Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Voices of Distraction

Tonight we listen for the Voices of Distraction. When you read across the breadth of the Gospels it is striking how it seemed many people were so consumed by the agendas that they brought to their relationship with Jesus that they often missed hearing what he was actually saying. This group included his own family and many of the disciples that were closest to him. Each seemed to want to shape Jesus in a fashion to meet their needs and their expectations.

Jesus had to ignore these voices of distraction and claim a single-minded focus on fulfilling the will of the Father. Jesus had come for a purpose and in this week of chaos and confusion in Jerusalem this purpose was to be fulfilled. We hear Jesus say in John 12:27-33 "Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!" Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and will glorify it again." The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. Jesus said, "This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die. We also hear it in the cry heard in the Garden of Gethsemane: (Luke 22:42 )”Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

As we move through the streets of Jerusalem toward the cross and the world chaining – life transforming - empty tomb it is worthy to consider the role the voices of distraction play in our journey.
1. Do our expectations of Jesus so shape our relationship with Jesus that we can miss his true voice in our lives?
2. Who are the voices of distraction that separate you from having a single-minded focus on following the will and the way of Jesus? What is distracting you from being able to focus on the Christ story this Easter?
3. And how will you deal with these voices and distractions so you might have a fresh encounter with Christ this Easter?
It’s time to go. The streets await us. The journey toward Easter morn awaits us. May we set aside the voices of distraction long enough to hear the voice of this one named Jesus.

Grace and Peace, Tom

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Stones Cry Out Luke 19:29-40 I Peter 2:4-5

Below is the text for FBC OKC's Palm Sunday service. We invite you to come and join us as we head into the streets of Jerusalem and begin our Holy Week journey toward Easter morning.

The dramatic processional we experienced as we began worship this morning - with banners waving and children bearing palms -give us just a hint of what it must have been like when Jesus came into Jerusalem to begin the week in Jerusalem that would lead to the cross. Luke paints a vibrant picture of Jesus riding in on a small colt or donkey, a symbol of humility rather than claiming the image of the grand stead that would have been claimed by the kings and military leaders of the day. Jesus comes into the city that sits in the center of all of Judaism, the home of the temple; it’s the capital city and the cultural point of identity. The crowds gathered. You could feel something in the air. Something important was about to happen. Luke recounts; 37When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: 38"Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!" The Gospels of Matthew and Mark add the images of the crowd going in front of Jesus, throwing their cloaks in front of him, ripping limps from the palms trees and laying a path in front of Jesus. The growing crowd added their shouts of “Hosanna to Son of David” “Hosanna in the Highest!” Instead of the grand procession staged by the Roman legions with soldiers clad in imposing helmets and impressive eagle crested shining breast plates waving huge military banners and sounding trumpets; instead of the grand worship processions lead by the temple priest dressed in colorful robes and rife with religious flourishes; the parade staged that morning was defined by the common rabble that followed Jesus and other every day laborers gathered along the roadside that morning. I wish I could have been there and seen this moment with my own eyes, to hear the heartfelt cries of celebration with my own ears. I would have loved to lift my voice with their voices in praise of Jesus.

There were some witnesses of this moment who rather than join in the songs of celebration instead brought judgment and condemnation. The Pharisees, the religious rule keepers, the fundamentalist of that era, could not stand what they were seeing. The one from Nazareth; this itinerant teacher, preacher and healer; this one who claimed he could forgive sin; this one people had begun calling Messiah, now dared to enter the city to the cheers of his disciples and the growing throngs along the road side. Some of the Pharisees in the crowd could not stand it any longer and said to Jesus, "Teacher, rebuke your disciples!" Make them be quiet. Make them stop.

