Shooting In Del Ray

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When Laura and I moved back to D.C. to plant Restoration City Church, we rented a little row house in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria.  It was right down the road from where our church was gathering in Crystal City and we quickly fell in love with the neighborhood.  It felt like a small town right in the middle of a big city, it was walkable and had great restaurants and coffee shops.  The coffee shops were a particularly big deal for me because they doubled as my office.  My favorite is a placed called Swings.  I would walk there almost every day.  It was only a few blocks from our house and I could get there even faster by cutting through a park with a baseball field.  It’s called Simpson Park.

And this morning a Member of Congress, a Hill staffer, a lobbyist and two Capitol Police Officers were shot there.  I know exactly where the 3rd base dugout is; I’ve stopped there to make phone calls on my way home.  When I hear media reports of Members of Congress being escorted to a basketball court, I know which one they’re talking about.  There’s a little park right by the left outfield; that’s where we put Aidan in a swing for the first time. Laura still shops at the Aldi across the street and I still spend a lot of time at Swings.  So, it’s more than a little surreal to think of a shooting happening in the middle of a place we know so well and love so much.

I’ve been distracted all day by the shooting.  I keep thinking about it, wanting more information, wanting it to make sense and knowing it never will.  It makes me sad to know the whole thing will be politicized.  It makes me sad to realize that our national political discourse is so divisive that this kind of violence is tragic but not surprising.  But there are two thoughts that keep coming to mind more than any other.

One, this is why we planted a church that still meets right up the road from Del Ray.  Not this specific incident but the brokenness it flows out of.  Not political brokenness, not even moral brokenness but spiritual brokenness.  The loss of hope that comes from not knowing God, the fear that comes from not trusting His guiding hand and the pain that sin unleashes in our souls.  The church doesn’t exist to make good people better or to keep Christians entertained on a Sunday morning.  The church exists to shine the life and hope of Jesus into our world.

Two, we must do more to love and serve our city.  I’m shaken up because violence has reared its head in my neighborhood.  But for too many in our city and in our world, this is a daily reality.  I’ve always lived in neighborhoods where people say, “things like that don’t happen here.”  But there are plenty of people who live in neighborhoods where people say, “another one?”  Jesus died for the people in those communities as well.  He died to make sure that hope wouldn’t be limited to affluent zip codes.  He died that every soul would have the opportunity to find life in Him.  Every soul.

I love the city I call home.  I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else or lead a church anywhere else.  My prayer is simply that we would be the church – willing to reach out, to care, to love and to serve.  And to pray.  To pray for those shot, for their families, for our city and for our nation.

Be A Grown Up And Put The Phone Down

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I read an article in Bloomberg last week that stunned, convicted and challenged me greatly.  Researchers have found that middle aged Americans spend more time on social media than millennials.  In fact, 35-49 year olds spend an average of 7 hours per week on social media – that’s a little over 15 days per year!  It’s horrifying to me that people in the prime of their life (I say that as someone who sits right in the middle of that demographic!) are wasting this much time.  It’s coming at the expense of marriages, kids, careers and significance for Jesus.  It’s all so sad.

And all so familiar.

I’m not sitting in judgement of those people.  If anything, I’m aware of how much of myself I see in that statistic.  As I’ve searched my own heart, I’ve realized my social media obsession is driven by two primary factors:

We’re dissatisfied with our lives.

Truth be told, I think a lot of us are disappointed in ourselves.  Life doesn’t seem to be working out according to our plan.  We aren’t as extraordinary as we had hoped and are, in fact, struggling to keep up with the ordinary demands of life.  Ten years ago, we dreamed of being a CEO and now we’re just trying to pay the mortgage.  We wanted an amazing marriage and are learning to make peace with a domestic partnership.  We dreamed of significance but now we just dream of retirement.

And social media provides an incredible opportunity to avoid all of that.  Why deal with our own lives when we can look at someone else’s?  Plus, if we stay on social media long enough, we’ll find someone who makes us feel better about ourselves.  So much of our social media obsession is driven by a toxic combination of escapism and comparison.  All of the irate political banter, selfies, latte photos and vacation envy helps us avoid our situation.  But it’s a lot like getting drunk – it may distract us in the moment, but our problems only grow and our ability to deal with them only shrinks.

