Yes, I recognize the irony in having a flashback post that tells you not to look back, but work with me here, people.

Wednesday was a first at our household.  After weeks of begging, I finally relented and let my 12 year old hop on the riding mower and mow the lawn.  I had mowed all the tough parts…he had no trees, no flowerbeds, no sidewalks to maneuver…just one huge rectangular spot of grass.  Up.  Down.  Back.  Forth.  It was simple, really.  I gave him a quick tutorial about how he needed to use the front right tire as a guide.  Watch the tire.  Keep it lined up with the strip that needs to be cut.  Watch the tire.  Watch the tire.  Austin, what did I say?  Watch the tire.  There was no way he could fail.

Read the entire original post here.

(photo credit: ComicVine)

(photo credit: ComicVine)

Last Sunday I dropped by a local fast food joint on my way over to the new Blue Ridge Campus. Join me in my flashback, won’t you?

It was roughly 1 PM on a Sunday afternoon. The place was largely deserted, there were less than half a dozen other customers in the building. I was the only one in line when I first walked in. And yet, it didn’t seem like anybody cared that I was there.

I made eye contact with 2-3 employees back in the kitchen and drive through area. And by “eye contact” I mean they stared at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. A couple of them murmured to each other, presumably about the guy in the front that had the audacity to show up at a restaurant at lunch time. Finally, after 45 seconds or so that felt like 45 hours, one of them yelled in the back to some unknown presence, “YOU NEED TO GET UP FRONT.” At that point, I felt like I was in the middle of this old Sinbad stand up routine.

Unknown Presence slowly emerged, half-heartedly taking my order, fumbling over my order, restarting my order because something glitched in my order the first time around. I finally got my food and got out, lest I interrupt any more of their afternoon.

I left the whole experience feeling like I was a burden. It was as though bagging my meal and taking my money was an unfortunate afterthought rather than the core of their existence. In that moment it seemed that everyone put on their uniforms, showed up to work, turned on the ovens, but then failed to realize that the reason for it all was the customer who would eventually walk through the door.

Sadly, we see that too many times in our churches on the weekend. When a guest shows up, they’re going to inherently bring some messiness with them. They’re going to need assistance. They might sit in your seat. They may upset the status quo.

But the guests aren’t the problem.

No, your guests are a large reason your weekend exists. The corporate church gathers to make much of Jesus, yes. But when we gather, we declare something about who Jesus is to the surrounding community. If a guest shows up, they should never feel like a burden. They should be a delight, a welcome addition to the community, an opportunity to put the grace of Jesus on display in their lives.

Churches that are cold and unfriendly…churches that don’t have a plan for “outsiders”…churches that view guests as more of a distraction than a discipleship opportunity…those are churches that have lost sight of why they exist.

People are the mission. They’re not the main thing of your weekend (Jesus fills that role), but they’re the reason that Jesus came. The one you celebrate, the one who came for you, also came for them. The grace of Jesus in our lives dictates that we prepare for our guests and welcome them into the fold.

K98A3873

photo credit: Brett Seay

Yesterday afternoon marked the launch of the eighth campus of the Summit Church. Summit Blue Ridge kicked off with two services, a huge army of volunteers, and over 600 people in attendance.

As I wandered through the parking lot, the auditorium, the back hallways, the volunteer headquarters, and beyond, I was – once again – humbled by what I saw.

You see, Blue Ridge prepped for launch over the course of just a few weeks. Rather than our traditional incubation period where the core team comes together for a few months’ worth of weekly worship, Blue Ridge’s first corporate worship gathering was yesterday’s 3:30 service. Rather than a group of volunteers who had been fully trained and meticulously placed, Blue Ridge utilized passionate, committed, flexible people who showed up to get the job done and serve their little hearts out.

Fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants model of launching a campus? Maybe. But maybe it’s also the sign of a God who delights in doing something so huge that there’s no way we can take credit for it. From Bowe & Derrick (the guys leading the campus) to Alex (our campus admin) to every single part-time staffer, intern, volunteer, and attendee, there’s not a single one of them who had the audacity to say, “We got this.”

On the contrary: it was lots of sleepless nights, anxious days, and the very real realization that we could fall flat on our faces.

But instead, we fell on our knees to thank a God who does the impossible, a God who specializes in the details, and a God who cares more about our neighbors in Raleigh than we do.

Summit, let me remind you that this is not normal. What we’re seeing isn’t explainable. 600 people don’t just show up to do church on a Sunday afternoon. 115 volunteers don’t just manifest to serve in Summit Kids, First Impressions, and Production. Dozens of first time guests don’t just wander in. There’s a work of the Holy Spirit that we must be aware of, and we dare not take for granted.

