A moment in the Psalms

You could spend days, weeks, or even years in the Psalms and find things of pure gold there. The beauty and bewilderment of the book is that you can find near the same in just a moment. Whether taken as an entire work of emotionally charged prayers and blessings to the Lord, or single moments, captured for the perfect timing of God’s working in the heart and mind of those He loves, there is rich mystery waiting to be unveiled.  

One such moment for me was found in Psalm 135:18, where it says – “Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them.” The reference here is to verse 15: “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands.” The distinctifying mark of these idols, which their servants begin to resemble are that, “They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths” (verses 16-17).This is who we become like, when our lives are fashioned after them.

The implication, of course, is not the physical idols of silver and gold that we form in our basements, then spend our waking hours bowing down to, but the treasures we fashion in our hearts, which every moment is structured and designed to seek after, find and hold so close as to not allow it to slip away, and protect at all costs. It’s the same relentless pursuit the Psalmist speaks of in chapter 132, where he says, “I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, until I find a place for the Lord,” (verse 4), even if this sleepless pursuit of our own heart-fashioned idols is on lesser things.

You’ve heard it said, “You are what you eat”. God might agree, but he takes it even further for us to say, we become like what we worship.

So we become, according to Psalm 135, either mute, blind, deaf and suffocated, or we resemble goodness, pleasantness, like fruitful works, and are enduring and generous.  

This is, at least in part, what God means when he says that he will form in us a new heart of flesh that replaces our heart of stone (Ezekiel 36:26) and again that he will breathe into our lifeless, non-fruit-bearing bodies, to awaken us as a great movement of God’s spirit making its way through the world declaring his glory and greatness (Ezekiel 37).

In reflection, I can easily see what it is that my heart is longing for and making much of, as I begin to look a lot like that to which it ascribes. Gratefully, God’s “redemption is plentiful” (Psalm 130:7) and he beacons us back to his value and nature time and again. In each and every moment, God wants me to return to his life-giving beauty, and away from that which provides myself and those around me no benefit at all. I sure am glad he’s like that.

God with us (John 1:1-18)

As disconnected and disjointed as many people are, our culture certainly seems to place a pretty high value on presence.  It might not be something we specifically talk about or think about in daily conversation, but the void of it seems to permeate everything around us.

Politicians are criticized for being present during elections, but distant throughout their terms.  We have rising virtual connections through the use of various social media outlets, yet research shows “social isolation” is simultaneously on the rise.

I find this to be hauntingly true in my own life.  I’ve always been the guy who hangs out around 30,000 ft.  Life to me is nearly all about strategy, concepts and ideas.  The way I process data or information is to evaluate whether or not it makes sense, the likelihood that it will work in the real world, and how possible it is to prove if this information is true.  I rarely consider how said information might make someone feel.  To do that, I would need to descend the metaphorical atmosphere and come down to street level.  The trouble with living at 30,000 ft, is that you end up convincing yourself you don’t really need anyone.  If you had a need for other people, it would only be to strategically accomplish something, much like moves on a chess board.  People like me are great at manipulating people, and we use others to accomplish our own self-involved agenda, even if that agenda is to get people to like us, which is strange because we think we’ve convinced ourselves we don’t need them.

I’m a lot like the Heissman Trophy.  Not because of my athletic prowess, but because of my skill at the emotional and relational stiff-arm.  The closer I should be with a person, the more they are likely to feel the thrust of my forearm in their chest in an effort to keep them away.

In the opening part of the first chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus shows himself to be something completely different.  Different than our culture, different than personified concepts, and different than people like myself who keep others at a safe distance.  The Christmas-term Emmanuel, means “God with us”.  That’s who Jesus is.  That’s what he did.  Even if I have a good grasp on this theological concept at 30,000 ft, I still suck at imitating Jesus in this area in my day-to-day life. 

God-with-us is a gospel concept, and the gospel goes much deeper than rescuing eternity for individuals.  It’s so much bigger and deeper than eternal security and salvation, although eternity is admittedly so much bigger and deeper than our time here in this life.  But from this life stretching forward throughout all eternity, what we have in Jesus is a God who is present.  He is in every space, and in every moment.  The ability to see Him in these spaces and moments doesn’t involve a change in proximity for him, but a change in perspective for me.  For you.

For those of us who have spent considerable time in the church, this might be a concept that loses it’s intensity with us.  We can tend to get use to it.  But our complacency with God-with-us as a concept, has left the people around us feeling lonely and perhaps it even feeds the loneliness in our own souls. 

