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Covid Grace

Covid Grace

A few nights ago I had to tell my son nine times – go to bed. It might actually have been more than nine times, but at some point it was time to stop counting. Whether it was nine or nineteen, I remember the last time I told him – go to bed. The reason I remember the final time is because I spoke with anger, and his facial expression was evidence of my failure. 

I felt awful. I repented to him. That moment it was clear – I had hit the Corona-wall. I am not alone. The day after my failure with my son, I heard from others that they were feeling the same way. 

Living for weeks at home, socially isolated from others, and only leaving our home for necessities is not a way for human beings to thrive. It is a recipe for a father to speak harshly to his son. The result is anger, frustration, getting short with others, and convincing ourselves we now understand epidemiology (we don’t).

Now we must begin to take the necessary steps of reopening our economy. We have complicated decisions in front of us, and we must make those decisions after weeks of being alone, with anger and frustration building over our loneliness. As a society, we are feeling just the way I felt after the ninth time I told my son to go to bed

How should we who live in the way of Jesus respond? What are we called to do at this moment?

Covid grace. 

Someone in my community group made that word up, and I am running with it. I hope that is what Christ Community will be known for in this pandemic. Covid grace. 

What is covid grace? It looks like Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:31-33 

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

Paul wrote these words to people who were embroiled in a debate about eating meat. In that day, almost all meat was sacrificed to a god in a local temple. That meant some Christians thought – we cannot eat this meat because it was sacrificed to an idol! Other Christians thought – we can eat this meat because an idol is just an idol…there is no ‘god’ there.

This was causing division. People arguing and speaking harshly to one another. Not unlike what I see happening right now in our culture as we argue about how to respond to this pandemic as a society. 

Paul’s response is brilliant, and convicting. He says two things.

First, He seeks the advantage of others.

We are all in one of two camps right now. Some of us are high risk, or live with people who are high risk, and we face enormously difficult decisions. I am in this camp. One of my children has a medical condition that puts him at higher risk for severe symptoms if he were to contract COVID19. This is an uncertain and hard time for our family as we make decisions about what is ahead for us. In the midst of our prayers and uncertainty, we have heard Christians say things like – people at risk just need to stay home so the rest of us can get back to life!  For us, it’s not just “people at risk” – that “people” has a name. He is our son. 

Covid grace. 

But I understand. As a pastor I am praying for and speaking with business leaders who are facing enormous challenges. We must re-open the economy. I speak to kids who haven’t been able to see their friends. We were meant to live with one another in community, not in stay-at-home orders. It pains me when I hear people say – those who want to reopen the economy don’t care about the vulnerable!

That is not true. They want to feed their kids. They want to make payroll for their employees. They want their kids to play again.

Covid grace. 

When Paul says he seeks the advantage of others, what he means is that when he goes into a home, he is not ready to make his opinion clear. His opinion was clear. It was perfectly acceptable to eat meat sacrificed to idols. We are free in Christ!

However, if Paul went into the house of someone who grew up worshipping that idol, and could not in good conscious eat the meat without feeling like he was worshipping that god, then Paul would send them a YouTube clip about how the idol wasn’t really a god. No!

He wouldn’t eat the meat. He would listen to their story. He would probably pray for them. He would put them first. Why?

Because of his second point. Paul wanted them to want Jesus.

In the midst of disagreement, it’s easy for our conviction around secondary things to consume our conviction around Jesus. It’s not that the secondary questions are not important – they are! They matter! How we reopen the economy matters. These are important questions.

But they are not as important as Jesus.

I hope what people see in this time from the church is our passion, clarity and conviction around the person of Jesus. His beauty. His kindness. His Covid grace. 

Jesus, the Son of God who did not go around asserting His rights, His opinions – even though He had every right! Jesus, who did not seek His advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. That is the story our world needs, and it is the story the church has to tell. 

The story of Covid grace.

My Mentor: Eugene Peterson

My Mentor: Eugene Peterson

This blog post is in memory of Eugene Peterson, who passed away in October 2018.

Eugene Peterson is not the reason I became a pastor, but he might be the reason I am still a pastor. His impact on my life has been so pervasive that when I recently told my wife that Eugene had died, tears filled her eyes. I am not sure she has ever finished any of his books, but she saw his influence on me.

Most know Eugene Peterson through The Message, his paraphrase of the Bible in plain English. That is where I first heard about him, but it is not where he became my mentor.

My first real encounter with Eugene Peterson was in college. I was assigned to read Working the Angles, a book he wrote as a pastor to pastors. This author of The Message was first a pastor, having planted a church in Bel-Air, Maryland, serving there for 30 years.

