Speaking of Death

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On Saturday, March 15, two women were killed in a tragic automobile accident in Santa Rosa, CA. In the blink of an eye, a husband lost his wife and mother, and his father lost his wife and daughter-in-law. As I write, churches, organizations and friends are walking alongside surviving family members, sharing their grief, praying for them and extending tangible care to them. I serve a church that is doing just that, and it’s wonderful to see. One more way to care that I feel is important is to speak about death from a Jesus centered point of view.

Speaking of death in a culture that denies death takes courage. We don’t know how to handle death well, and we avoid thinking about it. But Jesus knew how to handle death. Consider how Jesus responded to death…

Jesus talked openly about his death

Shortly after beginning his ministry, a plot formed to take his life. Jesus braced his followers by alerting them three times that he would die. He invited them to share his sorrow as he faced his cross. And he gave to them the practices of communion and baptism, both of which are steeped in imagery of death and new life.

Jesus wept with those who grieved the death of a loved one

When Jesus responded to Mary’s grief over losing her brother, he wept. He stood with her in her pain, and he wept. This tender response of Jesus speaks volumes about how much our pain matters to God.

Jesus railed in anger against death

When Jesus stood before the grave of Lazarus, Mary’s brother, he railed in anger at death (most translations say that Jesus “was moved” but the Greek is stronger, carrying the notion of bellowing with anger.)

What is Jesus angry about?

Death.

Death was never God’s intent. Death is an aberration, introduced as a severe mercy by God after the entrance of sin so that humanity would not have to endure a broken world indefinitely.

To know that God gets so angry at our worst nightmare—the death of self and the loss of loved ones—to know that God gets angry enough to die, so that we might live, with God and our loved ones is amazing.

Jesus lamented while he died

On the cross, Jesus spoke words of lament (“why have you forsaken me?”) The cry of abandonment, confusion and anger directed to God is not just cathartic. It’s an expression of bold faith to God that the world is not as it should be.

Lament is important, in part, because not everything that happens is God’s will. The starvation of children, the actions of a serial rapist, even a tragic car accident do not reflect God’s will. This notion will be new to those who think that everything that happens is a part of God’s blueprint-like plan, but the bible never says that. The Bible speaks of God’s end-game of a new earth/heaven filled with fullness of God, and it says that in the mean-time, there will be trials and tribulations, but it assures us that “all things work together for good for those who love God.” The bible never says that all things are good. For reasons beyond our comprehension, God allows tragedy but does not author it.

Some will ask: “Well, why does God ‘allow it’ in the first place, if God is all powerful and loving?” Because that’s how love works. We are not created as drones, programmed to love God and to do God’s will. Love necessitates choice, and the God who Is Love creates us with the gift of free will to love God or reject God. And rejection brings all manner of bad results that are not God’s will.

Jesus was raised from death

The Christian hope is that Jesus lived, died and rose, making him “Lord of the living and the dead.” By raising Jesus from the dead, God set in motion a day when heaven and earth will be joined and God’s gathering will dwell in joy we that only experience as foretaste in this life. As a pastor I have seen how much this hope matters for those who grieve. It’s true that believers “grieve, yet not as the world grieves.” The sorrow of loss is real, raw and painful for anyone. But without hope, it’s abysmal.

The Christian hope is also that God is able to make beauty from ashes. Just look at Jesus who enters the mess of our sin and death by dying and rising. The victory of God in Christ means that all who pin their hope on Jesus live, now and forever. And one sign of that eternal life, here and now, is God’s redemptive ability to bring beauty from the ashes of any tragedy.

The body of Christ is uniquely gifted to speak of death in a culture that denies death. May we do so with wisdom, grace and compassion, with eyes fixed on the one who lived, died and was raised from the dead.

 

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An Inside Look into my Upcoming Series

encountersThis Sunday I begin a new series of messages called Encounters. What goes on inside my mind and heart when I choose a direction for a message series?

This series arose out of the series I just completed, called Staying in Love. Throughout that series, I had this nagging notion that our difficulty in receiving love, being loved and staying in love often stemmed from the lies we assimilated from family or society that confine our identity, and therefore our ability to love and be loved.

For instance, it’s difficult to “expect the best” and not “assume the worse” if your internal tape is stuck on a lie that repeats “you are not worthy.”

When Jesus encountered hurting, marginalized people eye-to-eye, their world was turned upside-down. His radical graciousness, his deeply personal challenge and his compelling invitation transformed how they saw God, themselves and others.

One of the greatest challenges of the Christian faith is knowing our identity in Christ and growing into it. This series will address that great challenge. We will see how an encounter with God’s transforming grace in Jesus frees us from the lies that confine us. We will seek to overcome those lies by reclaiming our identity as beloved by God in Christ. And we’ll be challenged to consider how our encounters with others can be more gracious, personal and compelling—more like Jesus.

If you’re in town, I invite you to drop by Redwood Covenant, Sundays at 9:30 or 11:11.  If you are out of town, you can always dial in at http://www.redwoodcovenant.org/sermons.html

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A Better Valentine’s Gift

bad_valentines_day_giftChocolates, flowers, and cards, are not cutting it, say men and women.  According to a recent poll, men tend are disappointed by the impracticality of a token novelty Valentine gift, and women are disappointed by the lack of thoughtfulness of a Valentine gift. Is there  a better way to recognize the one you love?

In his book, The Power of Encouragement, author David Jeremiah, deals simply and effectively with one of our deepest needs, the need for unconditional love, and one of the greatest gifts we give to meet that need in others: the gift of encouragement.

Dr. Jeremiah defines encouragement as the act of inspiring others with renewed courage, renewed spirit or renewed hope. Taking his cue from the Greek word for encouragement, he writes:

An encourager is one who puts courage into the fainthearted…one who makes a very ordinary man or woman cope gallantly with a perilous and dangerous situation.”

In addition to giving candy to that special someone, why not also give them a personalized word of encouragement. Perhaps they are “fainthearted” needing a word of courage. Maybe they are facing a “perilous” or “dangerous” situation. A thoughtful encouragement might be the lift they really need.

How can you offer a good word of encouragement? There are certain characteristics of a good encourager, suggests Dr. Jeremiah.

1.  Good encouragers are genuine. Don’t fake it.  Be real.

3.  Good encouragers are assertive. Don’t wait for them. Take the initiative.

4.  Good encouragers are selfless. Show interest in what interests them.

As a follower of Jesus who seek to witness to Jesus, I believe that the ultimate encouragement is to point people to the love of God given to all in Jesus. God sent Jesus to be his encouraging word of unconditional love to all. And all who receive God’s love in Christ become conduits of God’s better love to others.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, let’s show the world a better way of love than candy-hearts. Let’s show the way of Christ’s unconditional love, one person at a time, by well chosen words of encouragement.

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Time to Dance

Last week Redwood Kids sponsored a Father-Daughter dance, but one fireman and his daughter were not able to make that dance.  Mr Farren, a Firefighter, was being honored at a Fireman’s banquet. During the awards presentation, he mentioned to the audience that he was missing the Father daughter Dance with his daughter, Bailey, to attend the Fireman’s banquet.  And then he called Bailey up, and together they danced.

The Press Democrat captured a picture of Mr. Farren dancing with Bailey to make up for the Father Daughter Dance that he was missing.

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This picture moves me as a father. I remember similar dances that I enjoyed with my daughter, like this…

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Families are vitally important and Redwood Covenant is committed to helping families grow stronger. We invest heavily in kids, students and adults because families are the place where faith is caught, love is shared, and maturity is cultivated.  Families are vitally important, and families need more help than ever.

At the heart of a healthy family is a healthy marriage. That’s why, for the month of February, I will deliver a series of messages called “Staying in Love”.  It’s relatively easy to fall in love. It’s much more challenging to stay in love. What are some of the secrets to a love that can stand the test of time and trial? Whether married or single, I invite you to come and find out!

And while you’re there, check out the upcoming “In Tune Marriage Workshop” http://www.redwoodcovenant.org/letters.html

Dads, you are so vitally important in the raising of your sons and daughters. Here’s to all of you who take time to love and to dance!

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A Pastor’s Grief

manScott Peck begins his mega best seller, The Road Less Traveled, with these words, “Life is hard”.

True enough, Scott.

Over the past two months I’ve grieved the death of two uncles, my brother-in-law, and my dog, Buster. Four deaths mourned in the midst of ministry in Advent, Christmas Eve, and ministry preparation for a new year of life and ministry.

I shared this personal valley with Redwood last week. After hearing me, 11-year-old Jadon, the son of a Facebook friend said to her Mom, “Poor Pastor Chris, I had no idea his life was so sad.”

LOL!

Jadon: My life’s not sad. But I am sometimes sad. Pastors get sad, say goodby to people and pets they love. It hurts, and it feels like a rock in your gut and a hole in your heart.

But my life is far from sad. I’m married to my best friend. My kids make me smile with beaming pride. I love being a pastor. I have friends I laugh with. I look forward to each day. My life is happy, even while grieving.

“Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.”

Matt 5:4

I’m fortunate to pastor in a church that accepts my humanness. Too many churches expect a perfect and polished celebrity. Too many pastors step onto that platform. I’m just fortunate to be in a church that expects transparency.

Anyway, now you understand why I’ve not been blogging. I’ve been grieving. I’ve been allowing space in my life to feel what I need to feel, when I need to feel it, when the waves of sadness happen to well up. My hope is that the sadness will morph into deeper levels of compassion. In years of ministry, I’ve seen that happen with hurting people time after time.

Good grief requires work. It demands space, a willingness to explore pain, and an attempt to discover the hidden and obvious gifts of grace. Four gifts have been especially helpful in my grief: The fun-loving ways of Amy, my wife. The presence of God who brings life out of death. Recreation that fills my eyes with beauty and my lungs with outdoor air. And grace.

Always, always, grace.

 

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Why Gravity has Gravitas

movies-gravity-sandra-bullock_1For me, one sign of a good movie its stickiness. Does it stick with me? Do I ponder it days after I’ve seen it?

Gravity is a movie that stuck with me.

On paper it looks like an improbable contestant for stickiness.
- Just four characters inhabit the film.
- One of them is outer space.
- One never talks.
- One departs halfway through the film.
- The dialogue is limited to panic noises.
- There is no gore or sex.
- The plot-line is deceptively simple (think Lost in Space meets Castaway.)

Not much on paper.

A lot of the reviews I’ve read wax on about the technology pioneered over the course of four years to create the images of space people, space stations and space junk floating in space, sometimes in violent motion and sometimes in serene motion. The reviewers beg you to see it in 3D, and I think they’re kind of right.

Gravity is 3D worthy. It drops you into space like no sci-fi film ever has, then makes you feel like you’re thrashing about in zero gravity right along with the characters. It’s a roller coaster ride that might need a motion sickness bag if seen in 3D IMAX.

The technology behind Gravity is impressive, but the genius of the technology is its opacity. All that innovative technology runs in the background to deftly suck you into an amazing story that sticks.