In a culture that lacks presence, Jesus exhibits exactly what the people around us are looking for, and he’s succeeding where many of his followers like myself are failing.

Thank God for grace.

Fortunately, this post isn’t about me.  It’s not about distant people, and really, it’s not even about our culture or what it needs.  Although what it is about has a profound and transcendent effect on all of that.  It’s about Jesus; God with us.  The word that became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).  The one who wants to shine light on the good and bad things about you, so that ultimately, you would see not your shine or your stain, but Him.  That’s it.  That’s what his presence does.  Perhaps that’s what he wants you to see today.  Will you – will I – look?


In many cases there’s a remarkable difference between terms and concepts.  Take, for example, the term and the conceptual understanding of “Transformation”.  The term means “a complete or dramatic change in form, appearance or function”. Pretty straight forward.  The concept becomes a little more complicated.  We know that transformation means that something changes into something else.  It becomes completely new.  Conceptually though, what does this look like in the context of the city?  

Working for a city transformation organization, the hope and desire for the outcome of your work is always more than mere band-aids. Making people feel better about their plight isn’t nearly as, well, transformative as seeing them rise out of it. It’s not quite enough until “the old is gone, and behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). 

Even though it may be a bit more abstract in our particular context, which deals with the physical and the spiritual, the organization and the individual, the macro and micro; scripture does give us a fascinating picture of what our work could be about. Take a look:

“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need”  Ephesians 4:28. 

I’m sure you saw what happened. Without that last part of the sentence, we would have been left with a nice change, but no transformation. It’s not that the thief merely stopped stealing. But he actually became a contributor.  This is transformation. 

It’s a two part process.  When someone stops stealing, that’s a single step. It’s good, and a step in the right direction, but it’s not transformation. However, when that person not only stops stealing, but then starts giving, that’s a two step process, and it’s the picture of transformation that we’re looking for.  It’s a full circle change that only God could accomplish. 

Taking a community from having certain needs to having fewer of those needs is not quite the assignment given to the church. It’s more than that. It goes the full two steps.  It goes from identifying needs to identifying solutions. The community doesn’t necessarily become void of needs. It becomes a community that provides for needs, rather than a community that merely contains needs. I’ve seen most churches be pretty good at this, within their own walls.  In that smaller, micro-community, they give and share “as any had need” (Acts 2:45).  But what about the community outside?  How do you address the macro-community that God places churches within, so that the kingdom can come now (Matthew 6:10)?

In physics, transformation is induced by a nuclear process.  According to Wikipedia a nuclear process is, “considered to be the process in which two nuclei, or else a nucleus of an atom and a subatomic particle (such as a proton, neutron, or high energy electron) from outside the atom, collide to produce one or more nuclides that are different from the nuclide(s) that began the process” (my emphasis added). Did you catch that?  Two elements collide, causing a multiplying effect which result in more elements. 

You see, in order for the church to grasp city transformation, they must get to the point where they see the process of transformation as one that involves multiple players. It’s not just about any one church. This is obvious. What might be less obvious is when we adjust this statement to read, it’s not just about any one organization. Transformation happens, when multiple churches collide (in a good way) with multiple other organizations within their community to multiply their efforts and involve more players. 

In other words, it happens when the church can facilitate a meal where everyone has a welcomed seat at the table. The more the merrier, and the more diverse the better. Especially when diversity deals with thought, belief and worldview. When we can align ourselves with and work alongside those that we don’t agree with, we begin to see the necessary ingredients to achieve city transformation. 

But I’m not just taking about unity here. Jesus prayed for unity, but not for unity’s sake. He prayed that we (the church) would be one, so that the world may know Him (John 17:26). Coming together as a community doesn’t equal transformation. It simply sets the stage.  From there, we simply do what the church does. We love, we commune and we listen. But we do so with patience and wisdom, not like bulls in a China shop.  We who were once thieves now become contributors to the city, so that other thieves can do the same. 

It’s time for the church to humbly lead from the second chair. It’s time we see that the world doesn’t revolve around us, and really, it was never meant to. It’s time to look forward to the world revolving around Jesus, and to work vigilantly until that day comes. 



My books are back. After three long years, they’re back.

Ever since we moved out of my office at Palm Harbor Church my books have resided in boxes, shifting from one storage space to the next. First in my garage and then in a storage container outside my office at 6 Stones, we’ve been separated for far too long.

