Stories like Amanda’s are why we planted Restoration City Church.
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.
One of the phrases that’s come to describe the culture of generosity the Lord is creating at Restoration City is, “I Could…But Instead.” It’s a simple reminder that generosity is about forgoing one thing in favor of another. It’s a simple refrain with enormous power to shape how we spend our time and money.
If you carry the thought one step deeper, it’s a embodiment of what generosity is:
All too often we practice an “I Can…While Still” form of generosity where we figure out how much is left over after we’ve taken care of everything we want or need for ourselves. That’s not generosity, it’s selfishness in disguise where the primary goal is maintaining our lifestyle, not the good of others or the glory of Christ. Real generosity requires sacrifice. It involves us consciously deciding not to do or buy things for ourselves so that we have space to do or buy for others. The depth of our generosity isn’t measured by how much we give but rather how much we give up.
Trading Off & Up
A lot of us get in trouble by forgetting that generosity is a zero sum game. We become convinced that we can have and do it all, especially this time of year. Christmas becomes the most stressful time of the year – perfect parties, gifts, cookies, family dinners, trees, cards and travel. And then the church jumps into the mix to ask for your time and money. And we say sure, flinging those commitments onto an already overtaxed calendar and stretched checkbook. One of the hidden benefits of generosity is that it gives you motivation to say no to a lot of things. When it comes to generosity, think trade off not adding more.
And think trade up. Matthew 6:19-20, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
Generosity is a letting go of things that won’t matter a month from now in favor of things that will last for all eternity.
Reflecting The Gospel
2 Corinthians 8:3-5 is a stunning depiction of generosity from a 1st century church, “For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints— and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.” Paul didn’t browbeat this church into generosity or even tug on their heart strings with a tear jerking video. No guilt. No “if you really love Jesus, you’ll do this.” Just a congregation begging earnestly for opportunities to give more. How does that happen?
2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” When our hearts are captured by how much Jesus gave up for us, it becomes a joy to sacrifice for others. The gospel ensures that the tradeoffs of generosity really feel like a trading up.
That’s what an “I Could…But Instead” culture looks like. It’s what I’m committed to personally and what I’m asking God to deepen at Restoration City. If you’re looking for ways to serve or give this Christmas season, check out a full list of opportunities to trade up at restorationcity.church/christmas.
For years I had it all wrong when it comes to growing as a Christian. It wasn’t that I was trying to get it wrong. I just carried a lot of bad assumptions into my relationship with Jesus and the end result was stagnation. I was stalled in the same patterns of sin and frustrated that I wasn’t experiencing more of the love and joy I read about in the Bible. I wanted to grow but couldn’t seem to make it happen.
What was holding me back was a lack of understanding about how we grow as Christians. I believed spiritual growth happened like growth in every other area of life: learn the basics, practice, and see results. That’s how it worked when I was a competitive swimmer – learn to swim, swim thousands of laps, get faster. Swim more laps, improve your technique and keep getting faster. There’s nothing wrong with that when it comes to swimming, but it doesn’t work when it comes to heart change. In that model, growth is about getting better and the end result is measured in increased ability, independence or self-sufficiency. Effort equals results.
I thought Christian growth was about trying. Read the Bible, pray, go to church, give money, serve, read the right books, talk to the right people, etc… By the way, none of those are bad things, unless we start to treat them like swim practice. And that’s exactly what we do when we reduce growing in Christ to a “learn the basics, practice, and see results” model, which we do all the time. Want to grow? Read the Bible. Not growing fast enough? Read more of the Bible. Still not growing? Read the Bible plus a devotional. Still nothing? Read the Bible plus a devotional twice a day. And on and on and on.
Here’s what we miss: spiritual disciplines aren’t designed to make us better, more able, more independent or more self-sufficient. They’re designed to remind us of our weakness, inability, dependance and need for grace. They aren’t designed to make us better. They’re designed to remind us of our need for Jesus.
