Making space to be reminded of grace

A couple weeks ago, I went on a silent retreat. It had been many years since I’d spent several hours in silent prayer, so I decided to aim for a shorter, four-hour retreat this time. Mid-morning, I headed to St. Anselm’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery on the outskirts of Washington, DC, a place that my counselor had recommended to me. On arriving, I was given a quick tour of the monastery by Brother Isaiah, the guestmaster, before being shown to my room.

Over the course of the hours that followed, I engaged in times of stillness and listening, practicing lectio divina, praying and journaling. I walked around the monastery grounds, joined the monks for noon prayer, and even enjoyed a brief nap. It was tremendously refreshing; I felt reconnected with God in a way I hadn’t in quite a while, and it was so soul-restoring and life-giving that I’m going to make it a monthly part of my sabbath rhythms.

One of the things I appreciated from the retreat was the opportunity to practice just listening to God—something I’ve wanted to do more consistently and build into my life rhythms. The questions I felt God asking me, the things I was told, the truths that were reaffirmed were all immensely germane, and I felt refreshed in my whole being, specifically in my calling to be more like Jesus.

I’d been reading Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus, and it was an important companion, particularly as I’ve been reflecting on the nature of ministry and leadership much more intentionally over the last few months. The question Nouwen asks right at the beginning—“Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?”—is one that has been at the forefront of my mind recently on two levels. First, on a personal level: one of the projects I have been tasked with this year is to help our church clarify its discipleship process, which is both exhilarating and daunting. Thinking about how I am making disciples of Jesus has also made me aware of the ways in which I am—or am not—being a disciple of Jesus. I want to be able to say, as Paul does, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Second, on the communal level: as I consider and pray through how we as a church are making disciples, Nouwen’s question is a clear, concise, and focused one, which gets to the heart of the journey of Christian faith.

It was also helpful to pray about and reflect on my responsibility as a pastor, as one of the main leaders of a Christian community. Particularly in DC, the temptations of relevance, popularity, and power are pervasive—they essentially form a kind of currency in the city, especially among the young, educated transplants who make up the majority of our congregation. In the face of these cultural values and inclinations, it is important to know how to counteract them—and what good we are building into our lives in their place: prayer, confession and forgiveness, and theological reflection.

As I mentioned, I participated with the monks in noon prayer. I didn’t know what to expect, nor even really what to do. But a kind monk showed me to my seat when I was about to go in the wrong door, and then Brother Isaiah provided me the info I needed.

St.-AnselmsAs we were waiting to begin, as I sat on the hard wooden pew, drinking in the sight of the arched ceiling of the chapel, the thick wooden rafters, the simple altar, the monks in their dark habits, and the cross of Christ suspended above the altar, I felt the warmth of sunlight on my shoulder and my face, as if God were laying a hand on me, or smiling on me. And I felt a peace, that full kind of peace where I know I have encountered God.

There was no ecstasy, no loud noises or instruments, no jumping up and down; only the simple grace that comes with every breath, and a reminding peace, the assurance that comes with the presence and hope of God. It was a reminder to me personally, as well as a reminder to me to remind others, that as Nouwen writes,

It is Jesus who heals, not I; Jesus who speaks words of truth, not I; Jesus who is Lord, not I.[1]

[1] Nouwen, Henri, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company (1989), 58.

[Picture by Bill Black]

Learning to lead through weakness and failure

MeadowkirkWe had our Leadership Community Retreat this weekend, a time that saw almost 100 of The District Church’s leaders come together to be poured into for the coming year.  It was a tremendous 24 hours, full of spiritual renewal, rest, and rejuvenation; fun times with friends, sledding and playing football in the snow; and just general fellowship among the small group leaders, ministry team leaders, and other volunteer leaders of our church.

Two main takeaways:

  • Matthew Watson: our weaknesses don’t disqualify us. In fact, our call is to embrace our weakness, so that we might boast in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).
  • J.R. Briggs: instead of allowing our failures to lead to rejection and then to shame, we need to yield to the gospel, acknowledging that someone else has the right of way, leading to a reminder of our acceptance by God not based on any achievement but because of his great love, and knowing that we are honored by the King as he welcomes us and adopts us into his family.

Of course, there was much more, but I’m still processing!