I have a strange relationship with books. By that I mean I have an unreasonable love for my paper books, yet I prefer to actually read on my Kindle. The Kindle (or Kindle app on the ol’ iPad) simply allows me to carry around more books in my purposefully minimalistic backpack-slash-manbag. But the real reason is because it serves as a much more efficient sourcing tool for assessing past margin notes and highlights.

But I digress.

This past weekend my beautiful bride and I rummaged through 20+ boxes worth of books on topics such as theology, church-planting, leadership, pastoring, student ministry, mission, Christian Living, history, politics and culture (along with a few useless novels on baseball and psychopaths).  A few of them didn’t make the shelf, but the vast majority are once again receiving their due glory-of-display for all to see (or at least all who actually walk by my office – which by the way is populated by a steady flow of little old ladies that work in the New Hope Center and seem to be curiously interested in what this guy is doing in the low-lit room featuring the bizarre mixture of sounds of my eclectic Hillsong-Miles Davis-The Beatles-The Meters-Metallica-Johnny Cash-Taylor Swift playlist).

It’s like having old friends return home after a long journey away. Great men and women speaking to me once again such as Piper, Lewis, Platt, Spurgeon, Bonhoeffer, Schafer, Edwards, Hauerwas, Bosch, Wright, Packer and Hirsch – just to name a few. I suddenly want to re-read them all, but am forced to settle with the occasional flipping through to find past highlights and scribbles, pondering over old insights and inspirations.

It may be the first time I’ve really missed the old lifestyle of thinking and pontificating, one that I traded in for action and mobilizing.  Yet, all the millions of typed words that are now in my small, dark office, residing in their alphabetized order from floor to ceiling on new bookshelves, these are meant to propel me into the very work that consumes my days of late.

So while they wait patiently for short conversations whenever I can afford the time, they quietly cheer me on in my work of pressing and advancing into the darkness that surrounds me.  They infuse the dank air, speaking words of God’s glory and his design for his church to make Jesus famous and benefit the city where we exist as strangers.

So if you’re ever in the neighborhood, come on by. My friends enjoy the company and are always ready for the next conversation.

A New Question

what-are-the-prime-numbers-less-than-100_3ea8ce05c7c21b1aFor church leaders and especially lead pastors, there’s a lingering question which many of us despise.  We know it’s coming in those introductory conversations.  It’s a question I often tried to avoid while leading a local church myself, but I could never completely circumvent the inevitable.

The question is this: How big is your church?  The question was asked in a lot of ways, of course.  What do you run on Sunday?  What’s your average attendance?  How many members are there?

Perhaps you’re wondering why I think this is a bad question, or already disagreeing with me that it is.  What’s wrong with numbers?  After all, there is a book in the bible with its name, and the New Testament details numbers of crowds that followed Jesus around as he performed his earthly ministry.  The answer is, of course, that there’s nothing wrong with numbers inherently.  I hear (and tend to agree with) people that say, “We count people because people count”.  Perhaps a bit trite, but quite true nonetheless.  Numbers do have a value to them, and they can tend to show us things that are working and things that are not – although we must always be careful to assume the why behind what seems to be working or attracting more people.  A growing church doesn’t necessarily represent a healthy one.

The reality is, however, that the church in our context has become increasingly competitive, and that is in fact an inherently bad thing.  Here’s what I was thinking every time the numbers question would come up.  I would either think that this pastor is judging me (me personally, that is) or he thinks that I’m judging him (him personally, that is).    Often, I would assume both.  The problem with numbers in churches is that these numbers are often used to validate the identity of the pastor.  There, I said it.  The truth is – and we all know this – the church has little to do with the pastor, and his value is determined the exact same way every other follower’s of Christ is; by Jesus.  Our value isn’t in our work, or our title, or our bank account, or a car, house, boat, kid, spouse, etc.  Our value and identity is solely fixed in the person and work of Jesus.  As we see mega church pastors dropping like flies, this concept is becoming more and more real.

I must admit, that I was an instigator of the question as much as I was a victim of it.  When trying to grasp an understanding of a fellow local church, there just never seemed to be a better option, perhaps other than outright avoidance.

Allow me to propose an alternative question, one that I am attempting to be the first one I ask of pastors-freshly-acquainted.  The question is this: How are you seeing God shape the neighborhood your church is in?  Of course, there are other ways to ask it.  What are you doing in your neighborhood?  How is God redeeming and restoring the neighborhood where your church campus is?  How are the people of your church engaging their respective neighborhoods and/or communities?

