Saturday, February 28, 2009

Singapore - Day One

Greetings from Singapore. I am on the ground and settled into my guest room at Singapore Bible College. It is a seminary with about 500 students from 38 countries from across Asia. I am here to lead their Missions Emphasis Week.

It is good to be back in Southeast Asia. It was "home" for an important season in our family's life and it still holds a very important place in my heart. This trip carried me to Singapore via Moscow, Russia. I had never taken this route before. The travel time is pretty much the same whether you come via the Atlantic or the Pacific route, about 23 hours in travel time from Houston to Singapore. It sounds like a long time but I find I just get into a travel mode and it seems to feel about the same as when we drive from OKC back to NC to see family. Once I landed I had a couple of hours to get set up, take a quick nap, and grab a shower and then away for the day. I had lunch with good friends and then took some time alone to rediscover the city. It has been about nine years since I was last here and as you would expect some things were the same and some things had changed. The only sad change for me was one of my favorite spots that had an old world vibe is now just another place for trendy resturants and clubs. But, beyond that it was fun to see some familar places and to spend some time remembering out season in the region.

I will try to do an update every day. I would love to hear your comments along the way.

While I am very glad to be here, my thoughts and prayers on Sunday will be with our church family back home in OKC. It will be an important day for our church and I look forward to seeing how peoples' response to the day shapes our future. God is at work in the church. With eager anticipation, I look forward to seeing what God will do next.

Grace and Peace, Tom

Sunday, February 15, 2009

"More Than a Romantic Notion" Mark 12:28-34

This morning in worship we looked at the kind of love that is more than a romantic notion or a flood of emotion. I offer a draft text of the message for your consideration.

Would it surprise you to learn that each year over a billion Valentine’s Day cards are bought and given? It is second only to Christmas as a card sending holiday.[1] I have always enjoyed the search process, hunting for the perfect card. I do not think I will ever forget an encounter with a man on the card aisle a year or two ago. I was looking through the cards and heard him comment; “I just cannot find what I am looking for.” I figured that I had looked through dozens already and thought I might be of help to him. “What are you looking for?” I asked. With a sheepish smile he replied, “Something like, ‘Roses are red, Violets are blue, I love you more than my truck and my hunting dog too.” I thought he might be kidding, but the look on his face let me know he was completely serious. I had to shake my head and reply, “I haven’t seen one like that yet.” “Just let me know if you do he replied.”

It is amazing the effort we will go to in an effort to pledge our love to people on Valentine’s. The National Retail Foundation reports that Americans spends 16.8 billion dollars on Valentine’s Day when you add the cards, flowers, dinner and jewelry together.[2] We seem to get swept away in the romantic notion of the holiday. It seems we want to have a visible demonstration of our love. I have to wonder what our relationships might look like if we focused a little less on one big day and more on showing the depths of our love year round.

There is a passage in scripture that speaks with meaning of a love that is much more than a romantic notion. It is found in Mark, Chapter 12, verses 28-34. You will find it printed in your worship guide. The moment you look at the passage many of you will think to yourselves, but wait a minute, it is the “Greatest Commandment” passage – didn’t we look at just a couple of weeks ago? I claimed Matthew’s take on Jesus’ moment with a Sadducee on January 11th. It called us to consider what it meant to Love God and Love our Neighbor. While the context is similar, Mark brings us a very different perspective on the encounter. It is worth our time and attention. It is paints a picture of a love that is much more than a romantic notion, but rather becomes a way of life.

Our story begins in the dramatic hours after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. In fact, Jesus had just taken the religious leaders head on by cleansing the temple. Tensions and emotions in the city were running high. Some of the Pharisees had been trying to bait Jesus into saying something that would enrage the Romans or give them grounds to charge Jesus with religious heresy. As the Pharisees fade from the scene, a religious lawyer – one who was a keeper of the dietary and ritual regulations – stepped in and offered his own question. 28One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"

You need to understand that this is no small question. Outside of the Ten Commandments given to Moses that many learned as children, there were 603 other commandments given through the balance of what we call the Old Testament. In addition, the religious leadership had added an almost countless number of additional dietary laws and regulations. Those listening to question in Jerusalem that day lived lives where almost every act was governed by religious expectations. I can only imagine how there must have been a pause in the air as they waited to hear how Jesus would respond.

Jesus answers with what we have come to call the Greatest Commandment. Matthew’s version graces our entry hallway. Hear what Jesus says; 29"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' 31The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."

What is remarkable about Jesus’ response was that he did not cite any of the 613 commandments. Instead he claimed the religious resuscitation that most in the circle would have said each morning called the Shema. He also claimed an edict from one of the Minor Prophets. He did not focus on the letter of the law, but rather he spoke to the heart of the law. It was about a way of love that called us to pour their – and our – lives into their relationships with God and neighbor – God and those created by God. While Matthew stops here, Mark, out of character with his normally concise approach, tells us more. Hear what happens next.

32"Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."

Did you hear what the man did? At first it sounds like he is going to simply repeat what he heard Jesus just say to him, but he does what we all tend to do in one way or another. He takes what Jesus says and twists it so it can fit in his world view. It is an odd affirmation but one that allows the words of Jesus to speak into his life. It is interesting that he does not challenge Jesus with one of the established laws or debate him on the merits of his answer. Instead of confronting Jesus he discovers that Jesus confronts his world view.

