Prayers in the Land of “If Not”

In Amazed and Confused, I talk about the importance of having “if not” faith. The kind of faith that navigates us through the moments when God’s actions collide with our expectations. The faith that sustains us when God doesn’t respond in the way we think that He could or should. The kind of faith that stands the test of life.

It’s reflected in a story in Daniel 3 in the humble confidence of three Jewish boys who find themselves caught between a crazy king and a fiery furnace in Babylon. When they refuse to bow down to the idol the king has erected, they were threatened with death. This was the response:

Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to defend our actions in this matter. We are ready for the test. If you throw us into the blazing furnace, then the God we serve is able to rescue us from a furnace of blazing fire and release us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if He does not, O king, you can be sure that we still will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue you erected.

This is the kind of faith that knows God can, believes God will, but chooses to worship even if He does not.

Maybe you are living in the land of “if not” right now. Perhaps you are staring into a future that seems uncertain. What does prayer look like?

I am facing an “if not” moment in my life right now. Beyond the obvious prayers that God will come through, work miracles, and do what only He can do, I’m also praying for a few other things. Including:

  • That I would see the faithfulness of God, regardless of the outcome.
  • That God would glorify Himself in me and through me, regardless of the outcome.
  • That those who are a part of the journey would be curious about the Jesus who I follow and the faith that sustains me.

What do you pray in the land of “If Not?”

May 19th, 2014 [ Tags: , , ] 15 Comments

Community is Still Messy

In the Beginning, God created. And with the sound of his voice, galaxies were hurled into orbit, light beamed from the heavens and waters covered the earth. Valleys dug deep and mountains sprung high. Birds flew in the air and fish swam in the seas. Insects filled the ground and dinosaurs thundered across the land. The man and the woman, made in the image of their Author and Creator, were placed in the Garden, enjoyed perfect community, and were surrounded by the presence of God. And God declared it all good.

Two chapters later we messed it all up. And that wasn’t the end.

Then Cain and Abel came along. Murder, jealousy, mess.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph take center stage in multiple family meltowns. Which resulted in mess.

There there’s Moses. I like to think of Moses as the first small group leader with a group of people who didn’t follow instructions, complained, and who forgot miracles within hours. They were completely ADD. It was a mess.

Fast forward to David, the second small group leader in the Bible. He was running for his life and hid in the cave of Adullam where he was joined by men who were in trouble, in debt, or just discontented. Great. Mess.

Okay let’s skip over to the New Testament where we like to think Jesus came to clean it all up. But he was born in a stone feeding tough for animals. He called 12 men to follow him- fisherman, tax collectors, political revolutionaries—who bickered over who was going to be greatest in the Kingdom. And then one of them betrayed him and the rest scattered.

The majority of the writings in the New Testament are there because the early church was messy. Consider the church in Corinth. Incestuous affairs, lawsuits, divorce and separation, idol worship, big egos, doctrinal fighting, sexual promiscuity, people getting drunk while celebrating communion. Now you know you have a problem in your church when people are getting drunk on communion. And it must have been before they invented those little plastic shot glasses…

And yet as we read these stories, we see the hand of God writing his own story in them and through them. Emerging from the mess is the fingerprint of God writing the hope of the Gospel and his story of redemption.

Here’s the scary news. Community is messy. Messy community is not the exception to the rule; it is the rule. It always has been and on this side of eternity it always will be.

We often try to hide or downplay our mess and the mess of others. But what if mess is not something to be avoided or hidden away or swept under the rug. What if mess could be the environment that brings the community and transformation we most want to see?

Small groups are great. Then the people show up. And they drag their hurts, habits, hangups, and brokenness and dump them in our living rooms.

The moment we understand that community is messy becomes the defining moment of our leadership.

Small groups make our houses messy, our calendars messy, and they load up our inboxes with messy emails. We find ourselves navigating sin messes—gossip, anger, pornography. We encounter life messes—divorced parents, broken relationships, bad reports from the doctor, downsizing at the office, children who despite our best efforts to raise them in the ways of God choose to detour along another path. We face the tension of relational messes. Like the talkers—the long talkers, off-topic talkers, narcissistic talkers, super spiritual talkers, theologically divisive talkers, weird talkers and trash talkers. It’s the kind of mess that happens when thinkers and feelers unpack Romans together. It’s the mess of agreeing to agree on major doctrine and agree to disagree over minor doctrine only to learn that you disagree over what’s major doctrine and what’s minor doctrine.

I live in a world where mess abounds. The church I have the privilege of serving in Washington, DC is about 60% single and under the age of 35. One of the places I live and lead in the tension every day is in navigating tricky political issues with people whose passions and jobs are fueled by them. When Paul instructs us to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn, I have the opportunity to practice that every 2 years.

