Monday, August 24, 2020

Taming the Tongue, Guarding the Heart

This Sunday I preached about the power of the tongue—the potency of our words and voices—to either build up or tear down; advocate or condemn; unify or divide; speak love or hate. The biblical writer, James, speaks of the immense power of our tongue by using three analogies: a bit in a horse’s mouth, the rudder of a ship, and a spark that can set a forest ablaze. Like each of these metaphors, our words are loaded with potential for incredible impact. This gift must be used with great care, or it can easily be destructive.

But one observation that was cut from my sermon for lack of time was the biblical idea that our tongues are intimately and inseparably connected to our hearts. Jesus says that what comes out of our mouths originates in our hearts: “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). We can’t divide the two. Whatever is inside us will eventually and inevitably ooze from our mouths. Words of encouragement, honor, unity, and love cannot proceed from a heart of discouragement, shame, division, and hate. Essentially, we are what we say.

 

Which is why we can’t just contain our mouths, but must also guard our hearts. We must tend to what’s deep down inside, knowing that those thoughts and emotions will eventually emerge, for better or worse. We can’t just publicly regulate our words, but must privately regulate our character. We might get good at keeping those dark and insidious thoughts and feelings stuffed down within, but we can’t perfectly contain them forever.

 

I was thinking about this recently in the baseball world, as a TV commentator for the Cincinnati Reds was caught uttering a highly offensive homophobic slur, live on air. It was in-between games of a doubleheader, he didn’t know the camera was rolling, and promptly issued a public apology for his hurtful comment. But the problem wasn’t just that the words escaped past his lips; the problem was the thoughts and feelings that produced those hurtful words were in his heart in the first place. The fact that these words were uttered at all that means that there’s some hatred and bigotry deep down inside that he hasn’t dealt with and owned up to. He had obviously done a good job, thus far, at hiding his thoughts publicly, but he hadn’t done the hard work of actually exposing and reforming his heart.

 

Jesus wants all of us to be in alignment with the ethics of his new kingdom. It’s not enough to manage our speech; we must also transform our hearts. Jesus is looking for complete, holistic followers, so let’s be committed to aligning both our hearts and our tongues with his beautiful new way. If there’s anything in our speech that doesn’t sound like Jesus’ speech, let’s do away with it swiftly. But let’s also do the hard work of examining our insides, calling out the depravity, and journeying toward a more holistically faithful existence.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Invitation to Amazement

“Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

 

I’ve been reflecting on this Abraham Joshua Heschel quote for the past week, and it continues to haunt me with its beauty and wisdom.


This past Sunday, I preached from Jeremiah 29 about the life we called to live in exile. In a world—then and now—where the temptation is to complain, blame, and ultimately check out of really living, the invitation from Jeremiah and God is to put down even deeper roots, faithfully embed ourselves within our exiled existence, and really live. When we find ourselves as outsiders or outcasts, different than the world in which we live, the calling isn’t to wait it out until things get better, but to live deeply and faithfully in the here and now, partnering with God in bringing about the hopeful future He has in store. 

 

As God says to the Israelites then, he says to us now, as well:

 

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

 

The prophets, Jeremiah and Heschel, are essentially saying the same things, each inviting us to a renewed presence and awareness in our lives. Be here. Notice the world. Take nothing for granted. Wake up to the wonders around you. Approach your existence with a general sense of curiously and awe. 

 

I find myself inspired, by each of these speakers-of-truth, to a new sort of faithfulness amid this Covid Exile—committed to being a presence of blessing through intentional faithfulness. Together let’s work for the peace and flourishing of our community, partnering with God in the redemption and restoration of our world. Let’s not check out of really living just because life has gotten tricky. Let’s use this opportunity to be the presence of Christ for our friends, enemies, neighbors, and world.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Practicing the Third Way

I preached a fun, but challenging, sermon this past week—about Jesus’ invitation to choose a radical, alternative Third Way whenever we are faced with the old, stale, ineffective binary options. I challenged us to be curious and creative in how we think about our engagement with other, and especially those who differ from us.

And yet, that’s really hard to actually do. Truthfully, I’m terrible at it. I regularly fall prey to the black-and-white, either/or, us vs. them mentality that currently plagues our world.


And yes, the radical way of Jesus is quite challenging, but sometimes we overthink it—and I was reminded of that by the words of this simple meme: “let’s respond with grace, even when others don’t.”

 

When I first read that simple phrase, I was floored by how perfectly it aligned with my sermon. Of course! What better Third Way could there be than grace?!