So, stop judging or envying others and get busy living your own life.  Deal with your problems.  Find your own joys.  Embrace your reality.

We’re unsatisfied in our souls.

The prophet Jeremiah had never heard of Twitter but God gave him tremendous insight into the human soul.  “Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:12-13)  For many of us, social media is a broken cistern.  It isn’t holding water.  It’s leaking like crazy and our marriages, kids, careers and churches are suffering.  But we’re only trying to trap water because our souls are thirsty.

It’s not just that we’re looking for an excuse to avoid the laundry.  Our souls are crying out for relief – refusing to give up on the belief that we were made for more and demanding we find something to satisfy that thirst.  As a Christian, I know that thirst can only be satisfied in Jesus.  I know when I’m walking closely with Him, immersed in His Word and connected in prayer, I don’t care that much about Facebook.  But when I’m not abiding in Him, the thirst of my soul demands satisfaction and I’ll run to Instagram.  It’s so sad because living water is ours for the taking.  Our souls don’t have to thirst.  We just need to learn how to satisfy them.

So, what do we do about all of this?  Let me suggest one simple solution.  And, no, it’s not to get rid of all social media.  There’s plenty of good, inspiring content out there to be found.  It’s a small change born out of a realization I had in my own life – when my phone is in my hand, it’s like whiskey in the hand of an alcoholic, I’m almost powerless not to check it.  When it’s in my pocket, it’s not much better.  But when it’s in my bag or in a drawer in the kitchen, I don’t really care about it that much.

Just that little separation helps me resist the temptation to check out and actually stay present with Laura and the kids.  I can actually get work done.  I can actually go to the gym.  I can actually address the areas of my life I’m not satisfied with.  I can actually make progress, focus on God’s Word, find rest and end up much happier.  No doubt, God is doing a lot of work in my soul to deepen my satisfaction in Him.  But my contribution to that work is putting the stupid phone down and creating the space for him to work.

Refugees Are A Gospel Issue

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One of the convictions that shapes us at Restoration City is the belief that when our city, country or world is talking about something, we should too.  If we don’t, it creates the impression that there’s the real world on one hand and the teachings of Scripture on the other.  Restoration City doesn’t exist to be an escape from the world but rather a place to be strengthened, inspired and equipped to engage the world.  So, I felt it was important to address the current debate about refugees at our gathering this morning.  In doing so, my goal was to make three things clear:

  1.  The church has a tremendous opportunity to serve the national conversation simply by showing that it’s possible to disagree and remain civil.  Our culture is rapidly loosing that ability.  All too often, we vilify people with different views rather than engaging and discussing.  We toss incendiary nonsense around social media because we’ve learned that’s what gets attention.  We’ve replaced careful though with cheap soundbites.  And we’ve divided ourselves into narrowly defined camps that war with other narrowly defined camps.  Restoration City, please don’t give into that kind of lazy thinking or that kind of divisive rhetoric.  It’s not worthy of the sons and daughters of God.  Disagree, debate, engage but do it with respect and gentleness.
  2. Long before refugees ever became a political issue, they were a gospel issue.  The Scripture speaks clearly to our responsibility as Christians to welcome, love and care for refugees.  Often the Bible uses the words alien, stranger or sojourner instead of refugee but they all mean the same thing.  I say refugees are a gospel issue for three reasons:
    1. The central figure of all Scripture was Himself a Middle Eastern political refugee.  When Mary and Joseph took the Lord Jesus to Egypt to escape persecution under Herod, He became a refugee.  There’s simply no other way to describe it.
    2. The Bible speaks to our treatment of refugees in many places.  Consider just a few:
      1. Exodus 23:9 – You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt
      2. Jeremiah 22:3 – Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.
      3. Matthew 25:42-45 – For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’  Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
    3. Our treatment of refugees demonstrates our understanding that we are aliens and strangers in this world.  1 Peter 2:11, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”  Our true home is in heaven.  We are sons and daughters of an eternal Kingdom and this world is not our home.  We’re here as aliens and strangers.  The more we understand that, the more we will welcome those who come to our country as aliens and strangers.  The gospel puts each of us right in the middle of Exodus 23:9 – we also should know the heart of a stranger because we are sojourners in America.
  3. We should allow the Bible to shape our prayers.  We should pray for our leaders and for the flourishing of the church in America (1 Timothy 2:1-2) and we should pray for those fleeing their homelands to escape war, persecution and death.

