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This Good Friday World

Revelation 22:2 “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”

ground-decay-1

Christian theology gets warped when the focus of God’s primary dwelling place is heaven, not earth. When Christians see their ultimate goal as being with God up in the clouds, they become escapists who ignore the importance of the physical earth in God’s plan of salvation and redemption.

John’s writing in Revelation is from the perspective of someone on earth, and he is being given a vision of the new Jerusalem, the place where God will dwell with His people, the new heaven, and it is coming down to earth. 

So the typical perspective on heaven as being a place Christians retreat to, is not what the Bible teaches. In fact, heaven will happen here, on earth, as God renews this earth. His kingdom reign here on earth as already begun. This is often called inaugurated eschatology, or more simply, the beginning of the end is already happening, or the already but not yet. We can already taste this, but it is not yet fully here.

What most of us have is a very weak understanding of heaven. A “take me up into the clouds” view of heaven if you will. And what John’s apocalyptic vision written for us in Revelation teaches is that heaven will be here on earth. Heaven will come down to us here on earth. And when we couple this with what we know about Jesus after His resurrection, and what Paul teaches in 1st Corinthians 15, we know that heaven will be physical.

So what does that mean for the Christian life here and now?

NT Wright, in his book Surprised By Hope describes us stonemasons working on a large cathedral. “The architect and the builder have the great design for the cathedral. The stonemason is just told, ‘You’ve got to carve this bit of stone in this way.’ And the stonemason does that and then later looks up and sees his stone halfway up in the cathedral and thinks, ‘Wow! That’s my little bit up there! And look, I now see how it fits into the greater pattern.’ We are building, like the stonemason, for the kingdom rather than us actually doing the building itself.”

The Christian has an opportunity to reflect the kingdom that is here, and also point toward the kingdom that is coming. We are Easter people who are living on the other side of the resurrection of Christ. He has announced his kingdom, and the hope that life in Christ can bring.

And we live in a Good Friday world, a world full of despair, broken homes and broken families, people lost in sin, and God is asking for the light that lives within us to shout the announcement that the kingdom is here and it is coming

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Up In Flames

Last Friday afternoon a guy from church called me frantically asking if our church building was on fire. I was confused. “Of course not,” I thought. But I, of course, was not at the building either. A few phone calls later it was confirmed that a small fire had started. Didn’t sound too bad.

I arrived 45 minutes later to smoke pouring out of every open window in the entire building. So much for small fire. As I later learned, most often a fire causes its damage through smoke, not flame.

new harvest church fire 2015

No one was hurt, or even in danger of being hurt. The fire crews saved the sanctuary from total destruction. You begin to ask yourself, was this even a big deal? You feel shaken, unsettled, but needlessly? Hard to say when you have 1,000 different emotions all colliding at the same time.

I had planned to speak on Old Testament worship this past Sunday, so the joke quickly became that I had planned to discuss burnt offerings, but a church fire wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.

For nearly half of our church’s existence we have been a mobile church, setting up and tearing down each weekend. So the current situation isn’t unusual to our church body, but you couldn’t help but wonder how the people would respond.

On Sunday I shared this thought after we gathered:

A fire may have kicked us out of our building for a while but the church is alive and well.

new harvest church stephens January 2015

Any church with a consistent meeting place has a tendency to turn a building into the church. A local church body needs a gathering place, but this space is not the church, only a place of common meeting. But how quickly this space becomes “the church,” instead of “a building.”

This Sunday the church showed Holy Spirit power and Trinitarian unity as we gathered. We are a living, breathing example of how God refines us through the fire.

For those of you who have prayed for us, thank you and please continue to.

The best days are ahead.

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On Being “Real” Online (a note to high maintenance online over-sharers)

Your feeds of full of them. The guy who sits in the back of pews of your church, never sharing a word, but whose Facebook feed is full of rants and frustrations about life. The family member you see twice a decade that you can’t unfollow, but who only shares about their latest setback in a way that makes you roll your eyes.oversharing

The power of the internet is its ability to give space for people to say “me too.” It’s what led to the insane growth of social networks online. Someone else is going through your struggle. Someone else can’t see past their shame, similar to your own struggle.

