The Path Of Grace

Path Of Grace

Earlier this month, I was headed out to run some errands on a Saturday morning when I realized things were getting a little chaotic at home and the best thing I could do for Laura was to bring the boys with me.  As soon as I suggested that, the look on her face confirmed that I had read the situation correctly!  So, the boys and I headed to the underground parking garage in our building to jump in the minivan and knock out a few errands.

Unfortunately, in my zeal to move quickly, I managed to sideswipe a very inflexible concrete pillar as I was backing out of our space.  Just like that, I had a caved in door, a dangling side view mirror and two freaked out little boys who kept asking, “Daddy, why did you do that?!?”  As soon as I was able to convince them that it was an accident and not a sign that Daddy was having a break down, they calmed down.  And, by calmed down I mean they spent the rest of the day telling everyone they could that Daddy had broken the car.  To this day, I still can’t back in or out of a space without one of them condescendingly (yes, toddlers can do condescending…I promise!) reminding me to be really careful not to hit anything.  And every time they do, I’m reminded of the beauty and power of grace.

As soon as I hit the pillar, I knew it wasn’t going to be good.  But, for a fleeting second, I held onto the hope that somehow that loud noise hadn’t resulted in any damage to the van.  As soon as I got out to check, I realized that wasn’t going to be the case.  There was damage.  And it was my fault.  There was no excuse to make, no one else to blame, no way out of it.  I messed up.

In that moment, I really didn’t need someone to berate me.  I didn’t need someone to point out that we had better things to spend our money on than the insurance deductible.  I didn’t need someone to spell out how this was going to disrupt our plans for the day and our schedules for the week.  I didn’t need a lecture on safe driving, not rushing and paying attention.  All of that would have only made me angry.

What I needed was grace.  Someone to say they were sorry that had happened.  Someone to reassure me that it wasn’t going to bankrupt our family.  Someone to point out this is why we have insurance.  Someone to treat me in a way that showed they weren’t mad and that I wasn’t going to be punished.

Praise God, that’s the kind of woman I married.  The grace Laura showed me in that moment was exactly what I needed.  No condemnation, no guilt, no exasperation, no lecture.  Just a willingness to jump in, coordinate a rental car and get the van to the body shop.  It was exactly what I needed!

I think her grace to me was so compelling because I so often struggle to show that same grace to her and others.  I can be so quick to judge, condemn, point out faults and failures.  It can be so important to me to make sure people understand just how bad their mistake really was.  I often want people to feel enough pain as a result of their sin that they won’t do it again.  I buy the lie that if I can make someone feel bad enough, they’ll change.

But it never works.  I’ve yet to guilt or condemn someone into genuine repentance and I’ve yet to see long term improvement in someone because of how strongly I denounced their inadequacy.  It just doesn’t work.  You can spend your life hammering away on people but don’t kid yourself, you aren’t helping them.  You’re only making them more angry.

This all should be ingrained in our hearts as Jesus followers because of how God treats us.  He answers the horror of our sin with the grace of the cross.  He answers our rebellion with His peace.  He covers our sin and shame and cancels our debt of sin.  He shows kindness and mercy.  And we change as a result.  We grow to be more like the One who loves us when we are least lovable.

Imagine how much better our families, friendships and workplaces would be if we were so captured by the grace God has shown us that we show that same grace to others.  What if we walked the path of grace?

It’s what I’m praying for me, for you and for all of us this week.

