Just launched: Learning to Live

It feels like long-established tradition to apologize for the gap in communications. My mom used to check in on me if I hadn’t blogged in more than two weeks — to see if I was okay! (She’s done that less and less as my blogging breaks have gotten longer and longer!)

As always, my hope is to provide more regular updates and reflections, but here’s the biggest thing that’s taken up my life for the last year:

Learning to Live
Since last fall, I’ve been working on a discipleship project for our church, and much of the last few months has been about helping prepare our church to go through it. This is the first time we’re going through something all together as a church (including all of our small groups), so it’s pretty exciting.

To learn more, check out the trailer video below or visit the L2L page on our website. The material is also available via The District Church’s new mobile app.

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.

Being married: lessons learned so far

WH Fall Garden Tour

Yesterday marked four months of marriage for Carolyn and me. We had a conversation the other day about what we say when people ask us how things have been. Because, on the one hand, we don’t want or need to air the ins and outs of everything we’re going through; but, on the other hand, we don’t want or need to over-extol the joys or present an untrue picture of married life.

So … here are a few things I’ve learned in the last 124 days:

Some things are awesome. 

  1. I get to spend almost every day with the person I love the most.
  2. I get to share daily goings-on, little and large, with my best friend.
  3. I have someone who loves football as much as I do and will understand when a Seahawks loss makes me irritable.
  4. One of the things that drew me to Carolyn was that I wanted to see how God would continue to be at work in her life, and I get a front row seat to that — I get to experience the times of revelation and growth, and that is tremendously exciting to witness.

Some things are challenging.

  1. I have to spend almost every day with the person who knows me the best. I’m learning that I’m not as gracious or patient as I thought I was, not as good a communicator, not as unselfish as I hoped I was, and that there’s far more that God needs to do in me than I would like!
  2. When two people, who’ve been single for almost 60 years (combined), with two separate lives, two sets of friend groups, two very distinctive and different backgrounds, upbringings, educations, experiences, and schedules, come together, there’s a lot of give and take. It’s easy to have the presumption (or even the unconscious, unspoken expectation or hope) that being married will simply mean the addition of a best friend to your pre-existing schedule, but I can attest that that isn’t the case — and that’s been a teachable moment!
  3. Being someone who’s married rather than someone who’s single means learning a new way of understanding other relationships and communicating and being intentional in hanging out or catching up — with friends, with our church community, with family. Part of this means redefining expectations (on all sides) — and as my counselor has taught me: “Change = Loss = Grief.” But when one or both sides aren’t aware that there’s something to be grieved, we can be surprised by how we react (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).
  4. Learning how to prioritize growth over winning is refining in itself. There’s a strong desire toward self-preservation, which can express itself in putting self first. In disagreements, my inclination is to try to win, to articulate my points, to make sure that I’m understood. But trying to understand more than I’m understood, trying to properly listen to and hear what the other person’s saying, trying to seek her good and the good of our relationship — this is something I’ve tried to do throughout my life, but in a marriage it’s that much more magnified.

Of course, just because something is challenging doesn’t mean it’s bad — indeed, many of these challenges are part of the growing and maturing process, and for that I’m glad. So grateful to be figuring all this out in community — I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to have folks we can text to be praying for us or to talk through the hard times or to celebrate the joys of life.

 

Is it impossible to be like Jesus?

At the first session of The District Church’s discipleship class, I began by posing the question,

How many of you know that we’re called to be like Jesus?

Everyone raised their hand. I followed up:

How many of you actually think that’s possible?

Only a handful.

We dug in a little further and discovered that many of us had this notion that disciples were the upper tier of Jesus-followers, with a higher level of commitment, a greater willingness to sacrifice, those who had answered not just the primary call of Jesus to believe he existed but also the subsequent call to do what he said. Ordinary Christians were just trying to figure out what to do on a day-to-day basis, let alone the call of discipleship!

Yet the first call of Jesus isn’t a cognitive-intellectual one, but a holistic, expansive, all-encompassing one, condensed into two words:

Follow me.