This is not our movement. This is God’s movement, and for some strange reason he’s allowing us to join in. We can’t waste it. We can’t ignore it. But we can and certainly should celebrate it.

So as you read this, would you join me in thanking God for what he is doing, the people he is drawing, the leaders he is raising? Would you pray with me for our Blue Ridge leadership team, that they would rest well going into week number two? And best of all…would you watch for those other “not normal” areas in your life, and join God where he’s already working?

(Yep. That's just the top of his head. You have to wait until he's home for the full reveal!)

(Yep. That’s just the top of his head. You’ll have to wait until he’s home for the full reveal.)

You’re looking at my friends Ryan and Morgan, and my friend-that-I-haven’t-yet-met, Charlie.

Charlie is an orphan from central Africa. Scratch that. Was an orphan from central Africa. A few months ago, a court declared Charlie a Doherty. He’s Ryan and Morgan’s son now. Instead of growing up in an orphanage, he’ll grow up in a home with a daddy and mommy who love him, a brother and sister who spoil him, and he’ll be friends with more people who have prayed for him than he can possibly count.

But because of some governmental glitches, Charlie can’t leave the country for now. What has been promised has not yet been realized. “Home” is still a foreign concept, both figuratively and geographically. For the foreseeable future Charlie is – for all practical purposes – stuck.

But while Charlie can’t come to his mom and dad, his mom and dad can go to him. And go to him they did. A couple of weeks ago Ryan and Morgan made the rather sudden decision to temporarily leave Durham and head to Africa. The son that is theirs is still there, and so it made no sense for them to be here.

They decided that the uphill journey would be more effective if they were on the ground and close to Charlie. And so – armed with nothing but a folder full of documents and a heart full of fire – Ryan and Morgan boarded a flight and promised to fight.

Even as I type, I weep. I wonder if Charlie knows what is transpiring around him? I wonder if he knows the prayers that have been offered, the tears that have been shed, the money that has been spent and the battles that have been fought? I wonder if he realizes that before he knew he needed these parents, these parents knew he needed them, and they were willing to do whatever it took to bring him home?

I wonder if he’ll ever realize the sacrifice they made to leave two children in one country while pursuing a third child in another? Will he know the sleepless nights they endured, the hundreds of times they looked at his picture, the thousands of times their arms ached for the baby that belonged there?

As Charlie snuggles up to his parents at a tiny bungalow, does he know what awaits him on the other side of this journey? Can he fathom what it will be like to spend his life being pursued, known, and loved? Can his little mind begin to imagine what life in his daddy’s house will hold for him?

Does that little boy know that he’s been given a new name? That he possesses a new identity? That he’s forever protected and completely provided for? That everything that Ryan and Morgan call theirs can now be called his?

Later this week, Morgan will begin the journey back to America. You can imagine that it will be one of the hardest goodbyes she’ll ever say. But as she reunites with her two oldest children here in Durham, Ryan will remain with their youngest on another continent. And he’ll fight. He’ll leave no stone unturned and no door unopened as he looks for just the right connection, just the right answer, just the right approval to rightfully claim his son and join the family that awaits him. He won’t come home until Charlie comes with him.

A father who fights. That’s what Ryan is for Charlie. And that’s what God is for us. We’re in the middle of a season where we celebrate the One who left his home and went to a foreign land. What he didn’t have to do, he chose to do. He sent his son to become one of us. To live among us. To come to our turf and dwell in our land and fight on our behalf. Before we knew we were orphans, Jesus knew we needed a Father. And the Father knew we couldn’t get to him on our own.

So he fought. Jesus came. God wrapped himself in flesh and lived with us so we could live with him.

With us.

God with us.

Immanuel.

He fought for us then. He fights for us now. You see, Christmas isn’t just a reminder of what Jesus did, it’s a reminder of what he is doing. How he still fights. How he still pursues. How he still does whatever it takes to bring us home, give us a new name and identity, and help us see our Father.

So as you prepare your heart for Christmas, remember that it’s not just about a baby in a stable. It’s about a King who invaded the earth to claim what was rightfully his and to give us our forever home.

And as you thank Jesus for his pursuit, beg Jesus for his mercy: on Charlie. On Ryan and Morgan. Pray for walls to fall and doors to open and mountains to move. Pray that Charlie will miraculously spend Christmas Day in a living room in Durham. Pray for dozens of other Summit families who are enduring a similar journey. And most of all, pray that spiritual orphans will know the pursuit of their Daddy this Christmas season.