Let me tell you about one tribe that has dared to embrace the mess in order to grow more like Jesus. It’s a group for young adults who work on Capitol Hill. On both sides of the aisle. I thought it was a great idea for a group and when the election season rolled around this past fall, I just assumed that group would be happy to multiply into two groups- elephants on the right and donkeys on the left. But they stuck together. They made a decision to watch all three presidential debates together. They prayed for one another—recognizing that the answers to those prayers could be detrimental to their own political strategies. They discovered community that transcended roles, responsibilities, and labels. They connected to a tribe that transcended all other tribal loyalties.

But they didn’t leave it there. They spent a group meeting studying James 5:16 and discussing the spiritual discipline of confession. Towards the end of the group, one of the group members spoke up and challenged, “Are we just going to talk about this or are we actually going to do it?” Now, that group meets twice a week. Not just for their regularly scheduled group but also for early morning confession.

Those brave twenty-somethings have learned that mess is not something to be avoided as a detriment to community. But something to be embraced. They’ve found that sometimes mess is a byproduct of growth. You make a decision to become more like Christ…and you find yourself rethinking what you believe and why you believe it. It gets messy. Sometimes mess is a catalyst to growth. You get thrown in with messy relational and political dynamics and you find yourself praying for and loving the one who was once your enemy.

Small groups are great. And then the people show up. And mess happens. Mess which can become the catalyst for, the byproduct of, the environment in which discipleship happens. We move from a program to the Body of Christ—a body broken and poured out to a world in need. The Body of Christ where hope and redemption are found.

May 6th, 2014 [ Tags: , , ] 14 Comments

Say “Yes” to the Next Generation

Erastus. Rufus. Gaius. Phoebe. Priscilla. Olympas. Aquilla. These names don’t mean anything to us but they meant the world to Paul. When Paul wrote his letter to the church in Rome, it was his most theological and philosophical book. It would become the most systematic, categorical, and comprehensive declaration of faith in the entire New Testament. And he ended it with a list of names. Almost three dozen names. After he put the period on his statement of faith, he let the credits roll. People who had shaped him and formed him, people who had invested in him, people who had taken a risk on him, people who had been crazy enough to join him. People who have served as his mentors, his disciples, his teammates, his spiritual family. He realized that even his theology could not be formed in a vacuum.

Saying “yes” to the next generation means we have to say yes to building a church where people matter. A church where everyone knows they belong. The structure we create should set up relationships to thrive.

Programs don’t disciple people. People disciple people. But programs are the environments, the connections, and the glue that facilitate those relationships.

Are our programs set up just to keep people busy? Or do they lead to life-changing relationships?

Disciples don’t emerge from a program. They emerge from a relationship. So our structures have to prioritize those relationships.

If we are going to make our churches places where everyone knows they belong, we have to take Jesus’ last command seriously- to make disciples. I think it’s interesting that he said we have to make disciples…not find them. That takes work and a massive reprioritization of our time, energy, and resources. Relationships need structure, but structure isn’t the goal. Jesus made sure every person he encountered knew that they mattered and had an opportunity to belong. Then, he invited them to play a role in a larger story.

Fishermen became followers.
Tax collectors became philanthropists.
Adulterers became evangelists.
Political revolutionaries became compassionate servants.

That’s how disciples are made. By giving them people a person who believes in them, a place to belong, and a story that is bigger than life. Our faith is shaped by the people around us and the places we belong.

Build Their List
Paul understood this. That’s why Romans ends with a list of names. Paul recognized that no statement of faith is developed and no mission is fulfilled in a vacuum. It is shaped by the people who surround us.

All of us have our own Romans 16 list.

Mine includes people like Mike Mathews, Herb Fisher, Dave Buehring, Stuart Hall, Mary Horton, and Mary Waite. I can’t tell my story of faith without including their names. They were Sunday school teachers, school teachers, pastors, my parent’s friends and my friend’s parents.

Who will be on your list? Who are the people that have shaped your understanding of faith? Who has walked life’s journey with you? A coach, a youth pastor, a grandparent? But then maybe more importantly, whose Romans 16 list will you be on? Who have you walked alongside of and reminded them of who God is and who they are in light of that?

Who can’t tell their story without including your name?

We’ve got to be intentional about making sure every kid has a Romans 16 list. Does the structure of your church prioritize relationships? It’s not about the programs they attend or the projects they complete, it’s about the people who will be on their Romans 16 list. And we have the responsibility to put those people their lives.

