Once A Month Isn’t Enough

Last night I realized that Restoration City has only gathered 1 out of the last 4 Sundays. Between the changes to our schedule because of Christmas and then the snow, it’s been a pretty rough stretch for us. The irony of that is that I’ve been praying specifically that we would all renew our commitment to gathering on a Sunday morning in the New Year! Specifically, my prayers for us have been shaped by Psalm 92.

The righteous flourish like the palm tree
    and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord;
    they flourish in the courts of our God.

Psalm 92:12-13

When I read Psalm 92 over the Christmas break, it triggered something powerful in me. The psalmist paints such a beautiful picture of what we all want for our lives – to flourish and grow. Some of us are more familiar with the beauty of a palm tree swaying in an ocean breeze and some of us know just how massive a cedar tree is when it’s full grown. Either way, we want that kind of flourishing and growth in our lives.

And one of the ways that happens is by prioritizing time with the people of God in the house of God. As the psalmist says, we flourish when we are planted in the house of God. We were designed to live with a sense of rhythm and our souls need to gather corporately once a week to worship, to take communion, to soak in the Word of God, to be renewed in our faith, and to be strengthened for the challenges in the week to come.

I know there are plenty of good reasons why we can’t always gather with the church – illness and travel are the big two. But, apart from those, where does gathering with the people of God fall on your list of priorities? I can tell you based on the last month that gathering with the church 1/4 of the time is no where near enough for our souls. I’ve missed it and can’t wait to be back together this Sunday, Lord willing.

I’m not trying to guilt any one here. But I am willing to fight for our common flourishing. Don’t sporadically attend three different churches. Don’t go to church when you have nothing else to do. Don’t think a podcast is a good substitute. Don’t believe the lie that “you just need a week of.”

The Sundays when you’re most tempted to skip church are probably the ones you most need to be there and the ones that will nourish your soul the most. So, fight through it. Be planted in the house of the Lord!

How’s Your Prayer Life?

Pray Beach.jpg

If you want to make the average Christian feel guilty, ask them about their prayer life.  We all have this sense that we should be praying more and that when we do pray, we should be getting more out of it.  All too often, we reduce prayer to reciting a to do list in the presence of God or just firing requests His way like He’s a hyper competent concierge.  Although, if we’re honest, we often have little to no confidence that He’s actually going to come through on anything we’re asking.  Then we read passages like 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray without ceasing” and we throw our hands up in frustration.  Most of us are just trying to find meaningful time with God on a daily basis.  Many of us are wondering if it “counts” if we get that time on the Metro.  Pray without ceasing seems like a cruelly absurd joke.

All of that adds up to a tragic short selling of the way the gospel impacts our prayer lives. We think the goal of the gospel is to get us to pray.  Prayer becomes evidence of saving faith.  The frequency of prayer becomes a measure for our spiritual health.  And the whole conversation is limited to getting us to pray.  But the gospel does much more than compel us to pray.  It opens the door for prayer and shapes our prayers.

Apart from Christ, prayer isn’t possible.  You can meditate, talk to yourself, or fling requests in the direct of a fictitious higher power.  But you can’t connect with God.  You can’t “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)  That confidence only comes through a relationship with Christ that allows us to “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:22)  But in Christ, we’re welcomed into the very presence of God Himself.  Not as beggars but as children.  Not as someone who needs to take a number but as someone who can feel His embrace.

The most significant evidence of the gospel’s work in our hearts isn’t that we pray, it’s what we pray.  This is where I’m frequently convicted – I often pray for the exact same things my non-Christian friends would pray for if they believed in Jesus.  Listen, there’s nothing radical about praying for a raise, a good night’s sleep, a bigger house, a vacation, or a Red Sea like parting of traffic on the beltway.  It’s not even particularly Christian to pray for a date, a child, a spouse or the healing of a sick family member.  Should we pray for those things?  Of course!  Every good and perfect gift comes from God, so ask Him.

But we’ll know the gospel has grabbed hold of our hearts when we start to pray for things that wouldn’t even be on a non-Christian’s radar.  Our prayer lives should be marked by requests that God would kill our pride, give us opportunities to share the gospel, allow us to give more generously to His work, fight for the oppressed, lovingly stand for truth, die to ourselves, take up our cross, consider others more important than ourselves and use us for the sake of His name.  When those prayers flow from our souls, we’ll know that God is doing a deeply transformative work.

