An unexpected pilgrimage

FullerAt the beginning of the year, I started in the Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Seminary. Last week I was in California to take a class — “Spiritual Formation and Discipleship in the Postmodern World,” with Richard Peace. One of the concepts which stuck with me from class (and there’s much that I’m still unpacking and meditating on) is that of pilgrimage.

“Pilgrimage” isn’t a term Protestants or evangelicals use all that often any more. In pilgrimage, or holy journeying, one makes a sojourn to a significant spiritual site as an act of worship and with an attitude of heightened awareness of God; oftentimes, one will encounter others along the way — fellow pilgrims. You might think of pilgrims to the Holy Land (Israel/Palestine); for Muslims, an annual pilgrimage to Mecca is part of the five pillars of their faith (known as Hajj).

I’ve realized over these last few days that going back to Southern California — and to Fuller Seminary in particular — is a kind of pilgrimage for me.

Let me explain.

It’s been nine years since I moved from London to California to begin my master’s at Fuller.

It’s been six years since I graduated with my master’s and moved across the country to DC to participate in Sojourners’ internship year, a bright-eyed, fresh-faced 26 year-old, eager to make my mark in the world of advocacy and politics (but also thinking I’d be moving back to California before too long).

It’s been two and a half years since I was last in California, when I brought my then-girlfriend Carolyn to meet my brother and his family, and to give her a whirlwind tour of the place I’d lived for three years; at that time, I was a few years in to being a pastor at The District Church and actually right in the process of planting our East Side parish.

This past week I was back, five years into being a pastor, five years into the life of our church, 15 months into being married, 7 months into being a homeowner, 5 months into being a dog owner, and just over a year into my new role as Pastor of Teaching and Formation.

The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve changed, that I’ve gone through some significant life changes over the last nine years. My time there from 2006-2009 remain some of the most formative — it was there that God broke my heart for issues of injustice and poverty; it was there that a girl broke my heart and God put me back together again in a way that rooted me in him like never before; it was there that I experienced what true life in community can look like; it was there that I made some deep, deep spiritual friendships.

But it goes beyond me too — in ways that weren’t about me but unavoidably set my path. My first visit to Fuller was in 2002, when my brother Gabe graduated with his master’s. It was my first time in California, and I fell in love with the sun and the sand, and the seed was planted of one day living there.

In 1970, my parents were living on Fuller’s campus as my dad was doing his master’s there; my mom worked in the finance department. During their time there, my eldest brother Clem was born. The house they lived in still stands, right across from the library, now serving as offices for faculty. I walked past it almost every day for three years, and a few more times this past week. Because of this generational connection with Fuller, it was really the only seminary I seriously considered when God inclined my heart that way.

There’s a deep spiritual significance for me to come back to a place where God was so present to me and active in my life, but also so present and active in the lives of my family, and even more so to the thousands of people who have been formed and educated and sent out to love the world for Jesus over the decades of Fuller’s existence. I think I’d always had a sense of that, but it became much clearer to me this week.

A lot of friends have moved away in recent years but I was still able to spend a weekend with my brother Gabe and his family, to reconnect with some good friends who are still around, and even to make some new friends in class, pastors and leaders at churches and colleges across the US and around the world — others on the same journey.

Spiritual formation is the process of being formed in the image of Jesus, in the likeness of Christ — it’s our design and end goal as human beings, made in the image of a loving God, made to be image-bearers of our creator God just as Jesus was.

A big part of spiritual formation is simply noticing God, being present to God, knowing that God is real and God is love and God is at work, and looking for that and seeing that in our lives and in the world around us. And being able to identify those places where God has been at work, those places of spiritual significance and depth, those places of pilgrimage, is a good exercise in noticing God.

Last Friday, somewhat unbeknownst to me, I embarked on a pilgrimage. I knew where I was going on a geographic level. I knew I was going somewhere that meant something to me relationally and emotionally and personally, but I had no idea just how deep God wanted me to go spiritually, how many insights he’d reveal to me, how much challenge he’d issue me, how much conviction he’d lay on me or how much comfort he’d offer me.

I guess you could say it was a pretty good week.

What are the places of pilgrimage for you?

What are the places that have particular significance to you? They may not seem to be spiritual on one level — maybe it’s a place that’s attached to a relationship that went well … or badly; maybe it’s somewhere that’s attached to a striking memory from your childhood — but the thing is, if it’s impacted you at all, it’s impacted your spirit, and the likelihood is that God said or did something in or through that — perhaps bringing healing or guidance or reassurance. Maybe you’re noticing this for the first time. Give thanks to God for that.