Paul knew that well. “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) Growth in the Christian life comes from dying, not from trying.
Following Jesus is a call to take up our cross daily. It’s a call to die every single day. To die to our self reliance, our self centeredness, our self interest. It’s a call to get over ourselves and live for Him.
You want to grow in Christ? Don’t make a list of things you need to try. Ask God to show you the places where He’s asking you to die. And then ask Him for the grace to die a little more today. There’s a tremendous amount of love and joy to be found in following Jesus. It’s found as we die, not as we try.
If you want to make the average Christian feel guilty, ask them about their prayer life. We all have this sense that we should be praying more and that when we do pray, we should be getting more out of it. All too often, we reduce prayer to reciting a to do list in the presence of God or just firing requests His way like He’s a hyper competent concierge. Although, if we’re honest, we often have little to no confidence that He’s actually going to come through on anything we’re asking. Then we read passages like 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray without ceasing” and we throw our hands up in frustration. Most of us are just trying to find meaningful time with God on a daily basis. Many of us are wondering if it “counts” if we get that time on the Metro. Pray without ceasing seems like a cruelly absurd joke.
All of that adds up to a tragic short selling of the way the gospel impacts our prayer lives. We think the goal of the gospel is to get us to pray. Prayer becomes evidence of saving faith. The frequency of prayer becomes a measure for our spiritual health. And the whole conversation is limited to getting us to pray. But the gospel does much more than compel us to pray. It opens the door for prayer and shapes our prayers.
Apart from Christ, prayer isn’t possible. You can meditate, talk to yourself, or fling requests in the direct of a fictitious higher power. But you can’t connect with God. You can’t “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16) That confidence only comes through a relationship with Christ that allows us to “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:22) But in Christ, we’re welcomed into the very presence of God Himself. Not as beggars but as children. Not as someone who needs to take a number but as someone who can feel His embrace.
The most significant evidence of the gospel’s work in our hearts isn’t that we pray, it’s what we pray. This is where I’m frequently convicted – I often pray for the exact same things my non-Christian friends would pray for if they believed in Jesus. Listen, there’s nothing radical about praying for a raise, a good night’s sleep, a bigger house, a vacation, or a Red Sea like parting of traffic on the beltway. It’s not even particularly Christian to pray for a date, a child, a spouse or the healing of a sick family member. Should we pray for those things? Of course! Every good and perfect gift comes from God, so ask Him.
But we’ll know the gospel has grabbed hold of our hearts when we start to pray for things that wouldn’t even be on a non-Christian’s radar. Our prayer lives should be marked by requests that God would kill our pride, give us opportunities to share the gospel, allow us to give more generously to His work, fight for the oppressed, lovingly stand for truth, die to ourselves, take up our cross, consider others more important than ourselves and use us for the sake of His name. When those prayers flow from our souls, we’ll know that God is doing a deeply transformative work.
Here’s the funny thing – when we start praying that way, we start seeing God move in powerful ways. We become, at times painfully, aware that God hears and answers prayer. We realize how utterly dependent we are on His grace and His power. We run to Him without even realizing we’ve slid into prayer. Duty becomes delight. Pray without ceasing starts to make sense. And we connect with the One who made us for His own glory.
Want to upgrade your prayer life? Allow the implications of the gospel to work their way into the depths of Your heart. You’ll pray more. But you’ll also pray differently.
As a church, we’re in a season of considering how the gospel forges a community that is distinct from the rest of the world. On Sundays, I’m focusing on the “one another” commands of Scripture – those passages where the Lord instructs us on how we should be treating each other within the church. But our treatment of one another shouldn’t be the only distinction.
For example, we should work with a vigor and intensity that stands out in a sea of laziness and mediocrity. Christ followers should be the most diligent students in the classroom, the most productive employees in the factory and the hardest workers in the office. We won’t always ace the test, make the right decision or come up with the best answer. But nobody should outwork us. That’s not because we’re better than anyone else but because we have a totally different, and infinitely superior, motivation. We do it all for the sake of Jesus’ name. Our work ethic isn’t motivated by our advancement but by His glory.