Follow meI’m not going to unpack what Jesus calls us to in this post, but there’s a foundational adjustment to be made simply by understanding what a disciple is. As the late, great Dallas Willard wrote,

A disciple [of Jesus] is a person who has decided that the most important thing in their life is to learn how to do what Jesus said to do. A disciple is not a person who has things under control, or knows a lot of things. Disciples simply are people who are constantly revising their affairs to carry through on their decision to follow Jesus. [emphasis added]

The Greek word for disciple is mathetes, meaning “learner.” By definition, a “perfect disciple” is one who is always learning. This flies in the face of our Western understandings of perfection (derived from Ancient Greek philosophical concepts of the ideal) as something that is unchanging and to which nothing can be added.

This perspective is damaging in that it causes us to think that as disciples of Jesus, we’re called to be perfect, i.e. never make mistakes, rather than perfect disciples, i.e. always learning from our mistakes. Philip Yancey wrote of (the also late, great) Brennan Manning,

he progressed not by always making right decisions but by responding appropriately to wrong ones.

This is true in the way we live our lives, in the way we relate to other people, in the way we raise our kids, in the way we work with one another–it’s not about doing everything right; it’s about responding well when things don’t go right, about always having an attitude that seeks to learn and to grow and to continue to be formed more and more like Jesus.

Being a disciple of Jesus takes time and intentionality and cultivation. Just like Babe Ruth couldn’t hit a home run the moment he was born, but grew in strength and ability and through training; just like Steve Jobs didn’t know how to program a computer from birth, but spent hours and hours experimenting and playing around with code and trying things out; even in Jesus’ case, we’re told that he “grew in wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:52) … if the Son of God had to learn things, I shouldn’t be surprised that I do, too.

Being a disciple of Jesus is possible. It’s not some out-there achievement for the A-grade students, the ones who are supernaturally wired to accomplish things; it’s for anyone who decides to accept Jesus’ invitation–“Follow me”–and allows more of Jesus’ Spirit to live in and through him or her.

One day at a time, one hour at a time, one moment at a time.

Following Jesus: Marks of a disciple

[Part 2 of a blog adaptation of Sunday’s message at The District Church: “Come Follow Me”]

The second part of our recently-started series title is, “Marks of a Disciple.”

The Greek word for disciple in the New Testament is mathetes, which means learner. In Jesus’ day, Jewish disciples would follow their master around, learning how to be like him—how to talk, how to act, how to pray—and eventually, the idea was, disciples would become masters with their own disciples. But Jesus changed that up a little bit; he said, “You are not to be called master, or rabbi, for you have one teacher—me—and you are all students.”

Eugene Peterson, who wrote The Message paraphrase, said this:

Disciple (mathetes) says we are people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. We are in a growing-learning relationship, always. A disciple is a learner, but not in the academic setting of a schoolroom, rather at the work site of a craftsman. We do not acquire information about God but skills in faith. (A Long Obedience, 13)

Bob Goff, who wrote a tremendous book last year called Love Does, put it this way:

“I used to think I could learn about Jesus by studying him, but now I know Jesus doesn’t want stalkers” (197).

I love that—it’s not just about learning what he said or what he did; it’s not some dry study of principles of leadership from two thousand years ago, because I mean, from one perspective, the guy only lasted three years, he irritated all the wrong people, and he ended up dead.

Fortunately, he didn’t stay dead, though; and now we don’t just get to learn about him, we get to do life with him. And that’s what discipleship is about: relationship, not perfection.

In Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus addresses his disciples—his learners, his followers—and he says to them:

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

We all know that salt adds flavor, right? So one way of looking at this is that we’re called to add flavor or zest to the world. Or you know that salt was used as a preservative in the days before refrigeration, so another way of reading this passage is that we’re supposed to prevent the rot of sin. But in the Old Testament—in Exodus and Numbers—we’re told that salt was also used in temple sacrifices as a symbol of the permanence of God’s covenant with his people.