And open your eyes. He’s probably been in a few other places too.

How to Trust God

[Adapted from Sunday’s message at The District Church (Columbia Heights parish): “How to Trust God (or, How to Live in the Kingdom)”, based on Luke 11:37-12:34.]

Here’s what I think: in any given situation, you have a choice; and that choice is a matter of trust. The choice is whether you will trust God or whether you will trust something else. Every time you choose to trust God, you are demonstrating your citizenship, your residence in the kingdom of God. Every time you choose not to trust God, you are pledging your allegiance to some other kingdom and some other ruler. Most of the time, the choice doesn’t seem as clear as that and it’s hard to know what it looks like to trust God, but I’m convinced that most of the decisions we make can be traced back to this root choice.

Here are some ways we can trust God (more):

1. We trust God by trusting what he sees. 1 Samuel 16:7 says:

The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.

If the Lord looks at the heart, we may want to be working, first, on our hearts and not just on the outward appearance that people look at, and second, on the ways we look at the outward appearance rather than the heart. We live in a culture that glorifies the superficial, that celebrates the artificial, that idolizes physical attractiveness, even while things like character and maturity are undervalued and neglected. We look at the outside; God looks at the heart.

Jesus says, in Luke 12:2-3:

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.

This word is a challenge to me, a challenge to the way I live my life. Many people in our church just get to see me on Sundays, and hopefully whether I’m preaching or leading worship or just greeting you at the door, they’re left with a good impression. But my prayer is that my whole life is pleasing to God, not just the parts that people see. My prayer is that the way I speak to Carolyn when nobody else is around is pleasing to God; my prayer is that the way I treat the homeless guy on the corner who’s asking for help is pleasing to God; my prayer is that the way I browse the internet, when no one else is home, is pleasing to God; my prayer is that the way I spend every dollar I earn and every moment of every day is pleasing to God, whether anybody is there to see me or not, whether I post it to social media or not, whether I’m praised for it by another person or not.

If we trust God, we’ll trust what he sees—that the inside is far more important than external appearances.

2. We trust God by trusting what he says. Because what we say reflects where we place our trust, and where we place our trust impacts what we say. In Luke 12:6-7, Jesus says:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

You are valuable to God. One of the struggles I know many of you deal with is how to be a Christian in non-Christian, and even anti-Christian, environments—whether that’s at school or at work or even in your own family. This is the challenge that many of our brothers and sisters around the world are facing, persecuted, their very lives threatened—do we fear God or do we fear people? Do you care more about what your boss thinks or about what God thinks? Do you care more about your significant other’s approval or God’s approval? Are you more afraid of your friends turning their back on you or of you turning your back on God?

Now, please don’t hear me saying that this means you should go all gung-ho and start adding John 3:16 to your work email signature or spouting off religious screeds on social media or running roughshod over your loved ones and what they think.

But what would it look like if you were to accept the truth that God says to you, “I love you, you’re mine,” every morning, every night, every moment?

How would that truth—that the God of the universe loves you, that your heavenly Father has got your back, even when you have no idea what’s going on in your life!—change the way you live your life? How would trusting what God says change what you say and do—at work, at home, in your friendships, in your relationships, on social media?

We trust God by trusting what he says, no matter what anyone else says.

3. We trust God by trusting that he will provide and that what he provides will be enough.

In one of his greatest challenges, Jesus says, in Luke 12:22-23:

I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.

Jesus goes on to say, “God provides for the birds and for the flowers. How much more will he care for you? Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink; your Father knows that you need these things.”

A couple weeks ago, we looked at what Jesus said about prayer, about how prayer begins with our understanding of God as Father, as the one who loves us and cares for us and seeks our good and will give us what we need. I love what Jesus says in 12:32:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.

Your Father knows what you really need, and he is happy to provide it. “But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (12:31).

The antidote to fear and anxiety, to greed and worry, is to trust God, to trust that he will provide and that what he provides will be enough.

  • It may be healing … or it may be strength for the journey.
  • It may be that relationship … or it may be restoration when your heart is broken.
  • It may be the new job … or it may be a context in which to mature.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne said:

God will either give you what you ask, or something far better.

Because that’s the kind of God we serve. Because that’s what God is like.

