Creative Extremists: Remembering MLK

As we pause to honor the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr, I want to share a quote I read to our church yesterday.  It’s from Dr. King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail.  If you’ve never read the full letter, you owe it yourself to spend some time today with Dr. King’s words.  You can read the full letter online but this is the quote that struck me as I prepared for this past Sunday at Restoration City:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Letter from Birmingham Jail

Our nation and our world are still in dire need of creative extremists.  So is the church.  Extremists for love, for justice, for equality, for grace, and for mercy.  Men and women who are willing to take Jesus seriously, even when He leads us well outside of our comfort zones.  Men and women who don’t settle for the cheap work of criticizing others but who do the real work of making something better.  Men and women who have found something bigger than self, something more joyful than comfort, and something more life giving than ease.  Men and women who don’t run from the world but run to the world with the name, grace, and resurrection power of Jesus. 

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.

Today I’m praying the Lord will raise up a new generation of creative extremists to meet the needs of our moment in history. 

Photo by Raffaele Nicolussi on Unsplash

Gratitude Increases Joy

But one of them, seeing that he was healed, returned and, with a loud voice, gave glory to God. He fell facedown at his feet, thanking him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Didn’t any return to give glory to God except this foreigner?”

Luke 17:15-18 (CSB)

In Luke 17, Jesus heals ten lepers. Each of the ten showed a lot of courage as they came to Jesus as a group and cried out for healing as a group. They also demonstrated a lot of faith in that Jesus didn’t heal any of them until they are already on their way to present themselves to the priests in the temple. But only one comes back to say thank you. Only one of them gets the best version of the story.

In my experience, it’s really easy to beat up on the other nine newly healed lepers as nothing more than a bunch of ungrateful degenerates. Jesus heals them and they can’t even be bothered to say thank you?!? But I don’t think they’re bad guys and I don’t even think they are unappreciative. I’m sure they were thrilled with what Jesus had done for them. So thrilled that they were at home kissing their wives or holding babies or hugging parents. Maybe they went off to play basketball with their friends for the first time in a while, to swim without shame, or to just stroll through the market without anybody caring. They’re not ungrateful, they’re just busy feasting, dancing, and laughing. Not bad guys. Just guys who missed something, something that would have only made their party better.

They missed the connection between gratitude and joy. Had they taken a few minutes to come back to Jesus, it would have made their celebration that much sweeter, the story that much better. Gratitude increases joy.

When it comes to our relationship with God, gratitude isn’t about proper manners or staying on His good side for the next time we need a miracle. Gratitude is about recognizing the grace behind the gift. It’s about saying, “You didn’t have to do this, I don’t deserve this, but I’m so thankful that you chose to do this. This only happened because of you.” Maybe that’s why the only one to come back to Jesus is a Samaritan, a foreigner, the one with the least right to expect anything from the Jewish Messiah. He was the one most able to see the grace behind the gift and he was the one who comes away as the real winner in the story.

As a final note, Jesus tells us that gratitude for grace is one of the main ways we glorify God. By saying thank you, this man was not only giving God the credit but also celebrating God’s character – He’s the kind of God who shows mercy to those who have no right to expect it.

I don’t want to live like the nine lepers who don’t come back, appreciative but entitled. I want to taste the joy that comes through grace and gratitude.

If you want to live with more joy, be intentional about living with more gratitude.

Photo by Cristian Escobar on Unsplash

Making Space

We usually roll into this time of year poised to start some things – new rhythms, new habits, new projects around the house, new initiatives at work. At the very least, we think of the new year in terms of improving things – investing in our marriage, having more meaningful conversations with our friends, caring for our bodies, stewarding our finances. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for all of that. I love this time of year with its sense of new beginnings, fresh starts, and renewed possibilities.

But we tend to overlook a crucial prerequisite to all of this starting and improving. Before we add, we need to subtract. That’s why I’m coming into 2023 wondering how I can create more space in my life for what really matters. For me, it’s easy to dream about a life filled with prayer walks, healthy eating, deep connection, and creativity. The hard part is creating the space I need to create that kind of life.

Let’s face it – none of us were all that bored in 2022. It’s not like we were sitting around with all kinds of unscheduled, undistracted, idle time and now that Christmas is over we’re finally getting around to doing something about it. We live in a world of tight schedules, limitless distractions, and physical exhaustion.