Gravitas is a Latin word from which we derive our word gravity. Gravitas can be translated as weight, seriousness or dignity. It’s a word that connotes a substance or depth of personality.

The gravitas of Gravity lies in the character played by Sandra Bullock. Her struggle to survive in space becomes the pretext for a different survival. Will she will muster the will to live, years after a devastating and senseless tragedy?  

As a pastor I’ve known many people who struggle with a will to live after a tragedy. Others simply struggle with the will to live, period. That struggle is the gravitas of Gravity.

Gravity stuck with me because it’s a well told story about a common struggle to find or to choose gravitas, even in hostile spaces.

I won’t say whether Sandra’s character finds or achieves gravity. But I will say, go see this film.

And let me know if it sticks with you.

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Surprised by Rant

spiritual-depthLast week I posted “A Pastor’s Rant about Spiritual Growth” which became my most viewed blog. The volume of traffic surprised me, and I think it exposed a problem that has contributed to the church becoming a mile long and an inch deep.

The problem goes like this: the church implicitly or explicitly promises spiritual growth through it’s various programs, and when the church does not deliver on that unrealistic expectation, some feel let down and start shopping for a new church.

Now, there’s nothing wrong about changing churches. Sometimes that’s a good move. But when it’s precipitated by the expectation that the church is responsible for my spiritual growth, it becomes problematic on a number of levels.

For one, it displaces responsibility away from the individual and onto the church to “feed me” through… you name it: sermons, music, programs, socials, etc.  As such, it trains people to become consumers of religious goods rather than equipping people to become  disciples of Jesus.

As a Pastor, I’ve helped build active, highly programmed churches. I’ve generated lots of activity that has kept a lot of believers very active. And I’ve come to the conclusion that all that activity does not necessarily produce the kind of disciples or the kind of community that Jesus envisioned.

In short, we who lead the church must recognize that we’ve made the church too complex with layer upon layer of programs. We’ve prided ourselves on this “ministry development” even while we’ve lowered the bar for discipleship. We need, as Thom Rainer recognized in his excellent book, Simple Church, to make the church less complex and to raise the bar of discipleship.

All this leads to a question I’ve been pondering for some time: What facilitates spiritual growth in the life of a believer?  Is it prayer?  The reading of scripture?  The practice of generosity?  Serving others in the name of Jesus?  Yes, it’s all of that, and it’s also much more. And the “much more” is participation in a community that pursues those practices together.

In the Bible, spiritual growth is less about the moral efforts of an individual and more about the matrix of a discipleship community that engenders, encourages, and challenges a spiritual growth together. And the vision for the body of Christ is that participation in the body produces growth that is deeper and wider than any of it’s individuals could ever attain on their own.

Those thoughts about discipleship and community have been percolating with me for some time, and they’ve crystalized into this conviction…

I believe that one of the largest hurdles for the church today is to move away from producing more programs to producing more disciples by insisting that participation in a Jesus shaped community on mission for sake of world is indispensable for your spiritual growth.

At the church I serve, we’re figuring out how to put wheels on this conviction. We’ve paired back programs to the most important ones, while creating volunteer-led communities that gather for fellowship and reach out with tangible expressions of Gods love to people where we work, live and play. Our dream is to plant many of these community mission outposts, scattering seeds of the gospel in creative and compelling ways.

It’s a big goal, and it’s a big bet. Can the church reclaim it’s true calling as a disciple-making community? I believe we can, and it begins with the recognition that new wineskins are needed for the bride of Christ to reclaim her role as the light of the world, a cross shaped community, growing together, and serving others in the name of Jesus for the sake of the world.

 

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A pastor’s rant about spiritual depth

Every Pastor, including me, hears this comment once in a while: “Pastor, what I want are meatier, deeper sermons. I just want to grow deeper in my faith.”

spiritual-depthI get it. I love to learn, and I don’t like thin, superficial sermons either. And I’m concerned about a growing biblical illiteracy among believers. But I’ve learned that if you want to grow spiritually as a follower of Jesus, then you have to be willing to get humble, face pain, and apply what you already know.

Christian depth is not attained by the acquisition of more information about the Bible. The number of details I know about the bible in no way corresponds to my actual maturity. Depth is a byproduct of character formation. And Christian character formation very often happens through the crucible of suffering, a posture of humility before God, and by applying what you already know about God and scripture.

That pathway toward depth is hard. It’s easier to ask for depth through meaty sermons than it is to deal with one own suffering, pride and hardness of heart.

Ok that sounds harsh. But read about what Jesus said to the Pharisees (white washed tombs?). Jesus approach is instructive: On one hand, Jesus never showed anger to a sinner. Not once. On the other hand, he did get angry at self-righteous religious people who knew a lot about the Bible, but who were blind to matters that matter, like love for God, love for neighbor, compassion and justice.

A blog is a dangerous place for a pastor to rant. The possibilities for misinterpretation are many. But here’s what I’m trying to say about spiritual depth: Ten thousand heavy, meaty, verse-by-verse sermons will never accomplish depth–not without receptivity born from hardship, humility, and a real intention to apply.

Show me that, and I’ll show you depth.

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The one thing the church offers that the world cannot live without

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What’s the one thing that the church offers that the world cannot live without?  In a word, community.

As society becomes increasingly fragmented and as the family becomes increasingly broken, Christians have something to offer that the world cannot: true community.  It’s a community that is fundamentally different because it’s based in the nature of God who gathers people from every tongue and tribe.  It’s a community not based on economic, ethnicity, or any other social variable.  It’s a community of wide diversity sharing one common union: Jesus.

Some years back, Robert Bellah argued in Habits of the Heart that most people don’t experience community.  Most have “lifestyle enclaves” comprised of people who are similarly minded people who have similar socio-economic backgrounds.  These similarities are the basis for how many connect and experience community in the world.

In contrast, the church offers community based on only one common denominator: one’s relationship to God though Jesus.  We call this gathering “family,” but that’s a stretch of that word, because the blood of the church family that runs thicker than water is not the blood of the nuclear or extended family.  Instead, it’s the blood of Jesus, which unties wayward, diverse people into a great, global family, tethered together only by their union with Jesus.

There are many, many things the world does very well: technology, entertainment, innovation, the list goes on.  It’s tempting to compare those gifts to what the church offers, and to feel inadequate or irrelevant.  But the one gift the church offers the world that the world cannot replicate is true community.

What are the implications?

  • As the nuclear family continues to break down, the church provides a much-needed family for people, especially for those who have experienced a broken family.
  • As culture becomes increasingly skeptical and cynical about doctrine and belief, the church offers people a place to belong before they believe.
  •  And as society becomes increasingly polarized, the church offers a union of solidarity that is higher than political persuasion, socio-economic standing or ethnic heritage.

Now I understand that the church does not always live up to this high call.  Churches are often just as fragmented and segregated as society.  In spite of those shortfalls, we are called to to offer the gift of community.

It’s the one thing the church offers that the world cannot offer or live without.

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Missional Communities: what we’re learning

Community Groups Graphic_12x12Last year Redwood Covenant Church launched a bunch Missional Communities that we call Community Groups. The launch began with a bang. Over time, a few flourished beyond capacity. Others stabilized. Some contracted.

Over the past year, we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Here’s three lessons we’re learning along the way…

 

 

Discipleship builds the core

Each Community Group is led by a volunteer we call a Guide. These Community Group guides are amazing, along with their leadership teams. We have found that Community groups lead by those who have been discipled, or are being discipled, and who are discipling others is the best way to form a strong core of a Community Group.

Effective mission happens where you work live or play

With summer transitioning into fall rhythms, our Missional Communities are finding their rhythm. Some meet monthly, while most meet twice a month. Several times a year, each Community Group focuses on serving God by serving people with tangible expressions of God’s love. We have found that the Communities that gained traction are those that have a mission focus where participants live, work or play.

It takes a while to shed a program mentality

For people accustomed to church programs that dispense information or offer entertainment, Community Groups can seem lackluster. After all, the “program” of a Community Group is the group. My experience is that authentic Christian community is more than enough to meet the basic needs we have to belong and to do something of significance. However, it takes time to foster connection and engagement among one another and with God.

We are just one year into a long-term commitment to foster Missional Communities. Entering our second year of Missional Communities, we will see more people discipled, more disciples discipling others, and more expressions of the gospel for people in the spaces where disciples live, work or play.

Think about it. Fourteen Missional Communities and growing; each one gathering people into an experience of Christian community and reaching out with a tangible expression of the kingdom.

It’s yeast among the dough. Its gospel infiltration. And it’s happening.

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Why faith gets dull

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I recently backpacked the Resurrection Pass in Alaska with some good friends.   Most of the time on the trail, my head was looking down at the trail in front of my feet, so that I didn’t trip on a root, twist my ankle on a rut or fall because of a loose stone.  Occasionally, I would stop and lift my head to take in the vistas, and each time I took time to see, the majestic beauty of mountains took my breath away.

Looking down to see so you don’t trip is not just a posture many take in life.  On the walk of faith, we often walk with our head down, our eyes set on the path just in front of us.   But as I was reminded on the trail, our eyes were made to see much more.

I’ve been preparing for a new message series called “Amplify” which will explore the worship scenes in the book of Revelation.  That preparation is prompting me to look up.

Revelation is an enigmatic book for a lot of Christians.  Some treat it like a time-line for end-time events.  Others avoid it because it seems so weird.  I happen to believe that it’s a neglected book that opens our eyes to Christ’s heightened rule and encourages our walk of faith by expanding our vision of God.

The book of Revelation encourages us to see that God is bigger than our mind and our feelings, our experiences or our challenges.  Full of hope, Revelation trains our gaze toward the resurrected Christ who rules above all other powers.  Written to a persecuted church, it offers profound encouragement to trust God for the challenges that are bigger than our ability to manage or control.  Revelation challenges us to walk in faith and to stay faithful, no matter what may come.

Too often our faith grows dull because our vision of the greatness of God gets drowned out by competing voices or grows dull through routine.  It happens.  And when it does, the best we can do is stop, lift our head, and seek to see a renewed vision of the wonder of God.

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Why am I doing this?

This weekend I will attempt to run the Tough Mudder at Lake Tahoe.  The TM is a half-marathon with twenty or so obstacles like this…

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I used to be able to hang and swing at recess, but I think I might be swimming on this one.

Here’s another obstacle with live electrical wires…Image

I hate getting shocked.  That one scares me.

And there’s more, like this plunge into ice-cold water…

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Those are real ice cubes.  Do they look like they are having fun?  They look like their heart just stopped.

I was the guy at the lake who waded into the water.  There no way to wade into this container because the people who designed this (British Special Forces) know that you would never go in if you had the chance to wade in.  And besides, they’re Special Forces, so “wading” is not in their vocabulary.

Did I mention that I have a fear of heights?

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And that’s just the beginning!   I’ll be climbing over walls and fences…

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…. and sloshing around in mud…

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…and hanging upside-down…

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… and running through fire…

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Did I mention that this event is run at altitude?  We begin at 8,000 feet and there’s a two thousand foot elevation gain.