His answer seems to show that he has begun to understand. The life changing and heart driven love for God and neighbor is more powerful, more healing, more redeeming, and more important than anything that he or anyone could find in the outward displays of religious life like burnt offerings or sacrifices. He seemed to begin to understand that the kind of love Jesus was talking about was about more than going through the ceremonial acts of contrition, but rather is supposed to be a way of life.

Jesus affirms the religious lawyer. 34When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." The man was on the right path. But it also seems to me that he is not “there” yet. The phrase Jesus uses, "You are not far from the kingdom of God" Is haunting for me. The teacher of the law was well versed in the rules and regulations of faith, but they did not bring him to the kingdom. He knew about Jesus, but that did not bring him to the kingdom of God. I fear that he is a reflection of many who sit in the pews of churches across our country. They know a lot about the rules and regulations of the church life of their childhood, but were never set free to live in a love that would change them and draw them toward an intimate relationship with God and others. They – no, we have to make the same fundamental shift in our worldview that the teacher of the law had to experience. We have to learn to come to move beyond our focus on our exterior expressions of faith and claim real relationships born in a kingdom kind of love.

I recently saw a rerun of the classic comedy television show Home Improvement. In this particular episode the Tim Allen character was worried about one of his son’s response to church. He wife reminded him that he feel to sleep most Sundays during the sermon. He explained that there was a point system. He got a point every time he went to church and would only loose a half a point if he fell to sleep. The goal was to accumulate enough points where you could bypass hell and shoot straight to heaven. I wonder how many people are still living by a point system based on attendance, style of dress, or level of the offering check. It is a faith born in duty, guilt, and obligation rather than a transforming love. I wonder how many have lived lives not far from the kingdom of God and missed the kind of life and love we are intended to live.

The passage ends with a surprising line. And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. You have to wonder what silenced the crowd. I think one of the issues is that we read this story from this side of the resurrection – we know the rest of the story and most claim a relationship with Christ. We have to remember that those gathered around Jesus only knew him as an itinerant teacher, the son of a carpenter from a second rate city. They understood that Jesus spoke with an authority, but they were still discovering what that meant. They had lived their lives wrapped up in the rites and rituals, the world of sacrifices and burnt offerings. This love that Jesus spoke of would have turned their world upside down.

So what does this encounter mean for us gathered on this Valentine’s weekend? Simply put, we are called to a love that is more than a romantic notion. It is about moving from a ritual religion to radical relationships of love. It is about allowing the words of Jesus to get through and where required, to turn our worldviews and our worlds upside down. It is about discovering a love that is more than a fleeting emotion or a romantic notion, but is the kind of love that draws us toward God and others. Today we have witnessed: a baptism that is a testimony to a rededicated life; music that lifts our hearts toward God; a mission commission for Jay and Sue to serve among those facing the devastation of the lost of their homes and their ways of life; and a mission commission for Paul and Barbara to serve among those a half a world away but who are brothers and sisters in Christ. These acts come as a testimony that our goal is not to settling just being close to the kingdom of God but living lives of love in the midst of God’s kingdom.

[1] Information found online at http://www.usefultrivia.com/holiday_trivia/valentines_day_trivia_003a.html on February 13, 2009.
[2] Information found online at http://www.nrf.com/content/default.asp?folder=press/release2007&file=ValDay07.htm on February 13, 2009.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

With Eager Anticipation

Tomorrow's worship will feature a baptism, a testimony, the commissioning of a couple who will serve as disaster relief chaplains in a community significantly impacted by the recent tornadoes, and the commissioning of a couple who will lead a team for an important mission trip to India. Each of these elements represent moments when people said "yes" to following God's call for their lives. They serve as a living witness that God continues to move in the lives of individuals and in our broader church community. It is my hope and prayer that this service becomes indicative of what every service might look like in the days ahead. I look forward to tomorrow with eager anticipation.

Grace and Peace, Tom

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Celebrating Being A Global Church

Tonight the Zambian Vocal Group sang at our church. The music they offered was great, but I was equally moved by the power of their testimony. I am thankful to be a part of a church were we are able to worship with the world in the heart of Oklahoma City. It amazes me that more churches do not share a global world view and are captured by the limited bounds of their own culture and their own experiences. Philip Jenkin's texts The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity both effectively describe the changing demographics of the global Church. We can choose to become a part of God's larger movement or risk becoming irrelevant. It is fun to be a part of a church where we can birth a Chin church on one Sunday, sing with those from Zambia on Wednesday, and commission members for a mission trip to India the following Sunday, while still serving and speaking to our own cultural context.

Come join us in the journey.

Grace and Peace, Tom

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Birth of Chin Baptist Church, Oklahoma City

Tomorrow morning (Sunday) the First Baptist Church family will witness the formal birth of the Chin Baptist Church. I can hardly wait. The planned worship service will be a cross-cultural experience.

The Chin are Burmese refugees with a spiritual and Baptist legacy that dates back to the work of the Adoniram Judson mission team in the early 1800's. The first Chin became a part of the ministry at FBC OKC about nine months ago. They now stand ready to move from a Bible study to a worshipping congregation.

Two pastors from the Chin Baptist Church in Dallas will be with us as a part of our commissioning worship experience. They come to affirm the work of the FBC family and to welcome the new Chin church as a part of the larger Chin Baptist family. I celebrate that the birth of the Chin Baptist Church represents the next step in our congregation's reclaiming its living expression of an Acts 1:8 church.

Thanks be to God!

Grace and Peace, Tom

The cross image is from: https:/.../Wooden-Cross-Posters_i2961630_.htm