Merry Christmas

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
    whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke 1:76-79

Those words, first spoken by Zechariah as he rejoiced in the birth of his son John, have become the heart of my prayer for our church this Christmas. I pray that we all experience the sunrise of Christmas in our souls today.

Today we celebrate the tender mercy of our God. His answer to sin and death, pain and suffering, fear and despair arrived in the form of an Infant King. A little One who would save us from our sin and show us how life was meant to be lived. A Baby who came as light, and life, and love.

Christmas is the dawn of a new, a wild, and an unbreakable hope.

Merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas From The McGowans

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A few weeks ago, a brave family friend ventured over to our apartment for a little Christmas photo shoot.  Of all the photos she captured, this one is my favorite.  It’s our real life.  Jack is having a great time but teetering on the brink of trouble.  Aidan has figured out how to communicate displeasure.  Emma’s cute and clueless.  And then there’s Laura and I.  Laughing in a “have we lost our minds?” kind of way.  Welcome to our life.

It also reminds me of one of the biggest lessons God’s been teaching me this Christmas: Don’t let the longing for perfect prevent you from enjoying good.

We were made for perfect.  There’s nothing wrong with that desire; it’s from God.  It’s what tugs our hearts towards Him and fuels a longing for eternity.  That desperate desire to be in a problem free, pain free, disappointment free, sin free world will be satisfied one day for all of us who follow Jesus.  We’ll be with the God who makes all things new.  Revelation 21:4 promises, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”  I can’t wait for that to be true.

But we’re not there yet.  Kids get sick.  Photo shoots crumble.  Living rooms get messy.  Schedules get trampled.  Work piles up.  Laundry piles up.  And, if I’m not careful, I can get so discouraged that everything isn’t perfect, especially at Christmas.  I so want to create that magical, perfect holiday for my kids.  To be honest, I just want them to want that magical, perfect holiday enough to stop spilling their juice on the coffee table!

But Jesus wasn’t born to admire our perfection.  He was born to offer us His.  He was born to hang on a cross so that one day we would taste perfect.

Between now and then, I want to enjoy the life I have.  I want to see God’s grace in these three beautiful kids, an amazing wife and a church we love deeply.  I want to see God’s goodness in my friends, in His creation and through His Word.  I want to enjoy my reality and not long for someone else’s.

That’s my prayer for you this Christmas.  Don’t let what’s wrong prevent you from enjoying what’s right.  Rest in God’s love for you.  Celebrate life that knows no end.  Perfect is coming.  Until then, there’s grace.

Merry Christmas!

The Most Wonderfully Stressful Time Of The Year

chrsitmas-grace

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.

This Christmas: I Could…But Instead

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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:

Sacrificing

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.

The Certain Hope Of Christmas

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Christmas isn’t a desperate search for hope in the hype.  It’s a joyous celebration of the certain hope we have in Jesus.  As we head into the holiday, I pray we can all keep that simple truth in the center of our hearts.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the desperate search for hope that plagues our culture this time of year.  Stress, crazy family and an extra drink at the end of the night just seem to be part of the holiday equation for so many of us.  Add into that the search for perfect gifts, delicious meals, immaculate homes and non-materialistic kids.  No wonder we’re exhausted.  And disappointed.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of it.  But they’ll never be able to hold the weight of our hopes.

All the good things we enjoy this time of year are designed to point us to the One from whom all good things flow.  Christmas is simple.  Jesus was born that we might have life.  He left the glory of heaven for the indignity of a feeding trough so that we would know our God is not repulsed by the messes of our life.  The angels sang. The shepherds worshipped.  Mary pondered.  And all of history was forever changed.

The Child of Christmas would go on to live a perfect life.  He showed us all how it’s meant to be done.  And then, knowing that we could never do it on our own, He died in our place that all of our sins could be forgiven.  He killed death by dying on a cross and ushered in unfathomable hope through an empty tomb.

He’s the One our souls need.  He’s the One we were made to know.

Don’t let the hype blind you to the Christ.  Rejoice, oh weary world.  Your Savior has come.  His name is Jesus.  And He’s all you need for a Merry Christmas.

It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

Wonderful Time To Invite.jpg

This really is the most wonderful time of the year…especially for inviting people to church!  Now before you groan and write this post off as one more example of a pastor trying to hype a Christmas service as a chance to draw a crowd, hear me out.