What am I thinking?  Why did I sign up for this?

One day our family was talking about doing another adventure together.  We prefer adventures to vacations.  Anyway, someone mentioned the Tough Mudder.  Without looking into it, we committed to doing it together.  We should have looked into it first.

I’m told that the TM is not about nailing a personal best time, but about helping others and being helped.  That’s good.   I’m going to need help.   Maybe I’ll just clip a harness onto my son and let him pull me up, over and through the course.

Why am I doing this?  I bet each member of family is asking the same question.

At least we’re doing it together.

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Yellow is the Color of Hope

Yellow has never been my favorite color, but that’s changed, as Vincent Van Gogh taught me to see that yellow is the color of hope. 

Vincent grew up in a strict Christian home.  He studied for the ministry, but later moved away from God during a time of deep depression.  Bouts with depression marked much of his life. During his depressive periods, he painted pictures like this…

Starry-Night

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yellow stars and the sun illuminate the blues and blacks because Vincent felt that God could only be found in nature.  Tragically, the church, which stands tall in the painting, which should be a place of hope, shows no trace of yellow.

Years later, Vincent returned to God, and began paining pictures like this…

Raising-of-Lazarus-(after-Rembrant)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The painting is bathed in brilliant yellow.  The person in the painting is Lazarus, having been raised from death.  The face on Lazarus is Van Gogh.

The picture tells a beautiful gospel truth that Van Gogh discovered: life with God can begin again.  With God there is always the promise of a new beginning, and when we open ourselves to this God, our lives become drenched in yellow hope.

I recently moved from the grey drizzle of Seattle to the sun drenched land of Northern California.  I wake up in the morning to sun streaming though windows.  I am astonished by the golden hue that lights up the fields at dusk.

After we bought our home, we began paining the walls.  What color did we choose?  Did we choose either blue or green, two of my favorites?  Nope.  We chose yellow.  I suppose we wanted to capture the light.  Now we have three different shades of yellow in three different rooms.  I walk from room to room and can’t escape yellow, which seems right.

The seasons of our life reflect many colors.  Sometimes life is blue for sadness.  Sometime red for anger.  Yellow–the third primary color–is the color for hope.  With God you can’t escape it any more than you can escape the yellow sun, unless you live in Seattle.

 May your unfailing love be with us, Lord, even as we put our hope in you.   Psalm 33:22

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Missional AND Attractional

Some churches do a great job of attracting people to their weekend services.  Some churches do a great job of extending compassion, mercy, love and justice beyond their walls.  The church I serve is committed to doing both.  We seek to be both missional and attractional.

Attraction happens when hospitality is extended, when worship is a lively response to what God has done, is doing and will do,  and when opportunities for growth are offered across the generations.

Mission happens when the gospel is made visible to neighbors and friends with practical expressions of love, compassion, and justice.  This witness is done by ordinary people and by groups that gather for fellowship and reach out with love, compassion and justice.

The gospel is both attractive and missional, and that’s why the church needs to be both missional and attractional.  To only be attractional creates church consumers.  To only be missional burns people out.   The way to avoid those extremes is to grow disciples.  The fuel that fires attraction and mission are disciples who disciple others into the ways of Jesus.

Seeking to become missional and attractional is, as Mike Breen says, simple, but not easy.  Communities must be cultivated that gather for fellowship and mission.  The cultivation of those communities takes time to nurture.  Furthermore, a culture of discipleship must be cultivated by the multiplication of disciples who disciple others.  This takes time also.  In the church I serve, we talk about this being a 5-7 year transition.

In the past, a postcard in the mail or an ad in the religious section of the newspaper boosted church attendance.  Those days are gone.  People are increasingly skeptical and cynical toward the church.  Fewer people are looking to the church for answers, support or community.   I believe that the churches that will make a difference are those that will become more missional and more attentional by becoming and more intentional about growing disciples who love God, follow Jesus and love their neighbors.

That was the DNA of the movement that Jesus started.  It’s time to tap that DNA again.

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Consumer of worship or disciples who worship?

 

 

 

worship 1It’s often said that worship is our response to God.  In practice, that response is often limited to what God has done in the past, revealed in Scripture.  That’s a good place to start, but it falls short.

In addition to responding to what God has done, we are also invited to respond to what God is doing, and to what God will do.

 

So what’s God doing in the church I serve?  And how are we responding?

 

Over the past two years a new vision for ministry at Redwood has emerged:  “We seek a future where people of all ages will find new life in Christ and grow as disciples of Jesus in communities that join God’s mission in the world.”

 

There are three big elements that support our vision: discipleship, mission and community.   As we pursue those elements we hope to become a healthy disciple-making church doing mission through communities we call Community Groups.  These mid-size communities meet in homes for fellowship and mission.

 

What does all that have to do with worship?

 

We tend to compartmentalize worship into a service comprised of music, singing, a sermon and prayer.  After the service ends, our worship ends, or does it?  Isn’t worship more than a service?  Isn’t it our whole life a response of worship?

 

“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.”   Romans 12:1-2 (Message)

 

The practice of worship in Scripture is both event and life.  The events of worship—festivals, synagogue gatherings, and feasts–are events that support a lifestyle of worship that seeks to live in response to what God has done, and is doing.  

 

A church that is intent on growing disciples who disciple others will have a positive impact on the Sunday worship event.  As disciples multiply, fewer will see the worship as a compartmentalized service to be consumed.  More will experience worship as an extension of their lives.  And as Community Groups gain traction to engage in fellowship and mission, there will be more stories of life change to tell in worship, as a response to what God is doing.

 

Designing a worship service that responds to what God has done and is doing and will do is not easy!  But it can be done.  What elements do you think are important in a worship service that is responsive to all of God, past, present and future?

 

 

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Worship, part 1

ImageWorship is more than a song or a style or what the church does on Sunday.  Worship is a lifestyle.  And it’s the heartbeat of the church. The heart that beats in the community of the redeemed is a heart to know and to love God, 24/7.

Worship is at the core of the nature and the purpose of the church.  We are redeemed for worship (Exodus 20:2-3 and 1 Peter 2:9).  We are empowered by the Sprit for worship (John 4:23).  We are called to make worship our lifestyle (Romans 12:1).  We are created know and to love God forever, and worship is the way we express that life here and now.

Worship is also highly contentious.  Just about everyone has their opinion about what they like or don’t like about worship.  But worship is not foremost about what we like—it’s about God.  It’s about a community of people responding to God through adoration, praise, thanksgiving, lament, intercession, confession, repentance, trust, belief and more.  We respond to what God has done, and to what he is doing, and to what he promises to do.  That life is called worship.

In my next few blogs I hope to carry forward a conversation about worship that recently emerged at the church I serve, Redwood Covenant Church, as we sought to discern the values and vision that would guide us into a new chapter of worship.

My hope is that you will enter the conversation and that our conversation would rise above  personal preference toward a vision for worship that is biblically faithful, culturally relevant, and responsive to the mission and vision of the church.

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After the Bombs

imagesAs the dust of the bombings begins to settle, a number of responses are beginning to surface.  Some reactions are positive, but some are counterproductive.  Here are two wrong ways to respond to the bombings:

Deepening Cynicism

The senseless acts of evil in our world led some to conclude that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, so, they say, “Let’s circle the wagons and insulate ourselves from an increasingly evil world.”

The problem with that response is that it’s self-reinforcing: the more we look for evil, the more we find evil.  And the less we look for goodness, the less goodness we find.  The fruit of that cycle is a deepening cynicism that is just no fun for anyone, especially for the people who are around you.

But even in the midst of the recent bombings, we saw people responding with goodness and courage.  There were marathon participants who ran past the finish line to local hospitals where they donated blood.  Another man rushed toward the explosions and ripped off his belt to create a tourniquet for a wounded victim.  One man ran in and out of the danger zone, carrying people a hundred yards to safety.  Joe Andruzzi, a retired NFL football star who won the Super Bowl three times with the New England Patriots, was seen carrying multiple victims away from the finish line. All three of the Andruzzi’s brothers were firemen who rushed into the wreckage of the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Paralyzing Fear

While London was bombed during WW2, CS Lewis wrote an essay called “Living in an Atomic Age.”  Addressing the crippling fear that many lived under, especially after the development of the atom bomb, he wrote:

“In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. ‘How are we to live in an atomic age?’  I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.’  In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things like praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint–not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

So be at peace, my friend.  Feed your mind with whatever is good, beautiful and true.  Do not fear what you cannot control.  Love God, do what He asks, and give to God what you cannot do.  And, above all, trust God, no matter what.

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More Naturally Supernatural

Donald Miller is one of my favorite pop-contemporary Christian writers.  I enjoy his brutal honesty,  his sharp insights, and I admire his ability to write well.   Donald recently posted this blog, and I’m sharing it with you, as it reflects my desire to become more naturally supernatural.  Thanks Donald!

“Whenever we spot spiritual openness in our friends and neighbors, we are then confronted with the huge internal question: How do I respond without totally messing them up?!  Faced with what feels like a high risk on any reasonable cost-benefit analysis, most of us simply bail out or, at best, do something slightly half-hearted that is merely bemusing for our friend to witness.

How can I pray for you

For a long time I struggled with sharing my faith in a way that had real meaning but didn’t risk blowing up a friendship.  Then I had a revelation moment: I need to stop treating my lost friends differently from my Christian friends.

We do that all the time.  When a Christian friend is sick or stressed, I’ll pray for them right there and then.  When they need encouraging, I’ll share with them what Jesus is saying to me this week.  When they are in need, I’ll serve them practically.  But with our lost friends, all too often we either water-down our faith, seemingly losing the Jesus from our lives (or alternatively turn into some hyper-spiritual nutcase!)

This is a failure to respect your friend enough to be who you really are – to trust that the person they know and like includes the spiritual you, and thus Jesus-in-you.  The underlying problem is that we live a dualistic life: operating one way with Christians, but another way with the lost.  Instead, we need to treat our lost friends the same way we treat our Christian friends, so that the authentic, Jesus-loving you can shine through.

How Do I Live This Out?

To take things a step further, here are 4 ways to respond to your friends – both Christian and non-Christian – in a naturally supernatural way.  These 4 questions, or tools, are always available for you to select from in any situation:

1.  ”Can I pray for you?”

If they have a need, or are sick, or are worried about something, stop right there and then to pray for your friend.  Be open to God giving you a word of encouragement, strengthening or comfort – and share it simply and naturally with them, in everyday language.  Interestingly, even if there is no directly observable answer, your non-Christian friends will be really touched by your sincere expression of love.  And when God DOES answer that simple prayer of faith… amazing conversations follow!

2.  ”Can I serve you?”

Babysit, cook a meal, make them a cup of tea (the godly response to almost all the world’s problems!), give a hug, mow their lawn.  Whatever you do, the point is to stop and help.  (And be looking to invite them to join you in serving others – as you go together, the Spirit of the Lord goes with you.)

3.  ”Can I share my story?”

