Finding God in Disappointment

[Adapted from Sunday’s sermon at The District Church, “Finding God in Disappointment.”]

Have you ever been disappointed?

Have you ever experienced disappointment in your life with any of the following:

  • something you bought, some event you attended, some movie you watched;
  • some job that wasn’t all you thought it was going to be, some degree program that turned out to be lame, some move that wasn’t everything you’d hoped, some politician who let you down;
  • your friends, your family, someone you looked up to, someone you trusted, a romantic relationship—even a marriage?

How about this: have you ever experienced any disappointment in your life because of Christians, because of the church, or because of God?

Everyone experiences disappointment, but not everyone finds God in it; and I think God is there to be found. God is certainly at work in the midst of it all—that we can rely on, even if we can’t see him. But often when we experience disappointment, our first reaction is to pull away and to give up, instead of trusting that God is still at work even when things don’t seem to be going our way and seeking where he may be found, even in those places.

Think about how we perceive the relationship between God and our well-being even today: there’s a widely-held (and sometimes unspoken) assumption that if you’re doing well financially or relationally or materially or professionally, God is blessing you—and that may well be the case. But the problem comes when we assume:

  1. that that’s always the case—that material prosperity and God’s blessing are the same thing; and
  2. that the converse is also always true—that if you aren’t doing well, then God isn’t with you.

Even if we might say those things aren’t true, there’s still a sense in which we make judgments about others and about ourselves when things don’t go our way. I remember, when I was still single and a relationship didn’t work out, wondering why God would put me through that again. Or when I was applying for jobs and didn’t hear back from a single one, being like, “God, haven’t I done everything you wanted me to do? What gives?”

In Luke 24:21, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus say, “We had hoped that [Jesus] was the one”, but they had to lay those hopes to rest. What hopes have you had to lay to rest? In the wake of a loss, a breakup, a letdown, a layoff, an unfavorable decision; love denied, job denied, school denied. “We had hoped …” The disciples’ hope was that Jesus was the one to bring redemption to Israel. What disappointments have you experienced when it relates to the resurrection and all of the things you feel like you were promised because of Christ?

In the 1500s, a Spanish monk by the name of Juan de la Cruz—in English, John of the Cross—wrote about what he called “the dark night of the soul,” which is not simply the experience of suffering but the experience of suffering in what seems like the silence of God. Can you relate?

Last week we remembered Christ’s death on Good Friday and we celebrated Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday, but one day we didn’t talk about was Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is the day when Jesus was dead and in the tomb, and there was no guarantee that he was coming back. Holy Saturday is the day when doubt and despair and darkness held sway, and hope and faith were hanging by a thread. Holy Saturday is the day that reflects the reality of how many of us experience life right now—even after the resurrection: it’s the time theologians describe as the “already but not yet,” when Christ has already come but not yet come again, when Christ has already won the decisive battle but the full restoration is not yet here, when sin and death and evil were defeated on the cross but they have not yet been obliterated.

I think Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus were still living in a Holy Saturday reality—they’d heard about the resurrection but they hadn’t seen the risen Jesus; they weren’t sure if it was even true or not; their disappointments and their doubts still dominated. For them, Jesus was dead and God was silent; hope was gone and God was silent.

Something that struck me this week as I was reflecting on Luke 24 was verse 16: “they were kept from recognizing him.” The disciples, shorn of hope, weighed down by disappointment, experiencing a dark night of the soul, were kept from recognizing Jesus. He could have shown up and said, “What’s up, guys? It’s me! Rumors are true. Back from the dead.” Their hearts would have been lifted, their hopes would have been restored, and their souls would have rejoiced. But instead, he keeps them from recognizing him for the whole journey; he pretends not to know what’s going on; he allows them to stay in their disappointment. Why would Jesus do this?

John of the Cross writes:

There will come a time [in a person’s spiritual life] when God will bid them to grow deeper. He will remove the previous consolation of the soul [the sense of his presence] in order to teach it virtue.