 

In a world of keeping score, holding grudges, negative political ads, Facebook fighting, bench-clearing brawls, and literal wars, grace is the most radical, transcendent, third way of living imaginable.

 

So, I need not say any more. As followers of Jesus—the one who came to bring ultimate mercy and forgiveness—let’s be people of grace, even when others aren’t.


[also, you can check out the whole sermon HERE]

Monday, July 27, 2020

A Life of Gratitude

If you’re like me, it easy to get bogged down, during this time, with the new stresses, anxieties, and inconveniences that regularly bombard us on what seems like a day-by-day basis, if not hour-by-hour. There’s family worries and work worries, church worries and school worries. There are events canceled and decisions postponed and new information to digest with each passing day. There are extra problems to solve and plans to make and children’s emotions to care for…all while the normal responsibilities of the daily grind continue to demand our attention.

It can all be too much to handle.

But, in the midst of this overwhelming time, what I’m trying to foster today is a spirit of gratitude. Despite the craziness and chaos that Covid has brought us, I’m finding that there are still reasons to be grateful. Despite the difficulty of living, parenting, and pastoring during this time, there are still a plethora of reasons to pause and give thanks.

I have a job. There’s food on my table each night. My family is healthy. No one from our church has gotten sick. I mean, there’s even little things—like the fact that we’ve had beautiful weather for each of our outdoor worship gatherings thus far.

Just in the last 10 days alone, I've been able to spend time at Templed Hills, play softball, ride mountain bikes, and have picnics, play games, and go for walks with my family. Life is hard right now, in so many ways...but it's also really good.

I can get bogged down with the burdens and neglect the blessings.

So, during this season, would you join me in striving to pause each day and give thanks to God for the blessings of this life? I’m not good at it…so I need your help. Let’s be committed to an awareness of God’s goodness and a posture of thankfulness. Would you join me in striving for a life of gratitude?

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

By Whatever Means Necessary

In my sermon on Sunday, I was forced to leave out one idea due to time—but it’s still worth mentioning. I preached about a fun and familiar story in Genesis 28, where Jacob is running from his angry brother, lies down to sleep for the night, and proceeds to have his infamous dream about a stairway to heaven. In short, he wakes from the dream, realizes that God has been in his life all along and he wasn’t aware, and his life is forever altered.

There’s an interesting idea from this story, however, that I didn’t have time to explore. I find it fascinating and noteworthy that Jacob is used to being so controlling, conniving, and manipulative, but this encounter with God happens when he has no control over the situation: while he is asleep. Jacob is a trickster; shyster; scam artist. He’s constantly working the angles, taking advantage of people, and finagling his way into things he doesn’t deserve. He’s used to always being in control, but here, this encounter just happens to him. He has no say over it.

This whole incredible encounter happens while Jacob is asleep. He finally has no control; he’s not in charge; he can’t trick his way in or out of this one. It’s like God is saying, “If you won’t stop masterminding your life and your world (which, by the way, isn’t working), then I’ll just have to enter your life through some other way. I’ll have to visit you when you can’t control the situation.”

Which makes me think of Romans 8:28 – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” God doesn’t necessarily make all things good, but He is relentless in His effort to work for the good of His children—and that’s what He’s doing with Jacob. If Jacob won’t give up his control and stop his abusive and manipulative behavior on his own, then God is willing to get creative in how He might get Jacob’s attention.

This little subplot of the story helps remind us that we aren’t ultimately in control anyway, so we might as well not try to be. God will not relent. He will never stop pursuing us—beckoning us back into right relationship with himself and the world—the same way the Prodigal Father never stopped pursuing his wayward son. And God will use whatever means necessary to finally get our attention.

Jacob is invited to finally stop running—to surrender to God’s will and way—and that is our invitation as well. May we never have so tight of a stranglehold on our own lives and agendas that we are unable to hear, see, and sense God’s often-gentle tug on us to live into his better plan.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

A New Center

"The Church is not to be found at the “center” of a left/right political world. The Church is to be a species of its own kind, confounding both left and right, and finding its identity from the "center" of God’s life.”
~ Rich Villodas ~

I can’t get this quote out of my head. It’s from over a year ago, but is even more relevant today as our country is more politically divided than ever and we rapidly approach another contentious election. 