Me too: the two of the most powerful words that your soul can shout.

But I’ll be honest, I don’t have much time for online over-sharers. I figure out ways to get them out of my network timelines. My eyes quickly move past anything they’ve posted. I’ve read it all from them already. Health struggles. Not enough money. One more setback.

Sure they might be “real” but I can only handle so much negativity. So I filter them out.

All the while I feel this desire for honesty, on this space and on others. I must use discretion, especially as a pastor. But I do believe in the power of “me too” and you can’t get that without being real. So I want to be real, but I don’t want to come across like them (see above).

Not knowing which direction to go I end up doing nothing. I become a robot-like being who lacks struggles, successes, humanity. I say the right things, stay quiet about the right things, but never bare the inner workings of the daily struggles and questions.

I encourage all the people around me to give others the space to bear their burdens in community, but I rarely extend that same opportunity myself.

Each of the last few years I’ve focused on one word for the coming 365 days. 2013 was foundation. 2014 was centered. 2015 is present. As our family grows from 3 to 4, I recognize that my success in life has more to do with showing up that it does with excellence.

In the process of being present, and choosing to show up, I’m also making a choice to take down the facade. Easier said than done as a pastor. Many things are left behind the veil because godly wisdom keeps them as such. But exposure to the dark places, the difficult spaces, the struggle of humanity, is vital for actually being present.  As Mark Hall wrote in his song Broken Together: “If you can bring your shattered dreams and I’ll bring mine, could healing still be spoken and save us?”

Truly being present means welcoming the shared brokenness of humanity and finding hope in bearing burdens. Thanks to all of you over-sharers for giving the chance for others to bear your burdens. I’m following your lead.

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Best of 2014

Cloud-1As a parent of one and soon to be two, 2014 has been a year of limits. Being a parent limits my free time. I no longer have time to watch bad tv shows, or read bad books, or watch bad movies. Most often I don’t even have time for the good ones.

If something isn’t connecting with me I move on quickly. But the ones that connect I come back to over and over again. In light of that…

Here’s a short top three list of my favorite things from the past year:

Books

  • Bonhoeffer: Read this on vacation in March. Longest book I’ve ever read. Continually inspired by the faithful witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Reading the book helped inspire this three-part series I wrote earlier in the year.
  • Facing Leviathan: I’ve mentioned this book several times. Best book on Christian leadership that I’ve read in a long, long time.
  • What Your Body Knows About God: My endorsement: “In What Your Body Knows About God, Rob Moll has successfully brought together research, personal experience and biblical analysis to show how our bodies were made to engage with the Almighty God. You will be hard-pressed to find another book with such high-level research, while remaining a high-quality read. Pastors, parishioners, and non-believers will all benefit from this foundational work in understanding the intersection between humanity and divinity.”

Blogs

  • Lore Ferguson: She’s just a great writer.
  • Trevin Wax: What I read Trevin for mostly is his daily pool of links. Because I lack the time to keep up with all the great things posted each day, Trevin’s ability to curate for his audience is huge for me. Lastly, I appreciate his theological perspective on many current events as well.
  • Christ and Pop Culture: Ultimately I listen to their podcast more than I read their posts. I appreciate their engagement of difficult subjects. I appreciate that they bring in completely unknown writers who are excellent.

Music

  • Damien Rice: His earlier albums were on constant repeat in my college dorm, and his latest albums takes me right back to those days. He’s back.
  • Jon Guerra: No idea why this guy isn’t discussed more as a great Christian artist. His EP this year is one I’ve come back to over and over again.
  • Johnnyswim: Too much talent for a two person band, it’s ridiculous. If you’re sad about The Civil Wars getting stuck in a war, look no further.

See you in 2015 friends.

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Christmas Is Not the End, It’s the Beginning

The afternoon of Christmas Day is the worst, especially as a kid. All the presents are unwrapped. Piles of wrapping paper have filled the living room. You’ve gotten in a few hours of playing with all your new gadgets, and then reality sets in…it’s over Christmas is over. All of that anticipation is over. Time to clean up the mess.