John Goldingay said this:

When John [of the Cross] talks about the dark night, he talks about it in terms of stripping away the things that do not really matter to us. The dark night takes us back to basics. It raises the questions of who we really are and what we are really aiming at … makes us concentrate on what deserves concentration.[1]

In February, we talked about uncertainty, and I said:

Sometimes God has something to teach us in the midst of uncertainty that we could never learn—or never be open to learning—in the midst of certainty. [Uncertainty] can provide perspective for us and give us the opportunity to see unimaginable beauty that we would otherwise miss, just like darkness allows us to see things—like the stars—that we could never see in the light.

Darkness allows us to see things we could never see in the light. Disappointment allows us to see things we could never see in success. Discomfort allows us to see things we could never see in ease. In Psalm 131, one of my favorite psalms, the writer says: “But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.” Ah, contentment with God, quietness and stillness and calm. Isn’t there a part of us that, in the midst of busyness and stress and anxiety, really longs for that? But what else does the psalm say? “Like a weaned child.”

What is weaning? A series of small disappointments effected in order to help the child move from their mother’s milk to an adult diet, to help the child grow up? It’s a series of “No’s” so that the child might arrive at a better, healthier, more mature relationship with their parents, and with their own needs and desires. The purpose of weaning is to help the child grow into a place of contentment and satisfaction. But to get there, they have to pass through the land of disappointment. “There will come a time when God will bid them to grow deeper.”

Why were the disciples kept from recognizing Jesus? Maybe because they needed to work through some things; maybe they needed to hear what Jesus had to tell them—he doesn’t mince words when he says, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe!”; maybe they needed to see that the women whose testimony they had disparaged (see Luke 24:11) were right; maybe they needed to learn what faith looks like when it’s tried and tested; maybe they needed to grasp that the expectations they had had of Jesus, the expectations that had not been met, the ways they thought Jesus had let them down, that those expectations were actually wrong.

The relationships that didn’t work out—the ones that broke my heart—I needed to experience those to realize that my worth doesn’t come from what someone else says about me but it is grounded in God. The jobs that I applied for but didn’t get—I needed to experience those rejections in order to focus my attention more fully on what God was really calling me to; if I’d gotten any of those jobs I’d applied for—jobs in advocacy and politics—I may not have ended up as a pastor, I may not have ended up doing what I know I was made to do. But when I was going through those times, I couldn’t see that. When I was going through those times, they were absolutely dark and disappointing—I couldn’t discern what God was doing through them; they just seemed like closed doors.

Maybe there are places in your life that feel dark or disappointing where Jesus is with you but he’s actually keeping you from recognizing him right now. Maybe because you need to work through some things—and he’ll be with you in it, even if you aren’t aware of him; maybe you need to listen to what Jesus has to say to you—truths you’ve dismissed or convicting words you’ve tried to ignore; maybe you need to see that someone you wrote off was right; maybe you need to learn what faith looks like when it’s tried and tested; maybe you need to grasp that the expectations you had had of Jesus, the expectations that have not been met, the ways you thought Jesus has let you down, that those expectations are actually wrong.

Sometimes Jesus keeps us from recognizing him immediately because there are things we need to learn and work out and realize, because faith grows in all sorts of ways, even in darkness and disappointment. In fact, sometimes darkness and disappointment are invitations and unique opportunities to press in. Let me ask you this: What if you can’t actually truly experience resurrection unless you press in to it?

Here’s what I mean. Jesus called the disciples “foolish”—as in, slow to understand (hence his explanation)—and “slow of heart”—that’s how it’s phrased in the Greek. The heart is not about your cognitive understanding but rather your inner commitments, dispositions, and attitudes, the things that determine your life. See, you can sit back and complain when things don’t go your way—as if that were ever promised; you can do only what’s necessary to get by—show up at church once in a while, show up at small group as long as it doesn’t interfere with your social schedule.