2012: Two weeks in

2012 is not even two weeks old and God has already begun his work in and around me. About a week ago, as I prayed about what God had in store for me this year, my mind was drawn toward the word “intentionality”–a theme I talked about in my New Year’s sermon (“In the beginning … rest”) and also in a recent blog. I got the sense that this would be a year of big decisions and big choices, with big consequences. At the time, I had no idea what those would be, but even in the last week, I’m beginning to see what God might have in mind.

This weekend, The District Church’s Leadership Community will be heading on its yearly retreat, for a time of spiritual renewal and re-visioning for the coming year. Last year, we had about thirty people; this year, our church having grown now to a community of around 250, we have over 50 people coming–and several other leaders weren’t able to make it this weekend! Please hold us in your thoughts and prayers as we get involved in helping this toddler-aged church learn to walk and talk.

As for myself, I’m learning to fill out my role as Associate Pastor at the church, moving from a manager and task-completer to a vision-casting, proactively-investing leader, with the remit to create, to innovate, to make space for other people to grow into their God-given potential. It’s, in equal parts, exciting and challenging, and I can’t wait to see how God does his alchemical work with what I have to offer. Discerning where and how to invest my time and energy is definitely a matter of prayer, and I’d appreciate yours for my continuing development in the calling God has for me.

Finally, I’m so stoked to inform you that–through the generosity of many of you getting this email–I’m now at over 50% of my target support for this year, after only two months! That’s not even including those of you who’ve said you want to support my work at The District Church but haven’t yet given! What an amazing testimony to your love and support; I’m so humbled, and glad to have you along for the journey. I count you as part of the ministry team without whom my work wouldn’t be possible! And as a reminder of how I ended up where I am, here’s a video produced by Lindsay, one of the storytellers (she’s a writer and photographer) at our church, from an interview we did last summer:

If I keep going at this rate …

Previously on “Justin @The District Church”

  1. Washington, DC: Chapter 2 (October 11, 2010)
  2. Beginning November (and the Leadership Residency) (November 1, 2010)
  3. Why The District Church? (November 18, 2010)
  4. My First Sermon (December 15, 2010)
  5. What a difference a year makes (December 29, 2010)

Happy 2011! I hope your year has begun well and that, if you made them, your new year’s resolutions are still unbroken.

My year’s started, as the subject suggests, with a bang. For the last few weeks, life has been steaming along at a fairly breakneck pace and I’ve gotten pretty busy preparing to step into leading a small group (which starts officially next week), and get more involved with leading worship (this coming weekend) and preaching again (on the 30th). I’m also stepping up my involvement in neighborhood and community outreachcollege outreach, and Young Life at the local high school. In addition to that, we’re trying out a new online database to centralize planning for our Sunday services and I’m heading that up.

We also just got back from our first Leadership Community retreat, which took a fair bit of planning, but was a great success: from the vision-casting and the dreaming, the practical steps that we laid out, the ideas we threw out, the fun we had, the friends we made, the songs we sang, the prayers we prayed … so much goodness. And to have 30+ folks show up was an added encouragement.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on!

Prayers would be appreciated as:

  1. I try to survive the month of January (see all the above)!
  2. I keep up the fundraising efforts—I was aiming to have raised $20k by the end of January, but it looks like I may fall a little short of that mark. I’m at 53% though, so not too far short! I’ll also be (finally) starting to make calls to folks (and by “folks,” I mean you) to get connected with people they/you recommend.
  3. I start to look more seriously for a part-time job.
  4. I have somewhere to live! This past week, I’ve been house-sitting for a couple of friends, and then this coming weekend I’ll be moving into the spare room that one of my friends and his wife have in their house. It’s a great deal, and will serve as a home for at least a few months until the summer when other options may open up. So thanks for your prayers there.

A couple final things: first, we’ve started a sermon series going through the Gospel of John, and I strongly recommend you go listen to Aaron’s last couple of sermons (“Know Your Role” and “Adventures in Missing the Point”). Both really challenged me. And second, while we know that numbers aren’t the whole picture, I still think it was super encouraging that we had over 110 people in attendance this past Sunday! God’s definitely doing something exciting here.

Thanks for journeying with me,
Justin.

If you’d like to support me, you’re most welcome to do so via the church website. Please make sure to select “Leadership Residency” when it asks you to “Choose a Fund.” All gifts are fully tax-deductible.