In Ezekiel 36, God is once again contending with faithless Israel. He’s outraged that when Israel “came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.’ But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came.” (Ez. 36:20-21) In other words, Israel was acting in such a way that pagan nations were looking down on Yahweh. Israel’s faithlessness tarnished the name of God. And God takes the glory of His name very seriously!
Israel profaned the name of God through exile and abandoning the promised land. I’m convinced that one of the most common ways we do it is through our laziness. Don’t use Scripture as your screensaver and then spend all day on Facebook. Don’t tell everyone how much you love Jesus and then be consistently unprepared for meetings. If you’re going to celebrate Jesus taking on your sin, you ought to be willing to take on some extra work every once in a while. We need to get to work because laziness profanes the name of God.
This is what Paul has in mind as he’s wrapping up the third chapter of his letter to the Colossians. “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.“(Col. 3:17) And then just a few verses later, “ Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Col. 3:23-24) Work in a way that makes God look amazing.
We talk all the time about the world needing hope now more than ever. It does. Sometimes that hope shows up in big, bold, dramatic ways. But, more often, it shows up when ordinary Jesus followers get up, go to work, do their best and earn the right to talk about the God behind it all. So, Restoration City, be distinct. Get to work!
Little kids and sleep is a really tricky combination. There are times when I fight like crazy to keep them awake so I won’t have to fight like crazy to make them go to bed that night. There are nights when they just pass out in my arms and there are nights when the whole bedtime routine is an exhausting battle of wits and wills. From what I can tell, most parents who boast about how great their kids sleep are lying…the bags under your eyes and venti coffee in your hand is what gives it away, in case you’re wondering!
Yet, there’s something about little kids sleeping that is so captivating to our adult minds and souls. It’s not what keeps them up at night. It’s what doesn’t keep them up at night…stress and worry. Our amazement is compounded by how truly powerless they are. There they lay, no ability to take care of themselves, no clue what tomorrow will bring, no control over even the smallest aspect of their days. Yet, it doesn’t seem to bother them at all.
We, on the other hand, are experts at laying awake. The more powerless we feel, the more sleep we lose. And let’s be honest, there are a lot of situations in our lives that make us feel powerless: our health, a wayward child, the status of a relationship. All to often, we feel powerless at work, powerless over our future, even powerless over the direction our country is taking. Power feels like it belongs to someone else – teachers, professors, bosses, shareholders, politicians, whoever…just not us.
If you’re tracking with me, I want you to know there’s hope. It comes from a Persian King named Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther. We’ve been talking a lot about him at Restoration City the last couple of weeks and he’s helping me sleep better. In the world’s eyes, Ahasuerus was a really big deal. He ran the Persian Empire, which stretched from Ethiopia to India in those days. The whole thing was massive – 127 provinces worth of massive. And Ahasuerus was a fool. This political giant was comically inept. He enters the story as a drunken mess and things only get worse from there. The man can’t make a decision to save his life, even when it comes to his own family. He gets suckered into exterminating the Jews for a cheap bribe and then changes his mind because of two good meals and the possibility of sex. Yes, he takes out a guy who seems to be threatening his wife but even that feels more like “don’t play with my toys” than “I’ll fight for her honor.” The guy is a clown. Yet, God uses him for his purposes.
There are some obvious parallels to our world (insert Election 2016 commentary on comically inept political giants). But that isn’t the only link. It also has to do with our jobs, our relationships and our finances. It has to do with the powerless places in our lives. The places that keep us up at night with stress and worry.
The Bible doesn’t try to talk us out of that feeling of powerlessness. In fact, the Bible helps us see that we’re all more powerless than we imagined. But it does hold out the promise that all of life is playing out under the watchful eye of the Almighty. God was working through the King of Persia to accomplish His will. Guess what? He’s doing the same thing through your boss/landlord/professor. Yes, even the clueless one who seems intent on doing you harm.