“I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you.” – Jesus (John 14:18)

Advent

I’ll start this post with a couple of confessions:

Confession #1: I stink at family devotions. Like, stink at ’em. Not “we could get better. Last year we only memorized Leviticus, this year we’re going for the whole Pentateuch.” Not, “man, I only read the Bible to my family 363 out of 365 days in 2012. I am a miserable human specimen.”

Nope, I really stink at ’em. And while we’ve tried family devotions plenty of times in the past, and while I occasionally pray with my family for specific needs, and while I will sometimes point them to specific scriptures in specific situations, it’s one of the many things that’s not a part of the warp and woof of my spiritual disciplines (although saying things like “warp and woof”? I got that one nailed.).

Confession #2: I don’t really know what Advent is. There. I said it. I grew up in church, would consider myself a conservative evangelical, and yet I am totally in the dark on Advent. Is it a calendar? Is there a secret handshake? I can remember ONE Christmas in our church, we lit an Advent candle each Sunday leading up to Christmas. So maybe Advent is an invention of the candle industry? But were they special candles? Scented? Did we get ’em on a 2 for $22 Black Friday special at Bath & Body Works?

These are the things that keep me up at night.

 

So you’ll understand my apprehension when I decided to go for broke this year and download an Advent guide from Verge Network. I looked at several, but none seemed to have the magical ingredients that would appeal to four kids from 17 years old down to three. Verge, however, had Advent ornaments to cut and color, so I figured if nothing else, giving the three year old some scissors would be somewhat entertaining.

Last night was Night #1, and perhaps Night #Last, for reasons you’ll see in a moment. Verge had us focusing first on the fall of mankind (nothing says “Merry Christmas!” like the doctrine of original sin), so the plan was to read a portion from Genesis 3, then a reading from The Jesus Storybook Bible. You need to understand that Haven and I read the JSB together frequently. She loves it. It holds her attention, and mine for that matter. The pictures are colorful enough and the stories are short enough that she can maintain focus in almost any circumstance.

Unless that circumstance is Night #1 of Advent, and we have the audacity to involve the rest of the family.

To say that Haven was “unengaged” is the understatement of the century. She twirled. She danced. She moved from chair to chair and person to person. When one of us would try the “grab and hold” technique, she’d immediately launch countermeasures and initiate the “oily octopus” technique, slide onto the floor, and slink across the room. She made unhelpful comments, manufactured unhelpful noises, threw unhelpful jabs at her 11 year old brother…

…in other words, she illustrated the fall of mankind perfectly.

She paid attention to nothing and no one, until the moment that I read Genesis 3:10: “And he said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.'”

That, she heard.

And then the giggles started. And the eyes got wide as saucers. And the comment came: “DADDY WAS NAKED AND HID HIMSELF!”

Bye-bye, meaningful Advent moment. So long, sober reflection on the introduction of sin to the world. Adios, family devotions. The rest of the crew fell apart. Peals of laughter erupted. And the three year old princess couldn’t be any prouder of herself.

Me? I pouted. Fumed. Did everything I could just to get through it and get it over with and get her to bed.

So much for being spiritual. The man who was reading about sin became, once again, the sinner. Instead of reflecting the second Adam, I looked shockingly like the first one. The dad who was supposed to lead with grace wanted to respond by tossing the [insert Yosemite Sam style cuss words here] Advent guide right into the Christmas tree. One night in, and I was out. Advent – for me – was a bust.

 

Who needs Advent, anyway? Why do we carve out so much time focusing on the coming of Jesus?

Actually, let me try that again:

Who needs Advent, anyway? (I do.)

Why do we carve out so much time focusing on the coming of Jesus? (Because we so desperately need it.)

Nights like last night pull back the curtain on my need to slow down and focus. To hear Jesus. To see Jesus. To make much of Jesus. My attempts at family devotions or being a good husband or being a gracious dad can only go so far without the grace of Jesus. And that’s exactly the point of Advent: to pull away from decorations and wrapping paper and holiday gatherings and early-morning sales and just see Jesus. To recalibrate our hearts to him. To point our families to him. To renew our focus on him.

So tonight, though maybe a bit reluctantly, I’ll give it another whirl. Tonight, I’ll pull the Bible back out and gather the family back around and try to maintain my composure long enough to point them past their grouchy earthly father and towards their gracious heavenly one.

Tonight, I’ll try once again to see Jesus.