Whether it is your big story of how you first met God, or (more usually) your story from this week of what Jesus is saying to you, your walk with the Lord is amazingly impactful upon others, if you have built an authentic relationship with them.  Listen to and respect their story, but also don’t be bashful to share your own story.  God has given it you for a reason.

4.  ”Can I share God’s story?”

As you pray, serve and share your story, you will find yourself in that holy moment where you can go deeper still.  There is a time and place to share the content of the Gospel, to help your friend come face-to-face with the power of the Bible as it reveals the story of God to us.  Obviously you won’t download it all in one sitting, so let the Holy Spirit lead you in selecting a relevant narrative, theme or verse.  You will point them to the One who is the ultimate expression of being naturally supernatural, so that they in turn can play their part in extending His Kingdom to others.

We are called to share the words and works of Jesus.  Let’s use these four questions to live a life that is naturally supernatural.

CONSIDER:  How can you be more naturally supernatural over the next 7 days?

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Surprised by the Press

Last week I received a phone call from a reporter who wanted to interview me. I hesitated because I’ve been interviewed before and I’ve had enough comments misunderstood, misconstrued or taken out of context.  Even so, I agreed to an interview, thinking that the article would run as a small piece, buried in the religion section that only religious people read. I was way wrong.

Sean, the Press Democrat Reporter, and I enjoyed a delightful conversation.  He seemed genuinely interested about the direction Redwood was taking.  He asked informed, thoughtful questions.  I spoke openly, and our hour together flew by.

The article was scheduled for Easter Sunday.  I was a bit preoccupied that morning to make any attempt to see it.  But after the third worship service, a friend asked me if I had seen the article. “No,” I said.  “You’re on the front page,” he replied.  “It’s a lengthy, front-page feature, and it’s really good!”

I stopped at Safeway on my way home to buy a copy, and I read it after I returned home.  I liked the article’s focus about a church being mobilized to love one another and to love our neighbors in practical ways on their turf.  I felt like it captured the heart of Redwood.  And I felt that it captured my heart also.

I was a bit embarrassed about having my picture on the front page.  I never want the church to be about me.  If I were to add anything to the article, I would say: “It’s not about me.  It’s about a community, guided by God for the sake of the world.”

I am deeply thankful to God for what He is doing among us and through us at Redwood.  And I am deeply thankful to the many, many people who are doing the work of ministry and doing mission though Community Groups.  God is guiding us, and we’re all on this walk of faith-in-action together.

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Blog On!

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To my readers: I’ve taken a break from blogging.  I’m back

My last four months have been very full.  That’s why you haven’t heard from me.

It began with Advent/Christmas planning, and it continued with the death of John Strong, former pastor of Redwood Covenant Church and the exit of Andy Cater, our Pastor of Worship.  Add the search for the next Pastor of Worship, and my assuming a wider role in worship design, and, well, blogging took a back seat.

But I’m back, and if you’re listening, then thanks.  People who listen humble me.  Some of you have spoken or written encouraging words about words I’ve spoken.  Thanks.

It’s been quite a season, and I’m very excited about what God is doing.  More to come!

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Rediscovering Jesus

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For many years, Jesus was a mainstay on the covers of the three big newsweeklies: Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. Every Easter and/or Christmas they’d throw Him on the cover, usually with some cobbled-together news rationale. His face guaranteed a boost in newsstand sales, and it also reflects our enduring curiosity about the man who changed the world.

On one hand, there seems to be a growing number of Christians who are disenchanted with church fads and programs, but who are increasingly interested in knowing and following Jesus.  On the other hand, there is a growing segment of people outside the church who are uninterested in the church, but are very interested in understanding more about Jesus.  It seems that God is stirring people inside and outside the church to discover Jesus.

As we enter this New Year, I believe that God is calling me, and the church I serve, to rediscover Jesus.  To help, I’m planning a message series that will focus on the unpredictable, surprising, even shocking Jesus we find in the Gospel of Mark.   I anticipate that a fresh look at Jesus will help us renew our faith and reclaim our first love.  But several other things are vital if we are to grow as followers of Christ.

Here’s what we can do to rediscover Jesus in 2013.

▪   Let’s agree to get to know Jesus.  This year, I encourage you to wear out the Gospels; those first four books in the New Testament. Bathe yourself in Jesus, his words, his stories, his miracles, and his example. Do it on a regular basis for an extended length of time. (Matthew 11:29)

▪   Let’s agree to follow Jesus.   Rather than debate what Jesus said, or water it down, let’s obey the clear things he says for us to do. If we do, he will bless us with the gift of knowing the truth and setting us free to be who he has called us to be. (John 8:31-32)

▪   Let’s agree to invite Jesus into every area of our lives.  While many point to Jesus’ statement in Revelation 3:20 (“behold I stand at the door and knock…”) as an example for non-Christian’s to receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior.  But a closer look indicates that this passage addresses a Christian Church.  Jesus stands at the door of the church and knocks.  Will we invite him in to take control of every area of our life?

▪     One of the most effective ways to grow as a follower of Jesus is to share him with others in word and deed.  As we share Jesus with others, his power becomes clearer in us. (Matthew 28:18-20).

As we enter a New Year, I can’t think of anything more important than for us to have Jesus as the focus of our worship, our lives, our prayers, our friendships, and our church.  Let’s make 2013 the year we rediscover Jesus, renew our faith, and return to our first love.

Let’s rediscover Jesus again for the first time!

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A Better Giving of Thanks

This week, families will gather to celebrate “Thanksgiving.”   For many, this will be an opportunity to relax with family, dismiss their diet, watch some football, or enter the shopping frenzy of Black Friday, now encroaching on Thursday.  But Thanksgiving is more than a family reunion, a stuffed stomach, a football marathon or a discounted gadget.  Thanksgiving can become a better way of life when we learn to “give thanks.”

It is easy to assume that the gifts we enjoy are gifts we’ve earned and own.  But the truth is just the opposite.  Everything we have is a gift from God.  Everything.

When we think about giving thanks to God, we often think about giving to God a proportion of what is ours.  Leonard Sweet, writing in SoulSalsa, challenges this view when he writes, “Jesus discipleship entails a trustee ethic, not a stewardship ethic. The New Testament Greek words most often translated as “stewards” (epitropos and oikonomos) are better rendered as “trustees.”

Trustees are the legal entities of an institution or estate.  Technically, trustees “own” nothing, but they are legally accountable for everything.  Jesus features a trustee in His story about a king who entrusts money to his trustees to invest while he goes away (Matthew 25:14-30).  Three of the trustees invest the money, making more money for the king, and one does nothing, hiding the money.  The one who hid the money is rebuked, and the others are commended.  In each case, the king expects his trustees to release his money so that his estate might grow and prosper.

What would it mean for us to see ourselves as trustees this thanksgiving?  Would it make a difference in how we receive and give thanks?

One of our first reflexes as infants is the grasping reflex.  Place a finger in the palm of a small child, and they will grab tight.  This instinct was probably very helpful when escape from a dangerous situation was necessary for an infant, but the instinct is dangerous to our spiritual wellbeing when we carry it into adulthood.  Grabbing tight to whatever — under the illusion that it’s ours — is a sure way to shrink our soul.  God calls us out of that bondage by inviting us to release our grip, and the first step is to recognize that we are trustees.

This Thanksgiving, I invite you to consider yourself a trustee who is learning to “give thanks.” Begin to see yourself as a trustee of God’s good gifts and I bet you will find yourself receiving and giving with greater thanksgiving

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Talking Politics & Religion (without getting hijacked)

I am getting increasingly nervous about the political discourse I am hearing from my Christian brothers and sisters as the Presidential Campaign enters its the final lap.  The passionate, vitriolic and divisive comments of some seem to suggest that they are in a position to definitively pronounce God’s political leanings, which just happens to correspond to their political party.

In Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which remains the high water mark in presidential theological reflection, he notes that “Both (the North and the South) read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”

The heart of the political problem, as Lincoln recognized, is that no human system can claim to embody all of God’s will, and no political platform has the ability to extricate itself from the deceptions of the human heart.

The human race needs an administration of another kind.

Jesus announced a very different administration when He said: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe the good news.”   As scholars, like N.T. Wright remind us, Jesus intentionally used politically loaded words in His inaugural announcement.  “Kingdom of God” is a direct challenge to the Roman Empire or any political system that demands allegiance.  And “good news” is a deliberate parody of the claims of Rome that Caesar was Savior. The death of Jesus reminds us alliance to God can get one in trouble with the powers that be.

The gospel of Jesus is politically loaded, but it must never be co-opted by any political party.  Indeed, it cannot.  The politics of Jesus go higher and deeper than any political system can go.

Amidst a nation bitterly divided, followers of Jesus need to offer another way of discourse –one that is respectful, circumspect, and, at times, ambivalent about political outcomes.   Politics matters, as one theologian said, because “there is not a place where God has not said “this is mine.”  But, as Jim Wallis reminds us, “God is neither Republican or Democrat.”

Let the discussion begin, with less partisanship, please!

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Faith–a solo journey?

In our day, there is a lot of talk about spirituality as a solo journey of seeking individuals on a pathway toward God.  And, we are told, there are a variety of techniques that help along the way.  From chanting to meditation, techniques abound that promise the solitary individual everything from attaining peace to transcendental bliss.

Turn to the New Testament, and it quickly becomes appairent that the “spiritual practices” of the early church were not individual, but communal.

“Those who believed were baptized and added to the church—about three thousand in all. They joined with the other believers and devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, sharing in the Lord’s Supper and in prayer.”   (Acts 2:41-42)

In this snapshot of the early church we see vital connections though shared learning (“the apostles teaching”), shared relationships (“fellowship”), shared meals (“breaking of bread”) and shared spirituality (“the prayers”).

In all this sharing, the loving connection shared within the Trinity and brought into the world by Jesus is demonstrated and experienced by disciples through community in the world.

This month at Redwood Covenant Church, we are launching mid-sized Community Groups for fellowship and mission.  In doing so, we are doing what was  obvious to the early church, namely, that our growth as individuals is inextricably connected to a community of disciples in relationship to one another because of their relationship to God through Jesus.

Life in Christ is life together.  And that communial dynamic is important not only for our growth, but also for our witness.

Each Community Groups at Redwood has a defined mission focus that works in two ways.  On one hand, each Community Group will plan and do mission adventures together.  On the other hand, each Community Group will invite people into their Community Group to give them an experience of Christian Community.

We introduced Community Groups three weeks ago at Redwood.  Since then, over 500 people are signed up for one of the 14 Community Groups at Redwood.  This is very exciting, and it’s just the beginning of a new thing, that is really an old thing that goes back to the earliest church.  By tapping the DNA of the early church we are reclaiming a simplicity of discipleship that sometimes gets lost.  Fellowship – sharing life together, and mission – sharing God’s love with others, are vitally important ways our faith is formed in and through community.

