Tuesday, November 20, 2007

No Time for Kicking Back

It just showed up in my mailbox at church, a magazine called “Significant Living: Celebrating Life and Faith after 50.” The name alone intrigued me. You see, I have been thinking for a while about two different but related phenomena: First, people are living longer than ever, and spending more years healthy and active than ever; second, many people are retiring earlier than ever, having seen their nest eggs respond well to the last quarter century’s robust stock market and to the myriad opportunities for wealth creation in America. What in the world are these people going to do with all that time and good health?

“Celebrating Life After 50” has a nice ring to it. Whereas in the first half of the 20th century, age 50 was a milestone signaling it was time to slow down, it more and more signals a time to transition. The magazine’s cover story captured my attention: “Coach Mike Singletary: A Game Plan for Life.” I’m a big admirer of Singletary for several reasons:

1. He is a passionate Christian. During his 12-year playing career with the Chicago Bears, Singletary’s fearsome play on the gridiron as captain of the decade’s most storied defensive unit, coupled with the fact that he was ordained by his denomination, earned him the nickname “the Minister of Defense” (later given to Reggie White). As a player and now as a coach, Singletary is outspoken about his priorities: God first, family second (married with seven kids!), and football third.

2. He is committed to excellence. Singletary grew up in Houston and starred at Baylor, then was the team leader for the Chicago Bears while earning Pro Bowl honors ten consecutive years and a Hall of Fame berth six years after retiring at age 34. In 1999 he was ranked number 56 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. The man gives it everything he’s got.

3. He gives back. Singletary tutors young players about how to prepare for life after football. “Somebody needs to grab these kids and say, ‘Take your money, prepare yourself; it’s a tremendous opportunity.” The average NFL career lasts 3.2 years; many players need the wisdom of an older player who has made the transition. Singletary reaches out to them.

4. He lives purposefully. “The greatest thing I can do with my kids, my spouse, my friends, the players that I coach, and the coaches that I coach with, is to be an example. I want to live this life. You’ve only got it one time, but I want to live this life as best as I possibly can in a way that honors God.”

And that brings me back to life after fifty. When you live purposefully, you realize that each decade, each season of your life, offers opportunities to serve and honor God, to impact other peoples’ lives, to make a difference. In today’s message, I am going to use the apostle Paul’s example from Romans 15, in which he shares his plans to bring the gospel to new territory (Spain), to talk about how to live purposefully. The Bible doesn’t use the word “retirement.” Each phase of our life offers us unique and exciting opportunities to exercise our faith, to grow spiritually, to be missionaries and ambassadors of the gospel, to join God in his Kingdom mission to the world.

The title of the article about Singletary is “No Time for Kicking Back.” The Scriptures tell Christians to “make the most of every opportunity” (Ephesians 5:16). Amen, Amen.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Varied Yet Complete

I have enjoyed exercising for the last thirty years, ever since one of my neighbors, Mr. O’Bannon, invited me to start running with him a few mornings a week when I was fifteen. I got hooked. I’ve run, cycled, done aerobics, walked, practiced martial arts, strength trained with weights and without weights, even tried yoga. Exercise is just one of those things I find satisfying.

Every once in a while I get bored and change my routine. About a year ago I stumbled upon “Crossfit,” a strength and conditioning program that is rapidly gaining a cult following. I was immediately struck by the philosophy of the program, which states that “Our specialty is not specializing.” Crossfit is designed to “elicit as broad an adaptational response as possible.” Its ideal is to “train for any contingency” and develop a fitness that is “varied yet complete.” Consequently, individual workouts may include running, rowing, weight-lifting, calisthenics, swimming, or plyometrics. Each workout is varied, and workouts only repeat themselves about once a month. You literally can never get in a rut in this program.

I am intrigued by the application of this philosophy for life in general and for the Christian life in particular. It is so easy to get into ruts, to do the same things over and over again and wonder why we become bored and lackadaisical. As the old saying goes, the only difference between a rut and a grave is the length. This is true of people, relationships, marriages, families, and churches.

Here are some ad hoc suggestions for getting out of your routine occasionally and thereby your “adaptational response” to life. These may seem small and insignificant, but they lay the groundwork for bigger changes.

§ Drive a different route to work a few times a week.

§ Sit in a different pew in church each week for a while.

§ If you are a saver, treat yourself to a few luxuries. If you are a spender, put yourself on a stricter budget to reach a short-term savings goal.

§ If you read the Bible regularly (good for you!), listen to it on tape instead. If you don’t read the Bible regularly, do WHCC’s reading plan for a month.

§ If you read mostly fiction, read a few non-fiction books, and vice-versa. If you watch a lot of TV, scale it down for a month and replace it with music, the web, or something similarly relaxing.

§ If you eat dinner as a family (good for you!), change rooms or seating places.

§ If you are a late night person, go to bed early a few times a week, and vice-versa.