Photo credit: Jae C. Hong, AP, via USA Today

Photo credit: Jae C. Hong, AP, via USA Today

Saw this article over the weekend in USA Today. The AP reports that “dozens of gatherings” of atheists are popping up across the U.S. after gaining ground in Britain. Here’s a clip:

Hundreds of atheists and atheist-curious packed into a Hollywood auditorium for a boisterous service filled with live music, moments of reflection and an “inspirational talk, ” and some stand-up comedy by Jones, the movement’s co-founder.

During the service, attendees stomped their feet, clapped their hands and cheered as Jones and Evans led the group through rousing renditions of “Lean on Me,” ”Here Comes the Sun” and other hits that took the place of gospel songs. Congregants dissolved into laughter at a get-to-know-you game that involved clapping and slapping the hands of the person next to them and applauded as members of the audience spoke about community service projects they had started in LA.

At the end, volunteers passed cardboard boxes for donations as attendees mingled over coffee and pastries and children played on the floor.

I’m baffled by this. Truly baffled. I think back over forty years plus nine months of my own church experience. I can probably count on two hands and two feet (and have a toe or two left over) the number of times I’ve not been at church on a Sunday. Whether I was always there for the right reasons or not, I was always there.

But to gather just for the purpose of gathering is curious to me. I’ll be honest: if I were not a person of faith, I could think of plenty of other things I’d rather do on the weekend: sleep in. Grab breakfast with friends. Sleep in. Get all introverted and read. Did I mention sleeping in?

Way way down on the bottom of my list would be to show up to a large event with a bunch of strangers, sing some songs, and put money in a box.

To have a service when there’s no One you’re serving…well, that would be like inviting friends over for a movie night, but staring at a blank wall. The concept is good, but the execution is empty.

I don’t come to church because I get to sing, or talk to strangers, or have one more thing on my calendar. As a matter of fact, as one who’s more of an introvert, those things make the weekend a challenge for me. No, I sing and talk to strangers and schedule “church” because of the One the church is built upon. It’s the life of Jesus that informs my church life.

The point of church has never been to simply sing or gather or give. Yes, those things are a part of it. But the point of church is to point to Jesus. And without Jesus as the center, without someone who serves as the recipient of what we do, I remain…baffled.

My goal is not to bash atheists who gather corporately. I’m not out to question the sincerity of people who probably sound really good when they sing “Here Comes the Sun.” (As a matter of fact, if you attend one of these gatherings and happened to stumble across this post, I would genuinely love to have a dialogue with you so that I can learn from you.)

But here’s what I gleaned from the article: even people who don’t believe in God believe in relationships. According to Sanderson Jones, one of the co-founders of the movement:

“…it’s a shame because at the heart of it, it’s something I don’t believe in. If you think about church, there’s very little that’s bad. It’s singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people — and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of that is not to like?”

That, I understand. That’s where Jones nails it. People are looking for community. We’re hard-wired for relationships. And that’s why our churches must be places where people can connect, can get to know one another, can serve each other and live beyond themselves.

That’s why we have to plan the weekend experience with both believer and unbeliever in mind. Whether someone is a disciple or disillusioned, sold out or skeptic, apologist or atheist, we have the responsibility to plan for people who are like us, not like us, and don’t like us. We have the mandate to think outside the walls when it comes to people who wander inside our walls. We have to meet people where they are, not where we think they ought to be.

But as we do it, we must think bigger than corporate singing or generous giving. We must go beyond an inspirational sermon or strong relationships. All of those things should be present, but all should be a catalyst for something more. Sermons and singing and giving and relating has to point somewhere. It can’t be an end in itself.

It has to point to Jesus.

Yesterday on my way home from church, I had an experience that was so surreal, so otherworldly, that I just wanted to keep driving around for a while in order to extend the moment (but I didn’t. Because you know…carbon footprint).

I was listening to a radio station that I don’t normally listen to, and the deejay (who apparently had been on the job for about twelve minutes) was an absolute train wreck. One of those good train wrecks, where no one actually gets killed, but the pyrotechnics are incredible.

She couldn’t string two sentences together. She had annoying catch phrases that she used over and over again as nervous filler. She left her microphone on while she took a phone call, so all of her listening audience heard one side of the conversation after the last song had long since stopped playing.

But best of all, she turned her mic on during the middle of her favorite songs, and sang over the top of them.

That’s right. The one who was supposed to introduce the songs, sang the songs.

And as I sat bewildered over the sheer insanity of the moment, I realized how often I do the exact same thing. I thought about how many times my job is to point to another, but I insist on taking the limelight.