It is difficult to understand and embody our social and political roles in the world as Jesus followers, both individually and collectively. We (sometimes subconsciously) ask ourselves silly questions, like “How would Jesus vote?” or “What political party would Jesus prefer?,” usually in an effort to justify our own side. Most of us wrongly assume that Jesus would be on *our* side of the political spectrum—that our party’s platform is the most biblical and spiritual. And even those who avoid this false dichotomy of seating Jesus in the front row of one party’s national convention or the other, often find themselves arguing that the politics of Jesus are actually found somewhere in the center of the American political spectrum—essentially contending that Jesus was a Moderate.

But Rich Villodas’ quote from above reminds me that Jesus’ platform was not to be found on any human-made political spectrum. Jesus transcended the patterns of the Roman world into which he was born. His way continues to baffle, surpass, and overshadow the ways of the world. And His church is called to do the same.

"The Church is not to be found at the “center” of a left/right political world. The Church is to be a species of its own kind, confounding both left and right, and finding its identity from the "center" of God’s life.”

We don’t play the games of the world. We march to the beat of a different drum. We are invited into a new, strange, counter-cultural way of being human. And this oddly beautiful, provocative, and enticing way of life all originates from a center grounded in the will and way of Jesus.

We’re not called to just sit the fence between two polarized parties; nor are we to avoid the political realm altogether. Instead, we are invited to enter the divided and divisive fray of how the world is best organized as a different sort of animal, rallied not under an allegiance to the power-hungry ways of the world, but the lovingly sacrificial ways of God. 

The church is a strange breed. We follow a different authority, live under an alternate set of ethics, and adhere to a distinct set of practices. As Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat write in their shockingly brilliant book Colossians Remixed, “In our worship we tell and retell another story than that of the republic, hear another word proclaimed, eat an alternative meal of remembrance, pledge allegiance to another sovereign, and sing hymns, psalms and spiritual songs that set our imaginations free for another way of life, another politics.” Which is why we continue to gather together each week, as the book of Hebrews instructs, because each time we do, we remind ourselves and declare to the world that there is another way of existing—a better, more kind, just, and loving way of existence.

So, in this season of tension and strife—with a crazy election approaching, church members on alternate sides of every issue, and even families divided over party platforms—may we, as followers of King Jesus, not fall prey to the temptation of choosing one broken, human system over the other. Nor may we find ourselves comfortably perched in the center of this political divide, refusing to actively engage our world. Instead, may we double down on our commitment to being a new kind of people, with God’s life and Jesus’ way firmly rooted as our center. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Rethinking 'Viral' Church

To begin, I need to offer three confessions. First, none of this article is based on hard data, but rather, on speculation. As I’ve lived and pastored through this pandemic, I’ve found myself curious about how churches are operating now and how they might function moving forward. Then secondly, I must own up to my personal preference for small churches over large. Of course, I’m biased as the pastor of a small church. But I also fundamentally believe that small church is a better way to function as the body of Christ than large. And thirdly, I’ll be painting with very broad brush strokes here, as not all “large” churches are created equally and have the same priorities.

That said, here’s what I've been intrigued with lately. I wonder if larger churches will start to reshape their ecclesiology (their way of doing church or their thoughts on how church should be done) as a result of this viral pandemic. I mean, they have to, right?! In a globally connected world where goods, services, and ideas, including a virus, can be spread throughout the world in a heartbeat, I would think large churches would need to rethink their methods of cramming as many people as possible into as large a room as possible to have as great an impact as possible. It’s a noble ambition—the attempt to reach as many people for Christ as possible—but it just doesn’t seem like a feasible or wise model for ministry in both the short- and long-term. 

I would think these large churches would need to re-strategize for how they might reach people and do ministry differently in a world that can be so quickly infected and affected.

But then that thought led me down the rabbit hole to the next one—this time a critique of the large church model. I began wondering about the idea of a “virus” or things going “viral” as a metaphor for the way the church-growth and megachurch movements think about the gospel and church. I think you could accurately say that megachurches (and the churches that aspire to be them) want the gospel and their churches to go “viral.” They want their ministry and influence to blow up quickly, to take off like a flash. They want it to spread like wildfire, reaching as many people as humanly possible—multiple services, large sanctuaries, and a massive online presence.

And again, I don’t think this impulse begins from a bad place, but this desire can become sickening really easily and quickly. Reaching the world for Christ is certainly a noble pursuit, but the aspiration for ministry to go “viral” can easily become self-gratifying, shallow, and sometimes even toxic. The goal can easily become growth for the sake of growth, rather than the fulfilling and expanding of God’s Kingdom. People tune in from the fringes, but often fail to plug in deeply to the way of Jesus and the life of the church.

