Thursday, March 29, 2007

Fathers and Focus

A couple of reflections this week:

* To fathers of daughters: Run, don’t walk to the nearest bookstore and buy “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: Ten Secrets Every Father Should Know” by Meg Meeker, M.D. This is a sobering, challenging, encouraging and inspiring look at the huge impact fathers have on their daughters. In a highly readable form, Meeker draws on sociological research along with personal reflections and case stories from her pediatric practice and her counseling with teenagers. Here is an excerpt from chapter one, entitled “You are the Most Important Man in Her Life”:

“Men, good men: We need you. We – mothers, daughters, and sisters – need your help to raise healthy young women. We need every ounce of masculine courage and wit you own, because fathers, more than anyone else, set the course for a daughter’s life. …When she’s
in your company, your daughter tries harder to excel. When you teach her, she learns more rapidly. When you guide her, she gains confidence. If you fully understood just how profoundly you can influence your daughter’s life, you would be terrified, overwhelmed, or both. Boyfriends, brothers, even husbands can’t shape her character the way you do. You will influence her entire life because she gives you an authority she gives no other man… When she is twenty-five, she will mentally size her boyfriend or husband up against you. When she is thirty-five, the number of children she has will be affected by her life with you. The clothes she wears will reflect something about you. Even when she is seventy-five, how she faces her future will depend on some distant memory of time you spent together.”

Fathers, this will inspire you to be a devoted Dad to all your kids but especially to your
daughters. So much of what we hear in society devalues the role of men and the importance of manhood. This book affirms men and embraces manhood. And make note: It’s never too late.

* I told you recently that I have become enamored with the idea of simplicity and am working hard to reduce the clutter (activities and things) in my life. Interestingly, I keep running across the concept of simplicity in books about ministry (e.g., “Simple Church,” “Seven Practices of Effective Ministry”). Many American churches went through a period of trying to meet every need and address every opportunity, adopting a ministry “menu” philosophy with the assumption that every program could be a potential entry point to reach the un-churched. Most wound up exhausted, disorganized, and not particularly effectual evangelistically or pastorally. Now many of the thriving churches in America have focused their efforts on the essentials and are experiencing renewal and growth. In
“Seven Practices”, practice #3 is called “Narrow the Focus: Do Fewer Things in Order to Make a Greater Impact.” Here’s a short excerpt: “Devoting a little of yourself to everything means committing a great deal of yourself to nothing. Your potential to make an impact with your life is directly related to your willingness to narrow your focus.”

This is true for each of us as well as for the church, of course. Are you “committing a great deal of yourself to nothing”? Isn’t it significant that Jesus points us to a “narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13-14) rather than a wide one? Focus is powerful.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Godly Entanglement

En-gage – to entangle; to involve.

Recently I defended my doctoral thesis before a committee of faculty at Abilene Christian University. My thesis focused on forming faith in adult seekers, and essentially dealt with the challenge, and the importance, of intentionally helping adult seekers move from a place of interest in the Christian faith and life to a commitment (expressed in baptism) to pursue full participation in God’s kingdom life. My project within the thesis was to develop a small group curriculum designed to help adult seekers form faith that prepares them not just for baptism but for the baptized life.

I passed, which was satisfying, but I was also intrigued and positively challenged by one particular avenue of questioning and probing by my committee. I’ll try to sum it up here and explain why it is apropos for me and, I believe, for West Houston.

The small group curriculum that I and a team of six people from West Houston developed, which is currently offered at West Houston as the “Foundations” Life Group, explores many of the central doctrines of the Christian faith: God’s authority; creation; covenant; Jesus’ incarnation, life and ministry; the Kingdom of God; the Holy Spirit; the spiritual disciplines of scripture reading, prayer, worship, and service; Jesus’ death and resurrection; baptism and the Lord’s Supper; and the Scriptures. It’s a good primer for “understanding” what the Christian faith is about. And there are a number of exercises participants do, such as journaling, reflecting, listening to songs, even watching a TV show, that are designed to help seekers explore the implications of what they are learning about the Christian faith and life.

But here was the question that intrigued and challenged me: “How will this curriculum teach seekers to engage the world as Christians?” In other words, how will it teach them to “be like Jesus” in the world and to the world? I believe this touches on a weak point in my life and in the life of many suburban churches: What are we doing as ambassadors and servants of Christ for those outside the church? I am not speaking only of evangelism but of service to the poor, the marginalized, and even the “well-to-do” who are far from God. When I read Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 of “the sheep and the goats,” Jesus isn’t real concerned with how much his followers know; he’s concerned with who they help.

I heard of a church whose elders arranged for every deacon to ride with a police patrol car on the late night shift and report back what they saw. Suffice it to say that they saw a different “world” than the one in which they spent most of their time, and it gave them a different picture of what “being Jesus to the world” might look like.

As we work through our Take the Next Step initiative at West Houston, which is producing a tremendous and inspiring number of ideas and possibilities for future ministry efforts, we will want to ask ourselves this challenging question: What will we do to engage the world?

Friday, March 09, 2007

A Good Challenge About Salvation

The one man asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” The other two men reply, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household.” This exchange between the Philippian jailer and Paul and Silas in Acts 16:25-34 is a model of evangelistic efficiency. But what does it mean to “believe in the Lord Jesus”?

