· There is a strong effort to look forward. The Take the Next Step process is really engaging people.

· There is a new energy and cohesiveness developing among the staff.

· The “Garden of Prayer” time in worship is really addressing a need and is a blessing to our congregation.

· The Children’s Ministry is really getting traction and doing good things.

I guess if someone is cynical enough they could label this an exercise in “back-patting,” but I see it differently. It is an exercise in expressing appreciation and gratitude. As Paul says to the Philippians, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (4:8). Not a bad way to live, is it?

I will say this personally and on behalf of the staff: We appreciate you, West Houston folks. It is a privilege to serve the Lord with you! – Matt Soper (2/11/07).

Friday, February 02, 2007

Mystery and Wonder

Mystery and Wonder

A recent news item told of a 32-year old woman who had been acutely obese since childhood and whose doctors had repeatedly admonished her to lose weight. She suffered from diabetes and many other maladies associated with obesity but maintained from age 20 that her weight didn’t match her diet; something must be wrong. Finally doctors located a ninety-three pound benign tumor on her ovary and removed it, admitting that her weight gain and many of her related health problems had “cascaded” from the tumor. The woman, looking forward to a bright future after years of shame and frustration, said “I always had faith that something would be found.”

I am preaching this week on Jesus’ healing of the man at the pool in Bethesda in John 5. Digging into this passage has renewed my intrigue with the connections between illness and infirmity, medical treatment, faith, God and healing. I will tell you that anyone who professes to have simple explanations for the relationship between all of the above is a fool. There is mystery here: of the human body, of the nature of well-being, and of God’s ways.

The man in John 5 has been infirm for thirty-eight years. I wonder if people have been telling him all that time that he just needs to (fill in the blank here) to be cured. Instead he is so devoid of hope, so incapable of envisioning a future without his debilitating condition that he cannot respond coherently to Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be well?” He cannot say, “I always had faith that something would be found.”

This passage also has me thinking of the way in which our faith tradition has downplayed the ministry of healing despite strong scriptural references to the manifestation of the Spirit in the gift of healing (I Cor. 12:9) and church leaders praying over the ill and anointing them with oil (James 5:14). I am wondering if we haven’t thrown out the baby (the ministry of healing) with the bathwater (abuses and harmful manifestations thereof).

I read recently of an informal Christian theological movement called paleo-orthodoxy, which advocates a return to “classical Christianity” (“paleo” means “ancient” and “orthodox” means “correct belief”). Its adherents, mainstream Christians in all respects, simply believe that modern Christ-followers need to rely more on the wisdom and practices of the early church instead of using Enlightenment rationalism as a starting point (i.e., that faith and mystery are contrary to reason). So, for instance, with regard to prayer and healing, not only can we pray for God to effect a cure through the medical establishment or by his own power, we also can partner with him to prayerfully enter into the healing work via the practices and words of Scripture God has given us. It is not a case of either or; each of these responses to illness is appropriate and faithful. But what if we’re only utilizing one? I find myself in my middle-age more and more hungry for this kind of “classical” Christian spirituality.

After Jesus heals the man the religious authorities get angry because he does it on the Sabbath. They don’t see the healing, just the violation of rules. Sigh. That’s another issue for another day.

A ninety-three pound tumor. Twelve years of bondage. A new season of life filled with hope and expectation. I am struck by the symbolism. Excitedly.