Here’s the funny thing – when we start praying that way, we start seeing God move in powerful ways.  We become, at times painfully, aware that God hears and answers prayer.  We realize how utterly dependent we are on His grace and His power.  We run to Him without even realizing we’ve slid into prayer.  Duty becomes delight.  Pray without ceasing starts to make sense.  And we connect with the One who made us for His own glory.

Want to upgrade your prayer life?  Allow the implications of the gospel to work their way into the depths of Your heart.  You’ll pray more.  But you’ll also pray differently.

 

The Mess of Community

community

For a few years after college, I lived alone.  No wife, no kids, no roommates.  Just me.  At times I was lonely but, to be completely honest, I didn’t mind it that much.  In fact, I kind of liked it.  The place was always clean (I’m a little compulsive about that), I went to bed when I wanted, got up when I wanted and pretty much did what I wanted.  I never had to wait to do laundry and had very few interruptions when I was working.

Now my life looks considerably different.  I’m married and have two kids.  We’re part of a great church and love having people over for coffee, dinner or whatever.  The only time the house is perfectly clean is after the kids have gone to bed (and even then, it’s questionable).  Life is filled with interruptions, tears, laughs and a lot of chaos.

Here’s my point: community is messy.

I’m not against living alone but I am deeply concerned that so many in our culture have learned to live alone emotionally.  Just to be clear, you can live in a house full of people and still live alone emotionally.  Living alone emotionally is about building up walls where we never allow others to get to know the real us.  It’s about keeping our relationships superficial enough where we have plenty of people to go to a movie with but no one we’re really committed to or investing in.

Pressing into relationships, whether it’s at work, school, home or church, is inviting a mess into your pristine isolation.  If you let people in, they’ll bring their best and their worst. The more you get to know people, the more you realize they aren’t quite as perfect as they pretend.  Sin, brokenness and hurt that can be hidden at a distance becomes unavoidable up close.  Even worse, they’ll start to figure out all of your broken places as well.

I always want to pull back from community when it gets hard.  When the relationship requires work, I want to give up.  When things are awkward, I want to withdraw.  But I know that is I do that, I miss out on a chance to grow.

I’ve come to learn that messiness is one of the surest signs that community is actually working.  Neat and clean exists only in the world of shallow and superficial.  Messy is reserved for the deep and vulnerable.

So, when community gets hard, keep pressing in.  You’re finally getting somewhere!

Want To Grow? Take Notes!

NotebookDo you want to know the three things your pastor most wants you to bring with you to church this Sunday?  I know the cynics will say, “My wallet, a friend and a willingness to laugh at bad jokes.”  In response to that, let me go out on a limb and say that if that’s actually true, it’s time to find a new church.  I’ll also tell you how I would answer the question for the people I lead at Restoration City:

  • A Bible
  • A Notebook
  • A Pen

I know I’m running the risk of sounding like a cranky old guy but let me press it one step further: your plan to consolidate all three of those into one smartphone isn’t a good one.  You need to go old school on this one and use paper.  Before you totally write me off, I’ll let you know that I absolutely have the YouVersion of the Bible on my phone and love it.  I use Evernote and understand that I’m writing this on a blog.  And oftentimes my pens are out of ink.

But if you really want to get the most out of Sunday, you’ll bring a Bible, a notebook and a pen.  Michael Hyatt, one of the most successful distributors of electronic content in Christian publishing today, recently wrote a fascinating blog on the advantages of paper books over ebooks.  One of the advantages he writes about is improved memory.  In my experience, this is certainly true of studying the Bible.  I tend to remember things better from a paper Bible and be able to find the verse again easier in the future if I’ve had to flip to it in the pages of a Bible.

Note taking will enable you to get exponentially more out of a sermon.  If you come to the sermon with the expectation that God is going to say something to you, you might also want to come with a way to record that.  Jot down verses, questions, thoughts, action steps, key phrases, whatever impacts you.  Taking notes in a sermon is the easiest way to accelerate your spiritual growth this weekend.

Your Bible, notebook and pen are a tangible reflection of your attitude towards the sermon.  If you’re coming to be entertained, you don’t need them.  If you’re coming to learn, you wouldn’t consider leaving them at home.

Whether you’re part of Restoration City or another local church, there’s no greater sound on a Sunday morning than the rustling of pages.  Your pastor will love it.  And so will you!