Jesus was a master of using the common, the ordinary, to help people understand what he was saying clearly. This moment was no different. There on that dusty, rocky road into the city, Jesus responds. I can see him gesturing to his disciples and then the stone along the roadside as he says, “I will tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Can you imagine the look on their faces? I wonder if they huffed off like spoiled children or if anyone of them – even one of them – heard Jesus tell them that God was up to something so big, so improbable, so impossible – that if the disciples were quiet then these lifeless dirt covered stones would come to life and cry out to God in praise?!

Over the Lenten season many in our midst have been taking part in a 40 day journey to hear the whole of the New Testament. Each week I have tried to bring passage that emerged from what they were hearing. They now move toward the close of their journey and in one of the later books of New Testament we hear a return to the image of stones. This time the stones have life. Hear the words of I Peter 2:4-5. 4As you come to him (Jesus), the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him— 5you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

We, like the writer of I Peter, come to this passage- come to this moment- on this side of the Easter story. Those gathered on the roadside into Jerusalem singing and shouting God’s praise could not have begun to imagine the week that was to come. Our temptation in Holy Week services, born out of a sincere effort not to rush the Easter story, is to almost pretend that we do not know what it going to happen. The reality is that we do know. We know that the Triumphant Entry will lead to the cleansing of the temple, the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, the cross, and the tomb. Jesus understood the significance of what was happen on the road that morning. He understood that something so big, so improbable, so impossible was about to happen – that grace was about to shower down, that forgiveness was about to win out, that death would be transformed into life. Jesus understood that the divine impossibility of God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son that the world might be redeemed through Him was about to be played out. If the disciples had not been moved to praise then the dirty lifeless stones stir to life and would cry out.

I Peter tells us that we to be living stones – stones built together to be a temple – place of worship for God; stones lived out as witness – crying out in songs of faith to all those on the road; stones crying out in devotion, ministry, and worship – offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. The idea of living stones can seem odd, even difficult for us. We can think about the brick and mortar that define this great church facility being built together, but we know with great confidence that they just clay and concrete. We can imagine the grand stones of marble that are shaped by the sculptures hands into remarkable works of art, but while the art is wondrous, it sits in silence. The dirty dusty stones may have shaped the roadside outside of Jerusalem, but they sat as still, hard, lifeless witnesses to the Triumphant Entry. The fact that we are so clear of bounds of stones makes the picture of their cries of worship, the image of us becoming living stones all the more powerful in contact of the Easter story. God has to do something to bring stones to life. It requires that divine improbability – that which is dead is transformed to life through Christ. In Ephesians 2:4-5 Paul tries to explain how this happens; 4But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. I hear the words of the father speaking to the eldest faithful son when his capricious irresponsible son finally comes home in the story known as the Story of the Prodigal Son – I think better heard as the Story of the Loving Father found in the Gospel of Luke. Hear the father’s words that echo the heart of God; (Luke 15:31-32) 31" 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "

Here is the promise, we who were as dead to God as the stones on the roadside because of sin;, who were lost in the midst of our own angst; are brought to life by the redeeming act of God through Jesus. This simple idea is the very heart of the gospel. It invites us to let go of the heavy baggage of the yesterdays that haunt us and find forgiveness. It invites us who were a long way off from God to come home. It means that those of us who have claimed Christ for our lives can come again and again into the presence of God to find renewal, a spiritual refreshment that can help rise from the mundane that tends to claim our lives and replace it with the joy of walking with God – the gift of working with God for the sake of others. We get to witness God at work in the lives of others and in the life of our church. A lifeless stones brought to life we are built together to become a place where God is at home and where worship in word and deed rings out.