I recognized myself as the one who is supposed to introduce the Artist, but tries to become the artist.

Instead of pointing people to Jesus, I somehow try to take center stage.

Instead of giving friends the gospel, I let them wallow in their circumstances.

Instead of His fame, I focus on my own.

And I realized that – like the less-than-professional deejay, there are times I need to get out of the way and just play the music. No editorializing, no accompaniment, no one-upmanship.

Where do you need to get out of the way today?

 

When Jesus Haunts Your Halloween(via @davidcmathis)

When Jesus haunts our Halloween, we pour in the extra energy and creativity to capitalize on this opportunity to meet new neighbors and go deep with the old — whether we’re ushering our kids from house to house or leaving our lights on and giving out the best candy.

Florida cop buys $100 in groceries for woman caught shoplifting food(via @ABC11_WTVD) There’s a sermon illustration here. I just know it.

“I grabbed my debit card, ran back into the store and bought things that would sustain her for a week or so and when I walked out she saw that I had the cart of groceries and she burst out in tears and asked if she could hug me, which is kind of unusual for the suspect to be hugging the officer,” Thomas said with a laugh. “I let her hug me.”

Halloween Treats Gone Wrong. 

Last week our staff team celebrated communion together, as we do each month. It’s one of my favorite times of worship here at the Summit, a time when none of us are worrying with weekend responsibilities or what’s happening out in the lobby. It’s a time for us to just be.

And maybe that’s why a particular phrase arrested my attention. We were being led by John McGowan, one of our church planting residents with Summit Network. In regards to communion, John reminded us:

“We are a room full of believing forgetters.”

Believing forgetters. In other words, we can easily articulate the foundations of our faith: Jesus lived a perfect life in our place. He died a substitutionary death on the cross for our sins. He rose from the tomb in order to defeat death, hell, and the grave. He sent the Holy Spirit in order that we might have his indwelling power.

We can believe that Jesus is greater than any earthly competition for his affection. We can say that his glory should eclipse all others in our life. We can sing of our love for him, our devotion to him, our passion for him.

But while we believe, we forget.

We get into the busyness of our day, and we forget. We get into the heat of a trial, and we forget. We wrestle with the same old sins, and we forget.

What we know to be true, we forget to be true.

And that’s why we need the daily reminder of the gospel. We need the daily prompt that – though we’re more wicked than we could imagine, we’re more loved than we could hope. We need to turn our attention again to the cross. We need to remind ourselves of Jesus’ promises and his power over and over again.

We need to remember what we’re prone to forget.

“…let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:22-23)

If you’ve been a reader of this blog for any amount of time, you know that I’ll frequently publish posts highlighting a less than stellar guest service experience. And I suppose part of the “eye” that forms the genesis of these posts comes naturally: first impressions is what I do. It’s what I’m immersed in for the majority of my week, my ministry life, and it’s the stuff that I love to read about, learn from, and study. And when I’m in a retail establishment, restaurant, or encountering a service provider, I’m obviously going to pick up on those things with a sense of critique.

But here’s what I’ve noticed about myself lately: there is arrogance that often accompanies my experience. I’ll find myself on the rough end of a bad customer experience, and instead of responding with grace, I’ll react with a subtle cold shoulder, deftly communicating that the person serving me just isn’t measuring up.

Further, there’s an arrogance that accompanies the fact that I have experience. In other words, “I’m a professional. I know how this should be done. And you stink at it.”

Now let me be clear: I’ve never thrown a napkin dispenser across a restaurant, never put my fist through the drywall on the way out, never hiked up my britches and given anyone my best “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM” shriek. But all of those things are latently lurking below the surface. I possess an arrogance that overshadows grace, a pride that overwhelms kindness, and an attitude that smothers over the gentleness of the gospel.

How much better would it be if – instead of calculating all the things that someone is doing wrong – I figured out what they’re doing right? How much more effective if I sought to serve them, rather than complained about how they’re not serving me? What kind of relational bridge could be built if I took the poor service and responded with what they did not deserve: a kind smile, an encouraging word, a sincere show of gratitude?

What if I treated people the way Jesus has treated me?

Now I’ll tell you: that doesn’t mean that I’ll end up with the service I want. It doesn’t mean that every bad experience gets reformed. And it certainly doesn’t make for good blog stories. But at the end of the day, it’s not about my bad experience, my service, or my zinger of a tale. It’s about Jesus. And it’s about allowing him to live through me, even in the mundane details of a cold cheeseburger or a insanely long hold time.

How does your experience reveal your arrogance?