The Discipline of Grace

The more I study the lives of Christian men and women I admire, the more I realize how much they resemble a sailboat.  From a distance, sailing seems effortless; you glide majestically over the waves powered only by the wind.  But the closer you get, the more you realize there’s a tremendous amount of work going on to make the ship sail.  The same is true of our lives with God.  On one hand, we’re powered by the breath of God and hopelessly adrift without the grace we need to fill our sails.  On the other, following Jesus takes a lot of work.

If you want to grow spiritually, it’s going to take grace and discipline.

Paul hints at this in Colossians 2:5 when he writes, “For even though I am absent in body, nevertheless I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good discipline and the stability of your faith in Christ.”  Paul rejoices in both their good discipline and their faith in Jesus.

As our churches pursue gospel centeredness, we run the risk of ignoring the need for discipline in the Christian life.  If you fall into that trap, you will face spiritual stagnation.  If you want to spend time with God every morning, it’s going to take discipline to get out of bed – angels aren’t going to magically transport you; you need to turn the alarm off, get up and move to that first cup of coffee!  If you want to read books that nourish your soul, it’s going to take discipline to turn off the tv.  If you want to experience the joy of giving generously, it’s going to take discipline to reign in your other spending.  If you want to preach a great sermon, it’s going to take discipline to prepare.  If you want a great marriage, it’s going to take discipline to prioritize your relationship.  Stop thinking any of this is going to come easy without you having to do some work.

On the other hand, you can have the greatest crew in the world on the fastest yacht ever and you’re not going anywhere without some wind.  Discipline doesn’t move the boat, it can only help you catch the wind of God when it blows.  Our only hope of real momentum in life is the grace of God.  All the discipline in the world won’t get you out of bed in the morning if God doesn’t give you a love for His Word.  It’s only as we understand the gospel more, embrace the lavish grace of Jesus and learn to find our identity in Him that we experience real growth in our lives.  If you want to know how central grace is, consider that even the discipline we have is a gift of grace.  Paul points that out in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.

If we want to live the life God created us for, it’s going to take discipline and grace.  The key is getting the order right.  Grace motivates discipline.  Discipline never produces or earns grace.  So, pursue grace.  But you’ll know you’ve found it when that grace produces discipline in our lives.

Catch the wind, work hard and see how far God will take you!

Time With God: Desire or Duty

Is your daily time with God marked more be desire or duty?  Is it something you love to do or something you have to do?

Of course, there’s a huge assumption behind those questions – that you do, in fact, have a daily time with God!  I’m not naive enough to think that’s the case for everyone reading this blog or for everyone at Restoration City Church.  Honestly, I know we have committed members of the church who struggle with finding consistent time with God in His Word and in prayer.

The last thing I want to do is guilt you into creating this kind of time in your day.  One, I don’t think it’s likely to work.  Two, even if it does, it’ll never lead you to enjoy your time with God.  Many of us slug through a daily time of spiritual disciplines out of a sense of obligation or just to be able to give a good answer when someone in your life group asks you if you’re reading your Bible and praying.  It’s kind of like going to the dentist for a cleaning – we know we aren’t going to enjoy it but the alternative is even worse, so we suck it up and get it done.

In contrast, the Scripture gives us a picture of young Joshua, well before he was the leader of Israel.  At this point, Joshua was working as Moses’ assistant.  You DC political types might refer to him as Moses’ body man.  As the leader of Israel, Moses would go to meet with God in the tent of meeting outside the camp.  When this happened, it was a huge deal – God would descend in a pillar of cloud and all of Israel would stand by their tents worshipping.  Joshua didn’t observe all of this from afar; he got to be in the tent with Moses and the Lord.  What’s so interesting, convicting and inspiring to me is what Scripture records in Exodus 33:11, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent.”  Joshua hangs out and soaks up as much as he possibly can.  He isn’t there out of duty.  He’s there out of delight.

If we felt that way, we would never miss another quiet time again.

So, how does delight get perverted into duty in our hearts?

Well, there are a lot of answers to that.  Some of it has to do with our preaching – we’re great at telling people they need to spend time with God.  We just often forget to mention the real issue is desiring time with God!  Some of it has to do with the accountability questions we ask in a life group.  We shouldn’t settle for “are you reading the Bible?”  We should press towards, “Are you enjoying God?”  But there’s something more subtle in our hearts that leads us astray.