This first encounter with Eugene the Pastor was not fruitful. I did not like Working the Angles because I knew too much. At 20 years old and in college, my blindness and ignorance prevented me from seeing what was there.

At 24, I took on the role of solo pastor of a congregation in rural Indiana. I was ready to preach, teach, pastor people, but I was not prepared. Divorce. Death. Abuse. Gossip. Sin.

Grace too, yes, but I was not ready to encounter how hard this world is. And as a pastor, you are often called into the ugliest places of evil this world has to offer. I was out of my element and had no choice but to go back to that book in college that I did not like but had not thrown away—Working the Angles.

From that day forward, Eugene was my mentor. I was drowning in evil and sin, and he was a life preserver.

Eugene’s primary lesson to me was this: God is the most important thing about me.

The problems in front of me, my inadequacies, my worries—those things may be what I spend most of my time thinking about, but I am wrong. Those are not most important. God is most important.

“We are known before we know…The fundamental mistake is to begin with ourselves and not God. God is the center from which all life develops. If we use our ego as the center from which to plot the geometry of our lives, we will live eccentrically…”
– Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses

My life started with me. It started with the enormous challenges of life I was facing as a young pastor. Eugene changed that for me.

The breaking point of this lesson came when one of the elders of our church had a heart attack. The heart attack happened on a Sunday morning and he still came to church! (No excuses this Sunday for me!) He looked awful that morning, and he was soon in the hospital. Jim was in his sixties, and because of lung cancer earlier in his life, his health was already weak. He slipped into a coma that evening.

We prayed for days. I was at the hospital with the family almost every day. Finally, after days of prayers, tears, and pleading with God, Jim died.

Losing Jim was hard, but I entered a season where God gave a clear answer to everything I prayed for: No.

It was hard to pray after that. I ask, God says no. Why not just cut the first step out and save time for all involved?

Again, Eugene stepped in and taught me how to pray. I had completely misunderstood what prayer is.

“There is a difference between praying to an unknown God whom we hope to discover in prayer and praying to an unknown God, revealed through Israel and in Jesus Christ, who speaks our language…What is essential in prayer is not that we learn to express ourselves, but that we learn to answer God.”
– Eugene Peterson, Answering God

What is essential in prayer is that I learn to answer God. God had already spoken to me in His Scriptures. He had revealed Himself to me. He had started the conversation. This changed everything for me.

Every day when I pray, I do not start with myself. My problems. This world. I start with God, the most important thing about me. Eugene taught me that, and it has changed everything.

When God is the most important thing about me, it changes how I see the world, how I pray, and how I see the church. As a pastor, I am in the people business. My work is almost exclusively about people. And this might surprise you, but people are frustrating. When people are frustrating, it is easy to complain about that.

Again, Eugene stepped in. In his book The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene rebukes pastors and Christians who complain or accuse others in the congregation. To him, the church is unique. The church is not a bunch of people with problems; it is something else entirely:

“Congregation is composed of people, who, upon entering a church, leave behind what people on the street name or call them. A church can never be reduced to a place where a person is labeled. It can never be a place where gossip is perpetuated. Before anything else, it is a place where a person is named and greeted, whether implicitly or explicitly, in Jesus’ name. A place where dignity is conferred.”
– Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor

Reading his works over the last 15 years of my life has conferred that dignity to me. He gave me a vision of pastoral ministry that was worth living into. More than anything, Eugene turned my attention away from myself and toward the Scriptures. Toward God.

That is the work of the pastor. To teach people how to pray. To teach us to look at our world, our reality, our griefs and our joys, and to see God as most important.

I never met Eugene, but he was a pastor to me. One day, I look forward to thanking him.

See better…live better: Jeremiah

“Every human being is involved in a desperate
attempt to narrate himself into a safe place.”

Richard Powers.

I do not know who Richard Powers is or why he wrote this, but he is right about me. If I get to be in charge of things, especially my life, I will most certainly narrate my story away from conflict. Away from risk. Away from pain. Away from suffering. Toward comfort. Toward ease. Toward safety.

This creates a significant problem for me, especially if I want to have anything to do with God. Spend about two seconds reading the Bible or looking at the world, and it is painfully obvious: God is investing very little energy into narrating anyone’s story toward safety.

Think about the implications of this. God wants something for you, for me, other than safety. This means that all of the energy I am spending trying to get somewhere safe is a waste. God is narrating the direction of my life away from safety, away from comfort, and toward somewhere else.

Where? Where is God taking me? Where does God want to take you?

That question is why Jeremiah has become the prophet guiding me in my current life. God forced Jeremiah into a life he didn’t want; a hard life, a life of suffering and persecution. A life where the primary thing Jeremiah had to do was tell his city—including his friends and his family—that one day they were going to be destroyed. They had abandoned God, so God was abandoning them.