Or you can press in—you can pursue God and life and truth and hope in the midst of whatever darkness and death surrounds you, entrusting yourself fully into the hands of God, leaning into God and caring for others even when things don’t go your way. Only one of those postures opens your eyes to what God is doing in and through and around you. Maybe, just like the disciples, it is as we press in to the resurrection of Jesus, walking in community, sharing our sorrows with God, listening and learning from Scripture, inviting others to speak truth into our lives, that we cultivate the conditions for growth and healing and learning and maturation and sight, that we create space for God to transform us and we begin to find God in the midst of disappointment.

Rembrandt’s “Christ at Emmaus”

When they got to Emmaus, the disciples invited Jesus to stay the night—it was late and the road wasn’t safe after dark. And as they sat down for dinner, “Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him …” (24:30-31). It was only then that they recognized him—after experiencing crushing doubt and cruel disappointment and community division, after walking with Jesus unbeknownst for two hours, after listening to the words he had to say, after inviting him to share a meal with them. It’s only then that they’re able to look back and say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” I long for these moments when our eyes are opened and we recognize God, when our hearts burn within us with the realization that God is here now; I pray for these moments—for myself and for all of you—but only in God’s time, because we might not even recognize God in those moments if we aren’t looking with the right eyes, if we aren’t living with the right heart, if we aren’t seeking to understand with the right mind, if we aren’t practicing resurrection as active participants.

So remember these two words, recite them and remind yourself of them no matter what you encounter:

Press in.

Press in to Jesus in the midst of your doubts and your disappointments and your darkness.

Press in to Jesus by reminding yourself of his promises in Scripture.

Press in to Jesus by seeking genuine community—friends who will encourage you and challenge you, people who will help knock off those rough edges and refine you for the kingdom.

Press in to Jesus and find God.

He is with you, even in your disappointments.

[1] John Goldingay, Walk On, 66.

What happened to January?!

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A strange thing happened. I turned around and it was like January had disappeared! If you’re like me, you’re wondering how we found ourselves in the second month of the year already.

So here are some highlights of what’s happened in the last couple months, and a short reflection on what God’s been doing so far in 2016.

GOINGS-ON

  • Dec 18: Had LASIK surgery. For the first time in twenty years, I don’t need glasses! One curious side-effect is that when I can’t read something, I have to remind myself that LASIK doesn’t make me Superman; it only restores my vision to 20/20!
  • Dec 24: Delivered a homily in our Christmas Eve service, entitled “Do Not Be Afraid” (click to listen). Teaser: Fear, it seems, is everywhere fear of losing control, fear of being alone, fear of not being loved, fear of not being enough. But to all of us, God says, “Do not be afraid.” He has good news for us.
  • Dec 27: Preached on “Good Endings” — how to end well. The podcast didn’t record so we turned it into a blog, which you can read here.
  • Jan 1: Rolled out a new tool to our church for spiritual growth and soul care — it’s called the SPIRE Plan, and you can read more about it here.
  • Jan 22-23: Survived Snowzilla (aka Winter Storm Jonas), which dumped a couple feet of snow on our city. (Asher had a blast, but we did have to cancel Sunday services for the first time in TDC history.)
  • Jan 29-30: Our Leadership Community (over 100 staff, small group leaders, and ministry team leaders) got away for our annual retreat last weekend, where Rich Nathan, pastor of Vineyard Columbus, helped us create spaces for the Holy Spirit to move in powerful ways.

Something else that I didn’t mention previously was that I was asked to join the board of the V3 Church Planting Movement, an invitation I humbly accepted. The District Church has several close ties with V3; with National Director JR Woodward having been part of our church for the last few years and our own Matthew Watson serving as a V3 coach for other church planters.

REFLECTION

So far in 2016, God has been challenging me in some discomforting but exhilarating ways. As I’ve prayed, I’ve sensed the call of the Spirit to a deeper, more consistent, and more fully present life, for myself, for my marriage, and for our church. And even in these first few weeks of the year, I’ve begun to see glimpses of what God is doing, the opportunities he’s providing, and the places the Spirit is moving.

2015 was a full year for me. By God’s grace, 2016 will be a deep year. I pray the same for you.

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!