Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Charitable Judgments

A short news item caught my eye this week. The article noted that Michael Vick addressed a group of people at a Washington, D.C. church in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city on Tuesday, accompanied by the president and CEO of the Humane Society. Vick told the sparse crowd that dogfighting is pointless and he doesn’t know why he risked his career for it. “I got caught up in the culture. I never thought I would get caught. I used poor judgment. I had people around me who didn’t have my best interests at heart.” While playing quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, Vick would go home to Virginia every week to fight dogs. “For what reason, I don’t know to this day. Something so pointless.”

Vick was a college football phenom at Virginia Tech who went on to star at quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. In 2007 he was implicated in an extensive interstate dog-fighting ring that had operated for five years. Vick pled guilty to federal felony charges and was sentenced to twenty-three months in prison, during which time he declared bankruptcy. It was a stunning public fall from grace. Moreover, because of the details which emerged of the brutal practices he employed as the owner of Bad Newz Kennels, he became the object of intense public debate about whether he should be allowed to re-enter the NFL after his release from prison. Vick subsequently has been reinstated and currently plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. He also spends time speaking at inner-city schools and in other public venues warning children not to repeat his mistakes.

Critics have noted that Vick’s public talks lack some of the key words and tone associated with remorse. For instance, saying the whole thing was “pointless” does not have the same ring it would if he said how “horrible” and “inexcusable” his treatment of dogs was.

But I’d like to suggest we give the man the benefit of the doubt. Let’s make a charitable judgment. What if he knows he committed a federal crime, outraged the public, and did wrong, but does not feel his actions were as despicable as many others do? The man is still “bearing fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). He has paid his debt to society by serving his prison term and is now trying to use his stunningly self-destructive downfall as a teaching example for children growing up in poor and crime-riddled neighborhoods who may be susceptible to similar unsavory influences. Will we now parse his every word and voice inflection for signs of sincerity and thereby judge his inner motives? Don’t each of us often have motives that are laced with self-interest?

This, I think, is one of the things Jesus is saying in Luke 6:27-38, from which I am preaching this week. He’s saying make charitable judgments about people (6:37). He’s saying measure others with the measure you want to be used on you (6:38). He’s saying treat others the way you want others to treat you (6:31). Evaluate people by their actions. If they are bad actions, criticize them. But if they are good actions, don’t assign or assume impure motives behind them unless you have a concrete basis for doing so or would want others to do the same to you.

Jesus says, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (6:36). It is often difficult.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

For Sure

As I sat in the medical waiting area with my daughter Alex earlier this week and flipped through a copy of Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, I came upon a delightful interview with 30-Rock star and former Saturday Night Live fixture Tina Fey. The last question Oprah asked Ms. Fey was, “What do you know for sure?”

That’s a good question! Here are a few things I know for sure:

* I know for sure that Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak is the real deal; his players respect, like and want to win for him. In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, former Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy said (I paraphrase), “The Texans are a team people should be talking about. They are doing things right. Every time we played them, they were better than the last time.”

* I know for sure that I would like for people to say about me, “Every time I encountered him he was a better man than the last time.”

* I know for sure that a good spouse is one of life’s greatest blessings.

* I know for sure that after months of drought, a steady and gentle rain is almost magical.

* I know for sure that there is a huge difference between coming home to an empty house and coming home to a house with a dog.

* I know for sure that when dozens of ladies every Thursday morning walk purposefully into our building for Ladies Bible study, and leave ninety minutes later smiling and chatting with one another, that is a good indicator of the church’s health, and it makes me smile every week.

* I know for sure that the more we ask the government to do for us the less we will take responsibility for doing for ourselves; it is just human nature.

* I know for sure that this is one of life’s ironies: friends of mine who are between jobs are desperately restless and want to be busy; friends of mine who have jobs are desperately busy and want to rest; and it is very hard in life ever to achieve balance between these two poles.

* I know for sure that when I am sitting in a medical waiting room and flipping through a magazine, and a man sits down across from me and starts to witness to me about Jesus, that conversation will be a lot more interesting than anything I am reading in the magazine.

* I know for sure that Jesus Christ reclaims lives and transforms people. I know this for sure because the man who witnessed to me in the hospital waiting area was a former Aryan Brotherhood leader who spent a quarter-century in a federal penitentiary for heinous crimes he declined to detail out of respect for my daughter, and who was supposed to serve his remaining years in a Texas prison except for a legal glitch that allowed him to go free, and having become a Christ-follower, now runs a Christian camp for troubled adolescents who need the kind of tough-but-gentle love and masculine guidance he never got as a kid, and who is so filled with gratitude to Jesus that when he comes to the hospital every two weeks for his hepatitis treatments, he engages whomever he is sitting near in a spiritual conversation that gives him an opportunity to tell others about what God has done for him.