Making new years resolutions without first making space is an exercise in futility. Worse, it’s an exercise in cruelty – it’s like spending a weekend shopping for a new car that you absolutely cannot afford. Why fall in love with the vision of regular date nights, energizing workouts, and bonding around a fire pit when you’re already not keeping up with everything?

So, hold on to your thoughts, dreams, and plans for 2023. They’re important. In fact, I think those longings give you a pretty good sense of some of the work God wants to do in your life. But before you dive headlong into new plans, schedules, and activities, make some space.

That’s my prayer for us this January – make space for what matters.

Which means letting go of some of the things that really don’t. For me, making space really comes down to two things: screens and schedules. The life I want requires less time on email, YouTube, HGTV, and news websites. There’s no reason to talk about the books I want to read until I get some space from the screens I don’t want to watch. The life I want to lead doesn’t have space for unproductive meetings, constant availability, or saying yes to every request. That’s just me. You might need to make space in your finances, in your closet, in your kid’s schedules, in your social calendar, or in your social media usage.

Here’s the thing – I really want all of us to get to those hopes and dreams we’re holding on to or 2023. But they won’t happen if we don’t take the time to make some space first.

Photo by Paolo Nicolello on Unsplash

Faith Like A Child

There are a lot of things that Laura and I are trying to teach our kids. What they don’t know is that there’s also a lot we’re learning from them. They’re experts in wonder, delight, anticipation, and play. They laugh easily and forgive quickly (most of the time!). Curiosity and exploration are their default modes. Their hearts are tender to the needs of our city and world.

Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, “Leave the little children alone, and don’t try to keep them from coming to me, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Matthew 19:12-14

The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who take risks, need help, trust, and long for adventure. The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who don’t care what they wear, who delight in snow, and get swept up in the moment. God is found by those who see no alternative to grace and are often confronted by their need for grace.

May the grace of Christmas help each of us rediscover a childlike faith.

(Dis)Contentment This Christmas

As we head into Christmas, I have been thinking a lot about my relationship with contentment. If I’m honest, I see in myself a tendency to be what Jude called “a discontented grumbler” (Jude 1:16), although I prefer the term “recovering perfectionist.” So, I need to fight for contentment. At the same time, I realize I need to be careful not to settle for a false form of contentment that is nothing more than complacency in disguise.

I don’t say this out of need, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I find myself. I know how to make do with little, and I know how to make do with a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content—whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. I am able to do all things through him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:11-13 (CSB)

Clearly, God wants us to learn how to be content in the present moment, whether it is a time of plenty or scarcity, comfort or affliction. Ultimately, this means learning to satisfy the longings of our soul in ways that are independent of stuff and circumstances. We find this kind of contentment through communion with God and relationship with others. As our souls rest in God, we’re able to enjoy Christmas for what it is without asking gifts, meals, and moments to carry more weight than they are able to bear.

I’m asking God to fill my heart and home with that kind of contentment. Christmas is a gift and the miracle of God with us is all my soul truly needs. Contentment enables us to enjoy simple pleasures, to be present with others, and to not miss out on what God is doing in the moment. For me, contentment feels like savoring a simple cup of coffee, enjoying a walk in the woods, and reading a good book. It doesn’t need to be loud, flashy, epic, or perfect. It’s okay with a little mess and some disrupted plans. It’s able to forgive and discover empathy for others and the choices they make.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out.

1 Timothy 6:6-7 (CSB)

I want to know God in a way that leads to contentment.

Except that’s only half of the story.

I don’t want to be content with extreme poverty, spiritual apathy, broken marriages, a refugee crisis at the southern border, and war in Ukraine. I don’t want to make peace with the daily reminders that our world is broken and crying out for restoration. Contentment does not mean complacency. Contentment is able to walk into the gap between the world as God designed it and the world as it is today. Contentment doesn’t need to be protected from hard things. Contentment is able to bring light to darkness and hope to the hopeless.

As is so often the case, my heart tends to get it all wrong. I am discontent with what I have and content with what should trouble me. I’m praying for the grace to realign my heart with God’s heart this Christmas.

I’m good with what I have. I’m not good with the world as it is.