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Why I’m so excited

I recently experienced a jolt of joy that has me so excited that I have to share it with you.  I was with a group of people from Redwood Covenant who will be Hosts and Guides of our newly formed Community Groups.  At the end of our gathering, after a time of teaching and communion, I sensed a level of community with God and others that struck me so much that I was at a loss for words, which, as my wife will tell you, is all too rare.

Part of what I was experiencing was what the Spirit loves to do: bind us in the unity of God’s love that Jesus models and makes possible.  I did not enjoy feeling stupid at my loss of words, but I did enjoy the love I felt.

I believe that hospitality and community are two ways that God will convert the church and reach skeptics in our day.  Did I just write, “convert the church?”  Aren’t we already converted?  Yes and no.

Christians are redeemed and made holy by God through Christ, but there is a sense in which we always need to catch up to what God has done and is doing.  Conversion is not just a one-time decision, but is also an ongoing transformation into the likeness of Jesus.  That second type of conversion takes time, the work of the Spirit, and our intent to live into the new life that Jesus offers.  And it takes others.

And that’s why I’m so excited about the potential of Community Groups.

I meet a lot of people who are burned-out, frustrated and skeptical about any institutional form of Christianity.  And those people are Christians!  And while I love the church in all her mess, I share some of their frustration.  The form that the church takes does not always look like the bride of Christ.  And while I recognize that the church is more than it’s form, it is not less than it’s form, either.  And, well, we have some re-forming to do if we are to become who God calls us to be as the living, breathing, moving body of Christ.

And that’s why I am so excited about Community Groups.

Community Groups represent a way for us to connect, share lives together, and seek to incarnate the good news to neighbors and friends who are hungry for connection, love and compassion.   It’s that simple.

Discipleship in Community doing Mission.  It seems simple.  And it is!  And it’s also challenging!!  It’s challenging to convert from a religious consumer to an apprentice of Jesus.

Two weeks ago, we introduced fourteen Community Groups, and the response was amazing.  Close to one hundred people signed up–and that’s just the first week!  Can you imagine hundreds more, gathering in homes, sharing a meal, sharing their lives and sharing the love of God in mission adventures that catch the attention of their friends and neighbors?  I can.   Like you, I am hungry to connect with others and with God and to share the gospel in practical ways to others.

That’s why I am so excited.

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Community Groups are about to begin!

Church is more than a service.  It’s people living life together and helping neighbors and friends throughout our county in the name of Jesus.

This has always been at the heart of Redwood Covenant, and now we are about to begin an exciting new phase of ministry.  It’s taken a lot of time, energy and dedication by many to get here, and now Community Groups are about to begin. 

What’s a Community Group?

•  Size of an extended family.  With 20-50 people, Community Groups will be small enough to care but large enough to dare.

•  UP/IN/OUT.  Community Groups will follow the three dimensions of Jesus’ life: UPward dimension of life with the Father, INward dimension of life with the Body of Christ together, OUTward dimension of fully stepping into a broken world.

•  Fellowship with a Focus.   In a Community Group, people will enjoy a meal, connect with others, connect with God, and either plan or do a mission adventure.  Many of our Community Groups will be kid-friendly!  And yes, it will be fun!

•  Mission vision.  Each Community Group will have a vision to extend God’s love in practical ways to a specific group.  There will be Community Groups focused on the hungry, the homeless, families, and much more.

I am very excited to say that fourteen Community Groups will begin in October at Redwood Covenant.   Groups will be introduced during worship each Sunday in September.  Sign ups begin this Sunday.  Please be in prayer about which group will work for you!

God is moving!  And you are invited to catch the movement!

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Imitation

One of the life-giving practices I am rediscovering is discipleship.   I love learning from others how to be and act more like Jesus, and I enjoy passing that along to others who also want to grow as disciples.  It’s thrilling for me to see people grow, change, and become more fully devoted followers of Jesus.

One of the great challenges for me is that Jesus’ way of discipleship is based on imitation.  Jesus called a few to apprentice with Him, and over the course of three years they learned how to be like Him and how to do what He did in the ebb and flow of real life.   And then, these few were commissioned and empowered to disciple others.

The Apostle Paul reflects this imitation-style of discipleship.  He writes:  “I urge you to imitate me” (1 Corinthians 4:16) and “we… offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.”

Disciples grow through a mentor in an apprentice relationship.  Discipleship is not about following a curriculum, and it’s definitely not about transferring abstract knowledge or principles.  Discipleship happens as one disciple builds onto other disciples what they have learned from others about how to be more like Jesus and how to do what Jesus taught His disciples to do.

Jesus’ way of discipleship can seem agonizingly slow, especially if one is accustomed to curriculum-based learning. It’s much easer to digest information than to facilitate real life change.   But, I am convinced that if the Church does not follow Jesus in this way, then we will continue to grow in irrelevance to emerging generations and the culture around us.

The way of discipleship is a challenge for me because I was not taught to transfer faith in that way.  I was taught in classroom settings to understand the Bible, to teach the Bible, to care for people, and to lead in a servant-like way.  I was not taught to imitate, and frankly, I find the whole nature of imitation intimidating.  Who am I to say, “Imitate me,” when there are areas in my life not worth emulating?

When I look at my life and see areas that are not worth imitating I get discouraged. But, when I see aspects of my life that are worth imitating, I am both encouraged and humbled.  Any characteristic of my life that is worth emulating is because of Jesus.  He is the redeeming stronghold in my life.  Seriously, the best I do is respond to what God is prompting, challenging and encouraging me to be and become.  And, I have also found that I need other disciples to help me process what God is saying, to challenge me to respond, and to encourage me to stay the course.

Jesus said that His sheep know His voice and they learn to listen and respond.   I do not have a hotline to God because I am a pastor.  But, I am learning to dial into the many ways that God continues to speak.  I will be dialing into the voice of the Shepherd today as I pray, meet with others, reflect about challenges, write a sermon and plan ministry initiatives.   Through it all, my hope is to hear from God, learn from others, and pass it on.

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Future Sermon Series

Fredrick Buechner once wrote, “Sundays come at the pastor like telephone poles on a fast-moving train.”  The relentless pace of ministry demands that I step back from time to time for perspective, planning and prayer.  This week is one of those weeks.

For the next few days I am hibernating at home for a study-leave to map out sermon series for the next few months.  My goal is to create a balanced diet of messages that are biblically based and applicable to life.  The trick is to keep it balanced.

A balanced diet of sermons will include passages from the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Sometimes a series will offer topical treatment from the Bible.  At other times a series will offer a verse-by-verse treatment of a book in God’s Word.  Preachers tend to gravitate toward either topical or verse-by-verse, but I think a healthy diet includes both.

A balanced diet will keep an eye to the seasons of the year (fall, Christmas, the new year, Easter, etc.).  And, it will offer nourishment to a variety of ages at a variety of levels of spiritual maturity and understanding.  Like I said, this is no easy trick.  And that’s why it’s important for me to get away to map out sermon series for the upcoming year, as I am doing this week.

Please pray for me this week, if you are so inclined.  Join me in asking God for wisdom and inspiration, so the church might be built up in maturity, faith, love and hope.

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Backing into the future

Last week the pastors I serve with went on a retreat to do some planning. It was a helpful time of looking back to review and looking forward to plan. I like doing work like that, because, I like to have some idea about what’s coming up down the road. Even though the future is unknown and unknowable, I still like to plan a route and predict the possible twists and turns I might encounter. That’s why I am so challenged by the world-view of the Bible that presents a different, better way of moving in the future.

In the world of the Old Testament, people did not conceive of themselves as facing the future and walking into it. Instead, they saw themselves backing into the future. This idea is so foreign, so freeing, that it deserves some explanation.

Time, for a Hebrew in the Old Testament, was not a commodity to expend as it is in our day. It was more like a stream to be experienced. The ripples left behind in the stream revealed, in various, wonderful ways, the great faithfulness of God for His people in history. This is why, for instance, the Psalms are replete with the injunction “to remember” God’s faithful actions in the past. By remembering the stories of how God was faithful, we affirm our faith in the God who was faithful, is faithful and will always be faithful.

Abraham, called the “father of faith” in the Bible, is an example of how faith helps us walk into the future. Abraham had already experienced God’s faithfulness by the time God invited Abraham to go to a distant land. That’s why Abraham could step out, not knowing the final destination. And with each step he took, he could look back to see evidence of God’s guiding hand. In that way, Abraham was able to back into the future that God was creating for him.

And that’s the key for you and me: As we look back to remember God’s faithfulness we receive courage to back into the future that is unknown to us, but is knowable to God.

Can you see yourself backing into the future? Can you see that the burden of creating the future is not yours? Of course you and I need to make decisions about our life and its direction by making plans and setting goals. But, that look into an unknown future must be done while looking backward. By looking backward we see the trail of God’s faithfulness that gives us the confidence we need to step forward in faith.

Maybe you are facing a crossroads, wondering whether to take this road or that road. Maybe you need to be reminded that the future God holds out to all of us is His responsibility to unveil. Our job is to remember how God has faithfully guided us, and to be confident that He will continue to reveal His faithfulness to us. From there, we step out, one step at a time, backing into His future.

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Touch is out of touch

I’m a sucker for mind-bending novels, movies and TV shows like X-Files and Lost.  The latest show that has my attention is Touch.  The premise of Touch is that everything and everyone is connected.  And, there’s a gifted kid who gets the connections and he uses cryptic numbers to guide his father to help people avoid the painful experiences that they are unknowingly headed toward.

If you like mind-benders, then Touch is a fun ride.

It’s also a veiled attempt to explain existence within a naturalistic worldview.  In that world, patterns and systems are comprehended and orchestrated by an all-knowing kid who alters destiny by guiding his Dad to intervene and to avert impending disaster and pain.

If that story sounds familiar, it is.

The Bible reveals God as The One in whom all things are held together.  And God intervenes by God sending His angels and His Son among humans who are capable of amazing goodness and horrific destruction.

But, the similarities between Touch and the Bible end there.

In the worldview of Touch, there is no transcendent God, let alone a personal God who intervenes in history.  Within its naturalistic framework, reality is reduced to what can be comprehended empirically.  For the kid in Touch, this means apprehending the myriad of connections and patterns that mere mortals cannot grasp.

The worldview of the Bible blows that roof wide open.  In stark contrast to a closed universe, the word of the Bible conveys a God who is real, personal, and involved in, with, and for His creation.  God’s involvement is His passionate plan to put a creation careening off course back to right.  And, that plan finds expression in God taking flesh, dying, and being raised from the dead to sit at the place of highest authority.  And that plan involves us, as kings and priests, who partner with the living God in his plan to bless all people.

The worldview of Touch is ironically out of touch with reality.  But, that’s the power of a worldview.  It shapes a reality that shapes us.

Posted in Culture, Movies, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Real Home we Desire

“God has planted eternity in the human heart.” –Ecclesiastes 3:11

There is a forgotten land that we long for.   And we can’t shake off our desire.  It’s hard-wired into us.  And it is the desire to transcend this world and go back to our true home with God.