* I know for sure that I want to be more like that man.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

No Better News

I begin a series this week called “The Ten Most Important Teachings of Jesus.” It is an audacious title; after all, what constitutes “most important”? Does it mean the teachings that have had the most historical impact? Or the teachings that Jesus would consider most important? Here is what I mean by “most important:” These are Jesus’ teachings which I believe Christ-followers at West Houston should give special attention to given where we are spiritually in the fall of 2009. How’s that for a caveat? Oh, and I am preaching them in no particular order of importance.

I am beginning with Jesus’ core proclamation and teaching, found in Mark 1:15 (and Matthew 4:17): “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent and believe the gospel!” This both undergirds and summarizes Jesus’ entire ministry. His healings and works of mercy are manifestations of God’s in-breaking kingdom. His teachings are explications of God’s in-breaking kingdom. His atoning death for our sins and his bodily resurrection in victory over sin, death and the Devil are confirmation of and catalyst for God’s in-breaking kingdom.

The kingdom of God is very personal. In Jesus’ conversation with a curious Nicodemus in John 3, Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” And “No one can enter into the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” (3:3, 5). Participation in this kingdom is predicated on personal faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the One in whom the kingdom holds together (Colossians 1:17). You don’t enter into and participate in the kingdom by virtue of your mother’s faith or because your great-grandfather was a preacher. It is your decision. It is personal.

The kingdom of God is also social and political. It engages economic, political and social structures, seeking to bring about justice and well-being. You cannot be part of God’s kingdom and only care about your personal spiritual condition. There are other kingdoms which vie for supremacy in the world (Matthew 4:8, et al.), and God calls for our participation in his redemptive work to overthrow those kingdoms as part of the extension of His will in all spheres. Wherever there is oppression, cruelty, or indifference to suffering, God’s kingdom reign has not taken hold and is trying to break in. Indeed, there are kingdoms which vie for the loyalty of our own hearts. That is why Jesus teaches, “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things (food, clothing, shelter) will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

One of the most challenging things about understanding the kingdom of God is that Jesus never really gives us a definition! He gives analogies and stories and descriptions. Our faith is tested, stretched and strengthened by trying to more deeply understand and participate in God’s kingdom.

I would paraphrase Jesus’ announcement in Mark 1:15 this way, “God’s rule over peoples’ hearts and lives is now being established. He is bringing people into relationship and partnership with Himself in a new way through Me. You must change your direction and outlook on life in order to welcome and take hold of this. Take heed!”

There is no better news.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Out to Sea

I am preaching this week on “The Risk of Faith” and I have had a nautical image in mind all week. Since it is Kick-Off Sunday and we are focusing on all-things-football, I am going to go in a different direction during my message and would like to develop that nautical image here.

When I was preaching in Los Angeles, one of my elders lived in Marina del Rey and owned a sailboat. He and his wife actually lived on the boat for a few years until they bought a house nearby, and they loved to sail (still do; they retired to Tennessee but keep their boat in the Bahamas). Several times they invited my family to join them for a sailing excursion on a Saturday afternoon, which was always delightful both for the sailing and because they are such good folks.

One of the things that my daughters especially liked, and which Angela and I always found interesting, was slowly cruising through the marina on the way out to the ocean and hearing from our friends which big boats belonged to which celebrities. There were some nice boats, let me tell you! The King of the Marina was probably the late Johnny Carson’s yacht, Serengeti. What a beautiful craft – 100+ feet long, bristling with the latest technology and oozing luxury furnishings. It was too big to fit in any of the available slips! Serengeti is the kind of yacht you can host a lavish party on one evening and then head down to South America in the next morning. (You can see a short video of it on YouTube posted by a passerby.)

While I was living in Los Angeles Mr. Carson was still alive (he died in 2005), but he was an extremely private person and few people in the marina ever saw him. Occasionally Serengeti would head out to sea, and the internet would circulate a few story threads of people spotting it in San Diego or Santa Barbara. But this was very seldom. Most of the time it stayed in the dock.

Here’s the image that I find so challenging: a powerful, fully-equipped boat with a full-time crew that actually spends most of its time in the quiet harbor and seldom heads out to sea; a magnificent ship whose primary function ends up being to offer a safe and comfortable place to host parties or enjoy private relaxation rather than to head out to the open seas for which it was built. Heck, if you want to stay in the marina, there are houseboats for that. A yacht is made for he sea.

The modern suburban church faces the continual choice between being a harbor-hugging houseboat or an open-water ship. This is not a one-time decision but a constant challenge that we address in small and large ways. Will we concern ourselves primarily with our own comfort and convenience, or will we hoist the anchor and head out to the often-choppy ocean waters to rescue the shipwrecked and reach the aimless?

One of the arresting things about the aforementioned YouTube video is that in the middle of the short clip, a man passes by the Serengeti in a kayak. Is he coming in from the ocean or heading out? Or is he just doing laps around the marina? There’s no way to know from watching the video.

But here’s the image as I see it: The man in the kayak is Jesus, heading in from and out to sea whether we join Him or not. But He wants us to join Him.