Not to mention the fact that this “viral” ministry model seems contrary to the ministry of Jesus. For Jesus, the metaphors he uses to speak of the gospel and the kingdom are mostly agricultural. You till the soil and plant the seeds. You water and pray for sunshine. It takes a while and requires much patience. You don’t see instant success—or sometimes any success at all. But that’s the way the gospel grows: slowly and steadily. 

That’s the way Jesus went about his ministry, patiently and persistently. A few followers here, a few miracles there, a sermon or two sprinkled in on occasion. He wasn’t in a rush. His ministry was far deeper than it was wide, with Jesus even encouraging people to keep quiet about his work for fear it would spread too quickly. When crowds would clamor to him, it only took a quick reminder of the difficulty and demand of the gospel for the multitude to rapidly reduce. There was nothing “viral” about Jesus’ ministry.

And that’s the way the early church grew as well. Sure, there were times where 3,000 or 5,000 were added to their number in a day, but the church still spread through small, local, hidden house churches. They organized themselves to be able to care for real needs, sharing all things in common and joining together daily for worship and the breaking of bread. That sure doesn’t sound like a ‘viral,’ megachurch mentality to me.

The gospel or the church going “viral” most likely means it’s not taking root deeply, here today and possibly gone tomorrow. And churches going “viral” probably means that those people will catch the next viral bug that comes along—the next big, trendy church—and off they’ll go, infected by the next strain of ‘viral’ church.

But the beautiful irony is that a virus could be the very thing to help churches see the problem with their viral ecclesiology. We are being forced to slow things down, spread people out, and not continue the incessant sprint of ‘viral’ ministry toward church growth. And I intentionally used the word we, there, because even small churches aren’t immune from the lure of viral ministry. But my sincere prayer for all churches during this time, and especially large ones, is that we would recommit to the ministry of Jesus—a slow, intentional, deeply-relational way of being with people that grows incrementally by emphasizing the depth of the few instead of the breadth of the many. Let’s stop worrying about going ‘viral’—the rapid growth of butts, bucks, and buildings—and be more invested in the slow, steady, often unnoticed and unheralded work of loving our church, our neighbors, and our community—the flourishing of our world.  

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Hard Work of Becoming Better

It’s hard work improving. It’s not always easy becoming the person we were created to be.

Maybe I’m no worse than most, but I’m the kind of person who generally prefers to take the easy or fun way when it comes to any obstacle or challenge. I’d rather ride the chair lift with my bike or skis than ‘earn my turns’ through a grueling uphill. I’ll run, but only if I’m dribbling a soccer- or basketball. Give me the fun of rock climbing over the taxing ascent of mountain climbing any day. If I can avoid the hard work and still get the fun, I’ll do that all day, every day.

And that’s true for me emotionally, relationally, and spiritually too—as I constantly push back against the difficulty of development, the inconvenience of improvement.

I was thinking about that part of my personality again last night—as I was dying after mile two of five on a long, arduous climb on my mountain bike. I don’t like to work hard. I have no patience for things not going well or simply. I love it when life is easy and fun. It’s best when everything just works out nicely and neatly.

But, of course, that’s rarely how life goes—and certainly not the way progress and maturity work. Growth is a grind. It takes effort and intentionality, humility and hope, perseverance and patience. And usually (and unfortunately) it takes sacrifice and surrender. If we want to be a better person, spouse, friend, and neighbor, it’s going to take effort. If we want to grow in our faith and follow Jesus more closely, it’s going to be costly and challenging.

But, of course, the hard work is worth it.

Despite the fact that I despise the difficulty and detest the needed dedication, the grueling grind is always worth the effort. You get to that peak, take in the beauty of God’s creation, and then get to soar down the mountain in sheer delight. You agonize over those papers and cram for those exams, but you one-day find yourself walking across that stage to receive your diploma. You suffer through the hard work of breaking that habit, fixing that relationship, or starting that new practice, only to realize that the end result was absolutely worth the work.

And even when the finished product isn’t perfect or great or even good, I almost always find that the arduous journey was still worthwhile—that something profound and transformational happened through the process, not just in the product.

So, even though it’s easier to remain stagnant, not change, and never push ourselves to be better, let’s remain committed to the lifelong process of growth and discipleship—of mastering the art of living and becoming more in-tune with the ways of God’s kingdom. Let’s be willing to do whatever hard things are required of us to grow and mature in faith.

Paul tells the Philippian church that “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.” That sounds like pretty good advice to me. So, let’s be intentional about focusing on the ways of God and disciplined to do the hard work it will takes to become, even more, the people of God.