Are You Growing Spiritually?

If you’ve ever been to Chincoteague Island in southeastern Virginia, you’ve probably seen these chairs – people down there seem mildly obsessed with them (in a good way!). They’re also a really good reminder for us as we evaluate our own spiritual growth.

Now the goal of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.

1 Timothy 1:5 (CSB)

Paul was pretty clear that the goal of his preaching, pastoring, and church planting was to help people grow into the image and likeness of the God who is love. In other words, spiritual maturity is not measured primarily in terms of biblical knowledge acquired, dollars given, or hours served. All of those are important components of our discipleship but anything in our lives that is not rooted in love is not from God.

If I speak human or angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give away all my possessions, and if I give over my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (CSB)

So, when you’re trying to figure out if you’re growing spiritually or not, make love the litmus test. If you’re becoming a more loving person (in ways defined by and motivated by the love of God as revealed in the gospel), you’re growing. If people aren’t experiencing you as a more loving person, you’re not growing. And we don’t need to figure out what love looks like. Paul’s got that one covered as well.

Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (CSB)

If we want to get a handle on our level of spiritual growth, we need to start asking each other better questions. Wouldn’t it be great to sit down with a trusted friend and process some of these questions that help us assess if we’re becoming more loving people?

  • Am I becoming more patient with_______ (spouse, kids, co-workers, hard to love people, parents?)
  • Am I increasingly able to celebrate the success of others?
  • Where am I unwilling to forgive? Why am I still holding that person’s sin against them?
  • Am I tempted to give up on a friendship just because things have gotten hard?
  • Am I finding enough joy in Christ to fight the fleeting pleasures of sin?

The Importance of Rhythms


Fall is, without a doubt, my favorite season. It’s also a beautiful reminder of the importance of rhythms in our lives. Fall only makes sense if we also know the heat of seemingly endless summer days, the harsh beauty of winter, and the vibrancy of spring. If all we knew was fall, autumn would lose its wonder. Ultimately, it’s the rhythm of all the seasons that I really cherish.

When we look at creation, we realize rhythm is essential to God’s design for the world – from seasons, to ocean tides, to sunrise and sunset, there is a rhythmic interplay that permeates the natural world. The same is true for us, the very best of God’s creation. We need to live our lives with defined rhythms – daily, weekly, and seasonally – if we’re going to thrive.

Rhythm isn’t about wild fluctuation between extremes. It’s about a gentle, steady, and life-giving back and forth. Rhythms aren’t about compensating for the mistakes and excesseses of the past season. They are about being present to the possibilities of this season. Rhythms aren’t about forcing us to do what we don’t want to do. They’re about helping us find the life we’re longing to experience.

When I cooperate with three essential rhythms, I’m the best version of myself.

Work/Rest

In many ways, this is the foundational rhythm that shapes each of our days.

It’s about enjoying breakfast with my family before we head off into the world. It’s about working hard on things that really matter, fighting distraction, and leaning into the roles God is asking me to play in life. It’s about stewarding my time so that I can power down my computer, put my phone on do not disturb, and have dinner with my family. And it’s about Sabbath, voluntarily fasting from productivity for 24 hours each week.

The trick for me is remembering that rest isn’t just a productivity hack, it’s an essential rhythm to our life with God. Our minds, bodies, and souls need to power down so they can be renewed and replenished. Ultimately, rest is about trust. Do we trust God enough to turn our phones off and go for a hike?

We also need to remember that work isn’t a curse, it’s a gift. We are created to do meaningful work – a life of laziness or leisure is never going to bring joy either. We need to get our hands dirty, our minds engaged, and our bodies tired. Those are also essential elements for our thriving.

Community/Solitude

Here’s the key point on this one: We ALL need BOTH, whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert. Yes, we all probably get more energy from one than the other but we ALL need BOTH. Community Groups are for introverts and silence and solitude is for extroverts!