Closed Doors & The Will Of God

doors

As we continue in our Boundless series on the Book of Acts, we’re going to be skipping over the five verses that would come next.  It’s not that they’re unimportant, it’s just that we’re trying to get to a certain place in the text by Christmas.  But I don’t want to skip over them entirely because they have tremendous value for us in navigating our occasional frustrations with the ways God reveals His will for our lives:

And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.  And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.  So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.  And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

Acts 16:6-10

We live a lot of life on the front side of a Macedonian call.  Yes, there are moments when it feels like God literally pulls back the curtain of heaven and tells us exactly what to do.  But, for most of our lives, it feels like we’re stumbling around, banging into closed doors and trying to figure out what Jesus is asking us to do.  Even as I write this, I can think of at least three ways Laura and I are trying to navigate that right now.  In the midst of that frustrating and painful lack of clarity, this text brings three helpful reminders:

Don’t Let What Seems Illogical Distract You From What Is Certain

Imagine how disorienting all of this must have been to the Apostle Paul.  He’s the great evangelist and church planter of the early church.  He’s completed one missionary journey and is on the first leg of his second journey.  His whole aim is to tell people about Jesus.  He’s not praying through whether or not he really needs the iPhone X.  He wants to pluck as many people as possible from the clutches of hell.  And his biggest obstacle seems to be the Holy Spirit.  What’s wrong with preaching the gospel in Asia?  Does God hate the Bithynians?  How can the God who has always said go now say no?

Closed doors are so frustrating because they often seem so illogical.  Why is God doing this?  Why won’t He open the womb, help us with the down payment, get me into grad school or accelerate our adoption process?

Paul doesn’t minimize the confusion but he also doesn’t get distracted from what he’s certain about – the mission God has given him.  He’s going to preach the gospel.  If not in Asia, Phrygia will be just fine.  If not Bithynia, Troas works.  He was so committed to that mission that when he finally has a revelation from God, his only conclusion is that God has called him to preach the gospel in Macedonia.  He isn’t thinking sea side sabbatical.  He’s thinking gospel mission.

You may not know what God is doing in your life right now.  But you do know your purpose in life – to glorify God by making disciples.  Everything else finds its place in relationship to that mission.  So, don’t give up on it when life doesn’t make sense.  Keep pressing forward.

Obedience, Patience and Inactivity Aren’t The Same Thing

Paul demonstrates a tremendous amount of obedience and patience in all of this.  He doesn’t try to kick down any closed doors (one of my favorite ways of running afoul of God’s will for my life). Imagine how easy it would have been for him to conclude he was mishearing the Spirit of Jesus.  That Spirit is always telling us to go.  Now He’s saying no? I probably would have stormed into Asia demanding God’s blessing on my well-intentioned disobedience.  But not Paul.  He obeyed and waited.

But he didn’t stagnate.  He kept moving.  His bias was towards unblocked action.  If God was saying no in certain ways, Paul was determined to keep moving forward in a way that God was allowing.  He didn’t grind everything to a halt and linger in neutral until God told him what to do.  He kept moving, trusting the Lord to make it all clear.

I know so many followers of Jesus who struggle with this.  They assume the default posture of the Christian soul is passivity interrupted by the occasional Macedonian call.  Not true!  We are a people with a bias for action.  This passage simply reminds us that action must walk down the paths of obedience and patience.

God Will Open The Right Door, The Right Way, At The Right Time

Don’t get discouraged!  God is more than able to break through the fog of closed doors whenever He needs to, in whatever way He needs to?  For Paul, all of the closed doors finally make sense with one vision.  God has been leading Paul and his team (which now includes Luke, the author of Acts) to Macedonia the whole time.  The gospel moves forward and we’re reminded that God has known what He’s doing all along.

Today, those moments are more likely to come through a study of God’s Word, wise counsel and circumstances than dreams and visions but dreams and visions are still on the table.  If that’s what it takes, that’s what God is going to do.

In the midst of the uncertainty of closed doors, we can cling to the hope that God will keep us on the path He has designed for us. All of our confusion isn’t going to thwart God’s plan for our lives.  Job 42:2 has been such a comfort to me over the years, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”

When the time comes, God will get you right where He wants you.

