Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

I am beginning a series this week from Amos called “Strong Words for Serious Faith.” One of the commentaries I am using referenced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King wrote this letter in 1963 after his arrest for leading a non-violent, “direct action” civil rights demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama, which he referred to as “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” King wrote his open letter in response to a document circulated by eight white clergymen titled “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” in which they expressed support for the cause of civil rights but urged it to be pursued in the courts, not in the streets.

The clergymen lamented that “outsiders” (including King) were leading the demonstrations, and that they were “extremists.” King noted that the eighth-century prophets (including Amos) “left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns.” He also noted that Amos was an “extremist” for justice. Hence my commentary’s reference.

King’s letter is a breathtaking, extraordinary expression of biblical ethics and a vision for God’s kingdom reign in the world. I printed it out to quickly glance through it and discovered that first, at ten typed pages there is nothing quick about it and second, it deserves deep reflection.

King is particularly eloquent, though it is painful to read, about his deep disappointment in the southern clergy and white churches. He notes with grateful appreciation the white Christians who “have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms, have marched with us down nameless streets in the South, have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as ‘dirty n___r-lovers.’” But he expresses his dismay that far more have been “more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows,” or have “stood on the sideline and mouthed pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

“In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church… Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists… There was a time when the church was very powerful – in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. [Christians were] small in number but big in commitment. … By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo.”

This letter stands in the tradition of prophets like Amos who called God’s people out of their complacency, saying “Woe to you who are at ease in Zion.” When I read these prophetic declarations I am filled both with hope for God’s kingdom and trepidation for my personal status quos. Which may be the start of having ears to hear.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Doing Good

A recent Houston Chronicle article spotlighted the second annual Souper Bowl of Caring Greater Houston Food Drive. Leading up to Super Bowl Sunday on February 3, churches, organizations and individuals will collect food to be distributed to more than 400 social service agencies around the city. The Chronicle story noted that an estimated 80,000 people each week eat meals provided by shelters, soup kitchens, food pantries, and other agencies that rely on food donations. That’s 4,000,000 meals per year in Houston alone! Some of the people who need these meals are jobless and homeless, but many are the working poor, who manage to make meager livings but can’t afford enough food for their families. I am very happy that West Houston will be participating in this wonderful effort.

The Bible talks a lot about the responsibility of God’s people to care for the poor and vulnerable in society. Moses preaches that “The Lord defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing” (Deut 10:18). Jesus teaches about living as part of God’s Kingdom, saying, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous" (Luke 14:13-14). When the apostles James, Peter and John agree that Paul should be a missionary to the Gentiles while they focus on the Jews, they admonish him simply to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:9-10). And Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 25:31-46 in which God’s people say to him at the Judgment, “'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'” And the Lord replies, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

In Acts 9:36 we are told about a disciple named Tabitha (or Dorcas) who is “always doing good and helping the poor.” She becomes sick and dies; her body is washed and prepared for burial. But Peter arrives and prays over her and she is brought back to life. I feel this is somewhat parabolic in that I believe God is calling suburban churches like ours to be prayed over and brought back to life, as it were, in the matter of doing good and helping the poor. We have tended to identify and support inner city missions, which is wonderful, while turning a (relatively) blind eye and deaf ear to the poor in our area. In the summer of 2006 I interviewed the directors of Bear Creek Assistance Ministries and Cypress Assistance Ministries. Each of these agencies is very well run and organized, and each is swamped with people using its food assistance, job training, and clothing and furniture thrift offerings. There is a great harvest of good to be done in our area in the name of Jesus, whom we are told was anointed by God and “went around doing good” (Acts 10:38).

I am excited that our elders have begun working on a five year strategic plan for West Houston that will help us maximize our impact in northwest Houston. Greater efforts devoted to community outreach and service will be a part of that plan. Let’s fill the auditorium with food donations on Souper Sunday and do some great good.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

We Firmly Believe

As I finish the “Faith & Finances” message series, I want to share the following testimony by Kris and Christy Bailey, a 30’s-something couple at West Houston. Enjoy. – Matt Soper (1/20/08).

About six years ago we were in a class taught by Steve Morris about finances from a biblical standpoint. As he talked one week about tithing, something he said rang home: the idea that we can do more with 90% of our money and God’s help than with 100% of our money on our own. We were really struggling with our finances and wrestling with how much we should be giving to the Church and other things.

We both had good paying jobs, but we had a bad habit of putting stuff on a credit card. Our mounting debt was drowning us financially. Before being in Steve’s class we had been convicted that we should really be giving more to the church, and we had set an eventual goal of 10%. While in Steve’s class we asked him if he could take some time to sit down with us and help us work out a budget and get the debt snowball moving in the other direction.

After this, we decided to put into effect the other part of the equation and begin giving 10% of our gross income to the church. This was a big faith leap because it didn’t work out on paper. Yet, almost from the get-go we began to see God blessing us in ways we hadn’t imagined. I got better than average raises at work and had the opportunity to work more overtime. When our son was born, Christy was presented with the opportunity to work contract from home, then was offered an even better paying job with another company with full benefits but still working from home. I eventually got six raises in five years at my last company, then was offered a job with a substantial raise at a company that I had wanted to go to work with for several years but had given up on.

I could tell you a great number of little stories along the way about how God has provided for us. And I can’t proclaim that we were miraculously delivered from our debt because although we have made great strides, it has been a long process and we are not free of it yet. But we have received many financial blessings along the way from God. Some of them have seemed truly miraculous and without explanation, others have been more concrete. But they have all come from God, and we firmly believe they are a product of our being faithful with our money and putting our financial life in God’s hands. Truly, we have been able to do FAR more with 90% (and even less sometimes) of our money with God’s help than we would have been able to do with 100% of it by ourselves.