Many of us spend time with God to earn, not to receive.  We fall into the trap of legalism – I need to invest this time in my relationship with God so that He’ll bless me throughout the rest of my day.  It’s kind of a “I read some Bible, God protects me from evil” exchange.  We see time with God as the price of admission for blessing.  Imagine how different it would be if we simply came to receive from Him.  We’re not coming to prove our love; we’re coming for our love to be strengthened.  We’re coming because we’re weak, confused, powerless, broken, lonely, afraid and burdened by the cares of the world.  We’re coming that God can speak into us, give us strength, lead us, heal us, restore us and prepare us for His mission.

Joshua didn’t stay in the tent to earn.  He stayed in the tent to receive.  He knew God was the fountain of life (Ps. 36:9).  He knew the fullness of joy was found in the presence of God. (Ps. 16:11)  He knew the longings of His soul could only be met by the God who created him. (Ps. 63:1)  So, he stayed.  He wasn’t trying to impress the village or polish his resume as the one day leader of the nation.  He just wanted more.

Time with God will always become duty if it’s about earning.  It will become a delight when it’s about receiving.  Allow your motives to shift and see if you don’t end up loving time with God more than you ever thought possible.

Growing Through Writing

For the last several years, journaling has been a regular spiritual discipline in my relationship with God.  It’s become an essential tool for sorting out my thoughts, processing major decisions and applying the Scriptures to my life with, at times brutal, honesty.  But it wasn’t all that long ago that I thought the idea of journaling was unmanly at best and downright silly at worst.  Maybe journaling worked for teenage girls but definitely not for grown men and certainly not for leaders!
Truth be told, I just didn’t know how to journal in a way that led to real spiritual growth.  As I’ve been growing in this area, I’ve developed some habit and guidelines that have made my journaling richer and more transformative.  If you’re thinking about journaling but not sure where to begin, they might be helpful to you as well.
1. Don’t Fear Trial And Error
The key is to develop a personal style that works for you – so a lot of learning to journal is going to be trial and error.  Get started, experiment and see what works for you.  Don’t be afraid to apply this principle to the frequency with which you journal, the length, the content, the format (notebook or computer app) and any other variable you can imagine.  I’m not trying to offer you a recipe.  I’m offering some suggestions.
2. Keep Communication With God Central
The only thing that is almost 100% consistent for me is that I write my entries as a letter to God.  And, yes, that means I literally start with the salutation, “Father,” and then start in on the letter.  I found this helped me turn journaling into a form of prayer.  This simple format reminds me that what I really need is to communicate with my Father.  I’ll often write very introspectively but always to God.
3.  Use Scripture As A Guide
Before I write, I read.  I will grab a passage of Scripture, many times just one psalm, and start reading it and looking for the verse that impacts me the most.  I’ll then copy that verse to the top of my entry and allow the text to guide my letter.  Yes, “impacting” is vague but deliberately so – it may be the verse that encourages, challenges or rebukes me the most.  It may be a new insight.  It may be an aspect of God’s character I haven’t considered in a while.  What I’m really looking for is the thing that jumps off the page.
4.  React To The Scripture That’s Guiding You
The reason I picked a particular verse will almost always dictate the form and content of my letter to God.  If it’s a new insight, the entry will seem very much like a Bible study – picking the verse apart, linking it to other sections of the Scripture, thinking through applications, etc.  If I’m rebuked by the text, then my letter often turns to confession.  Add in gratitude, encouragement and a range of other reactions and the letter will start to write itself.
5.  Include Specific Prayer Requests
I almost always ask God for something.  But I try not to make that the dominant theme of my entries.  I’m not organizing God’s To Do list for Him.  I’m talking to my Father in response to His Word and the circumstances of my life.  But I do love recording specific requests because I’m then able to record specific answers to those prayers in time.
6.  Don’t Hold Anything Back
My biggest rule is to be brutally honest.  I’ve always made the assumption that no one else will read my journal (or if they do, I’ll be dead already) so I don’t write in vague generalities – it’s the place to get everything out and be as specific, honest and vulnerable as I possibly can be.  It’s often the things I least want to write that I most need to get out and work through with God.
Journaling isn’t about adding one more thing to your spiritual routine in the hopes of earning favor from God.  The gospel frees us to think much differently – in Christ we are already loved and approved.  Journaling is about having one more tool that enables us to connect with the God who has already lavished grace on us.  If you start journaling, my prayer is that this simple tool will increase your affection for Jesus and your love for the gospel.