There are few things in the Christian life as disorienting as illogically closed doors.  They can give rise to all kinds of fears – has God abandoned me, is He angry at me, am I being punished?  Don’t fall for that kind of thinking.  You might be facing many closed doors but the arms of your Savior are wide open.  He’s already made what He thinks of you abundantly clear on the cross.  He tasted death so you never have to.  He purchased you, declared you His own and adopted you into His family.  He didn’t do it to leave you helplessly floundering through life.  You can trust Him, cling to Him and pray for the day the fog lifts.  In the mean time, keep walking!

The Arrogance Of Unforgiveness

Forgiveness.jpg

I grew up in an Irish family where one of our favorite jokes, statements and, I think for a period of time, refrigerator magnets was a quip about Irish Alzheimer’s.  If you haven’t heard it before, Irish Alzheimers is when you forget everything but the grudge.  It always made me laugh and, to be honest, feel a little vindicated.  I struggled with holding grudges for the same reason I struggle with sunburns and dancing…I’m Irish!  It’s incredibly convenient when we give ourselves ethnic exemptions for what the Bible calls sin.

It’s also incredibly destructive.

Unwillingness or inability to forgive turns our hearts into a breading ground for self-righteous anger, bitterness, and resentment.  It’s hard to accomplish anything meaningful in life when all you can think about is how you’ve been wronged and why God isn’t punishing that person the way you think He should.  The old adage really is true, “Not forgiving someone is like drinking poison yourself and waiting for the other person to die.

None of us set out to waste our lives by drinking the poison of unforgiveness.  It just happens because forgiving people is hard, especially when they’ve really hurt us.  But that’s what Jesus calls us to do, “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Colossians 3:13)  Notice, “so you also must forgive”.  This isn’t optional.  It’s a command.

Here’s what I’ve learned about actually doing the hard work of forgiveness: My greatest obstacle to forgiveness isn’t my sense of justice.  It’s my pride.  The path to forgiveness is found in allowing the grace of God to melt my pride.  Here’s how it works.

(1)  Our forgiveness of others is rooted in God’s forgiveness of us.  I know just how much God has forgiven me of in my life.  I know that forgiveness was completely undeserved and totally motived by His grace.  I didn’t do anything to earn it nor can I do anything to pay Him back.  So, the forgiveness God calls us to in Colossians 3 is made possible by the forgiveness He offers us in Colossians 2, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:14-15)  This is the essence of the gospel – my debts were nailed to a tree in the person of Jesus Christ so that I could be forgiven and made alive.  That’s grace!

(2)  Grace always kills pride.  When it comes to forgiving another Christian, we need to ask ourselves, “If the cross is enough for God to forgive this person, why isn’t it enough for me?”  Why do we feel like we need something more?  God didn’t.  And if the person we’re struggling to forgive isn’t a Christian, we can rest in the promise of Proverbs 11:21, “Be sure of this: The wicked will not go unpunished“.  God deals with all injustice – either on the cross or in hell.

Jesus offers us a forgiveness that is so complete, so undeserved, and so permanent that it will melt the pride of our unforgiveness as we come to understand it.  In Christ, we not only find our forgiveness but also the power to forgive others.  So, lay your cup of poison at the foot of the cross and let grace do it’s transforming work.

Tennessee Mornings

Ocoee

It’s pretty easy to spend time with Jesus in the morning when you wake up to this view.  At least that’s what I found last week when I got to spend a few days in East Tennessee speaking at a student summer camp.  I could hardly wait to wake up in the morning, grab a big cup of coffee, sit in a rocking chair on the front porch, take in the majesty of God’s creation, read His Word and spend time with Him in prayer.  To make it even easier, the cabin I was staying in had no phone line, no internet and no cell signal and my nearest neighbor was miles away.  Just to complete the picture, Laura and the kids were at her parents, so there were no little voices asking me for juice or to telling me they had to go potty.

So, I would sit there in silence and solitude. Read a little.  Pray a little.  Talk to myself.  Talk to God.  Reflect.  It was all kind of surreal…kind of like I found my own Walden Pond, in a really good way!

