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.

The Positivity Gospel

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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.

Grace Under Fire

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I’m chronically disappointed by the hardships of life.  Which is a pretty brutal one-two punch.  Things already aren’t going well and then I get crushed by my own unfounded disappointment.  It just makes the spiral worse.  And I fall for it all the time.

A big part of the problem is my expectations.  There’s a part of my heart that wants and expects God to make everything in my life easy, comfortable and safe.  I want Him to go to work on noisy neighbors, long commutes and insurmountable to-do lists.  I want Him to make it all better.  I want Him to do it my way and on my time table.  And I get so bothered when He doesn’t.

To make it worse, I hold onto those expectations even when the Bible is clearly trying to adjust them.  Consider just one example, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12)  In some ways, it’s comforting to know the early church had the same misaligned expectations I do.  On the other hand, I realize I would be better served by internalizing these words rather than feeling vindicated that others need them as much as I do.

The problem with my misaligned expectations is that when something goes wrong, I feel like God is letting me down.  When that happens, all hope of me responding in a Christ-like manner is out the window.  To be honest, it’s usually a struggle to respond to people in a Christlike manner even when everything is going really well.  When things are hard, forget about it.

Yet, we’re never more like Jesus than when we’re loving well even though everything is going wrong.  Again, 1 Peter helps us with this, “For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.  For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” (1 Peter 2:19-20)  The gospel lays out the pattern for suffering service.  Life is conspiring against me but I’m working for your good.  Things aren’t going my way but I want to bless you in the mess.  I’m under fire but you’re going to get grace from me.  If we actually lived this way, the world would see how beautifully jarring grace really is.

So, I don’t love the difficulties of life and I doubt I ever will.  But I’m trying to do a better job of expecting them.  And I’m praying for the grace to see them as opportunities.  It’s in those moments that I’m most able to display the character and love of Jesus.  It’s in those moments where my life has the greatest redemptive potential in the hands of God.