My role as a pastor is not to make political statements.  It’s to teach the whole counsel of God and lead us into conforming our lives to the teachings of Scripture.  That was my goal this morning and it’s my goal in this post.  I’m praying for each of you as you shine the light of Jesus into our world this week.  Be bold.  Be brave.  Be respectful.  Be motivated by the glory of God and the good of humanity.

For Life

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Today is the annual March for Life here in Washington, DC.  For the 3rd time in a week, massive crowds will fill the National Mall.  I’ll leave it to others with more time on their hands to debate which crowd is largest.  I’m more interested in what these three gatherings say about our world and the role the church must play in it.

Jesus came as Light shining into the darkness of His day (John1:5).  And then He told His followers to do the same (Matthew 5:16).  We can only fulfill the command of Ephesians 5:8, “for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light” by being robustly for life.  But, for me, that’s not a political statement; it’s a gospel statement.  All humans are made in the image of God and given a soul by their Creator.

A gospel shaped for life worldview is desperately needed and astonishingly rare in our culture.  It’s marked by at least three characteristics:

  1.  Not Selective.  Our world desperately needs the church to advocate a for life position that speaks for the unborn, for women, for minorities, for refugees, for the elderly, for the poor, and for the disabled with equal passion and vigor.  Our politics tell us we must pick between women and the unborn.  Jesus shows a radical love and affirmation of both.  All too often, we cherry pick an issue or two that generates political heat or social media sensationalism without seeing that our inconsistency undermines our best intentions.  If you stand for the unborn, you must stand for the refugee.  The gospel reaches across political lines to be a beacon for justice and righteousness in our world.
  2. Motivated By Grace.  Yes, we need to have the moral courage to say abortion is wrong.  But we need to do it in a way that people who have chosen that path still feel welcome in our churches this Sunday.  Jesus didn’t come to shame bad people.  He came to give life to spiritually dead people.  Jesus has as much grace and mercy for those who have chosen abortion as He does for their children.  Don’t ever forget, we represent a God who endured the murder of His Son so He could forgive those who have terminated theirs.  Our message is one of grace, of love, of forgiveness.  It’s a pro life orientation that melts stone hearts and revives crushed spirits.  We aren’t angry.  We’re agents of grace.
  3. Personal Engagement.  I have little patience for people whose social media engagement never translates into anything useful in the real world.  Tweet, post, comment, like and share as much as you want.  But then go do something.  That’s why we partner with the Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center and Casa Chirilagua at Restoration City.  We stand where Jesus would be – with the hurting, the marginalized, the afraid, and the broken.  Those are the places where grace does it’s deepest work and those should be the places where it’s most likely to find followers of Jesus.

In writing about Jesus, John says, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (Jn. 1:4)  My prayer is that His church would carry that light well.  Our world needs it and it’s what we were made to do.

The Most Wonderfully Stressful Time Of The Year

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In 1963 Andy Williams released “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” on his first ever Christmas album.  Since then, it’s become one of the best known Christmas songs in America, consistently appearing on Billboard Top Ten lists.  It’s a great song and one I find myself singing a lot this time of year.  In fact, I bet you can hear it in your head as you read this blog – “It’s the most wonderful time of the year, with kids jingle belling….”

But there’s something about the song that doesn’t sit right with me.  Or, maybe more accurately, something about the song that captures the tension of this season.  It’s a list of things to do.  Host some parties, have family over, go caroling, find some mistletoe, call friends.  And do it all with a smile.  I’m not blaming Andy; although I would like to know why he thinks kids and jingle bells are a good combination!  We’re all really good at making Christmas To-Do lists.  Get a tree, decorate the tree, decorate the house, bake cookies, put up lights, buy gifts, wrap gifts, send cards, plan meals, mandatory office party fun, go to church, do something charitable.  And do it all with effortless Pinterest perfection.  No wonder we’re all about to snap.  We’re so busy making this the most wonderful time of the year that we end up hating the whole thing.

