Contemplatives In Action

Those of you who live in the DC area may be able to figure out where I took this picture. If you go to National Harbor in Maryland, you’ll find a long walking/jogging/biking trail that curves around the waterfront before ultimately extending up and over the Wilson Bridge on the Beltway. When you get to the top of that path, you see this unique juxtaposition of a beautiful river, a bustling commercial center, a gorgeous park, and a massive freeway. It’s honestly one of my favorite places in DC. So, one day last fall when Laura and I were there, I snapped this picture because I was totally captivated by the contrast between the trees in their full fall colors and the rush of the beltway.

As I’ve sat with this picture for a couple of months, I’ve realized how much it embodies the way I want to live my life. During my four years as an undergrad at Georgetown, I picked up a few phrases from the Jesuits (the order of Catholic priests who founded Georgetown) that have become deeply significant in my life. The one that resonates the most with me is the Jesuit ideal of being a contemplative in action.

Being a ‘contemplative in action’ means that your active life feeds your contemplative life and your contemplative life feeds your active life.

Andy Otto

In other words, I need the hustle and bustle of the beltway and the quiet of a park with beautiful trees and a majestic river. It takes both to follow God well and following God well will result in both being present in our lives.

The Contemplative Life

Modern day contemplatives are essentially seeking to bring the ancient riches of Christian mysticism and monasticism into the frenzy of our nonstop, over scheduled, and technology driven 21st century American lives. These modern mystics talk about practices like Sabbath, fixed hour prayer, meditation, rest, simplicity, silence, and solitude. They delight in slowing down to be with God, to be present in the moment, and to hear the still small voice of the Spirit.

It’s a beautiful way to live life.

But ten years ago, I would have told you that a contemplative life is at best an anachronistic thrown back and at worst a bunch of feel-good, new age nonsense for the emotionally needy. Marriage, parenting, planting a church, reading more broadly, and following Jesus more closely has shown me just how wrong I was.

I now realize that the contemplative life is essential to our spiritual formation. Don’t ever let anybody tell you that Christianity is simply an external moral code to be followed in an attempt to please God. It’s not. It’s an invitation to be transformed from the inside out by the grace of a God who did everything necessary for our salvation on the wood of a cross. It’s an invitation to come fully alive, to cultivate intimacy with the Creator of the world, and to enjoy life as a child of God. But here’s the thing: that inner transformation doesn’t happen on the fly. It requires us to open the deepest parts of our soul to God’s healing and restorative work.

To put it as simply as I can: If you want to grow and change, you’ve got to slow down.

The Active Life

As we grow and change, we not only realize the depth of God’s love and concern for the world but also start to embody that love. You can’t have a deep relationship with Jesus and be indifferent to the pain and suffering of the world around you. Christ doesn’t call us to withdraw permanently from the world. Rather, He invites us to join Him in His work of reconciling sinners to God (that’s all of us, by the way) and renewing creation. He invites us to take up a cross, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.

In many ways, this is what comes most naturally to those of us who have spent significant time in the action oriented world of evangelicalism. There’s always an event to attend, a place to serve, a mission trip to take, a need to meet. And none of that is bad. The world desperately needs the hope that we carry in our souls. We are constantly surrounded by brokenness, hostility, incivility, and fear. As followers of Jesus, we are called to go into that world as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God.

The deeper you go with God, the more engaged you will be with what He is doing in the world.

Being A Contemplative In Action

Now you know why that picture means so much to me. We can’t pick either the contemplative life or the active life. Following Jesus requires a hearty yes to both. Action without contemplation leads to burnout, moral failure, legalism, and bitterness. Contemplation without action leads to complacency, self-absorption, and lingering questions of how much you’ve actually encountered the real Jesus. But when we join them together, when we become contemplatives in action, it unleashes something powerful in us and in our world.

That’s my prayer for you today. Don’t allow yourself to settle for a monochromatic relationship with God. Find a quiet parks and dive into the hustle of the city.

Why I Keep Talking About Refugees

refugees

In recent weeks, I’ve spoken, written and posted a good deal about refugees.  Although this is not a new topic for me or Restoration City (we had a senior leader from World Relief speak on a Sunday morning at our church last May), I’ve given it more emphasis in the last two weeks in light of President Trump’s now famous Executive Order.  I know my comments have alternately surprised, angered and thrilled various members of our congregation.  In light of that, I thought it would be helpful for me to share my three goals in raising this issue:

Goal #1: Clarify The Teaching Of Scripture

The primary way I serve our church is by teaching God’s Word.  In my experience, many Christians are not familiar with passages like Matthew 25, Exodus 22 or many others that make it clear that we as the church have an obligation to care for the refugees in our city.  No, those passages say nothing about the government’s role in establishing laws that keep us safe as a country and how we balance compassion with security.  But they make it explicit that when refugees are admitted to our country, we have an obligation to care for them.  Turning our backs on refugees already in our country is quite literally turning our backs on Jesus.  I feel obligated to make this point as clearly as possible.