No civilization has ever been entirely able to suppress the rumors of land beyond.  These rumors of a lost Eden come to us in stories, poetry, flashes of joy, and that aching desire which C.S. Lewis recognized as “the sent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard” (Weight of Glory)

Lewis writes about this aching desire in Mere Christianity:

If I find in myself a desire for which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world… Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it. If that is so, then I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise or be unthankful for these earthy blessings, but on the other hand never to mistake them for something else of which they are only a copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive my desire from my true county which I shall never find until after death.”

There are realities of beauty that would burst your heart is you saw them now.  On this side, we catch hints and echoes of that glory, such as a stirring piece of music, the breathtaking beauty of mountains, or the smell of French roast coffee in the morning. These pleasures arouse within us aching desire that cannot be satisfied in this world, and this fleeting desire is a sign that we were made for another world, our true home with God.

Home is not where you grew up or even where you currently hang your hat. Home is the place we created to live from eternity and for eternity. Home is being in communion w/God—that’s our home where we belong.

But we are not yet home–we are nomads traveling home.  Like Abraham, Moses, and Noah, who:

“Died without receiving what God had promised them, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed the promises of God. They agreed that they were no more than foreigners and nomads here on earth.  And obviously people who talk like that are looking forward to a country they can call their own.  If they had meant the country they came from, they would have found a way to go back.  But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a heavenly city for them.”   Hebrews 11:13-16 (NLT)

If God has placed eternity in hearts, and if all our desires point to our home with God, then it only makes sense that best way to get there must come from heaven to earth.

The Easter good news is that Jesus is God’s son from heaven who opens that way for us by the cross and that God guarantees that way for us by rising him from the dead.

When Thomas later asked Jesus how he would find him and follow him where going, Jesus responded by saying: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.”

All your desire finds it’s home with God.  He is our home.  It’s written on your heart, and Jesus makes it possible, because “He is Risen.  He is Risen Indeed.”

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God’s Perfect Pitch

Image

Not long ago I had met a stranger on a sidewalk.  He was waiting for a ride, sipping a Starbucks, and I was sipping mine, so, having that in common, we struck up a conversation about the brew of the bean.  One topic lead to another, and before long he asked, “So, what do you do?” I hesitated telling him that I am pastor, not because I was ashamed, but because it typically makes people nervous, or they make an awkward attempt to clean up their language, or they confess their list of sins, or they suddenly remember they have to leave for an appointment.

But he asked, and I could not lie, so I told him.   “Pastor,” he said, “you don’t look like a Pastor” (thank God, I thought).  “Anyway,” he continued, “I don’t care much for organized religion.  I meet God when I walk through a forest grove.”

Then the stranger’s ride pulled up to the curb.  “See you in the forest,” I said with a smile.  But behind my smile was a heavy heart for him and others who see the church as a self-serving institution that has little to do with authentic spiritual revitalization.  If I ever see that stranger again I would like him to know that a walk through the woods is great, but it’s not enough to tune-up our soul.

The Gospel of John begins famously with these words: “In the beginning was the Logos.”  “Logos” means both “Sound” and “Word.”  Jesus is the Word of God, the Word that must be heard.  Or, as Leonard Sweet says, “Jesus is the Sound of God, the Song Made Flesh.”

If I ever see that stranger again I would like him to know that the “sound” of Jesus is our tuning fork to our Creator.  I would like him to know that as our lives get out of tune, we seek ways to tune our souls.  For some it’s a walk in the woods.  For others, it’s a walk down a fairway.  And on one level that recreation can, as the word suggests, “re-create” our soul.  But to tune our lives with God and his creation, we must dial into the frequencies of God’s Spirit and match the resonance of our actions and attitudes to Jesus who is God’s perfect pitch.

Musical instruments are tuned at 440 cycles per second for perfect pitch.  One can tune an instrument looser and achieve a “relative pitch.”  But a “relative pitch” sounds good only when it is played by itself. When played with other instruments, relative pitch creates dissonance.  In a similar way, recreation is necessary for personal renewal, but it is limited to a “relative pitch.”  After a walk in the woods or a walk down the fairway, we may sound okay to ourselves, but when we play alongside others we discover a dissonance and a need for perfect pitch so that we can play in harmony with others.

One of the great values of worship is that it helps us find “perfect pitch” as we tune the pitch of our lives to the perfect pitch of Jesus Christ.  That’s one reason why Christians through the years have guarded Sunday worship as an appointment for soul revitalization, calling it the day of resurrection–the day of new life.

This Sunday begins what Christians call “holy week.”  It begins with Palm Sunday, travels from there to Good Friday and ends at the empty tomb of Jesus.  It’s entirely Jesus-focused, and its one way we tune our lives to the perfect pitch of Jesus.

God so loved the world that he sent his son as the perfect pitch of God.   May your life, tuned to him, play the notes that bring harmony to your world.

Posted in Discipleship, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

When Growth goes Dormant

Russian scientists recently resurrected a 30,000 year-old plant from the Siberian permafrost.  Using fruit tissues, the scientists revived the ancient seed and grew Silene stenophylla, the oldest plant ever regenerated (see a picture of the real plant, below).

Like a dormant seed, sometimes the potential for new life lies hidden,  just beneath the surface.

For Christians, the potential for new life lies in their connection to Jesus, who said: “I am the vine you are the branches… stay connected to me.”

Jesus also recognized that the potential for new life is not always realized.  The seed of the gospel can get clogged by the cares of the world, or poisoned by the toxins of sin, or snatched away by destructive demonic powers.  Or the seed of new life can simply lie dormant, waiting for the right conditions to germinate the seed for the harvest that lies ahead.

At Redwood Covenant Church, there are many visible signs of life among students, Redwood Kids, men and women.  And there are other, less visible life-signs.  For instance, there are dozens of people being discipled.  And there are many more who are saying yes to help form a “Community Group” in the fall.

What’s a Community Group?

Community Groups at Redwood Covenant Church will be groups of 20-40 people, meeting in homes for fellowship and outreach.  Community Groups will be a place where fellowship happens over a meal, where people can experience Christian community, and where mission adventures will launch into neighborhoods.

Like an extended family on a mission together, Community groups will be an important way for people to find connection, have fun, grow together, and express God’s love to neighbors in practical ways.  Community groups will be a way for people to follow in the footsteps of Jesus as the arms of Jesus.

Over the past few months, we’ve been working hard to prepare the soil for this growth, and now the seeds are germinating.  People are growing as disciples.  And they are inviting others to learn how to grow as a disciple of Jesus with them.  Teams are forming to help and guide Community Groups.  A vision for community/discipleship/mission is catching hold, and new life is germinating, behind the scenes.

Churches, like people, sometimes must undergo a season of pruning, and dormancy in preparation for new growth.  I’ve seen this happen in my life, and now I’m seeing it happen in the church I serve.

When I’m in a dormant stage, God often calls me to trust and to exercise patience.  And that’s what I’m doing–I am trusting God for his provision, plans, and providence.  And I am exercising patience while the seeds of His new life germinate among God’s people.

And I am very encouraged.  After all, if scientists can coax a 30,000 year-old seed to life, don’t you think God is more than able to coax His life in us for the harvest that lies ahead?

Posted in Discipleship, Santa Rosa, Theology | 2 Comments

Kindness: more than being nice

In preparation for a sermon I will deliver tomorrow, I’ve been thinking about the amazing quality of God’s kindness. Here are some snapshots of this often overlooked attribute of God…

Nehemiah addresses God’s kindness when he prayed: “You are a God, ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abundant in kindness” Nehemiah 9:17

The apostle Paul announced God’s kindness when he wrote: “God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Jesus Christ” Ephesians 2:7

And Jesus invites us into kindness of God when he said: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matt 11:28-30

In ancient Israel, farmers trained inexperienced Oxen by tying them to experienced ones. The older Ox carried the bulk of the weight of the load. The younger Ox simply walked alongside the older Ox. That’s the image behind Jesus’ invitation to get yoked with him. We walk together, bound by love, but he carries the weight and the burden. And his burden is kind.

Jesus carries burdens we are familiar with, like sin & shame. But does he not also carry burdens that we no nothing about?

Has he lifted your fear before you felt it?

Has he carried your confusion so that you did not have to?

Are there times we you been surprised by a peace that passes understanding?

For me, the answers are: yes, yes and yes.

Those are some of my random thoughts about kindness that won’t make it into my message tomorrow, but those thoughts have shaped what I will share, and they have helped me get through a very full week with a sense of ease and pleasure.

As you go through your day, may the loving kindness of God in Christ be with you, and in you, and be manifest through you, for the glory of God, and the gladness of those around you!


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Why I like sports and how competition might fit into the Kingdom of God

It’s a great season for sports, if you’re a sports fan.  The zillions of College Bowl games just ended and the NFL championships are heating up.   When I have downtime, I’ll dial in, drawn by the competition and the drama.  And in spite of having been a Seahawk fan since they hatched, I’m catching the 49er fever.

After the 49er win last Sunday (four lead changes in the final four minutes!), sports journalist Jeremy Hay wrote:

“In what was one of the most remarkable wins in the franchise’s 65-year history, the team thrust itself back into the ranks of the NFL elite on the strength and leadership of much-maligned quarterback Alex Smith, who abruptly established himself as a big-time, big-game winner.

In the process, the 49ers ended nine years of ignominy as NFL bottom feeders.”

Wow.  Seriously?  That’s not what I saw.  But I’m new around here, and I’ve lived though decades of frustration as a Seahawk fan, so my view is skewed.  But what I saw was team that was hungry to win, a team that has a lot of weapons, and a team that is well coached.

And it’s got me thinking about why I love competition, and how it might fit in the Kingdom of God.  Here’s what I think…

Great connection happens in good competition

By good competition, I mean competition that pits individuals or teams against one another in a fair battle, with clear guidelines and refs who blow the whistle when lines are crossed.  Good competitors fight hard and well, and after the game they shake hands with their opponent.  I’m not in the camp that sees Jesus as a wimp, nor do I believe that Christians have to get along at all cost.  I think great connection happens in good competition.

God loves a good fight

Think about it: God created humans knowing that His creation would stray.  And then God goes to battle to win back his beloved from the kingdom of darkness.  It seems like God loves a good fight, and if that’s true then so do we, because we’re designed in His image.  But, as one author suggests, a gradual feminization of the church has emasculated this instinct in many churches today.  (See “Why Men Hate Going to Church“).

What I’m not saying

I am not advocating dominance, imperialism, or unjust war.  Nor am I justifying the outrageous commercialization of sports.  And I’m not a proponent of a testosterone driven church that devalues the gifting of women.  I’m just suggesting that competition may have more of a place in the kingdom of God than Christians have been socialized to assume. 

Extremes Aside

When it comes to engaging in battle, Christians err on two extremes: we can be overly passive or we can be overly aggressive.  The trick is to discern what is worth fighting for, like truth, justice, peace, and loved ones and neighbors.  From there it’s all about fighting fairly, with the right weapons (see Ephesians 6:11-18).