I honestly believe there are four main things that hold us back from inviting people to church with us:

  1. Lack of relationships with non-Christians.
  2. Lack of confidence in the gospel.
  3. Fear of rejection.
  4. Fear they won’t like it if they come.

Admittedly, Christmas doesn’t help with the first one – if you don’t know anyone to invite, it’s going to be hard to invite!  But if that’s really the case, I think it’s time to seriously examine how you’re living.  What changes do you need to make in 2016 to develop some level of relationship with people outside the church?  Those changes need to become a high priority in the New Year.

But when it comes to #3 and #4, Christmas is a huge help.  This is the time of year (even more than Easter) when people are most willing to go to church.  People won’t perceive your invitation as you trying to force Jesus down their throats.  They’ll see it as you inviting them into your holiday traditions and caring about their holiday experience.  In terms of #4, Christmas is also your best friend – they’re going to be familiar with a lot of the music (that’s why we’re only doing Christmas carols this Sunday and Christmas Eve) and the basic plot of the sermon.  Even people from other faith traditions will know what they’re in for – some carols and the story of a Baby born to save the world (if your pastor preaches on the dietary laws in Leviticus, it’s time for a new church!!).

Oh, by the way, the gospel is beautiful enough to handle all of the confidence you place in it!  Remember Paul’s words, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.“(Romans:1:16)  God is constantly drawing people to Himself with the wonderfully simply message of “Jesus in my place.”  The amazing thing is that He wants to use us in that appeal!

So, Restoration City, bring some folks with you this Sunday!  And, if you’re in town on Christmas Eve, do it again on Thursday!  You’ll be amazed how open people might be to your invitation.  The good news of Christmas is a Savior who was born for all men.  Let’s do our part in making sure people hear this wonderful message during this incredible season.

A Perfect Christ In An Imperfect Christmas

Christmas is a wonderful time of year if you have a perfect life.  Or at least that’s the message I get from our culture.  If you’re good looking, are in a wonderful relationship, have plenty of money for gifts, a beautiful family and a couple of Clydesdales kicking around your snow covered back yard, this is the season for you.  If you’re one of the seven people in the world who actually like fruitcake, even better.

The problem is I don’t have that kind of life.  Yes, I’m married to a wonderful woman and we have a ridiculously cute son but life isn’t always easy.  The cute kid also pukes a lot and seems to enjoy screaming, often in the middle of the night.  Sometimes our house is a mess.  Sometimes I just wish we could make it to the end of a day without being exhausted.  And, for the record, I hate fruitcake.

Add to that all of the fears, hurts and frustrations in my heart.  Planting a church is scary work – what if we fail?  How will I explain it to people if we follow God into this and it doesn’t work?  It’s been a hard year for our family.  We said goodbye to a church we had been at for 10 years.  We said goodbye to friends in DC.  We set out into something new.  There were people who loved us well but also people who hurt us.  Many times I wonder why the high road can’t be the easy road.  I think about friends who have lost parents this year and friends who are uncertain about their future and friends who just want their kids to be healthy.  Not exactly the stuff of a perfect Christmas.

So we do our best to ignore it all.  We turn a blind eye and hope like crazy next Christmas will be better and we won’t have to fake it so much.

And we miss the whole point of Christmas.

Jesus wasn’t born because we had it all together.  He didn’t come on a perfect night, to a perfect family in a perfect place.  He was born to two poor, unmarried and terrified teenagers.  He made His royal entry into our world in a smelly, dirty cave.  Yes, angels sang.  But only shepherds came that night.

He didn’t come as the cherry on top of a perfect world.  He left perfection behind to taste our pain, to experience our temptations, to identify with our weaknesses and to show His Father’s love for us. He never asked people to clean themselves up before they came to Him.  He was called a friend of sinners.

The more tired, broken and hopeless you are, the more Christmas is for you.

The infant King offers hope, a fresh start and a life that never ends.  It’s not the life we deserve.  It’s the life He purchased for us on the cross.  His cross makes our forgiveness possible.  His death secures our life.  And His life offers hope to us all.

So, Merry Christmas.

You may not have a perfect life but you do have a perfect Christ.