And somewhere along the way, I found myself thinking, “this is the way life should be.” That’s an unsettling thing for a guy living in an apartment in the city with a family of five to be thinking.  But, I suspect all of us city dwellers think similar things when we get out of town for a bit, right?  If we had different jobs, more space, less traffic, and simpler lives we would have better relationships with Jesus.  In short, if we lived elsewhere, we’d be healthier.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s something really good about getting out of our routines.  My friend Mark Batterson says it so clearly, “change of pace + change of place = change of perspective”  He’s totally right and I’m all for vacations, retreats trips out of town and speaking at any church retreat with a good view!

But blaming our spiritual apathy on our surroundings is a cop out.  That was a point the Lord drilled home one morning last week with a simple question in my spirit, “John, which are you enjoying more, me or the view?”  Ouch.  Was I reveling in Jesus or in a novel experience?

When it comes to spending time with God, we all have a tendency to put too much hope in the experience and too little hope in experiencing God.  We spend so much time getting ourselves comfortable and creating an experience that will look amazing on Instagram and so little time enjoying Jesus.  Any time we lose sight of the fact that Jesus is the best part of any experience, we’re headed for trouble.

What mattered last week wasn’t the view.  What mattered is that God was there.  He wanted to speak.  I wanted to hear.  And that’s transportable.  That’s available in DC.  That’s available everywhere.  To every one of us.  Today.  Tomorrow.  And the next morning.

Don’t settle for an experience when God invites us to experience Himself!

 

Singing In A Cave

Cave

My heart is steadfast, O God,
my heart is steadfast!
I will sing and make melody!
Awake, my glory!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!

Psalm 57:7-11

Those words were written by David, the great King of Israel.  But he didn’t write them from his throne.  He didn’t write them after he defeated Goliath, got married, brought the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem or entered into a covenant with God.  He wrote them from a cave.  He was there because Saul, the then King of Israel, wanted him dead.

I’ll be honest – caves creep me out.  I hate caves.  They’re dark, wet and you have absolutely no idea what else is in there with you.  Bats are a given and then the horror just spirals out of control from there.  Being in a cave is like being locked in a dark basement as a kid but with actual reason to be afraid.  So, when a cave is the safe option, you know you’re having a bad day.  And David was having a pretty bad day – he was being hunted like an animal with no help in sight.

Yet, David holds a worship service.

That should stop us in our tracks.  We so often struggle to worship on a Sunday morning when everything is going well, never mind a Thursday morning when nothing is going right.  What had David found in God that we overlook?

Focus On His Soul & Savior, Not Circumstances

Yes, David asks God for mercy (v.1,2) but he’s not obsessed with his circumstances.  I would have made sure God understood just how bad my situation was, how unjust it was and how much I really, really wanted Him to do something about it.

But not David. He seems most focused on the condition of his own soul.  Five times in the psalm He makes a reference to His own soul or heart.  It’s his soul that takes refuge (v.1), is in the midst of lions (v.4) and is bowed down (v.6) in addition to being steadfast.  Which leads me to ask, are we more focused on our souls or our circumstances?  I know that when it comes to my soul, I tend to take more of a “we’ll deal with all of that once you get me out of this cave, God” approach.

David’s focus on his soul is so essential because it leads him to focus on his Savior.  David’s hope is in God’s steadfast love (v.10).  He’s not praying that God will bless his plan in some way.  He’s confessing that his only plan is to take refuge in the shadow of God’s wings and trust God to rescue him.  God’s grace is plan A and there is no plan B.

Confidence In The Promises Of God

Even though life is falling apart, David is totally confident that God will be faithful to all of His promises.  He knows that God’s promises aren’t dependent on our circumstances but on His character.  So, David is sure that God will send from heaven and save him (v.3).  It’s not a question for David.