This Sunday I’ll be glued to a TV, cheering for the 49ers.  I won’t weigh the game down with an expectation that a win will redeem years of ignominy.  That’s going too far.  But I will unabashedly enjoy the game.

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What my migration from Windows to Apple is teaching me about faith.

I recently moved away from a world I’ve known for over two decades. I migrated from the world of Windows, into the world of Apple.

I migrated because I literally moved from the Seattle-Redmond area to N. Cal, which is like moving from the land that Bill G built, into the world that Steve J built.

I migrated partly out of frustration with Microsoft products, and partly out of admiration for the iPods I have enjoyed, and partly to follow the Apostle Paul’s adage to “be all things to all people.”

My migration has prompted a couple of thoughts about operating systems and my Christian faith….

Simplicity is not Simple

Following Jesus is simple.  Following Jesus is hard.  Most churches tend to get around this reality by adding layer upon layer of disconnected programing, kind of like Windows.

Windows is great for Geeks who like a lot of options and tweaks, but each option is like a one more pound of weight on a fat elephant.

And how about those updates and the systems crashes!  If I had a Twinkie for every Microsoft update or crash, then I’d be sick of Twinkies.  And I am sick of Twinkies.

Thom Rainer, in his excellent book, Simple Church, observes that Churches tend to make church-life complicated, on one hand, and churches tend to lower the bar of discipleship, on the other hand.  It’s time, he says, to raise the bar of discipleship and make church simpler.   Yes!

At Redwood, we’re moving into a more simple mode by focusing on three things: discipleship, mission and fellowship.  And yes: it’s simple and it’s hard.

Aesthetics Matter

Worship of God is not done just with the ear-gate, but also involves the eye-gate.  Christians in the sacramental traditions have known this for centuries.  Those in the evangelical tradition lean toward word-heavy worship, and we could learn a few things from Apple about creating aesthetically pleasing environments.

The world that Steve built is fun and cool, and intuitive.  And now this environment seamlessly links across my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook.  This functionality isn’t much beyond what RMS or Google have offered for years.  For sure, Apple is later, but it’s way cooler.

Caveat: Sometimes faith is not cool.  Sometimes it’s hard, messy, even bloody.  But beyond the cross lies an open grave that opens an operating system not of bits and bytes, but of love and life.

That’s the world Jesus built.   And it’s still being built.

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The Triumph of Christianity

Peer into a Nativity Manger and you might just see a child who grew to be  a boy who grew to become a man who changed the world.  And that’s no exaggeration.  Jesus sparked a fledging movement, outnumbered and outgunned in every way possible, that become a movement numbering over forty percent of the world’s population today.

This week I’m reading Rodney Stark’s newest book called, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement became the World’s Largest Religion.

If that title sounds big, it is.  It’s massive tour though six historical eras beginning with the religious context of the first Christmas and ending with our religious global context. It’s an audacious tour, and he pulls it off in a straightforward, factual, and readable way that busts all kinds of popular myths about Christianity.  This history is faith-bolstering stuff.

As a pastor, this time of the year is full of Christmas gatherings, decking the halls of our house for our family celebrations, and preparation for Christmas Eve and Christmas day messages.  As I prepare for five messages this week, and as I ponder the message of the manger, I’m also reading about how the Jesus movement became the world’s largest religion.  Those two rails got me thinking.

I wonder what people who don’t believe in Jesus as God think about our Christmas scenery.  Do those eyes see a winter-like scene from a Dickens’ novel adapted to movie?   The set is antiseptic, but cozy, warm, with that hay-on-floor look.  And in the center stands a crib that looks like an Ikea dish drying rack.  And there on the Ikea crib lies a sweet, white, child sleeping so soundly you can almost hear the melody:  “…sleeeeeeeep in heavvvvenleeey sleep.”

It’s deeply calming, and I think many see that serene scene.  And I plan to dive deeper into that scene on Christmas Eve at our worship celebrations.  But until that night, we have a journey to travel, like those Persian Astrologers who followed a star to the first Christmas birth scene.

As travelling followers, we journey with anticipation, to peer into a manger to see the wonder of God becoming flesh as a babe in the crib.   Look long enough at that man and you will see God’s love made visible.  Look some more and you will find the gifts of God’s presence like joy, peace, hope and love.  Then look beyond the crib to Jesus, the Christ, who changed the world.

Merry Christmas!

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Finding Joy in times of economic uncertianity

We approach Christmas with news of massive layoffs, a sputtering economy, Occupiers camping out in front of City Halls, and Europe teetering on the edge of financial meltdown.  Many on this side of the pond are worried sick, in spite of the fact that we are wealthy in comparison  to the majority of the world.

Concerns about a contracting economy create a shrinking feeling.  And I wonder… could that shrinking feeling be a small, small glimpse of what Jesus felt when he squeezed into  a human body?

“When the time came,” writes Paul, Jesus “set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process.”  (Philippians 2:6, The Message).

Because I will be working Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we’re going to enjoy our Christmas eve dinner on Christmas day, and open a few gifts the next morning.  The highlight will be our stocking exchange, where each gift has a written clue taped to the outside.  It’s one way we’re keeping it simple this year.

Another highlight for me will be serving at our Open Closet ministry this Saturday, during which we will give a Christmas tree and a bag of groceries to over 1000 families.  The line begins forming at the crack of dawn, and it will wrap around our church building.        I serve in a church that loves to “give it away” in response to God’s staggering generosity and abundance.

If you are feeling pinched this Christmas, then consider the degree to which God stooped low.  Allow the mystery of the incarnation to settle into your mind and heart.  Consider again God’s  a supreme act of condescension, and bow to the One who stooped low.

Bowing in adoration to the God who bent low to us means that we acknowledge that our greatest security is not found in any economy others than God’s economy, who demonstrates his love by becoming poor so that we might become rich in the ways that matter most: rich in hope, love, peace and joy.  And it is precisely those doors of a deeper reality that God will open when we feel squeezed.

What doors will God opening for you in this season of seeming scarcity?  I urge you to ask God to show you.  Is it a door of deepening trust in His provision?  A door of connection with others to find support ?  Is it a door of generosity that would activate your faith in new ways?   While news and blogs report about doors that are closing, I encourage you to seek that door that is God opening for you in His abundance.  And may God’s blessing in Christ prompt you to bow in service in someway to someone, just as he bent to serve us.

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Why I quit watching the X-Factor

My wife and I like watching reality TV music shows.  I know.  It’s a guilty pleasure.  But I like watching the talent of people sharpen through the season.  And I like the learning about the humble backgrounds of the singers stories.  And I even like the entertainment of the competition.

And that’s why I won’t be watching any more episodes of X-Factor.

On the X-Factor, each judges grooms a contestant.  This dual role of producer and judge creates an inherent tension between the judges ,who prop up their protégé and dis the other judge’s choice of choreography, song choice, etc.  It’s a weird dynamic that leaves the singer in the middle of the judges and their many arrogant justifications.

I like it when people build-up people.  I don’t like people being used or torn-down.  X factor uses people, not only for big corporation, but also for the big egos of the judges.  And that’s just wrong.  Ego should not be the power that votes people off the island.

In what should be a stark contrast, The Church seeks to be a counter-culture of people being built up, not torn down or voted off the island.  And, fortunately, the talents of the least are often most esteemed by God.  And even more, the only judge is the one who welcomes all, and binds all together by their relationship to himself and God.

In Greek, the first letter of Christ is X.  Now there’s the real X-factor.

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The Ministry of the Mundane

Sometimes we imagine that life with God will be filled with fireworks, drama, mountain-top experience and power-house inspiration.  But sometimes life with God is just mundane.  And that’s good news, because that’s where most of us live, most of the time.

When Jesus illustrated what life in the kingdom of God looks like, he took child in arms, and he said words to this effect: “Give yourselves to people who can bring you no status or clout—you need to help people like this because If you don’t your life will be thrown away on an idiotic contest to see who is top-dog.  But the greatest in the kingdom are those who serve without regard for acclaim.  Learn to serve people who don’t bring you status or clout and you will begin to understand how life in kingdom of God works.

 (Luke 22:22-24, my very loose, amplified paraphrase)  

In addition to addressing the upside-down nature of authority in the kingdom of God, I think Jesus is also affirming the value of the ministry of the mundane.

The ministry of the mundane knocks on our door countless times each day.  A co-worker asks for help on a project.  Someone’s car stalls on side of the road. Your child asks you to put down the remote and to play or to read a book.  You vacuum the house, feed the kids, rake the leaves, or make the bed, and it all seems so mundane that you don’t expect God to show up.  But God does show up in those acts of loving service. And he uses those acts to convey his loving ways to others.

Mundane ministry is not easy in a me-first society where celebrities and power-brokers are worshiped.  Mundane ministry is counterintuitive, but according to Jesus it’s great.  Being available to people, accepting them, bearing their burdens, and loving them in small acts of service matters a great deal.  Those acts might seem obscure, and they may not count much on world’s scale of significance, but they weigh heavy on God’s scale of significance.

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Seeing Halloween through the eyes of your neighbors

What if Christians saw Halloween though the eyes of their neighbors? Jeff Vanderstelt has written a nice post about how to respond to Haloween with a missionary mindset. This is great stuff – thanks Jeff!

Posted Oct 27 by Jeff Vanderstelt

This coming Monday offers a great opportunity for many to engage in new relationships with those around us or to revisit some old relationships with new missional intentionality. Regardless of what you think of the holiday and it’s roots, the culture we have been sent by Jesus to reach is going to celebrate Halloween this Monday. We all have in front of us a wide open door for missionary engagement in our neighborhoods. I want to encourage you not to miss out on the opportunity.
If you are looking to be more intentionally engaged this year, I want to present you with a few ideas for how you can more effectively walk through the open door that Halloween presents to us as Jesus’ missionaries.

BE HOSPITABLE…Don’t just give out candy
Give out the best Candy. Please, don’t give out tracks or toothbrushes or pennies…kids are looking for the master loot of candy. Put yourself in their shoes.
Think of the Parents. Consider having some Hot Apple Cider and pumpkin bread or muffins out for the parents who are bringing their little kiddos around the block. Make your entry-way inviting so they want to come closer and hang for a bit if possible.

BE PRESENT…Don’t hide out all night.
Come out to the door or hang out on the porch and if they stop to have some cider, get to know their names and where they live in the neighborhood.

Be Encouraging.
Tell the kids you love their costumes and to have a great night. Practice building others up with words.

Party.
If you’re really into it, you may want to throw a pre-Trick or Treating party. Provide dinner and drinks. Then, send the dads out trick or treating with the kids while the moms continue hanging with some hot apple cider, coffee or tea. Then reconvene with the parents and kids together to examine all of the loot (kids love to show their parents and other kids the loot).

Learn the Stories.
If you are out T or Ting with the kiddos or staying back with the other parents, ask questions…get to know their stories. Pay attention to their hearts and their felt needs. Look for opportunities to serve them later.