At the heart of life in the kingdom of God, at the core of the eternal kind of life, at the center of the life Jesus desires for us to live is trust of God. Jesus lived this out in his own life. He loved others unconditionally because he trusted in God’s love for each and every person as created in the image of God. He was never defensive, never judgmental, and yet also never afraid to call out injustice and hypocrisy because he knew what God had said—about himself and about the way the world was meant to be. And he lived with few possessions, traveling among the poor, bouncing from house to house, trusting that God would provide, that his Father would give him whatever he needed to survive. He lived his life surrendered to the kingdom of God, submitted to the will of God, and gave his life on that cross, trusting that by his death he might win us life and trusting that God would vindicate him by raising him up from the dead. And God came through. God always comes through.

Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken, a couple of pastors in California, wrote:

the gospel of the kingdom invites us to trust God in everything. Trust is demonstrated by our willingness to act as though what we claim to believe is true. Some will begin their journey with Christ by getting on their knees, praying a sinner’s prayer, and writing down the date, time and location in a journal. They will remember the experience for the rest of their lives. … Others will, by the grace of God, begin living as though they really do trust Jesus and their “decision” will be woven into their new actions and choices. They will simply begin to orient their lives around Jesus.

So where will you place your trust?

Celebrating — and mourning — change

ES Time Change

This Sunday, our East Side parish will move its regular service time to 10:30am!

It’s an exciting change — one we never had the volunteers, resources, or leadership to be able to pull off before, but one that I’d been hoping and praying for since we planted the parish. So I celebrate that we’re able to do it, and I’m tremendously grateful for Matthew Watson’s leadership in walking us through this transition.

But I realized this week that from this Sunday, I’ll no longer be able to worship in both parishes — and that’s actually kind of sad. The plan is for me to be in Columbia Heights on Sunday mornings if I have preaching or worship-leading duties, but otherwise I’ll be at East Side.

For the last five years, I’ve cultivated some deep friendships in Columbia Heights parish, and for the last two years, equally good friendships in the East Side parish. For five years, I’ve ministered every Sunday alongside (and in the same location as) Aaron and Amy and Jordan and others. Even though Carolyn and I live on the East Side and call it our home parish, for the last year (since I shifted to my churchwide role), I’ve tried to be at all three services in both parishes as much as possible — primarily because of all of these relationships. And so there’s some sadness as well.

Change can be good — and I give thanks to God for that. But change — even good change, even change for the better, even prayed-for change — also means loss, which means grief; and that too I carry to God.

Anyway … what started as an announcement about East Side’s time change turned into a meditation on change. Ah well …

Happy Friday night!

Celebrating 5 years of The District Church

tdc launch day 1

I took this picture on September 19, 2010, when I walked through the doors of the cafeteria at Capital City Public Charter School and felt like I was home.

It was the first public gathering of The District Church — 48 people and two kids showed up. It was a testament to the strange and marvelous way that God works; we’d grown a lot in just four months from a small group of about a dozen folks, none of whom had ever intentionally started a church before. Little did we know what was to come out of the faithfulness of Aaron and Amy Graham in responding to God’s call to plant a church in DC.

I found this video from 2011, where I share some of how God led me to be a part of this community I’ve called home for the last few years:

Yesterday, we celebrated our fifth anniversary. Five years of learning how to follow God better, how to love others better, how to be more like Jesus. Five years of doing life alongside new friends, old friends, dear friends, and family. Five years of seeing God’s faithfulness and God’s Spirit doing far more than we could ever have done or even imagined on our own.

Five years has seen a vast amount of change even in my own life:

  • my job description has changed from Leadership Resident to Associate Pastor to East Side parish pastor to Pastor of Teaching and Formation;
  • I’ve been ordained, baptized folks, and married folks;
  • I met Carolyn, we got engaged, married, bought a house, got a dog (living into our Jeremiah 29 commission? Next up: plant a garden!).

And what I thought would be a year-long internship has become my home for as long as God has me here.

I’m so unbelievably grateful for God’s grace in my own life. And even more so in the lives of those I’ve been privileged to get to know over these last five years; whether they’ve been passing through DC or whether they’ve put down their roots here, countless folks have chosen to throw in their lot with the rest of us, desperately daring to believe God is still at work in our city.

Let me share with you our most recent (5th Anniversary Edition) Annual Report, another testament to God’s faithfulness and the power of God’s Spirit:

Here’s to all that’s gone before and all that’s still to come. Thanks be to God.

#BlackLivesMatter is a gospel issue

At The District Church, we’ve just started a series entitled “A Call for Racial Reconciliation.” Matthew kicked us off powerfully this past Sunday by talking about “Why Race Matters to God,” and included the unqualified statement that “Black Lives Matter is a gospel issue.” You can listen to that here.