We get so concerned when God deviates from the script we’ve written for Him.  If only we could learn that God’s deviations aren’t because He doesn’t love us but because He does.  He’s going to fulfill every single one of His promises to you.  Don’t look to your circumstances to figure out if you believe that – look to the cross of Jesus and be sure of it!  You can trust a God who’s already died for you.

Caves aren’t a reason to forget the promises of God.  They’re a reason to cling to them even more fiercely.

Desire For The Glory Of God Above All Else

We become brave when we find something bigger to live for than our own lives.  That was David’s story.  Even in his cave, his desire was constant, “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!  Let your glory be over all the earth.” (v. 5,11).  He’s so focused on God’s glory that he prays the same thing twice!

If all we care about in life is our own comfort, the inevitable caves of life will kill our joy and crush our spirits every single time.  But if we find something bigger, something that can’t be touched even in the darkest cave, something that spans all of eternity, caves loose their power.  No, we’ll never enjoy them.  But we will trust that God can use them.

Songs of hope are most powerful when they echo out of caves of despair.  When praise erupts in the middle of affliction, the world notices.  When thanksgiving comes in the same breath as a plea for mercy, people listen.

Your cave isn’t a sign that God doesn’t love you.  It’s an invitation to put all of your life in His hands and trust that He will be faithful in using you in a story that spans all of eternity.  Caves aren’t comfortable.  But they aren’t catastrophic either.

We really can learn to sing in a cave.

The Heart Of Margin

Heart of margin

We’ve spent the last few weeks as a church talking about creating margin in our lives.  We did it because God didn’t create us to be stressed out, maxed out and on the road to being burnt out.  We also did it because mission requires margin.  Generosity requires financial margin.  Serving and investing in others requires margin in our schedules.  Staying healthy as we pour ourselves out for the good of others requires emotional and relational margin.  Where there’s no margin, there will be no mission.

Along the way, we’ve seen that margin is a heart issue well before it becomes a calendar, financial or relational issue. So, as we wrap up our focus on margin, I want to highlight the three heart issues we need to deal with in order to create margin in our lives.

Identity

We’ll never be able to create and defend margin if we allow the approval, opinions and expectations of others to form our identity.  If we’ve given people control over our identity and value, it’s no wonder we give them control over our schedules and spending.

As followers of Jesus, our identity doesn’t come from others or even from ourselves.  It comes from the One who loved us enough to die for us.  “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.“(Gal. 2:20)  Those word were written by Paul but they’re every bit as applicable to us as Jesus followers today.  You are so loved that Jesus willingly died in your place on that cross.  He gave Himself up for us so that He never has to give up on us.  When we believe that, we become a new creation.  Christ Himself lives in us.  He’s our hope of glory, our source of strength and the One who calls us to a bold, beautiful life of freedom and faith.

You aren’t defined by other people’s hopes, dreams and expectations for you.  You’re defined by God’s work for you.

Intimacy

One of the biggest margin killers in our hearts in FOMO (fear of missing out).  We’re terrified we won’t get a date if we don’t go to the party; won’t get the promotion if we don’t go to the conference; won’t get the contract if we don’t take the call; won’t have any friends if we don’t go on the trip.  We say yes to everything because we’re terrified of the consequences of saying no.

But when you bring Jesus into the mix, FOMO loses its grip on our hearts.  “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.“(Ps. 84:11)  God withholds no good thing from His children when they allow Him to determine their path.

The question is whether or not we’re asking Jesus to determine our path for us.  This is where intimacy come in.  We know God has told us that apart from Him we can do nothing (Jn. 15:5).  We usually take that to mean we can’t do the thing we’ve already decided to do without God’s help.  I’m learning more and more in my own life that it also means we shouldn’t do the deciding without God either.