Not surprisingly, Jeremiah offers to quit the vision of life God has for him many times. Fortunately for us, God told Jeremiah to write down these moments, to record his life and his prayers so that we could listen in on what happens between Jeremiah and God when Jeremiah tries to grab control of his life and narrate his story into a place of safety.

My favorite moment is in Jeremiah 12:5. Jeremiah is ready to quit the hard, painful, difficult life God has put in front of him. So God asks Jeremiah a question:

So Jeremiah, if you’re worn out in this footrace with men,

What makes you think you can race against horses?

It’s such a God question.

Jeremiah is just trying to keep it together. His life is hard—people want to kill him. The people he lives with hate him. His hometown is embarrassed by him. And on top of all this, he knows the city he loves—Jerusalem—will be destroyed one day. War and violence are coming. Jeremiah is limping along, struggling to walk, to stay on his feet. And so God asks Jeremiah another simple question—one question that is simple, but which we rarely ask ourselves:

Jeremiah…what do you want? Do you want it easy? Do you want it safe? Do you just want to limp along in life, like everybody else? Do you want to embrace mediocrity?

Or do you want salvation? Do you want to run with horses?

Again, I come back to Richard Powers’ statement: “Every human being is involved in a desperate attempt to narrate himself into a safe place.” And all the human beings said, “Amen.”

That is my problem. Because salvation, in the Christian sense, is not about becoming a moderately improved human being. It is not about sinning slightly less than I used to sin. God calls us to something impossible. Not to struggle along, limping in life. Rather, He calls us to a life that runs with horses.

Most days, I don’t want that. When I think about the life ahead of me, a life filled with challenges I never asked for and don’t want, I want to quit. I want out.

Then I hear God’s question to Jeremiah turn to me. Tim, if you are ready to give up in this footrace with men, how are you ever going to live the life I have for you? How are you going to become the person I am going to make you intoa person who will run with horses?  

Don’t you want to be someone who can run with horses? I really hope your life’s ambition is not to be like everybody else, to find a safe and easy life and never put anything on the line. I hope you want to grow and become the kind of person only God could make you.

The place to start is to understand where God is taking us, and it is not to safety. God is not creating in us a slightly improved human being. He is not making us slightly less judgmental or prideful. No, God has a far more significant vision in mind for us. C.S. Lewis laid out God’s vision for who we are to become:

God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature…

And apparently, a way God produces that in us—in me, in you, in Jeremiah—is by narrating our lives into danger. Into suffering. Into pain. It is in the places where we would never narrate our stories that we get our wings. It is in those places God teaches us to not just run a little faster but to begin to run with the speed of horses.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Rice Noodles, Cross-Cultural Relationships, and a Stronger Faith

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Without cross-cultural relationships, following Jesus is more difficult. After spending close to three weeks in China over the course of three months, what I found is that it is hard to see how Jesus has saved me in my culture until I see how Jesus has saved people in other cultures. Working with our global partner, the China Partnership, has made following Jesus easier for me. There are many reasons this is true, some shallow, some profound.

First, the shallow.

Eating Chinese food makes it easier to believe in God. I am not joking. Most of my time spent in China was in the Yunnan province, in the city of Kunming, which is famous for two things: its rice noodles and tea (called Pu’er Tea). It was amazing to see what the people of China could do with rice, grinding it into flour and mixing it with water to produce a noodle. A noodle so good I ate it three times a day and still craved more.

Experiencing the food and drink in China was a reminder of the creative capacity human beings have, all of us made in the image of God. It may sound shallow, but eating with my brothers and sisters in China strengthened my faith. It is much easier to follow Jesus when you have cross-cultural relationships.

Food is one reason; here is another.

In my two trips to China, I was lucky enough to be able to worship in a house church. I use the word “lucky” intentionally. Most house churches do not open their doors to westerners for fear of persecution. Having a white person attend church attracts the attention of the government, so typically westerners do not visit house churches.

This does not mean fear of persecution is not still present. It is. My church hosts asked that I wear a hat as I walked into church because there was a government building with cameras that I would walk by as I entered the church. (I was not confident that a hat alone would disguise this 6’1”, thick-bearded white man from attention, but I went with it.)  And when I entered that church and spoke with my Chinese brothers and sisters in Christ, one thing became clear.

They knew the price they may have to pay to follow Jesus.

What they were doing, worshiping in an unregistered church, is still illegal in China. Yet, they opened the windows to this church and sang loud enough for anyone to hear on the street. They are committed to multiplying and planting more churches. Watching these Christians follow Jesus made me want to follow Jesus. This is interesting because, in 1949, many people in the West thought the future of the Church in China was over.

