Wednesday, April 25, 2007


In August of this year I will complete my fifteenth year of full-time preaching. I have served in three different congregations and each has been a blessing. During these fifteen years church members have written me many notes of encouragement (usually!) and affirmation. I have kept these stuffed in a cardboard box “to be organized later.” Recently I undertook to re-read all the notes and file them according to the year received. The whole experience of re-reading the notes has brought back many wonderful memories. And some sad ones.

There is the note from the sixteen-year-old girl who died a few months after I moved in a fiery car crash along with three friends. There are the notes from couples who have since divorced. There is the note from the family of a man who committed suicide whose funeral I preached, and the one from the mother of a twelve-year old boy who died tragically whose funeral I also preached. It is such an honor to be called alongside people in their most difficult times to bear witness to the presence of Christ, and these notes help remind me of the substance of my calling.

Some of the notes are delightful. Like the one from the West Houston mother who was having lunch with her son at his elementary school and was joined by one of his friends. The friend asked her son “What kind of things can your preacher do? My preacher can do magic tricks and juggle fire.” Her son replied with great earnestness, “Oh no. Our preacher doesn’t do any of that. He’s just funny. He pretty much just tells jokes.

As I was reading and filing some of the notes this week, I received an email out of the blue from a man I had known in a previous church who said “his heart has ached at every remembrance” of the tension we experienced in our relationship in the last year I was there. We had not seen or spoken to one another in thirteen years. I had had no idea he was so troubled by this, but it gave me great joy to write him back, offer my own apology for my role in our disagreements, inquire of his well-being, and know that as brothers in Christ we are reconciled because he made the effort to write a note.

Friends, life goes by fast. My overall impression of receiving and re-reading these notes is to marvel at how powerful and lasting a simple word of goodwill, encouragement, and affirmation can be to people. A verbal word is wonderful, a written word even better. I am resolved to write more personal notes of encouragement, thanks and affirmation.

Here’s part of another note I received. The man writes, “I’ve been working on something lately that doesn’t make me a popular guy. So this morning I got to thinking about how no one really appreciates it, or understands the effort… and so on. When I got done feeling sorry for myself I began to think about things or people I take for granted.” So he wrote me a note of appreciation. Here is what’s great: I am certain that not only was I encouraged but that he felt better after writing it. Encouragement is a gift that goes both ways.

How many people do you think feel unappreciated and under-thanked? Most. It is a powerful ministry in Christ to be an encourager of others. It is a ministry that always bears fruit. No magic skills required.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest, Christianity Today, Leadership (a journal for church leaders), Success, Money, Runner’s World, Smart Money, the Christian Chronicle, the Houston Chronicle, and the Wall Street Journal.

At the beginning of this year I preached a message on the spiritual discipline of simplicity and encouraged us all to simplify our life by reducing the clutter of activities and “stuff.” Simplicity is not an end in itself but a means to be more available to God and the important people in our life. I sensed that this message resonated with many of you and I imagine some of you undertook to try to simplify. I certainly did.

I thought I’d give you a little progress report on how things are going for me and offer some reflections and suggestions. First of all, this is difficult. To simplify one’s life is to take “the road less traveled.” Everything in our culture (technology, values, demands) pulls us into more busyness and clutter, not less. I have tried to simplify my purchase of clothes (can’t buy anything new unless I discard something) and certain elements of my schedule. I also have been systematically cleaning out our garage of unused stuff. I have tried not to read work-related emails at home in the evening. So far so good.

Let’s return to the above list of magazines and periodicals. I was clearing my bedside table recently and I realized how many magazines were stacked there waiting for me to finish reading them! I decided to take inventory of how many different ones I receive. Clearly, Sports Illustrated and Golf Digest are essential. But do I really need all the others?

The answer is no, of course. But therein lies the challenge. All of these are “good” reading in the sense they are interesting and enjoyable. But if they keep me from reading good books, or writing to my sister, or calling my Mom, or talking to my wife and kids, or cultivating a friendship, then they become so much clutter.

Many of us have too many “magazines” in our life. Maybe for you it’s television shows, or phone calls, or sports activities, or clothes, or emails. What would happen if you decided to watch 3 or 4 shows a week instead of 9 or 10? A good question to ask ourselves is, are the things I am keeping busy with improving my life or just keeping me busy?

One of the governing principles of our Take the Next Step process at West Houston is simplification. We have identified four cornerstones that encompass what we want to be about: Connecting with God through worship and Bible study, connecting with one another through small groups, connecting with the Body through service, and connecting with the community. Other things might be interesting or enjoyable, but do they further God’s kingdom work in our area? Do they improve us or just keep us busy?

So I’m going to let some of these subscriptions expire. I’m sure I’ll get dozens of solicitations urging me to renew, promising discounts and all sorts of enticements. That is the way of the world. We are marketed to twenty-four hours a day. You have to swim against the current to resist it. Funny thing, isn’t it, how swimming against the current makes you stronger.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Brave Rebellion

Joan Eden (full name Dawn Eden Goldstein) has a fascinating life journey. She grew up in a Reform Jewish household, her mother converted to Christianity when Eden was a teenager, Eden became an agnostic in college, later ventured into rock music journalism in the mid-1980s and embraced the libertine lifestyle of the music industry, then was found by Christ in 1999 in her thirties and became a committed Christian. She writes a blog called Dawn Patrol (, works as a freelance journalist, and recently published a book called The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On, described as “part memoir, part how-to guide on giving up casual sex, embracing chastity, and experiencing ‘a life more hope-filled, more vibrant, and more real’ by putting sex in its proper place” (La Shawn Barber, reviewing Eden’s book at

Having “been there, done that,” Eden offers a strong critique of the casual sex culture that pervades high schools, universities, and much of modern society. Her target audience is single women ready to admit that premarital sex is not making them happy or helping them find the husband they seek. She contends that our casual sex culture encourages singles to view one another as commodities. Like many women, she believed the hype that casual sex is the way to a man’s heart, but actually found over time that it served as a hindrance to relationship building. For instance, to protect oneself from the eventual let-down of casual encounters, one must develop a certain emotional toughness. In Eden’s case, she sabotaged relationships before she got dumped so she could remain in control. “The same armor that enabled me to tolerate casual sex made me less attractive to the kind of man I most desired.”

Barber notes an important point in her review, that “chastity is a misunderstood virtue. It is more than simply refraining from premarital sex. It’s an attitude, a way of life, an open rebellion against a debauched culture.” Indeed, as Eden writes, “The most challenging part of chastity isn’t overcoming temptation. It’s gaining the spiritual resources to joyfully face day-to-day life as a cultural outsider.”

I would like to read this book, but it points to a larger issue that is even more significant and meaningful to me, which is the rebellious component of Christianity. How ironic that modern day “rebellion” in America is not to live a debauched life, but to live a moral one! If Christians are not living as cultural “outsiders” in significant ways in post-Christian America, then we probably aren’t following Jesus very faithfully. The three prominent idols in our culture are money, sex, and power/prestige. These offer a good place to reflect on how “inside” or “outside” our culture we are. How do our views and practices in these areas differ from those of our unbelieving societal neighbors?

Recently, Eden participated in a debate at a bar in Manhattan with the author of a book on internet dating. A show of hands at the end of the evening revealed that Eden had lost on the debate's central question: 'Is chastity a good idea for singles?' (these were non-religious Manhattan singles, after all). But the other author admitted Eden had acquitted herself well, saying: “She was brave to speak to this crowd.” May we too be brave in Christ.