Paul Tripp often talks about how the gospel shapes our lives “at street level” – meaning the seemingly small, mundane details of our lives.  I’m convinced this is one of the greatest secrets in creating and defending margin in our lives.  Prayerfully engaging Jesus in deciding how and where we spend our time gives us confidence that we’re not missing out.  When He tells us to say no, it’s for our good.  And when He tells us to say yes, it’s for our good.  No more FOMO.

Intentionality

Creating and defending margin isn’t easy.  It involves countless collisions between God’s plan for us and other people’s expectations of us.  In Mark 1, we see Jesus actively resisting the demands of His disciples and the residents of an entire city.  Margin doesn’t come easy.

And it doesn’t come without planning, without difficult conversations and without confronting our fears of missing out or disappointing others.  This is where intentionality comes in for us.

My goal in leading us through this series wasn’t just to get us all feeling bad about our lack of margin, or to get us talking more about margin or even to get us wanting more margin.  My prayer is that we will actually create more margin!  So, what decisions do you need to make?  Conversations do you need to have?  Emails do you need to send?

I so want us as a church to be healthy and to be deeply engaged in the mission of God.  Both require margin.  For your sake and for the sake of a city desperate for the hope of Jesus, do the heart work necessary to create the margin that mission requires.

Hang In There

Hang In ThereIt’s been an incredible gift for Laura and I (and Emma!) to spend the last two days at The Summit Network Pastors Retreat in Raleigh-Durham, NC.  We’ve been able to connect with old friends, meet new church planters in the network and have a great time celebrating all God is doing through this network of churches.  But, more than all of that, it’s been an incredible celebration of God’s faithfulness.

I can’t begin to count the number of times Laura or I has used the phrase, “Can you believe it was only 3/4 years ago that…”  And then we end the sentence with something that now feels like it happened a lifetime ago.  Three years ago, we still lived in Raleigh-Durham and were getting ready to move back to DC to see what God wanted to do through Restoration City.  Jack was only 15 months old.  We knew God had called us to Restoration City but had no idea what that would look like.  Honestly, we were incredibly excited and incredibly scared!

But, in a lot of ways, it’s four years ago that’s been on my mind a lot these last few days.  Four years ago, I knew I was called to plant a church but worked for a pastor that was vehemently opposed to church planting.  I was watching a college ministry I had built from the ground up retreat from the campuses of our city and close its doors.  I wasn’t teaching or preaching at all.  Life was nothing but uncertainty and I had a wife and 3 month old son to care for and lead.  Those were the darkest days of my walk with Jesus.  I was tempted to give up on the church, on ministry and on myself.  I was tired, frustrated and felt terribly alone.

Maybe you’re in a similar spot right now.  Nothing’s working.  Everything’s crumbling. Uncertainty and fear seem to be the only constant.  Hope seems so illusive and it would be so easy to give up on ever finding it again.  If that’s you, I get it.  I’ve been there.

And I wrote this whole post to say one thing to you: Don’t give up because God hasn’t given up on you!

He will be your “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” while He carries you through this storm.  I promise you, His grace really is sufficient.  He hasn’t let go of you, abandoned you or turned His face from you.  Maybe He’s discipling you.  Maybe He’s testing you.  He’s certainly molding you, shaping you, preparing you.  And He promises He’s fighting for you.

While Laura and I were praying, God was working to connect me to The Summit Network through a friend.  I called him in desperation one day which prompted him to have a conversation with the Summit guys about where I felt God was leading me.  And then I got a call from Summit asking me to come to RDU to spend a year with an incredible church, raise up a team and head back to DC to plant Restoration City.  I never say any of it coming and never orchestrated a bit of it.  But God did.

In all of the uncertainty, He was working.  Lining up.  Getting things ready.

And I believe He’ll do the same in your life.  Don’t you dare give up.  God didn’t give you your dream just to taunt you with it. He’s placed hopes, desires and passions inside your soul because He wants to bring them to life.  None of it may make sense to you right now but that doesn’t mean He isn’t working.

Hang in there.  Trust.  Believe.  Pray.