§ Husbands and wives, sweep your honey off his/her feet with a special treat, occasion or trip.

Friends, get out of your ruts. Routines are necessary and inevitable. Habits provide a framework and foundation for our life. But they become ruts when they devolve into strait-jackets for our creativity and hindrances to our capability of finding joy and vitality in life. Life is too short and too valuable not to be fully alive. Or as the psalmist says, “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it”

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Faith in Words

The acclaimed poet and writer Frederick Buechner, in his book “Telling Secrets: A Memoir,” describes an experience he had while teaching as a visiting lecturer at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school outside of Chicago.

“One day I was having lunch with two students who were talking about whatever they were talking about – the weather, the movies -- when without warning one of them asked the other as naturally as he would have asked the time of day what God was doing in his life. If there is anything in this world I believe, it is that God is indeed doing all kinds of things in the lives of all of us… but in the part of the East where I live (Vermont), if anybody were to ask a question like that, even among religious people, the sky would fall, the walls would cave in, the grass would wither. I think the very air would stop my mouth if I opened it to speak such words among just about any group of people I can think of in the East because their faith itself, if they happen to have any, is one of the secrets that they have kept so long that it might almost as well not exist. The result was that to find myself at Wheaton among people who… not only believed in Christ and his Kingdom more or less as I did but were also not ashamed or embarrassed to say so was like finding something which, only when I tasted it, I realized I had been starving for for years."

Buechner’s reflections point to a powerful phenomenon, which is that faith is both received and strengthened through words. The old riddle asks, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears, does it make a sound?” Perhaps a parallel would be, “If someone has faith and never speaks of their faith, does their faith exist?” I don’t pose this question to elicit guilt among those who are not openly evangelistic; I pose it as someone who is fascinated by the passage of Romans 10 where Paul reminds us that people cannot call upon God (i.e., find saving faith) unless they believe, and they cannot believe unless they HEAR. The gospel is proclaimed in word and actions, to be sure, but without words the actions cannot bear witness to the One in whose name they are done. The Christian faith is an oral life. We sing, pray, speak words of truth and encouragement and exhortation and confession and testimony because we are created in the image of God who spoke the world into being and whose Word was made flesh in our lives.

Many Christians are starving not just for the Word of God articulated in the Scriptures, but for words of and about God in their daily conversations. Yes, I know there is the obnoxious stereotype, the person who references God and faith in every conversation. But don’t let the extreme example dissuade you. Faith comes by hearing (Romans 10:17). Faith also grows by talking and listening and sharing and telling.

The theologian and philosopher Dallas Willard describes prayer as “talking to God about what we are doing together.” It seems that in addition to that, our life of faith should include talking with others about what God is doing in our lives and in the world. Something happens when we put our faith into words.

Friends, talk about your faith, not just so that others will believe but so that you will believe too.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

I Took the Pledge

Earlier this year I formulated five things I wanted to pray for on a regular basis (January 24, “Five Prayers I’m Praying”). One of these was that God would rekindle in me a hunger for his Word. I had gotten to the point where reading the Bible was part of the necessary labor for preaching and teaching, but it had grown stale and wooden. God has been faithful to that prayer; I am discovering anew the vitality and vibrancy of the Scriptures.

Recently, I came across “The Preacher’s Pledge” in a preaching magazine:

"I pledge to make the Bible my primary resource in sermon preparation and preaching. I may use other resources such as commentaries and web sites to enhance, not replace, my personal interaction with Scripture. As I study I will strive to accurately understand and honestly apply God’s Word, allowing Him to uniquely proclaim His truth in a relevant way through me."

The reason for offering this pledge is that many preachers use sites like www.sermoncentral.com (the sponsor of this pledge) to gather stories, illustrations, and preaching starters to help craft their sermons, but in the end they short-change God’s Word because it is only one of many resources, not the primary one.

I took the pledge, and I am intrigued by this effort because a few months ago I was reading an interview with the venerable evangelical preacher and scholar John Stott, who extolled the value of expository (as opposed to topical) preaching. He said, “God’s Word grows the church. God’s Word grows Christians.” I was struck by the power and persuasiveness of that bold conviction.

Listen to how Eugene Peterson, author of the widely used Bible translation, The Message, speaks about the relationship between Christians and Scripture.

"Christians don’t simply learn or study or use Scripture; we feed on it. We assimilate it, taking it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in the company of the Son…We open this book and find that on page after page it takes us off guard, surprises us, and draws us into its reality, pulls us into participation with God on his terms… The Bible, all of it, is livable. It is, in fact, the text for living our lives."

Here is my challenge to you: Make God’s Word a part of your life. Do the weekly Bible readings I post in the pew sheet and on-line. Bring your Bibles to worship and follow along as I preach, and to Bible class, and to Life Group for the discussion time. Pick one book of the Bible and study it on your own. Then pick a second book and do the same. Then tell me in three months if you haven’t grown spiritually. I pledge to you that you will.