We lay awake at night because we’re terrified we don’t have what it takes. Yet, our kids sleep just fine knowing they don’t have what it takes. Their hope and security is in the power of another. So is ours. His name is Jesus and He holds everything together by the power of His will. Nothing can separate you from His love. He holds the world in His hands and He’s moving His plans and purposes forward. Trust Him. He won’t let you down. And He just might help you sleep through the night.
Last week a friend asked a really honest question in response to a blog post I had written. She wanted to know whether I thought social media has had an overall positive or negative impact on Christians and the church. Most days, it seems hard to tell. There’s so much good, inspiring content and there’s so much bad theology and narcissism. There are posts that make us want God’s best for our lives and then there are online catfights between celebrity pastors. There are bloggers trying to inspire and there are blogs that exist to criticize, tear down and divide. It all feels like a real mixed bag.
As much as I understand where the question is coming from, I think we need to shift it a bit. Asking whether or not social media has been good for Christianity is a lot like asking whether the printing press has been good or bad. After all, the printing press made both the Bible and Mein Kampf available to the masses. There are great books and worthless books, great tweets and worthless tweets. Neither Facebook or magazines are inherently good or bad. The real point is that social media is here to stay. Sure, there will be specific platforms that come and go (remember mySpace and that one day everyone cared about Google circles?). But humanity has found a new way to communicate and I don’t think we’re going to put it back in the box.
The real question is how to use social media well. It’s in that spirit that I want to share the four verses that have shaped how I think about social media in my life. Three of them apply to how I consume social media and one applies to how I contribute to social media:
- “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8) This one just about says it all – I don’t waste time on junk that doesn’t add value to my life. Political rants, cat videos and photos of your family vacation (if I don’t know you) are all out. So is anything that stimulates comparison in my heart, whether it shows up in the form of pride (oh look, I really am better than you) or envy (I would just be happy if I had that).
- “I will set no worthless thing before my eyes;” (Ps. 101:3) Yes, this is the theme verse for anyone fighting pornography. But it also eliminates a lot of the silly chatter on our NewsFeed…not inherently evil, just worthless.
- “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.” (Eph. 5:15-16) It’s possible to waste a lot of time online…guessing you already knew that. I often set a timer to pull me out of Facebook land after 5 minutes.
- “Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.” (1 Thess. 5:11) As a pastor and leader, I try to post with others in mind, not with a desire to show off, glorify myself or waste your time. I don’t mind posting things that encourage us by shaking us out of our complacency but even that is done with the intent of building one another up.
I’m not perfect in following these rules (especially the one about not wasting time), so if you see me slip up, call me out! But the more I try to follow these verses, the freer I feel. I’m guessing they’d do the same thing for you.
It seems like more and more of the church is getting swept up in what I’m going to start calling the Positivity Gospel. Think of it as the Prosperity Gospel’s emotional cousin. It’s a stick your head in the sand spirituality where everything is AH-MAZING and everyone is beautiful. Everything’s epic. Everyone’s a legend. And it’s killing our joy in Christ.
The Positivity Gospel spreads like wildfire on social media. If I had to figure out what it meant to follow Jesus based on my Instagram feed, I’m pretty sure I would think Christianity is a recipe for handcrafted lattes, exotic travel, great parties and a lot of exposed light bulbs.
None of which does me any good in my real life. I don’t have epic hangouts every day. I eat dinner with my wife and two rambunctious toddlers. It’s a win if we can keep everyone at the table for 10 minutes. I don’t spend time with the Lord overlooking misty morning mountains. I sit in a chair with a tear in the fabric on the arm well before the sun comes up praying that those two rambunctious toddlers stay asleep long enough for me to actually connect with God. I ride in a carpool to the office. I answer a lot of emails, work really hard on sermons and lead a lot of meetings. All in all, the life of a pretty average pastor.