At Restoration City, we talk a lot about community because spiritual formation is ultimately a relational process. We grow and change in community. In order to thrive, we need to be known by a close circle of friends and we need to invest the time in getting to know a close circle of friends. But we also need to be alone with God. There’s a reason Bonhoeffer devotes an entire chapter to silence and solitude in his classic book on community, Life Together. He begins the chapter with this thought:

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called.

Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Chapter 3

Being alone with God looks different for each of us in different seasons of life but we must learn to live in a rhythm of community and solitude.

Contemplation/Action

I know this sounds a lot like the work/rest rhythm but it’s not. This rhythm isn’t about how we organize our days, weeks, or months. It’s about how we make sense of major seasons of our lives.

For example, I think of 2019-2021 as an extended season of action in my life. I was pastoring a church, finishing up a degree, raising three small kids, and doing all of that in the upheaval of a global pandemic. While I tried to maintain rhythms of rest and solitude, I knew that I was in a season marked by a lot of activity. I wasn’t necessarily asking as many big picture questions. I was more tactical, trying to figure out what we needed to do to get through each fresh crisis.

But then in February of 2022, things began to shift. I was on a short retreat with a good friend and felt the Lord telling me I was headed into a season of contemplation. I needed to rethink some major things in my life – deeper clarity on vocation, fresh vision for the church, a new perspective on some key relationships, and a deeper trust in God. It’s only been very recently that I’ve felt the pendulum start to swing towards a season of action where I get to bring some of what I’ve learned over the past months to life.

Bottom line: you were created to live in rhythm. The goal is not to impose artificial rhythms on your life but rather to unearth the rhythms that are in your soul and cooperate with them. Rhythms ultimately shape our calendars but that’s not where they start. They start by listening to our souls.

So, what does your soul need in this season?

Stand Out From The Crowd

In last Sunday’s sermon, I shared a quote from RT France that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind since I first read it. In his commentary on Matthew, France calls us to adopt “the distinctive lifestyle of disciples.” This phrase is a wonderful reminder that, as followers of Jesus, we’re meant to stand out from the crowd – not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, as Paul would say it. (Romans 12:1) Our lives should be visibly different because we’ve been brought from spiritual death to spiritual life by the grace of God. (Ephesians 2:5) And this distinctiveness should be a lifestyle for us, not just an occasional moment of spiritual courage.

It’s a beautiful vision for our lives but living it out is really hard; in fact, it’s impossible without the power of the Spirit in our lives. But we need to rely on that Spirit in different ways in different seasons of our lives. While we’re all in different places and have different needs, here’s how I’ve seen this play out in the seasons of my life and in the lives of the people I pastor.

Courage

From our late teens to our mid 30’s, it takes a lot of courage to adopt the distinctive lifestyle of a disciple. It feels like the teachings of Jesus and your friend’s plans for the weekend are in constant conflict. People think you’re weird because you don’t live with your girlfriend, aren’t diving into the hookup scene, and stay under control at happy hour. And they’re more than happy to share their opinions about you and your distinct lifestyle, sometimes with you and sometimes behind your back. Some days you wonder if following Jesus is worth it. Would life be better if you eased up on the Jesus stuff and just went with the flow? I get it. I’ve been there. And I’ve given in to the temptation. But I was always left with the sense that I had traded true joy for fleeting pleasure, that I had turned my back on the life I wanted, and the One who gave me life.

Creativity

Somewhere around our mid-30’s, we start to chill out a bit, follower of Christ or not. Admittedly, this is more true for some than others but we all agree that a 40 year old trying to live like a 20 year old is a sad sight. Along the way, those of us who follow Jesus start to notice that the distinction between our lives and the lives of our non-Christian friends is a little less clear. Both single and married adults experience this but it seems to be most prevalent in married adults with children. Don’t get me wrong, the distinct lifestyle of a disciple still takes courage but it also takes a lot of creativity. Here are some questions I’m wrestling with as someone right in the middle of this season of life:

  • How does the gospel shape the way I honor and care for my body?
  • Am I showing my kids that the best things in life aren’t watched on a screen?
  • Are we willing to say no to the onslaught of playdates, birthday parties, activities, practices, and games that can dominate this season of life? More importantly, are we giving our kids a compelling why for the choices we’re making – time with family, time to rest, time for church?
  • Am I open to new experiences and different points of view? Am I still learning?
  • When was the last time we decided not to purchase something so that we could use the money to fund ministry?
  • How do we keep the romance in marriage so that our kids grow up wanting to be married, not afraid of it?
  • Are we still willing to take risks as a family? Especially with our finances – do we settle for the safety of giving or reach for the risk of generosity?
  • Do my neighbors see me as the kind of guy who is available for a meaningful conversation if they wanted to have one?
  • How do I treat my kid’s teachers, coaches, and the volunteers at RCCKids? Do I come off as entitled and disappointed or grateful?

Honestly, I love this season. But I also know how easy it is to drift into complacency. After all, I’m not doing anything all that bad! Fight that, stay fresh, get creative!

Love

Somewhere in our mid-50’s, we start to turn another corner. From what I can tell, this one is about love – whether or not love is the controlling motivation of our hearts. This season is all about what you chose to do when you don’t have to do anything. You’re less controlled by kids schedules, boss’ expectations, and financial pressure (ideally…I know that’s not true for everyone). So, what are you going to do with your life now that you don’t have to do anything with your life?

The distinctive lifestyle of a disciple is never easy. Courage, creativity, and love are always going to be in the mix, just to varying degrees. And Jesus is always going to be worth it, not in varying degrees but infinitely so.

Is Your Phone Making You A Better Person?

In my last post, I described some of the reasons why I decided to take a pretty major step back from social media over the past few months. In short, I could see some ways that my use of social media was harming both my soul and my relationships. So, I expected my step back to have some positive impacts. But, in all honesty, I didn’t really know what to expect, as a person or as a pastor. In this post, I’ll tackle the personal impact and in the next I’ll tackle the pastoral (I have A LOT to say about that one). But, for today, here’s what I noticed over the past few months:

  • I’m going to gloss over the obvious: I was less distracted, less anxious, more present, and less enticed by the comparison trap. Before I move on to the rest of my list, I want you to pause and think about the massive claims I just rattled off quickly as the obvious benefits of stepping back from social media. My guess is you weren’t surprised by any of them, right? That’s just the predictable boilerplate stuff that you’ve heard dozens of times, isn’t it? What does it say about us that we maintain a slavish devotion to something that we know makes us distracted, anxious, less present, and constantly comparing our lives to others? That alone should make us stop and think.
  • I was more productive – and not just at work! Our mornings were smoother around the house. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still chaotic…three kids and two working parents make that somewhat inevitable. But they were better. So were our evenings. And weekends. It’s just easier to run a house when your head is fully in the game.
  • I was more intentional with my friends. Social media breeds a level of complacency in our friendships, even with those we truly care about and want to prioritize. Thanks to social media, we all passively monitor each other’s lives and get lulled into this sense that we already know what’s going on with each other. So, why bother with a phone call, grabbing coffee, or inviting someone over for dinner? We’re already caught up. But we’re not! Watching the highlight reel of your friend’s life is not the same as genuinely connecting with others to learn what’s really going on, how they’re really doing, and what they’re really thinking about for their future. I still found myself picking up my phone but now it was to make real phone calls to real people!
  • I was more attracted to substance. It’s not just that I read more or engaged with more thoughtful content, it’s that I found myself desiring substance. Social media is like sugar – insanely addictive and good for a quick hit. But once you break the addiction to digital candy, you realize how much good content there is out there and how much more satisfying it is. Tweets are fine but I would much rather read something that took more than 30 seconds at a stoplight to compose.

All of this is to say if you’re looking to be a better version of yourself, it might be time to rethink your relationship with social. In my next post, I’ll take about the ways that stepping back from social might make you a better pastor too.