Goal #2: Challenge Our Thinking

The real conversation over the last two weeks hasn’t been about us caring for refugees when they’re here.  It’s been about whether or not we should suspend (for 120 days or indefinitely) portions of our national refugee resettlement efforts.  I understand that’s a different question than how the church cares for refugees once they’re in our country.  That’s why my goal has been to challenge our thinking, not tell us how to think.

As thoughtful followers of Jesus, we all wrestle with how our biblical and moral convictions shape our approach to public policy and to politics.  That’s the way it should be!  We need to think through how the clear teachings of the Bible influence our participation in the public square on places wherever the Bible is clear – life beginning at conception, marriage being a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman, the moral evil of human trafficking, the need for racial reconciliation and a command to care for the least of these (the poor, the oppressed and the refugee).  To be clear, I don’t think it’s my job as a pastor to connect those dots for you.  But it is my job to raise the question, to suggest that societies flourish most when aligned with God’s design and to argue for a consistent framework as we all wrestle through those questions.  In other words, the way you think about abortion and refugees should both be influenced by the Scriptures and should be influenced consistently.

Goal #3: Build Bridges

I do believe the national conversation about refugees gives us an opportunity to reach out productively to many who are not followers of Jesus.  Two weeks ago, I had a conversation with a member of our church who recounted a conversation she had with a friend earlier in the day.  They were talking about refugees and the friend, who is not a Christian, asked with a great deal of challenge in her tone, “So, did your church say anything about this today?”  She was stunned to hear the answer was yes and it made her slightly more open to Jesus.  That’s a win in my book!  All too often, people assume the church and the religious, political right are the same thing.  Not true.  As I’ve said before, if your God fits perfectly into any political party, He’s too small and His name isn’t Jesus.  The broader culture in our city knows theologically conservative churches oppose abortion and defend a biblical view of marriage.  I want to make sure they’re equally clear that we stand with the poor, the vulnerable and the oppressed, including lawfully admitted refugees.

At the end of the day, we aren’t a political advocacy church.  I’m not preaching about the 9th Circuit’s ruling on Sunday.  I’m preaching on Acts 3:1-10 and the foundational rhythms of a life on mission.  We’re about Jesus, Community and Restoration.  But when the culture is talking about something the Bible speaks to, I would rather lean in than pull back.

This Christmas: I Could…But Instead

christmas-generosity

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.

Young Christians, Don’t Be Afraid of Veteran’s Day

VeteransDay

Every year it seems like Veteran’s Day produces some low grade angst in many young, urban Christians.  Very few seem opposed to the holiday (especially if they get the day off from work) but there seems to be a lot of hesitancy about how vocal we should be.  Many of the questions I’ve been asked are good ones from well meaning followers of Christ:

  • If my citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), should I dial back on anything that could be seen as patriotic?
  • Could thanking veterans erode my ability to reach the international community in my city?  Maybe my thanks won’t play well with people from countries where troops have been or are currently deployed.
  • Not everyone in my church is American.  I don’t want them to feel marginalized or isolated.
  • I want to maintain the ability to reach people with all kinds of foreign policy views, so I don’t say anything that could ever hinder that objective.
  • The military just isn’t my thing.  Jesus is my focus.

Rather than answering each of these questions point by point, let me offer two simple thoughts:

Settle Down.

Most of this angst comes from overthinking the situation and overestimating our own importance.  Nobody thinks that you saying thank you to our troops is somehow an endorsement of every military action ever taken by America.  You’re not endorsing an interventionist or isolationist foreign policy.  You’re not making a statement about budget priorities in Washington.  You’re saying thank you.  There’s everything right with taking a day to say thank you to our military families who sacrifice so much on our behalf.

Focus On What Matters.

I promise you the great obstacle to reaching people from the other 195 countries on the planet is not Veteran’s Day.  It’s our self absorption the other 364 days of the year.  The best way to demonstrate our citizenship in heaven is by loving across cultures, borders and barriers on a daily basis.  The world is desperately waiting for the church to lead the way in bringing hope, justice and life to every nation, every tribe and every tongue.  We are to be the ones who love the alien and stranger, the widow and orphan and the least of these.  The world needs us actively engaged in the mission of God, not looking for ways to compensation for and distract from our disengagement.

You can see the Pentagon from where our church gathers on a Sunday morning.  I have the privilege of pastoring a number of military families and I’ve seen first hand the sacrifice, bravery and service that define their lives.  I love Jesus and I love these families.  I’m grateful for the blessing of being an American and I’m grateful for a day to honor those who defend our nation and our freedoms.

Happy Veteran’s Day!

Shaping Culture: Correcting For It (3 of 4)

Culture_Correct

No matter how clearly you lay out the path of culture and how well you model it, there are going to be plenty of times when people in your church or on your team veer off the path.  Every time I see it happen, I feel like the wind just got knocked out of me.  How could someone deviate from a path I love so much?  Why would they do such a thing?  What do I do now?