This is where the traditional church calendar comes in handy. The old traditions of Christmas for Christians put the celebration of Christmas as beginning on the evening of Christmas Eve, leading into the 12 Days of Christmas, all toward Epiphany. Prior to this is Advent, a season of waiting and expectation, beginning four Sundays prior to Christmas Eve.

While following the entire liturgical church calendar has been abandoned by most evangelical churches, Christmas is one cultural season where the calendar helps us from getting lost in the chaos.

The most obvious difference this produces is a change of mindset. In following the church calendar, we see that Christmas Day is not the end of a season, but the beginning of a celebration. It is also not a celebrate that involves opening presents for one morning, it’s an ongoing feast for 12 days.

What needs to happen is a recalibration of what Christmas is. This is taking place through movements like Advent Conspiracy. Gifts can still be a focal point of the season without leading to the evitable letdown. To instill this Christmas focus extending into January I’d recommend following an Advent/Christmas devotion that doesn’t end on December 25th (take a look at the quality work Biola is doing with this), and consider planning some events for family/friends past Christmas.

The season of Christmas (and the celebration that comes with it) need not end once the wrapping paper fills the living room.

The afterparty is about to begin.

(Photo: National Geographic Creative)

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In Favor of Social Media Overuse

phone usersI fully admit that I use social media far too often. I joined Facebook back in the days of college exclusivity. I joined Twitter before Oprah joined and it blew up. And since then I’ve continued to pour hours and hours into the ongoing boom that is social networks. I’ve even made what I consider legitimate friendships through them, but none of this is why I’m in favor of engaging on social networks as much as possible.

In years past you could stay up with current events by receiving the newspaper every day, and watching the nightly evening news. It lacked the social aspect of today’s networks, but you could stay informed. The social aspect of understanding these events took place at community events, at church, at the office, and through friendships. They all took place in person.

Fast forward to today and there’s any number of ways to stay up with current events. In fact, you need to choose which niche of current events to stay up with because it’s impossible to know the facts within all of them.

Here are the reasons I’m in favor of being a social network overuser. I share these reasons as a pastor, because that is my vocation and the lens in which I view much of the world. But, of course, most of my reasons translate to so many other perspectives as well.

People Share What They Think, But Won’t Say

This is (to me) by the far biggest negative of social networks. All of us have seen an individual go on a rant about some anonymous person, but we actually know this person. Of course, the ranter (that’s not a word, my apologies) would never share these thoughts to the individual’s face. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. It’s bad.

But flip this around and you can see that many people (especially introverts) are too intimidated to share their actual thoughts in person, but they will on Facebook. You are able to get a snapshot into their world, gaining a greater level of understanding about them.

The New Way to Have Your Ear to the Ground

As a pastor, the single most important thing I must do is know my people, and know my culture, on a local, national, and international level. Certainly Facebook and Twitter make this far more accessible than it ever was before. People today are more likely to post about their latest life event on Facebook instead of calling their pastor so he/she can pray with them. Every week I’m able to be in the lives of individuals and families without them needing to have direct access to me.

When I was choosing a new phone a few years back a friend gave me advice to go where the majority of people are, saying, “If your job is to know the people around you, use what they’re using, understand them. That’s a lot better than trying to be a trendsetter.”

In the past a public figure needed to work hard to “keep up appearances.” The importance of this hasn’t gone away completely, but all things online and social have created a new way to stay continually engaged with people. Each Sunday my church connects with over 200 people, it’s the highlight of my week, it’s the one thing I build toward all week. But I’m also able to connect with many of those same people throughout the week. It’s my way of keeping my ear to the ground.

Those of you who are social connoisseurs, why do you use these networks? What keeps you coming back?

As a caveat to this, I want to end by saying that social networks are a great way to pass information and to make initial connections, but they do not replace the human need for interaction, in person. They are a great way to supplement already established friendships. Most often social networks become the easy way out. Instead of actually making an effort to care about someone we just “like” their status. While I love these social features available to us today, let’s not abandon the people who deserve our extra effort of love and care. 

(Photo: We Never Look Up blog

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