Stepping Back from Social Media

At some point this past fall, I hit a breaking point with social media. I was finally able to admit to myself just how much I hated what Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter were doing to my mind and my soul. To be specific, here’s what really bothered me:

  • Even when I was with my family, friends, or church, I wasn’t as present as I should have been because I was always thinking about getting a picture of every potentially “instagramable moment”.
  • Once I found that moment and posted, insecurity, the desire for approval, and the need for a quick dopamine hit would kick in and I would find myself checking (sometimes a little obsessively) to see how many likes, comments, or views my post got.
  • Even when I wasn’t on social media, I found myself thinking about the lives of people I barely know or have never met. Ever been there? Analyzing and envying the fixtures in a celebrity Christian’s kitchen while the dishes pile up in your own sink?
  • More often than not, checking social media would make me feel some combination of envy, outrage, shame, hurt, or annoyance.

In short, social media was making me miserable…and it was distracting me from God, which is why I love the photo at the top of this post. Instead of enjoying a few quiet minutes with Jesus, I was mindlessly scrolling my way through life.

So, I just stopped posting, checking, or engaging for the most part. It wasn’t planned. I didn’t think it required one final post just so you all weren’t up at night wondering why I wasn’t posting. It wasn’t a spiritual fast. It was just stepping away from something I had come to hate.

And I loved it.

Honestly, I can’t say I missed it much at all. Nor can I say that I’m back. Nor can I say I’m permanently deleting my accounts. But I did learn some things over the last few months and I’m looking forward to processing those in my next post.

But here’s the question for today, are you using social media in a way that’s making you a better version of yourself, more full of life and love? Or are you just making yourself miserable?

What Brings You Life?

Calvert Cliffs State Park, January 2, 2021

Wouldn’t it be great if turning the calendar to 2021 enabled us to leave all of the challenges of 2020 in the past? But, at least so far, that doesn’t seem to be working. Covid is still very much a thing, our politics are still very much a mess, and life is still very far from normal. Turning the calendar doesn’t seem to have magically revolutionized the culture in our home nor has it rocketed me to new intimacy with God. If anything, life seems pretty much the same. In other words, life is still hard.

Which is why I’m trying to be as intentional as possible about prioritizing the things that bring me life. I’ve noticed that I never need to go looking for the things that drain me – they have a way of finding me all by themselves. They don’t need my help. But the things that bring me life are different. They’re never urgent, nobody ever demands that I do them, nobody ever gets angry if I don’t do them (with the exception of myself!), and they all require some effort. I rarely stumble into the things that bring me life. I have to plan for them, protect them, and even fight for them. And that’s the big insight for me. The path of least resistance never brings life. It leads to a Netflix binge or mindlessly surfing the internet or one last check of my email before I go to bed.

And I want more for 2021. I want to live with passion, with vigor, with joy. I don’t want to muddle through my days in the vain hope that tomorrow will be better. I want to work really hard on things that really matter with people I really love. And I want to fight for the things that bring me life.

If you’re wanting to walk a similar path, the first step involves determining what actually brings you life. Crafting this list might end up being harder than you think but you owe it to yourself to know what truly replenishes you. For what it’s worth, here’s my list:

  • Hiking…hence the photo and how we spend just about every Sabbath as a family.
  • Long walks with Laura…it’s where we have our best conversations.
  • Travel…at least I remember it fondly!
  • Fire…fire pits, fire places, candles. Really fire in all its forms.
  • Good conversations with good friends….preferably near a fire!
  • Swimming…for fun and for exercise.
  • Reading….theology, leadership, spiritual formation, novels, biographies, and books about politics.
  • Coffee…probably should have been first.
  • Watching movies…we do this about 3 times a year but I always enjoy it.
  • Lake Ontario…DC is home but the Great Lakes are the best!

Obviously, I believe all of those activities need to be built on the foundation of a vibrant relationship with Christ.

When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you will also appear with him in glory.

Colossians 3:4 (CSB)

Christ, who is your life. Jesus doesn’t just bring life. He is life. And no list of life giving activities can ever take the place of the life of Christ in us. But you also can’t bury the life of Christ under a relentless pile of things that drain you and expect to live with joy. We’ve got to fight for the things that bring us life.

So, what’s on your list? Are there any that you can build into the ordinary routines of your life? How can you build more life into your calendar this year? However you do it, fight for the things that bring you life!