Baptist preacher David Gushee throws a wrench in the spokes of American Christianity’s culture of Easy Believism in a recent article in Christianity Today (“Jesus and the Sinner’s Prayer: What Jesus says doesn’t match what we usually say,” March 2007). He refers to the common practice among Baptists and other conservative evangelicals of “inviting Jesus into your heart as your personal savior” via the “Sinner’s Prayer,” but notes that whenever Jesus is asked in the Gospels about how to have eternal life, he seems to have more in mind than a quick prayer.

In the two occasions in Luke’s gospel, for instance, when Jesus is asked about the criteria for admission to eternity (Luke 10:25 and 18:18), Gushee notes that “Jesus offers a four-fold answer: Love God with all that you are, love your neighbor, do God’s will by obeying his moral commands, and be willing, if he asks, to drop everything and leave it behind in order to follow him. I suggest that we tend to confuse the beginning of the faith journey with its entirety. Yes, believe in Jesus… but then embark on the journey of discipleship in which you seek to love God with every fiber of your being, to love your neighbor as yourself, to live out God’s moral will, and to follow Jesus where he leads you, whatever the cost.”

Baptist and Church of Christ folks have often argued about the role of baptism (the former say it follows salvation, the latter that it facilitates it), but in this regard Gushee calls us both to account (along with all Christian communities). Namely, to what extent are we preparing people before their prayer/baptism for the kind of life Jesus demands of his followers? Just because someone is baptized instead of saying the Sinner’s Prayer does not mean that they have been taught what their life in the Kingdom of God should look like.

To be sure, we are “saved by grace through faith, and this is not our own doing, it is the work of God” (Eph. 2:8). Christ accomplishes the work of atonement in his death and resurrection; we don’t. But the salvation life is not a static possession to be vouchsafed until heaven; it is a dynamic journey which we willingly enter into through our baptism and the primary imperatives of which we should be aware before our baptism. Jesus calls this “counting the cost” (Luke 14:28) and it is an important part of becoming his follower. In talking to a potential Christ-follower, we must instruct him/her not only in the theology of baptism but also help paint for him/her a picture of the baptized life as a follower of Jesus in God’s kingdom.

As Gushee puts it, “Mediocrity and hypocrisy characterize the lives of many avowed Christians, at least in part because of our default answer to the salvation question. Anyone can, and most Americans do, “believe” in Jesus rather than some alternative savior. But not many embark on a life fully devoted to the love of God, the love of neighbor, the moral practice of God’s will, and radical, costly discipleship.”

Sounds to me like a good challenge.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

One Life's Impact

Last Saturday Angela, Alex and I stared at a whole afternoon of free time and decided to see the movie “Amazing Grace.” My motivation was three-fold: First, I am a strong admirer of William Wilberforce, a Christian whose unceasing efforts in the British Parliament in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s led to the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. Second, I wanted to support with my pocketbook any efforts to bring responsible Christian-themed movies to the public. Third, I thought it would be a good movie for my 12-year old daughter to see (you know, sort of like a history lesson and a Bible class combined, plus popcorn). You will note that anticipation of actually enjoying the movie was not one of my top motivations. Let’s face it, some of the Christian-themed movies in the past five years have been long on sincerity and effort but somewhat short on high-quality acting and cinematography.

Friends, “Amazing Grace” is a high-quality, thoroughly enjoyable and hugely inspiring movie.

Wilberforce decided in college not to enter his father’s successful business but rather to run for a seat in Parliament, which he won at age 21. At age 26 he experienced a religious conversion, which the movie treats vaguely, after which he resolved to commit his future life and work fully to God’s service. He assumed this would be as a member of the clergy, but John Newton (a former slave ship master who later became a Christian and wrote “Amazing Grace”), along with Wilbeforce’s friend William Pitt, then Prime Minister, counseled him to remain in politics and “serve God where you are.” Wilberforce joined a growing group campaigning against the slave trade and made his first major speech on the subject of abolition in 1789 (age 30). In the movie he is depicted as a handsome, witty and highly effective orator, and while I have no idea how historically accurate the depiction is, it certainly made the movie more enjoyable for Angela. His first bill was soundly defeated in 1791, but he and the minister Thomas Clarkson were responsible for generating and sustaining a national movement which mobilized public opinion as never before.

Wilberforce’s bills in Parliament were repeatedly defeated in the 1790’s, even as public opinion toward slavery shifted. In 1805 (at age 46) his bill passed in the House of Parliament but was defeated in the House of Lords. Finally the Slave Trade Act was passed into law in 1807. In case you’re counting, that’s twenty-two years of persistent effort to abolish the slave trade.

Wilberforce also succeeded in introducing missionary work to India through Britain’s trading companies, and founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. At age 38 he met and married Barbara Ann, eighteen years his junior; their swift romance is charmingly depicted in the movie (though Angela thought he should have married someone closer to his own age).

I said this movie is very inspiring and the reasons should be fairly obvious. There is so much good Christians can do in the world “serving God where we are.” And the power of Godly persistence and cooperation is enormous. As the saying goes, “You don’t have to cross the sea to be a missionary; you just have to see the cross.” Few of us will make an impact like Wilberforce did; but each of us can make an impact.