Thursday, May 28, 2009

Plant Your Tree!

Plant Your Tree!

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

When I took a 3-month sabbatical in 2002, I told myself that I would compile into book form the weekly essays I had written in the 1990’s for my congregation and get them published. I never did.

Each year since, publishing the book has been a vague, I-really-ought-to-do-that kind of goal. You know the type, I’m sure. This year I finally put the goal in writing and vowed that if I didn’t get it published I would shave my head, sell all my possessions, and go to work on a chain gang. I chose the lowest cost, do-it-yourself package from a Christian publishing company and finally got it done. I Like Me!: Essays on Culture, Current Events and the Christian Faith is now in print.

What trees should you have planted years ago? Most of us could make a long list of the things we wish we had done. Here’s the point: for many of these things it’s not too late. You can plant the tree now! Don’t be paralyzed by what you should have done; think instead of what you still can do.

I read occasionally about people who have never saved for retirement. They are in their early 50’s. They are paralyzed by regret. But what every financial advisor tells them is, “Start now! Better late than never!” This is true of almost everything in life.

In my sophomore year at Rhodes College I took Spanish II. It really clicked; I loved it and vowed to minor in it. Then when I got to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland for my junior year in 1982, the professor assigned us a paper in Spanish the first day. I panicked and dropped the class. I found out later that he just wanted to see how proficient the students were and I would have been on a par with the rest. That was my chance to plant the tree and I didn’t. Later when I was preaching in L.A., I took some Spanish classes at U.C.L.A. but never reached conversational proficiency. Another missed opportunity. Que lastima! This year I have purchased a Spanish learning program on CD’s and vowed to reach my goal in 2009. It is twenty-seven years late, but it is better than never.

What do you wish you had done years ago? You can still redeem that desire by doing something now.

When I was a junior in high school my favorite class was English with Ms. Fleur Simmons. One of our assignments was to read Thomas Wolfe’s classic first book, Look Homeward Angel. I didn’t read it, didn’t write the paper. What a knucklehead I was. Ms. Simmons chose not to flunk me but rather to make me promise to read the book “sometime.” That is called mercy. At my ten-year reunion in 1990 she even asked me about it! I still had not read it but promised I would. It became one of those “someday” goals. You know the type, I’m sure.

Ms. Simmons, I don’t know if you are still alive, but I just ordered the book and will read it this summer. That’s a shave-my-head-and- join-the-chain-gang vow.

What trees do you need to plant in your life? The best time may have been years ago, but the second best time is now.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Third Way

I was in Austin earlier this week participating in Austin Graduate School of Theology’s Minister Sermon Seminar. My alma mater always does a great job bringing in scholars to speak to preachers on selected books of the Bible. And of course, Austin’s not a bad little place to hang out for a few days.

I served on a panel which discussed a powerful book by Jim Reynolds, preacher of the Lake Highlands Church in Dallas, called The Lepers Among Us: Homosexuality and the Life of the Church. My perception is that presently there are two primary ways of “ministering” to homosexuals in the local church: 1) Affirm their attractions and desires, tell them they are not expected to change, and welcome them. 2) Tell them they are sinners and urge them to get help elsewhere and come back when they are “fixed.” The first way ignores biblical norms, and the second way sub-contracts out the ministry to psychotherapists and para-church efforts like Exodus International. Neither takes much courage, in my opinion. Reynolds challenges the local church to choose a third way, and that is to walk with same-sex strugglers in their journey towards redemption and sexual wholeness. Following is an excerpt from the book’s foreward:

For fifteen years I have been privileged to walk with men struggling with same sex sins. My relationship with these men has been in the common life of the Church, not in a para-church setting designed just for the same-sex strugglers. Much of the time has been spent in a house church setting involving anywhere from six to fifteen people. Homosexual sin has been one among many sins diagnosed, confessed and forgiven.

The dynamics of God’s Rule – shame-lifting grace, idol-smashing authority, life-giving Spirit and the re-socializing by new Fathers, Mothers, Sisters and Brothers – has dramatically changed all our lives. All of this happens in the common, ordinary life of real Church.

I have seen and continue to see substantial redemption within these men’s lives, men who have moved from living in a gay world, full of gay relationships, to living in a new family. On four occasions I have preached the weddings of these men to women. I don not claim they live in a struggle-free or sin-free existence, but then neither do I make that claim for myself. Nor do I consider marriage to the opposite sex to be the benchmark of successful reorientation from homosexuality. What is of fundamental concern is … powerful covenant connection with the Body of Christ. The kingdom dynamics within a real community of disciples obliterates the dynamics of shame, detachment, disempowerment and hopelessness on these I have called “the lepers among us.” … There is an abundance of well-written theology concerning homosexuality, but where is the embodying obedience? I am not beginning with another Bible study because, to a great extent, we already know what the Bible says. The Lord is asking, “What are you going to DO about it?”

As same-sex marriage becomes an ever-more polarizing social, political and religious issue, Reynolds challenges the local conservative church to do more than protest. He urges us to embody the redemptive, healing, transforming presence of Christ that is God’s intention for the Body of Christ. And not just for same-sex strugglers but for ALL of us in our brokenness and sin.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cutting the Gordian Knot

Gordian Knot : a metaphor for an intractable problem, solved by a bold stroke.

Angela and I spent this past week at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures, where we delivered a talk on “How to Have a Really Bad Marriage” and spent the rest of the week trying to contradict our presentation. The Bible Lectures in Malibu are an awesome experience, consisting of three primary elements: Malibu weather and scenery, stimulating lectures and keynote messages, and time with friends. It is the last element that I reflect on especially fondly this year. We shared breakfasts, lunches and dinners with old friends from southern California and newer friends from Houston. I can mark each day in my memory by who we spent time with much more easily than I can by what lectures we attended.

And that’s really the way it works, isn’t it? What makes life most worthwhile is the meaningful relationships we enjoy, invest in, and benefit from. The Christian faith and life are fueled by relationships. The proliferation of “One Another” passages in the New Testament attest to the relational nature of life in Christ. When I think of the seasons I have flourished spiritually, they are usually related to the quality of Christian relationships in my life at the time.

We are making an exciting and profound move at West Houston which I will be describing in the message today. We are committing to increase the shepherding presence in our congregation in order to more effectively provide the shepherd–member relationships that are such a key part of the growth and maturation of the local church. The key element of this move is to designate two specific roles within one eldership: oversight elders and shepherding elders. Shepherding elders will be commissioned (indeed, released!) to focus solely on caring for, encouraging, listening to, coming alongside, and nurturing members. The full eldership will entrust the oversight and management functions (e.g., staff, building and grounds, finances, programming, etc.) to an oversight team of five elders. These five elders will also shepherd but to a lesser extent. Their primary role is to take the oversight burden from the rest of the elders so they can shepherd.

I have worked with two elderships in my seventeen years of full-time preaching. All of the elders have longed to spend more time shepherding members and less time with administration and decision-making. But each eldership had to contend with the Gordian Knot: if they added more elders to increase their ability to shepherd the flock, then they created a more unwieldy and cumbersome oversight and management apparatus which took more time away from shepherding! The beauty of this new model is that with a consistent five-elder oversight team (and having elders rotate in and out to keep it from becoming a fixed body), there is virtually no limit to the number of shepherding elders we can add. We are freed from the Gordian Knot of either-or.

This may sound strange to hear me say, but I am as excited about the possibilities inherent in this transition as I have been about any transition in our church in years. There is simply no substitute for strong and active shepherding of the flock. Our desire to provide this kind of shepherding and the great need we feel West Houston has for this kind of shepherding is the reason for this transition.