Name Their Potential
Building a church where every person matters and every person knows they belong also means naming their potential. Stewarding the influence that God has given to us means we’ve got to keep one ear to the Spirit and one ear to the ground in order to be prophets in the lives of kids—not necessarily foretelling who they will become but drawing out of them who God has created them to be. Our words matter so make them big. Make your words life-giving. Make them not just inspirational but aspirational—calling them to a higher level. You have to be a little crazy to be a disciple-maker because you have to see things in people that no one else sees and that they don’t see themselves. We have to look past the external and have supernatural insight into our kids’ gifts, potential, and calling. Discernment may or may not be one of your top spiritual gifts, but I’ve found that the Holy Spirit will often give insight concerning the people he has entrusted to my care.

When Samuel looked at David, he didn’t see a little shepherd boy, he saw a king.

Jesus looked at a big-mouthed fisherman and said, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.”

When Barnabas saw Saul, he didn’t see a murderer of Christians but a missionary who would take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

When Paul saw Timothy, he didn’t see a young punk kid, but told him “don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young, but be an example to all believers.”

When you look at the kids entrusted to your care, who do you see? We can’t control the choices they make, but we can control the words they hear. We can name their potential.

If we want to build churches where everyone belongs, we’ve got to put people in their lives that will give voice to their potential.

Brave Their Mess
Building a church where people matter and know they belong means we’ve got to be willing to run headlong into the mess they will inevitably create or find themselves in.

It begins with the mess of diapers and drool…and if only it could stay that clean. Before you know it, the mess turns into divorced parents, learning challenges, bad choices. As they enter the teenage years they make more messes than they can possibly keep a grip on. It’s the moment on a Friday night after an incredibly busy week when you are sitting on the third base line enjoying the baseball game…and your phone begins to buzz. The teenager popping up on your text sounds frightened and desperate. Two innings later they confess they might be pregnant and need help. So you run all over DC trying to find a CVS that’s open to buy a pregnancy test and sit with the kid during the excruciating moments that will follow.

Sometimes it’s sin mess- either sins they’ve committed or sins committed against them. Relational mess- the inevitable result of throwing people together with all their baggage and brokenness. Or life mess- the uncontrollable crap life throws at them.

Saying yes to relationships means saying yes to really messy situations. It means saying yes to really hard conversations. It means saying yes to inconvenience. It means saying yes to shifting priorities.

If we want to build churches where everyone knows they matter and they belong, we have to give them a person who isn’t intimidated by the mess. A place where the mess can be contained. And an assurance that God doesn’t leave us in mess but works in it and through it for our growth and his glory. Messes can be the incubators for miracles.

Communicate God’s Story
Finally, invite them into a story that is bigger than their own. It’s one thing to explain grace. It’s another thing to experience it. Creating structures and programs where people experience grace means putting a face on it, giving it a place to live, and ensuring it is part of the stories we share.

It is easy to give a kid a list of statements and say “believe it.” Or to hand them a list of rules and say “do it.” It’s something else to put people in front of them who live it.

We are not going to win the next generation if all we are doing is speaking at them. We’ve got to lead with conversation and not condemnation, inviting them into a story that is bigger than themselves. We’ve got to show them that it’s not rules to live by but a calling to live for.

Your platform will not last. Your books have a shelf life. Your sermons won’t be remembered. What will be remembered are the conversations. The presence. The sacrifices you made. We won’t be remembered by our title; we will be remembered for our love.

We have a responsibility to set up people who will communicate and communicate again the story of God’s grace and pursuit…and let them know they are wanted to play a significant role in it.

Say Yes
There are two preachers that I admire. John Wesley and George Whitfeield. Both left sermons in their wake—messages they preached that fill the shelves of seminary libraries. But one of them left entire congregations in their wake. Wesley sacrificed time and energy he could have spent to become a better preacher and invested it instead in helping others become better preachers. And it started a movement. Who do we leave in our wake?

When a kid leaves your ministry, who is going to be on their Romans 16 list? Because you control that. You can’t control the messes they create but you can determine they don’t walk through it alone. You can’t control the Scriptures they will believe or the commands they will obey but you can control that they experience grace in the fullness of truth and truth in the fullness of grace. You can’t control what the world tells them about who they are, but you can determine what they hear about who God has created them to be. Build their list. Name their potential. Brave their mess. And communicate the Story.

To build a church where every person matters and every person belongs, we cannot let Jesus’ last command become our least concern. We have to give every kid a person- someone who believes in them. We have to give every kid a place- somewhere that is a safe place for them to encounter a dangerous Gospel. We have to give every kid a purpose- an opportunity to experience the grace of God.