In 1949, the Communist party expelled all Western missionaries and cracked down on Christianity, which made many lament the future of the Church in China. Instead, what happened is that Chinese leaders were now able to lead the church in China, and despite persecution and intense opposition from the Chinese government, the Church has exploded in growth.

What God has done is amazing. In May I attended a conference with 3,500 Chinese Christians, listened to Chinese pastors preach the gospel, and found my faith strengthened. After two trips to China, and working with the China Partnership and its leaders, I believe more than ever in our mission as a church, and our call as individual Christians to obey the command of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

I had always thought Jesus commanded us to take the gospel into all the world because the world needs the gospel. This is certainly true, but something else is true here. Jesus commands us to take the gospel into all the world also because we need the world.

When the Scriptures talk about heaven, it always speaks of heaven as a place of all tribes, all tongues, all nations. Because God created those cultures, those people, they are made in His image and are good. And if we are going to be the Church Jesus wants us to be, we need those cultures. If you do not believe that with all your heart, you have clearly never eaten rice noodles in Yunnan.

Learning from Chinese Christians has produced at least one change in me. A change I hope these words produce in you.

Because of my time in China, I pray with more confidence in what God can do.  

Government power and cultural rejection cannot snuff out the Spirit of God at work in His world.  Chinese Christians are proof of this. God does not need earthly power to further His mission, which is why the Chinese Church prays with such faith. And, if you ask the Chinese Church what we in the West can do to partner with them, the first answer they give is pray for us.  

That feels like the best place to end. Stop reading right now, and go pray. Pray with China in mind, with the story of what God has done there, what He has accomplished in growing His Church despite persecution, threats, and cultural pressure. Pray with confidence like our brothers and sisters in China.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vcex_image_galleryslider post_gallery=”true” img_size=”gallery” image_ids=”15750,15749,15748,15747,15746,15745,15744,15743,15742″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Life Hacks: A Better Way to Memorize Scripture

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“I have hidden my word in your heart, that I might not sin against you”
(Psalm 119:11)

I have a strained relationship with Scripture memory. The first time I ever memorized Scripture was at church camp, because memorizing Scripture meant candy. Memorizing enough Scripture meant a full-size Snickers bar, the holy grail of candy. So I memorized John 1, Psalm 23, a few others, but not for holy reasons. Once there were no longer Snickers on the line, unsurprisingly my motivation to memorize Scripture died.

Later in life, when I was studying to be a pastor in college, I was told that Christians should memorize Scripture. Jesus, after all, memorized Scripture, which is true and important. At both of the weakest moments of Jesus’ life, He quoted Scripture. When Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, every response Jesus gave to Satan was quoted from Deuteronomy. He quoted Scripture as His defense against temptation. And when Jesus was hanging on the cross, close to death, He cried out, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” He was quoting Psalm 22.

These are compelling reasons to memorize Scripture, but I must say, they failed to compel me. Scripture memory just became a guilty part of my Christian life. I never did it, so I felt guilty.

Until a few years ago. I am not sure what changed internally in me, to drive me, to motivate me to memorize Scripture, but I know what changed. I had a system.

I came across Timmy Brister’s method of memorizing Scripture – “memory moleskine.”  Three key insights changed everything for me as I embarked on a new rhythm of Scripture memory.

First, I always had my notebook in my pocket. It’s small, can be carried around with me, and was a constant reminder to open my notebook and read Scripture. To dwell on it not just for a few moments in the morning, but throughout the day.

Second, Brister encouraged me to read the Scripture out loud. That helped me memorize the words more quickly, but it was also a different way of encountering Scripture. It slowed me down, and opened my eyes to the text in a new way.

Finally, I began to focus on exact words, precise phrases. My devotional life was enriched because reading a passage once will never allow a depth of understanding, or allow the passage to work its way into your heart. A cursory reading of the Bible will always lead to fruit, but Scripture memory leads to a depth of experience with what God is saying to you. It becomes more real. Scripture memory was no longer an activity to be accomplished to get candy or as a religious duty. It was God’s way of dealing with me, speaking to me, encouraging me and leading me.

I won’t pretend that a short blog post is going to make you a Scripture memory master – BUT – as someone who has been at this intentionally for three years now, I have noticed one significant change. The words I speak to myself are different than what they used to be. When I am discouraged, I may still say to myself, “Everything is falling apart!” But another word rises up in my heart: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, He will save the crushed in Spirit.” There is increasingly a different Word at the center of my life now. It is why I memorize Scripture now — without the guilt and without the bribe.

I need those words, so I put them deep in my heart to let God’s Word be the defining voice in my life.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]