So another reading of this passage is this: “You are a reminder to the world of who God is, you are a reminder of the relationship God desires with humanity.” And so, if you lose your saltiness, if you stop being that image of God here on earth, you’ve lost your purpose, you are not as you were made to be.

Is it any wonder we have a world full of unfulfilled people when so many are looking for meaning and purpose in the next thing–the next job, the next pay raise, the next relationship, the next marriage, the next campaign, the next president, the next child, the next home or car or gadget–rather than in the One they were made for?

When Matthew writes, “You are the light of the world,” he’s harking back to what God said to Israel through the prophet Isaiah:

I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations. … I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.

You have a purpose and that is to be representatives of God here on earth. You have a calling and that is to be images of God here on earth. You were made for something and that is to live with God here on earth, to be the body of Christ in the world.

Dallas Willard wrote about this passage in Matthew:

Jesus, surely with some humor, remarked that a city set on a hill cannot be hid (Matt. 5:14). I would not like to have the task of hiding Jerusalem, or Paris, or even Baltimore. The Gospel stories tell us how hard Jesus and his friends tried to avoid crowds and how badly they failed. Quite candidly, if it is possible for our faith and works to be hidden, perhaps that only shows they are of a kind that should be hidden. We might, in that case, think about directing our efforts toward the cultivation of a faith that is impossible to hide (Mark 7:24). (The Spirit of the Disciplines, 173)

A faith that is impossible to hide. We want to live our lives in such a way and steward our influence in such a way that our allegiance is impossible to hide.

  • “How can you be so patient when everyone else is so frustrated?” Well, I believe in a God who is sovereign over all and so I trust him and hold my own agenda loosely.
  • “How can you give up your high-paying job to help the underserved?” Well, I believe in a God who provides for everything I need and I trust that as I follow where he calls.
  • “How can you forgive that person when he treated you so badly?” Well, I believe in a God who forgave me of infinitely more and asks me to do the same for others.
  • “How can you love this person who hates you?” Well, I believe in a God who loved me even before I knew him, and who loved those who hated him, and who asks me to do the same.
  • “How can you hold onto that antiquated view of sex before marriage?” Well, I believe that sex is good, that it is such a unique expression of closeness and intimacy that that’s why God designed it for the safety of a committed, covenant relationship, because it is so precious.
  • “How can you give up a portion of your income to the church, some random group of people, many of whom you don’t even know?” Well, I believe in a God who asks for everything, actually, but it’s a reminder that all I have has been entrusted to me and I want to throw in my lot with this group of people; I want to say, I’m with these folks as we follow Jesus together, as we learn together, as we are disciples together.

“So let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine …

The mission of The District Church is, “To make disciples of Jesus in the District who are committed to living out their God-given mission in life.” That’s what we’re about here: making disciples, helping people follow Jesus, becoming ourselves more like Jesus.

And we try to do that through small groups, through service and outreach in the community, and through doing life together: babysitting for one another, helping each other move, supporting each other through triumph and tragedy, laughter and tears, joy and sorrow. We want everyone to be in a setting of discipleship, learning to do life with God; and we ask our leaders more specifically to be in discipling relationships, where they are learning from certain people as well as helping other people learn.

We’re here to help, to walk with you as you walk with Christ, to encourage you and challenge you and provide the space for you to work out what life with God looks like, because we’re meant to do this together, we’re meant to be disciples together, we’re meant to learn together.

So take stock of your life:

  1. What influence do you have? As you’ve been reading, maybe God has been putting a particular relationship on your heart or bringing a particular situation to your mind, maybe it’s to do with your money or your family or your significant other or your talents and gifts or your connections or your education.
  2. How have you been stewarding that influence? What have you been doing with what you have? How does that reflect what you’re committed to? How are you being salt and light in that situation—being God’s representative in that place?
  3. How are you being a disciple? How are you seeking to learn from Jesus? How are you following Jesus? How does your relationship with Jesus impact the way you handle what you’ve been given?

Whether you consider yourself a follower of Jesus or not, whether you’ve heard this a thousands times or never before, the invitation is always there:

I have come that you might have life to the full. … Come, follow me.