Photo by Marta Filipczyk on Unsplash

What Really Matters This Christmas

I think we all come into Advent with the best of intentions. We’re going to get all the shopping done early, stay in budget, keep Jesus at the center, have meaningful conversations, give meaningful gifts, create margin, give generously, bake beautiful cookies, send cards, sing carols, stay healthy, get sleep, and allow ourselves numerous quiet moments in front of the tree to thank God for the grace of an Incarnate Son who comes to rescue and redeem the world.

And then reality hits.

We find ourselves overwhelmed, stressed, tense, and just trying to get through the whole thing all the while promising ourselves that NEXT year is going to be totally different.

But I would like to think this year can still be different. Yes, you might have to jettison some of your plans and you might not meet everyone else’s expectations but it is not too late to enjoy this Christmas. We just need to get clear about what really matters to us this Christmas. Before we make promises about next year, we need to figure out what we’re looking for this year.

For what it’s worth, here’s my list of what matters to me this Christmas.

  • Time for prayer. Probably no surprise (I hope!) that Jesus was going to be first on my list. But I wanted to be more specific so faith or spirituality doesn’t become a vague platitude. I want more time for prayer this Christmas, not less.
  • Meaningful connection with those closest to me. Rather than being spread thin, I want to go deep with those I love the most. I’m also really aware that in order to have anything to offer my family and friends, I need time with God in prayer (see point 1).
  • Give generously and joyfully. For me this is about participating in what God is doing in the world and about fighting greed and materialism in my heart. But what really matters to me on this one is my motivation and attitude in giving – fighting against fear, duty, or obligation and finding joy in opportunities to bless others.

That’s it. That’s what really matters to me this Christmas. Knowing that and being able to share it with others creates so much clarity for me as I navigate this season.

The point of a list like this is not to create some brutal gauntlet that all requests for my time, energy, and money need to pass through before I say yes. Nor is the point to be overly legalistic and rigid. My Christmas will not consist solely of time alone, deep conversations, and moments of spontaneous generosity (although that doesn’t sound bad!!). The point is knowing what matters so that we don’t just endure Christmas but enjoy it.

I’m praying the Lord will give each of us the grace and courage we need to treasure these days and find what our hearts are truly longing for this Christmas. May the grace of Christ guide us to the joy of Christmas.

Photo by Sarah Evans on Unsplash

Year End Giving

Three years ago our church started to think differently about year end giving. We had always relied on increased generosity in December to make our operating budget work (and we still do!) but we wanted to do more than simply make ends meet in our own church. We wanted to bless others by working through our ministry partners to meet specific needs in the lives of the people they serve. One of my greatest joys as a pastor has been watching RCC respond to this vision each Christmas.

This year we sensed God leading us to three distinct focuses for our year end giving: alleviating poverty, building the church, and investing in long-term community development. As I told our church, we want to meet real and tangible needs that will make an immediate and specific difference in people’s lives by working to alleviate poverty in our city and around the world. At the same time, we absolutely believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the greatest gift the church can ever give the world, which is why we want to plant and build churches. We also believe that real change occurs over time. This is true in our spiritual lives and in community development work, which is why we want to invest in long-term projects that have the ability to change the trajectory of entire communities.

I’m mentioning this because I would love for you to consider joining us in this year end giving initiative. You can get more info about our projects, partners, and vision by clicking here.

I say this knowing that you’re being asked to give to a number of wonderful causes this time of year. If this isn’t the right opportunity for you, I totally understand. But if one of these projects or partners grabs your heart, I would love for you join our church in giving generously.

One Thing

As we start the journey to Christmas, I find myself coming back to a familiar passage.

While they were traveling, he entered a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who also sat at the Lord’s feet and was listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks, and she came up and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone? So tell her to give me a hand.” The Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has made the right choice, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42 (CSB)

A few years ago, I ran to the store because we needed soap. While I was in the store, I started to feel self-conscious about just buying soap – kind of gross, right? It felt like a public announcement that I was still unshowered for the day. So I decided to pick up a few other things to pad the shopping cart. Of course, it wasn’t until I got home that I realized I had totally forgotten one thing, the soap. I had a bunch of stuff I didn’t really need but not the one thing I actually needed.

That’s basically the story of Mary & Martha.

Contrary to how we often talk about this story, Martha is not an evil, type-A, productivity freak who epitomizes everything wrong with those of us who like getting things done. She’s a woman who loves Jesus, loves her sister, and wants everything to go well on what was a pretty big day for her and her family. But somehow all of those good things became distracting things, not bad in and of themselves, but enough to lead Martha away from what she really needed and ultimately wanted – time with Jesus.