And I’m not angry about it. I love it.
Don’t write me off as some bitter guy who’s just ticked at life. I’m not. I’m all for celebration, gratitude and giving God credit when He moves in undeniable ways. I love a good day at the lake and I love it when God moves in undeniable power at our church. Every once in a while, I post photos of our kids on Instagram because they’re just so stinking cute. We don’t need to feel badly about enjoying God’s blessings. I just have no interest in a trendy spirituality where we put more confidence in the power of positive thinking than in the power of the resurrection. If your spirituality doesn’t help when life gets hard, it isn’t worth anything.
The Bible never glosses over the difficulty of life. If anything, the Bible is disturbingly real about what to expect in this world. Consider just a few verses:
- “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” (John 15:18)
- “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?” (Ps. 89:46)
- “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,” (James 1:2)
The Bible is honest about the heartache of life. It knows nothing of sticking your head in the spiritual sand. If anything, it causes us to take a long hard look at the brokenness of our world and the sickness of our souls.
Yet it does speak of peace and hope. Even a peace and hope that are found in the midst of trials. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) It does tell us that we are more than conquerers.(Romans 8:37) And we are commanded to rejoice always.(Philippians 4:4) The gospel is an announcement of unthinkable hope and immeasurable joy. After all, ours is the story of eternal life with our resurrected King.
So, how do you know if you’re falling for the Positivity Gospel? Here’s the real test: Does difficulty shatter or strengthen your relationship with Jesus? The Positivity Gospel falls apart in the hospital waiting room. The true gospel speaks hope into that moment. The Positivity Gospel has nothing to say when you get laid off. The true gospel does.
I’m not just playing semantic games or splitting theological hairs. I can see ways that my soul is susceptible to the Positivity Gospel and I want to fight back. I want to anchor myself in a true understanding of the world and the promises of God. I want a foundation that will endure disappointment and heartache.
That’s my prayer for all of us, “Lord, pull our heads out of the sand and into the Scriptures.“
More and more, it feels like my greatest battle is against distraction. The unexpected phone call. The “quick question” that turns into a 45 minute conversation. Social media. Email. Checking out houses on Redfin even though we aren’t in the market. Gossip. A few texts. Breaking news. Netflix.
It all adds up and there are days when I wonder if I’ve really accomplished anything. Busy? Definitely. Tired? Absolutely! Productive? I’m not sure. Connected to God? I know He’s with me but I don’t seem all that aware of His presence.
I know Jesus isn’t intimidated by the chaos of my life. I know He isn’t running scared. I know He doesn’t stay home sipping coffee while I go to work. I know He’s with me. He promises that in His Word, “I am with you always.” (Mt. 18:20) He’s not the problem. I am. I loose sight of Him and get focused on a thousand other things.
For me, the battle for focus starts long before the sun is up. I’m learning the more I connect with God in the morning, the more He shapes the chaos of my days. I know how simple that sounds. But I also know there’s a huge difference between “doing my quiet time” and connecting with God. I can have a really well structured quiet time and totally miss God. It happens more often than I would like to admit. I power through a devotional book, journal a few thoughts, read some Scripture and pray a few rote prayers. Quiet time done. God missed. And then there are days when those same raw ingredients combine to create a beautiful encounter with God. His voice is clear, His presence is real, His love is almost tangible. Most of the times, the difference is found in my expectations – power through or slow down and meet with Jesus?
When I slow down and meet with Jesus in the morning, He’s so much easier to see throughout the day. He’s there helping me say no, avoid distractions and do what He’s called me to do. When the unavoidable interruptions of life come, He’s there reassuring me He’s still working even though we’re off my script. He’s near and real and everything’s better.
Yes, there are ways to manage distractions. But it’s not like they’re going away. And it’s not like Jesus is going away. I’m just much more focused on staying connected with Him during the day. And I’m finding that my best shot at connection during the day is connection before the day gets started.