-- Kris and Christy Bailey

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Questions About Giving

This week my essay serves as an addendum to the message I am preaching on “The Grace of Giving” from II Corinthians 9:6-8, the second in a three-week series called “Faith and Finances: A Winning Combination!” I want to address nuts-and-bolts questions that many Christians have about financial giving. Let’s dive right in.

Given that the Bible teaches us to give God our first fruits (Proverbs 3:9-10), how much should I give?

The basic benchmark for financial giving to the Lord and his work is the tithe (10%). This was a requirement of God’s people in the Old Testament (Lev. 27:30-33, Deut. 14:22-29, Mal. 3:8-12, et al.). Indeed, is some evidence indicates there were two tithes and an offering to the poor (totaling about 23%) asked of Jewish people. Be that as it may, the New Testament does not specifically continue this commandment. This places tithing under the realm of Christian freedom. In most ways, Jesus calls his followers to consider the Old Testament Law a starting point rather than an ending one (see Matthew 5:21-48). For this reason, Christians should aspire to tithe, seeing our giving as a means of spiritual growth. Once we tithe, we should not consider ourselves to have “arrived” but rather to have reached a foundation upon which we can then give tithes and offerings, trusting in God’s promise that he blesses our efforts to give.

What portion of my giving should go to my local church?

This is an issue very much between the giver and God. I have chosen to always give my tithe to the local church and to give offerings to other ministries. I view the local church as God’s primary work in the world and certainly as the foundation of my own worship and service of God. Yet, there are many good ministries and causes for Christ worth giving to. Seek God’s leading on this. I would urge you, though, to make the local church the foundation (largest %) of your total giving, for the following reasons: 1) It is (or should be) your spiritual home and spiritual family, where you worship, serve, hear and learn the Word, commune at the Table, fellowship with and minister to others, and 2) It is (or should be) giving to some of the same causes you want to, such as missionaries, children’s homes, and ministries to the poor. In other words, your contribution isn’t used just for building and grounds, staff salaries, supplies, and events. Not that you don’t appreciate those too, I’m sure.

What if my church isn’t doing much to help the poor or do evangelism, and my contribution only helps maintain the status quo?

Talk to or write a note to the leaders and express your concerns. Most leaders are eager to know the hearts of their people. If you don’t see any change after repeated efforts, find another church. I don’t mean to be flip, but to just reduce or redirect one’s contribution while continuing to worship and fellowship with the very church with whose mission and values one so strongly disagrees seems to lack integrity. Let me say that most churches need to direct more of their resources and ministries to the poor and to evangelism. West Houston is making strides in this area.

The apostle Paul tells the Corinthians that just as they excel in other spiritual gifts, so should they seek to excel in “this grace of giving” (II Cor. 8:7). Financial giving is a beautiful grace that God promises will enrich us and increase “the harvest of our righteousness” (II Cor. 9:10). Amen, Lord. Let it be so.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Raising up a Testimony

Angela and the girls and I spent five days between Christmas and New Years being tourists in New York City. We stayed in a loaned apartment in midtown Manhattan, walked the streets and rode the subways and hailed the cabs, saw many of the sights, attended a play, ate bagels in the morning and ethnic dishes during the day and delicious meals at night, and generally just took in the Big Apple. It was an awesome family experience.

One of the highlights for me was attending the Sunday morning worship service at the Times Square Church ( had come out of the Gershwin theatre on Saturday afternoon after seeing “Wicked” and there the church building was, right across the street on Broadway and 51st, in a renovated theatre with a huge sign that stood out in a wonderful way. The church was planted in 1987 when David Wilkerson, who had spent the 1950’s and 1960’s ministering to young drug addicts and gang members, and whose book, The Cross and the Switchblade, has sold over 50 million copies, heard a call from God. He describes it thus:

“In 1986, while walking down 42nd Street at midnight, my heart broke over what I saw. Times Square was populated mainly by prostitutes and pimps, runaways, drug addicts and hustlers, along with live peep shows and X-rated movie houses. I cried out for God to do something—anything—to help these physically destitute and spiritually dead people. I saw 9-, 10- and 11-year-old kids bombed on crack cocaine. I walked down 42nd Street and they were selling crack. Len Bias, the famous basketball player, had just died of a crack overdose, and the pusher was yelling, ‘Hey, I’ve got the stuff that killed Len.’ I wept and prayed, ‘God, you’ve got to raise up a testimony in this hellish place…’ The answer was not what I wanted to hear: ‘Well, you know the city. You’ve been here. You do it.’”

Today over 8,000 people worship weekly at Times Square Church, representing over 100 nationalities, with outreach ministries to
“the fatherless, the widows, the oppressed, the destitute, the addicted and the poor,” and annual mission trips to dozens of countries. I arrived at 9:55 for the 10:00 worship service; the auditorium was already packed and overflowing. Three annex rooms with digital screens to simulcast the service were also packed with at least a thousand more people. There was singing and praise for about fifty minutes, a time to give offerings, then announcements. The preacher was only beginning his sermon at 11:10 when I had to leave to make our afternoon flight. I found it tremendously inspiring to worship side-by-side with people of so many enthnicities, socio-economic levels, ages, and dialects. I marveled at the power of the Holy Spirit to touch so many lives in the heart of Manhattan and gather such a diverse group of people into the Body of Christ.

Friends, the church is called to be a mission center to a lost and hurting world, and we are partners with the Holy Spirit in the adventure. That’s true in northwest Houston every bit as much as it is in New York City. In the words of one African evangelist, let’s “be done with low living, sight walking, small planning, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tamed visions, mundane talking, cheap living, and dwarfed goals.” Let’s raise up a testimony together!