Stick with me here – I’m not going off on an angry Christmas rant.  I love the traditions of this time of year.  But if they aren’t the overflow of something deeper, they’re going to burn us out, leave us dry and collapsed in a pile of debt on December 26th.  There’s no such thing as a perfect Christless Christmas.  But when He’s in the center, everything else finds it’s place.

The Prince of all Peace was born in a feeding trough outside of Bethlehem so that you and I would know that we don’t have to have it all together to be touched by Majesty.  The Infinite One is comfortable in the mess of our lives, our living rooms and our hearts.  He didn’t come to call us to the impossible.  He came to do the unthinkable – to die for His people.

It’s a story of grace.  Of rescue.  Of One greater than us who comes to do what we could never do for ourselves.  He’s for you.  Even if you don’t send out cards.  He loves you.  Even if you skip the party.  He died for you.  Even when you fail to live for Him.

So, breathe.  Two weeks from now the presents will be opened and the dinner will be over.  And, I pray, your heart will be full.  Full not because you finally create the perfect holiday.  But full because you’re resting in the love of the Perfect One.

He came to show the world grace.  Maybe it’s time to show ourselves some as well.

Happy Thanksgiving

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In 1863, when our country was ravaged by civil war, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring a national day of Thanksgiving on the 4th Thursday of November.  He ended his statement with these words:

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

I’m praying today will be about more than parades, turkey and football.  May it be about the grace of the God who sustains us all.  May it be about the praise of the Father from whom all blessings flow.  And may it be about healing the wounds of our nation today, in this season of strife.  Humble us, Father, under Your Almighty Hand.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Hope In The Aftermath

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Well, it’s over.  The 2016 election has come to a shocking end that almost nobody saw coming.  Donald J. Trump is the President Elect of The United States of America.  And a sleep deprived nation is struggling to figure out what it all means.  Honestly, I don’t know what it means for our country; only time will tell.  But, for the church, this has the potential to be a defining moment.

As Christians, we’ve known throughout this election that our hope is in Christ.  Yes, politics matter and government is a good and noble enterprise.  But our ultimate security and confidence is in Jesus.  Today is the day we show the world what that means.  In the aftermath of the most polarizing election in decades, today is the day for the church to make hope visible.  Here’s what that could look like:

Don’t Despair & Don’t Gloat

People will be able to tell where our hope is by how we react today.  If you celebrate Trump more than you’ve ever celebrated Jesus, both online and in person, people will know which is more important to you.  And if you act like all is lost, people will suspect our confidence in Christ is more of a coping mechanism than an anchor for the soul.  Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8) so we can walk into today with steady confidence and unwavering hope.

Reach Out, Especially To The Vulnerable & Afraid

You are an ambassador of Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:20)  Christianity is not defined by a party, a platform or a politician.  It’s defined by an empty tomb, by the Word of God and by the unrivaled Lordship of Jesus Christ.  Our world needs to know who Jesus is and what His church is all about.  We stand with the widow and orphan, the immigrant and refugee, the poor and disenfranchised, the minority and marginalized.  We believe all people are made in the image of God – men, women, white, black, young, old and unborn.  The gospel reveals a Savior who is the culmination of justice and mercy.  The cross of Jesus is a megaphone of hope, truth, life and freedom.

The world will come to see that when we take the lead in reaching out, especially to the vulnerable and afraid.  And there are many walking in fear today – Muslims, minorities, immigrants and refugees.  Perfect love drives out all fear. (1 John 4:18)  By God’s grace, we can be the instruments of that love.

Speak Kindly

Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” (Eph. 4:29)  Please, speak in a manner worthy of the gospel, both online and in person.  Enough divisive rhetoric, enough polarization, enough fear and bitterness.  Let’s take the lead in restoring civility and leading others to treat one another with respect as fellow image bearers of God.

In the aftermath of this election, I’m praying for Donald Trump, for the United States of America and the for the church of Jesus Christ.