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!

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.

51 Hours

IMG_3058Last week was a big one for the McGowan’s.  Laura enjoyed some much needed time to rest and replenish with one of her closest friends in Raleigh.  That meant Jack, Aidan and I enjoyed a little guy time around the house.  When I say a little, I mean 51 hours.

To be honest, I loved getting that time with the boys.  We had a lot of fun, ate a lot of pizza and played for hours.  I will also say I developed an even deeper appreciation for my wife and all those who spend their days caring for children.

A few random observations:

  • When I was in college, they sold caffeinated water on campus.  We used it to make coffee.  I haven’t seen that product in a while (and it’s entirely likely the FDA has banned it).  That’s too bad.  They should sell that stuff by the gallon at Buy Buy Baby.
  • There is literally nothing a 2.5 year old boy will not try to climb.  See photo above.
  • Just because a 2.5 year old boy can climb up doesn’t mean he can climb down.  Also, see photo above.  For the record, Laura, when Jack tells you he was not being safe, got stuck and scared and that Daddy rescued him, this is what he’s talking about.  Of course, he may also be talking about trapping himself in the shower in the basement.  But there’s no photographic evidence of that one.
  • The amount of strategic planning required to plant, fund and lead a church is nothing compared to the planning it takes to use the bathroom or shower with two little kids around the house.
  • Bathing two kids at the same time leaves you as soaked as sitting on the 3rd row at Sea World.

Here’s one final one:  I love being a Dad. 

I know so many single guys who fear settling down, growing up and taking on the responsibility of a wife and kids.  I totally get it; I was one of you for years.  And, yes, I now consider 10pm staying up late and can have an in depth conversation about sleep training an infant.  But I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.  So, guys, don’t fear what will be one of the greatest blessings in your life.

21 Heroes & My Ordinary Life

None of us really know what to do with the image of 21 men about to be slaughtered because of their faith in Jesus.  We’re in awe that they knelt on a beach and accepted death rather than renounce the One who made them alive forever.  We’re horrified to see the full perversion of sin and evil in those who would make heroes of the executioners too cowardly to show their faces.  We search for ways to honor the sacrifice and memory of the real heroes in orange who now see the face of God.

Even if we can explain what’s happening, we don’t know what to do with it.

Perhaps no one feels this uncertainty more than young, American followers of Jesus.  We’re quick to call these men our brothers in Christ, and they are, but our lives look nothing like theirs.  People died for Jesus this weekend.  And I’m writing about it from a trendy coffeeshop.  What do you do with that?

So much of our theology is inadequate when confronted with questions like this.  There are those that tell us Jesus’ main goal is to give us an awesome life with plenty of money, great friends, cool music, exotic travel and a hot spouse.  Such claims seem so silly and offensive in light of 21 heroes kneeling on a beach.  On the other hand, there are those that seem to look with scorn on any Christian not suffering persecution in our world.  I sometimes feel badly that I haven’t been beaten for Christ this week, to say nothing of the latte I’m enjoying.  This line of thinking always leaves me feeling vaguely inferior, guilty and spoiled.

Yet, the fact remains.  21 people died for Jesus this weekend.  And I need to figure what to do with that in my life.  As I’ve been thinking through all of this, I’ve had three thoughts.  Maybe they’ll be helpful to you:

Suffer Well

Life isn’t easy and following Jesus is not a guarantee that everything will always turn out the way we want.  No, we may not be martyred but our kids get sick, bills pile up, jobs are unsatisfying, people hurt us, we get tired, despair is easy to find and some days we would just rather stay in bed.  None of that is a sign that God doesn’t love us or isn’t keeping up His part of the bargain.

Suffering is an opportunity to demonstrate that our hope as followers of Jesus isn’t in our circumstances but in God Himself.  James exhorts us to, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

God is using our suffering to make us stronger.  He’s using our response to show the world that He’s beautiful.  Grumbling and complaining belittle a God who promises to be strong in our weakness.  Faithful, courageous endurance shows those around us the hope of Christ.

Odds are good we’ll never need to display the particular form of courage shown by those men on that beach.  Our beach may be called cancer, or divorce, or unemployment or loneliness.  Whatever the beach is called, it will be the place where we are most able to glorify Christ.

Be Grateful

It’s okay to have good days as a Christian.

God gives good gifts to His children.  In fact, Jesus is offended by the suggestion that God would do anything less, “What father among you, if his son asks fora fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13)  Granted, Luke is speaking specifically about the gift of the Spirit and not all of the Father’s good gifts are material things, vacations or promotions.  But some are and we need to stop apologizing for our Father’s generosity.

What we need to do is cultivate a grateful heart.  When we believe that everything we enjoy is grace, our lives overflow with gratitude.  And make no mistake about it, God is honored by our thanksgiving, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me.” (Ps. 50:23(a)) Our lack of gratitude belittles God’s grace and magnifies our prideful self reliance.

The biggest indictment against our faith isn’t going to be that we weren’t martyred but it may well be that we weren’t grateful.

Rely On The Spirit’s Power

All of that is well and good: suffer well and be grateful.  But what I think a lot of us really want to know is where did those men get that kind of courage?  I’m tempted to have a meltdown when the car gets a flat tire.  I cringe when people give me a condescending look when they find out I’m a pastor.  I get all testy when my needs aren’t met.  They knelt there and died.

This past summer, our church walked through 1 Peter.  I was stunned by what I read in verse 14 of chapter 4, “ If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”  In the moment when we are tested, the Spirit of God gives us the power to endure.  John Piper preached a whole sermon around this passage entitled “The Holy Spirit Will Help You Die.”  That sermon title is the answer to my question.  What we saw on that beach wasn’t the courage of 21 men but the power of God working in their lives.

That’s where all of this comes together for us.  We can’t suffer or be grateful apart from the power of God in our lives.  They couldn’t be strong in martyrdom and we can’t honor God in our ordinary lives in our own strength.  Both require the power of God.  Lean into that power today and watch how God sustains you on your beach.

God uses the lives of martyrs not to produce guilt in us but to inspire fresh faith, fresh belief, fresh gratitude and fresh dependency.  Those 21 men died for the fame of Christ.  May we live for the same in our day, in our world, in our circle of influence.

Joy Opens Doors

I got this text from someone at Restoration City the other day:

“I may or may not have loved our uber driver so much he heard us talk about church and asked where we went. I keep a stack of RCC cards in my wallet and gave him one and hopefully he will come. Clearly I have your excitement bug!”

That story is as awesome as it is simple.  On one hand, it’s really not that big a deal – two people in a car talking about church, answering a question and giving out a card.  For the record, I have no idea if the driver has come to church or not.  I have no idea if he’s a Christian or not.  This isn’t building up to some amazing “and we’re baptizing him this Sunday” moment.  It’s really just a story of handing out a card.

On the other hand, it’s a great reminder of how faithful God is to open doors when we live with joy and are not ashamed of the gospel (Rm.1:16).  Stressed out, aloof people who are way too busy to even talk to their driver don’t share the gospel all that often.  Neither do people who aren’t filled with excitement for their Savior and their church.  But doors seem to open in the presence of joy and love for Jesus.

My point today is not to guilt all of us into giving away inviter cards.  But I’m wondering if our conversations and life prompt people to ask us questions.  Remember 1 Peter 3:15, “but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”  When Christ is foremost in our hearts, we’ll live with hope and people will ask questions.  It really is that simple.