I’m guessing you can see the connection to Advent, right? It’s so easy to get so busy with so many good things this time of year – gifts, cards, trees, travel, cookies, and family, to name a few. If we’re not careful, all of those good things will take us away from the ultimate thing.

One thing I ask from the Lord,
    this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
    and to seek him in his temple.

Psalm 27:4 (NIV)

This desire to sit at the feet of Jesus will mean different things for each of us. For some, it will mean saying no to good things so that we can say yes to ultimate things. For others, it will mean protecting time in the morning and evening to be with Jesus. For all of us, it means not saddling ourselves with unreasonable expectations of creating a perfect holiday.

As we take this journey together, we can be confident that whatever we have to let go of will pale in comparison to what we will gain as we gaze on the beauty of the Lord.

Photo by Olesia 🇺🇦 Buyar on Unsplash

Happy Thanksgiving

As we head into Thanksgiving, it’s helpful to remember that gratitude is not a feeling. It’s a choice. At its core, thankfulness is not an emotional response to our circumstances, it’s a considered response to God. Gratitude is less something we stumble into and more something we lead our hearts into experiencing. Gratitude is less about what’s going on in our lives and more about our outlook on all of life.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

James 1:17

When we choose to be thankful, we are intentionally reminding ourselves that our lives are a gift of God’s grace. From spouses, to kids, to warm beds, good coffee, and crisp fall mornings. It’s all a gift. And, ultimately, the greatest gift God gives us is Himself.

Thanksgiving is possible not because everything goes perfectly but because God is present. The Spirit of God is within us— nearer to us than our own breath. It is a discipline to choose to stitch our days together with the thread of gratitude. But the decision to do so is guaranteed to stitch us closer to God.

Adele Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us

Some of us are headed into a holiday that will make it especially easy to be grateful – family, friends, football, and a huge meal. You’re basically living a Hallmark movie these next few days. Great! You shouldn’t feel bad about that. You also shouldn’t settle for it. Reach for something better – a heart that is tuned to the melody of gift and grace.

Some of us are headed into a holiday that will make it a little harder to be grateful – grieving lost loved ones, working on the holiday, being alone, or confronting the painful realities of family. I get it and I’m sorry. But you don’t need to write off Thanksgiving. Ironically, you might be most likely to discover the thread of true gratitude.

My prayer for all of us is that we walk into this holiday with intentionality. What a gift to have space to contemplate the love, power, and presence of God in our lives. May the Lord be near and lead us all to a deeper awareness of just how much we have to be thankful for in this season.

Photo by Pro Church Media on Unsplash

A New and Different Confidence

It takes a lot of confidence to be a leader – confidence in who you are, in your ideas, and your ability to bring people together in the pursuit of common goals. Sadly, many leaders anchor their confidence in the wrong places. Some of us look to our personality, others to our education, some to our achievements, and others to our abilities. While there is nothing inherently wrong with any of that, there is a troubling common denominator. Ourselves.

Even when it comes to leadership development in the church, much of what we do is designed to increase our confidence in ourselves. We learn how to lead better meetings, preach better sermons, cast more compelling vision, and design more innovative ministries. Again, nothing wrong with that. Leaders who don’t know what they’re doing hurt a lot of people. So we should develop competence.

We just need to be aware that while we are working to develop competence, God is also working to develop brokenness.

“It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.”

AW Tozer

We see this time and again in Scripture, with nearly every great leader in the Bible. Consider three quick examples. Moses spends 40 years in exile before he is called to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. David is tormented by Saul before he one day takes his place on the throne of Israel. Paul needed to be knocked to the ground before God could lift him up as a leader in the church.

Brokenness teaches us a new and different kind of confidence – a confidence rooted not in ourselves but in God’s love, character, promises, and purpose. Confidence rooted in God is noticeably different from confidence rooted in ourselves. Ego is replaced with humility. Competition is replaced by collaboration. Envy is replaced by celebration. Fear is replaced with courage. Insecurity is replaced by trust.

This confidence in God is what we need to aim for as followers of Jesus. Yes, pursue competence. But don’t fear brokenness. God is using both to prepare the kind of leaders His church desperately needs.

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