Click the link below to continue onto the full article

http://alexabsalom.wordpress.com/2011/10/29/on-mission-this-halloween

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Go! (be accepting)

If you are committed to following Jesus’ example, then it won’t be long before serving others will expose you to feet fungus and ugly warts.  And isn’t that what Jesus (the foot washer) calls us to do as we follow in his footsteps?

I live in the town where Charles Schultz penned Charlie Brown.  In one of his cartoons, Charlie Brown says: “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand”.

It’s easier to love humanity from a mile-high vista.  It’s more challenging to love people down in the valley, up close and personal.   But loving people as they are and communicating a loving acceptance to them, is one way to discover that God loves us, warts and all.

The story of Dominique illustrates what acceptance looks like.  Dominique was a lean, muscular man who learned at age of 54 that he was dying of cancer.  That year, he moved into poor neighborhood, took a job as night watchman in factory, and before work every morning he would go to the park, and sit on a bench, and hang out with homeless, drifters, alcoholics and mentally ill persons who congregated in the park

And Dominique never scolded them, criticized them, or reprimanded them.   Instead, he laughed, told stories, and shared candy.  His witness lay in accepting them, and people flocked him.  He was the most non-judgmental person they ever known.

One day, group of people asked him about his life.   He told them with a quiet conviction about how God loved them tenderly and stubbornly.  He told that Jesus came for outcasts like them.  And his words carried the weight of credibility because his words were backed by his acceptance and love.

One day Dominique failed to show up at the park.  People in the park grew concerned, and a few hours later, he was found dead on floor of his apartment.

Shortly after his funeral, they found his journal—this was his last entry:

“All that is not of love has no meaning for me.  I can truthfully say that I have no interest in anything but the love of God, shown in Jesus.  If God wants my life to be useful though my words and my witness, then so be it.  But the usefulness of my life is not my concern, it is his—it would be indecent of me to worry about that.”

May you become so enthralled by the limitless and unconditional love of God that you would seek ways to show your love to others.

Go and be available.  Go and be accepting.  Go in the name of Jesus.


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Go! (be available)

For the next few weeks, Redwood Covenant Church is mobilizing to serve people beyond our church.  And we’re giving away 10% of all our offerings to the people we will serve.  It’s a great movement of generosity and service, involving an army of people who are willing to give generously and to roll-up their selves to show God’s unconditional love in very practical ways to our neighbors, with no strings attached.

The ministry of service is central to those who seek to follow after Jesus.  Jesus bent low to serve the world that God loves, and he calls all who would follow him to do the same.  Really, are we ever more like Jesus then when we serve others in his name?

Service is to faith what a fuel injector is to an engine.  Clog an injector, and the motor sputters.  Faith in action cleans out the gunk, and it injects vitality to our faith.  John Wesley encouraged the Christians of his day to deepen their faith and to grow in God’s grace by serving others.  And the first step toward serving others is simply to be available.

Are you available?  Would you be available to at least one person in need this week?  And, if you are a part of Redwood, are you available to join with others to love our neighbors in practical, fun ways?

My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality.”

1 John 3:18 (Message Version)

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why I keep sabbath

In our hyperactive culture, it is challenging to simply pay attention to God.  Our work-weeks are getting longer and our work-load is expanding by technology that allows us 24/7 connection to our work.  That’s why we need a protected day to unplug and to let God be God.  The Bible calls this day “Sabbath” and Jesus calls this day a gift, and it may be the most neglected gift among Christians today.

The problem with ignoring the Sabbath is that it hurts us and our families and our relationship with God.  Warren Muller, a therapist, minister and author is convinced that modern society is a violent enterprise. We make war on our bodies by pushing them beyond their limits, war on our children by failing to given them our time, and war on our communities by failing to connect with our neighbors.  To bring an end to this destruction, we will have to learn to observe the Sabbath.

My Sabbath is Monday, and it’s a day I share with Amy that is quantitatively different from the work patterns that mark the other six days.  During our Sabbath we walk, talk, read, reflect, bike, hike, or enjoy a local excursion.  And I try not to answer emails or phone messages that can wait until Tuesday, unless it’s an emergency.

Regardless of the type of activity, a true Sabbath will refresh and renew you.  It will help you regain a proper perspective before God and it will create space for the Spirit to redirect your life toward what is good, and true and worthwhile.

There is much to do and there are always many needs to be met.  It’s tempting to run the performance treadmill, assuming that productivity means motion and that inactivity is unproductive.  But inactivity does not mean stagnation.  The most productive time in the cycle of many plants is the dormant season, when it appears that nothing is going on, but the plant is being prepared for new, healthy growth.

It is more than OK to unplug to recharge.  It’s more than OK to stop for a day to take a break—it’s essential for your well being and for the growth that God wants to cultivate in your life.

I encourage you to unplug to recharge.  Make Sabbath a reoccurring appointment until it becomes a habit.  You’ll honor God, your family and yourself.  God’s gift of Sabbath is not just a practice of good faith; it’s also a practice of good living.

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Our New Home

For the past eight months we’ve been looking for a new home in our new community.    We looked at a zillion homes on-line, and we visited one-hundred, and we found the one.

Here’s a peek at our new home.

It’s good to be home!

Pardon the mess.

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More than Hype

On Sunday, Redwood Covenant Church launches a new season of ministry with a “Kick-Off Sunday”.  It will be festive, fun, inspirational and informative.

And it will be much, much more than mere hype.

I’m skeptical about hype.  Hype breeds dissatisfaction by encouraging a quivering desire for the “next thing.”   And the relentless pursuit of the “next thing” tends to breed either a spiritual attention deficit disorder or a hardened cynicism.  Neither course is very attractive.

So why is Redwood launching a “kick-off”? 

We do this because churches–like our lives–go and grow through seasons.   The Redwood Kick-Off is recognition that God is growing us into a new season of life, ministry and mission.

When my kids return home from college, I sometimes revert to treating them like they were before they left.  It’s like I’ve frozen them in a suspended animation and projected that onto the present.  I forget that they have changed, and so have I.

Just as we tend to freeze the past, so do we forget that God is always doing a new thing, just as the prophet Isaiah announced…

See, I am doing a new thing! 
   

         Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? 


I am making a way in the wilderness

  
   and streams in the wasteland.  (Isaiah 43:19)

God’s ongoing work of renewal calls for our ongoing work of conversion.  Each day is an opportunity to embrace the “new thing” that God is always doing.    Seasons come and seasons go, but each season is new, and with God, all things are made new.

God’s doing a new thing.  Are you ready?

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A Better Labor

Over the past two weeks my family took in the majestic sights of mountains and sea.   We traveled to Yosemite (our first visit) and we marveled at the giant Sequoias in old-growth forests.  We hiked beside massive granite walls.  We played games and laughed together.  From there, we traveled to Sea Ranch on the North Sonoma Coast.  it was the first time all our family had been together for eight months, and it was wonderful.

Now I’m back in the saddle at Redwood Covenant, gearing up for fall ministries.  I’m very excited about the men’s Ministry I’ll be leading, the new Women’s Ministry we are beginning and the growing momentum at Redwood Covenant.

Vacation mode is a slow mode for me, and coming back into a vibrant church with lots of movement and activity is both exhilarating and tiring, especially when coming off a two-week vacation.  Like the Tin Man, I felt a bit rusty.  I’m finally getting my sea-legs back.

It’s been said that most Americans work to rest.  The work piles up, the work-weeks cascade, and by the end, many go into their time-off exhausted.  But the invitation we hear in the Bible is not work to rest, but to rest to work.

Taking time to stop to take-in creation, worship the Creator, and to connect with friends and family should not a relief-effort for the burned-out, but should be a renewal-movement for those who seek to live into the rhythms that God has wired into creation (can you say “Sabbath”?)

On this Labor Day weekend, full of picnics, gatherings and travel, take some time to listen to Jesus, who said…

 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”  (Matthew 11:28-30 | The Message)

May the labor of your life become more free and more light as you learn from Jesus the unforced rhythms of grace!

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Wisdom from Wonderland #3: In Thy light we see

I snapped this picture because I was captivated by sunlight filtering though the trees, surrounding my friend, Jan as he was setting up camp.  That’s what light does: it captivates.

Light draws your attention like a moth to TV.  Light creates shadow-play like a film noir mystery.  Light dispels darkness like a Rembrandt painting.

Light also discloses what is always there, but hidden, just out of sight.

For the past two weeks I’ve been enjoying the light-plays in Yosemite and on the North Coast of California.  As I write this blog, the maritime fog is rolling onto the coast like a massive down blanket.  The fog seems to both shield and refract light, creating a more subdued, almost melancholic softness light that I find inspirational.

When Jesus is announced in the Gospel of John he is called the light of life and the light of the world.  Think about it: the light of life and the light of the world.  It’s like John compresses creation with redemption in a mash of metaphors.  Just consider how John connects the light and life and Jesus in this sweeping statement:

Everything was created through him;
nothing—not one thing!— came into being without him.
What came into existence was Life,
and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
the darkness couldn’t put it out.

John 1:3-5 (The Message)

There is much that can be said about this inspired identity of Jesus, but I’ll just say this: All we see is not all there is, but there is a way to see.  In and by and through the light of Christ we can see anew.

Jesus dispels the darkness and Jesus heals the blind, healing even those who think they see.

How’s your sight?

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Wisdom from Wonderland #2: Hidden Wholeness

“There is a hidden wholeness in all things visible.” 

~ Thomas Merton~

Contemplation is a type of christian prayer based less on words and more on awareness.  Contemplation happens for me when I read Scripture and a word or phrase captures my attention.  If I’m awake to that clue, I’ll stop reading long enough to chew on the imagery, meaning and significance, allowing God to speak.

Contemplative prayer is responsive speech–its answering God and responding to the prompting of the Spirit as much or more than asking God a favor.

Nature also captures my attention.  In nature, I slow down enough to see the intricacies and visible design of nature that reflects the Creator.  Take a second look at the photo I shot on the Wonderland Trial.  What hidden wholeness do you see?

Jesus spoke of our eyes as “windows to the soul.”  Jesus opened the eyes of the blind, and he still does that miracle, both literally and figuratively.  The Apostle Paul prayed for the fellowship gathered in Ephesus that God would enlighten the “eyes of your heart.”   And when God sent Paul on his missionary adventure it was “to open the eyes of the blind.”  God loves to speak, and sometimes his speaking happens though the eye-gate to our soul.

May your eyes be enlightened to see what God is saying to you.

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Wisdom from Wonderland #1: Deep Roots

Walking the Wonderland Trail, one finds high alpine trees like the one in this picture I took last summer.  The trunk is bent, the needles are stiff and strong, and the roots are deep.  Exposure to the elements slows the growth and causes the roots to run deep.

Exposure to the elements, pressure, trials and tribulations has a similar effect on our lives.  How many times have you heard someone who has experienced hardship say: “I would never want to go through that again, but I grew in new ways because of it.”

It’s been said that God is more interested in our character than our happiness.  What element is God using to generate new growth and deeper roots in your life?

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