Maybe this is a clearer alternative to tell the story of a church.

After all, Sunday’s should never define a church.  The church (aka, the collective gathering of local missionaries) should be defined by what happens Monday through Saturday, and Sunday simply becomes an celebration of what God is doing in and through them as Jesus restores the community he’s placed the church within.  If this is a good working definition of the church (or a definition of the proper description of a local church) then what other more appropriate questions would we ask of each other?  Whether your church is running 10 or 10,000, you can have a profound impact on the neighborhood where you reside.  All you need to do is ask, “How is God shaping the neighborhood(s) that we gather in, and what’s our part in the process?”

By God’s grace, our local churches can add great value to our cities, and maybe it will all start with a new question.

Why flashy churches are killing the Great Commission

light-showWell, I really don’t think that title statement is true, but now that I have your attention..

Over the course of most of my life, whether as a child in church or as a leader/staff member of a church, the up-front or behind-the-curtain message has predominantly been “Invite your friends to church and we will tell them about Jesus.”  You’ll hear phraseology like “Invest and Invite” and we’ll even do very seeker-friendly type initiatives for getting people in the door, such as free t-shirt days or iPad giveaways.  Sounds simple and effective enough, right? 

But what if that whole mentality is actually hurting the fulfillment of one of Jesus’ clearest instructions?  In Matthew 28:19, Jesus tells us to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations..”.  What we know is that he was speaking directly to the handful of disciples physically present with him that day, and indirectly to the millions of disciples that would follow him as a result of the present-disciples’ ministry (John 17:20).  We also know that this is an instruction for ALL followers of Jesus, not just the ones that get paid for it.  Yet, it’s estimated that some 98% of followers of Jesus in North America are not currently involved in any sort of disciple making effort.  Clearly, something is wrong with this picture.

Since I’ve probably already made few folks mad, or risen the anxiety of others, now is probably a good opportunity for a time out, so that I can explain what I’m not saying.  I’m not saying that getting people to attend a church service is bad, or that we shouldn’t encourage people to invite their friends.  I’m not saying that constructing the flow and feel of our church services so that it speaks to the consciousness of the non-believing world around us is bad, so long as we make Jesus the star of the show and not the guy with skinny jeans and a hair bun.  I’m not saying that glitz and lights and lasers are a bad thing, although they do personally annoy the fire out of me (some people are like me, and some people are not), but I’ll even sit through that if Jesus is championed and people are invited to join him in his family and mission.

Here’s what I am saying.

For the past few decades the church has been telling its people to get out and build relationships with their non-believing friends so that they can invite them to church (and we’re going to make it super friendly and relevant for them) and once they’re there, the professionals would take over.  This was a major part of much of my ministry focus over the last 15 years or so both as a student pastor and a lead pastor, and it was misguided.  Even once I tried to turn the ship, so to speak, the boat had a hard time crossing the current.

Instead, we as pastors need to center the thrust of our efforts in ministry on training and equipping the people who follow Jesus to do the work of a disciple of Jesus.  That means that the more conversations need to happen after the sermon, amongst believing and non-believing friends on what the text says, and whether God is to be trusted or not.  That means more gospel conversations need to happen in living rooms than in worship centers.  And it means that churches should aim to deprogramatitze their ministries so people are better released to go and live on mission, with one another.

The statement remains true, that the church carries the hope of the world, so long as that hope is not confused for a building, a church service or even a professional staff.  Every believer, each one a disciple, all carrying out the great commission.  Now that’s some flash.

Steadfast and slow to anger

james119Confession: I have anger issues.

Many of these issues have been resolved by the simple process of aging. As I remind my wife of often, I get better with age.

Even though I’ve learned how to employ self restraint, my natural default reaction to things can get to anger a little quicker than what’s ideal.

James 1:17,19 says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change….Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger”.

So what do good gifts have to do with being slow to anger?  It’s a simple formula.

Increased gratitude = decreased potential for anger.

I’ve noticed that when I have a hightened sense of gratitude, I need to work far less at controlling my anger. Where gratitude doesn’t exist, anger usually does.

Something else I’ve noticed: entitled people don’t tend to be steadfast people. Entitlement breeds the expectation of immediacy. Steadfastness is patient, humble….and oh yeah, grateful.