If I’m honest, my strategy as a young leader was to ignore these little cultural deviations.  I was convinced if I waited long enough, the cultural outlier would happily rejoin the rest of us on the path.  But that’s not always the case.  In fact, many times I watched as others joined them in the weeds!

One of the most important tools in shaping culture is intentionally correcting deviations from the culture.  Leaders must find ways of communicating, “Hey, that’s not how we do it around here.” (Hint: This is best communicated in person and with an attempt to understand why and how the person got off the path in the first place.)  However we do it, leaders must correct cultural deviations.

In my experience, there are two ways off the cultural path:

  • Cultural wanderers.  Most of the time they don’t even know they’re off the path until you point it out.  They’re just doing what they’ve always done, what came naturally or what seemed right to them.  They aren’t trying to ruin your organization, defy your leadership or destroy your culture.  They’re actually trying to get it right but just wandered a bit.  When this is the case, your corrective conversation becomes much more of a vision casting, cultural shaping moment.  You have the privilege of helping the person understand your culture at a much deeper, more personal and real level.  These conversations are leadership gold!
  • Cultural hijackers.  These guys are a problem – they know they’re off the path.  In fact, they’re trying to create a new path and lead others down it.  They know where you’re trying to go; they just don’t like it and are convinced they can carry the organization in the direction they want to go.  The Bible has a lot to say about how we should handle cultural hijackers.  “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Titus 3:10-11)  Simple translation – remove them from the culture they’re trying to hijack.  Here’s the good news – cultural hijackers are rare, so don’t be too quick to label someone this way.  But when it becomes clear you’ve got a hijacker on board, take action.

I used to hate these kinds of conversations as a leader.  I would avoid them, delay them and half the time wimp out in the middle of them.  But I’ve come to see that they are a hugely important tool in shaping culture.  I’ve also come to realize that if I don’t care enough about the culture of our church to defend it, I really have no business being the one who shapes it.

Shaping Culture

Church Culture

Every church has a culture.  It’s not defined by doctrine, mission statements, strategic plans, core values or org charts.  You get glimpses of it by listening to the language people use, watching the way decisions are made and observing how people treat one another.  It’s the intangible “way we do things around here.”

There are no exceptions.  Any group of people who have been together for a year or longer has a culture.  The question is whether it’s being intentionally shaped or passively discovered.  The difference has enormous implications for the life, health and effectiveness of a church.  If Peter Drucker was right, and I believe he was, when he famously said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast“, then any leader who isn’t intentional about shaping the culture of their organization is committing leadership malpractice.

In my time leading Restoration City, I’ve learned that a leader must do four things to intentionally shape the culture of their church or organization:

  • Define It
  • Model It
  • Correct It
  • Celebrate It

Three out of the four won’t get you there – it takes a commitment to all four disciplines.

I’m going to take my next four blog posts to discuss each one of these disciplines in greater depth.  I hope it’ll be helpful for our leaders at Restoration City and anyone else passionate about creating a healthy and intentional culture.

Culture matters to much to discover it.  Leaders must shape it.

Language Matters

worship1

Language creates culture.

That’s one of those leadership principles that has become so widely recognized that no one seems to know who said it first.  That’s okay – whoever said it was absolutely right.  The language an organization uses isn’t a symptom of an underlying culture.  Language is one of the underlying drivers of culture.  That’s why Starbucks calls all of their employees “partners”and the University of Virginia calls their campus “grounds”.

It’s also why we call our sunday worship service a weekly gathering at Restoration City.  Some people think it’s just trying to be cute, creative or different.  But it’s not.  It’s a reflection of one of our deepest convictions about church – church is a community you join, not an event you attend.  The phrase “worship service” seems both event driven and confusing all at the same time.  First of all, no one knows why we traditionally call it a service.  Secondly, we’re not really sure who’s being served…us, God, or someone else. But it’s not only ambiguous.  It’s also event focused and we try really hard to avoid language that suggests church is an event or an obligation.

So, we say “weekly gathering.”  We don’t say worship gathering because we believe that all of life is meant to be an act of worship.  Done properly, your commute can be as much an act of worship as the gathering of the church.  We say weekly because that’s how often we do it.  We say gathering because that’s what it is – all of Restoration City and any one else who wants to join us coming together.  We’re every bit as much the church when we’re scattered throughout the city.  Sunday mornings simply give us an opportunity to come together to worship in song, hear God speak through His Word and pray together.  We gather.

That’s huge for us.  It helps us understand Sunday morning properly but even more importantly it helps us understand the rest of the week.  Today is an opportunity for worship, you are the church and God has sent you to your work place or wherever you are to live out His calling on your life.

So, I hope you’re on board for a little culture creating with me.  It seems small but talking about our weekly gathering would be an important step in creating the culture God is leading us to at Restoration City.