It is almost time for the parade to begin. Here he comes. You see him riding on that small colt? It is almost time to go with Jesus into the streets of Jerusalem for a week that changes everything. It will be a week of chaos and confusion, of a cross, a tomb, resurrection and redemption. We will celebrate services on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and claim a time of quiet time of prayer on Saturday leading us to Easter morn. Look, the crowds are gathering. Listen, the whole crowd of disciples are joyfully praising God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen. It is times for the living stones to cry out, to join our voices in praise for the Jesus who comes to redeem. Hosanna! Praise Be To God! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!" Lift your voices. Easter awaits us.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Remarkable Moment - A Remarkable Church

I had a remarkable moment on my way out of church tonight. It was a powerful affirmation that God is stirring and that we are becoming the church that we have believed that God has been calling us to be. It started simply. I had just closed my computer having read an email from Malaysia setting the dates for our next mission team to work with refugees living in and around Kuala Lumpur. (We sent a team of 10 in February, and plan to send a similar sized team in late July.) I walked out the my office back door into the main hall on my way home. As I reached the top stair heading down toward the exit I ran into our Minister for Students and Families. We spoke about two of our college students that had begun to explore a sense of God's call in their lives. A glitch in a internship program triggered us to reach out to our own college students to see if any would be open to an internship designed to help explore a call into ministry. We had been praying that God would shape us into a church that helped called people out and discovered that our future hope was becoming a present reality. I turned and saw our Minister for Children and Families (she was headed to the gym to spend time with some of our young families with kids) engaged in a conversation with a Burmese refugee (from the Karen people) named Wawa. They are culture buddies. I joined their conversation because I wanted to ask Wawa that after her baby was born (she is very pregnant) she would tell the story of her work with her grandmother as missionaries among the Sea Gypsies in SE Asia. I hoped her testimony would help grow our congregation's understand that God is working among Christians across the globe in missions. Our conversation was briefly interrupted by a striking middle aged Korean couple that had been strengthening their language skills in our ESL Language Center. They stopped to thank us for the warm welcome they had received by our congregation this evening. Our Student Minister jumped in to tell them what a great addition their two sons were to our youth group. While we were talking a Hispanic woman also studying at the Language Center waved a wave of greetings. At the same moment a Burmese refugee from another people group ( the Chin) was coming down a flight of stairs having just finished practicing worship music for their congregation's Palm Sunday service. As I finally headed out the door I thought about the fact that we are beginning to experience a baby boom, that our youth ministry is growing, that people are being called into ministry, and we work and worship with the global church as a regular part of our church life. Have I said lately how much I love being a part of First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City???????

Grace and Peace, Tom

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Church Renewal Depends on Leadership -ABP Article

Below is the second of a series that the Associated Baptist Press is doing to speak to churches in a time of transition. I appreciate what Jim Baucom offers and believe he is on track with his observations. Grace and Peace, Tom O

A Time to Die: Church renewal depends on leadership, Baucom says
By Jim White Monday, March 01, 2010

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (ABP) -- Jim Baucom, pastor of Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, Va., has helped lead three established congregations to renewal and growth. He says doing the same thing in other churches, while not easy, is possible -- with the combination of factors.

“I think it should be said that growing a church to relevance and vitality from near-death is an extremely rare incidence that requires a confluence of ‘favorable conditions,’” he said. What are those conditions?

Emphasizing that there is no magic formula, Baucom said he believes that certain transferable principles may guide a congregation in transition from hopelessness to new vision and new vitality. The transition begins with leadership.

A 'change agent'

“A new leader is an absolute necessity, and that leader must be a change agent,” he said -- noting that a change agent heightens the crisis in order to heal the system, much as chemotherapy temporarily sickens the patient but destroys the cancer. The pastoral change agent uses the crisis to implement necessary changes -- small at first, then larger. These changes eventually create a cultural shift in the attitudes and expectations of the congregation.

“Once the church family becomes convinced that it can be effective again, and the first small waves of growth begin to generate excitement, something of a snowball effect is generated. Over time, the new growth overwhelms the old system as those who enter the ‘new church’ live out the new mission without the fear created by previous failures they never even knew. In other words, as new members are added, the church becomes the church they believe they joined.

Of course, he cautioned: “Inevitably, a few of the traditional members will leave the church.”

Inwardly secure

To move a congregation from self-absorption to having a missional focus and confidence in the future, the pastor must be “more committed to being relevant and effective than being universally liked,” Baucom said. “A portion of the traditional constituency of the declining church would rather see their church die than change (though they would never say so). Dramatically declining churches typically become unhealthy in ways most members cannot understand.” Churches that experience lengthy decline begin to panic about the future. They turn inward and develop a survival mentality that reduces the church’s ability to functional effectively, he said.

Decisions such churches make tend to meet the members' needs but do little if anything to share the gospel with others. “Most leaders console and comfort such a system, engaging in hospice care that eases the suffering but limits the possibility of restored vigor,” Baucom contended.

Relational

Tremendous relational work is necessary to keep those who choose to remain on board. Although they may resist change initially, they are generally thrilled to see their church thrive and excited to be part of the journey when they witness successes.

“Some of those who remain may be unhappy with facets of the new church, but their voices are drowned out by the vast majority of people who are thrilled with the new direction, especially if they believe that the new thing is built on the foundation of the old,” Baucom advises. “For this to happen, the new leader must begin his or her work by helping the traditional church clearly define its core values and competencies. New ministries are created as extensions of old values, and in a very real sense the church simply does much better what it has done well in the past, casting itself into a new era to reach new generations.”

Patient

“In a real sense, the work of turning a church around is not one movement, but many smaller ‘shifts,’ each of which is ‘set’ by intentional periods of rest. The church moves forward, then rests; then moves again, then rests, again and again,” Baucom said.

At each stage of its growth, such a church pauses briefly to allow the change to gel. “To most, this feels like one constant and rapid push forward, but the leader instinctively freezes the system after each primary shift before prompting the congregation to initiate new changes. This is a careful balancing act,” Baucom cautioned. “If the leader moves too quickly, he or she will cut himself or herself away from the body. The most likely response to systemic change, by far, is to remove the change agent.

“If the leader pauses too long between change phases, the system becomes complacent and stuck, especially once the initial threat of congregational death has passed and the change platform has cooled,” he continued.

Baucom said many would-be change agents “become too patient or too exhausted and either leap from the change platform or lie down upon it. Either response short-circuits the change cycle and ends the turnaround.”

Confident

“I think it goes without saying that the change-agent must have a certain charisma and a degree of confidence tempered by humility and love for people,” Baucom said. “Over time, the congregation begins to trust the change agent implicitly IF the people believe that the leader has the church's best interest at heart consistently, follows God unflinchingly, and loves the people unfailingly.”

Aware of own limitations

“Along the way, the leader must also draw around himself or herself gifted, selfless and spiritually mature leaders (or disciple such leaders himself or herself) who can implement the change he or she envisions. I say this, because the change agent is almost always a visionary communicator with limited ability to translate change into programs and ministries without the assistance of a platoon of gifted administrators and ministers. The leader must know his or her own limitations and interdependence with others in order to be effective long-term.”

Love for the church

“What made me uniquely qualified for turnaround was vision, energy, charisma, communication skills, and an intense love for people grounded in the traditional church. Because I loved the old thing and had a certain set of leadership skills, I could lead the turnaround,” he said. “I do not discount, even a little, what it means to be the son of a successful traditional-church pastor nurtured in the heart of great traditional churches any more than I do my enthusiasm for entrepreneurial creation of new things. In our context, the turnaround pastor must have both in equal measure.”

Another factor affecting the ability to turn around a declining church is the number of new, vibrant churches that have emerged in the area. The greater the number of exciting, effective, ministry-oriented churches in the area, the more difficult the turnaround will be.

“All that said,” Baucom concluded, “there is no joy like turnaround leadership, in my book. And there is no leader loved so much, trusted so thoroughly and embraced so quickly as the proven, successful change agent. Turnaround pastors become cemented into their church systems like no other leaders, save perhaps the founding pastors of new churches.”

-30-

Jim White is editor of the Virginia Baptist Religious Herald.