This image, "Intimacy," is by Karl Fay. Used with permission in my Christmas Eve sermon, 2020.
Christmas 2020 feels like this:
There is a house with all your loved ones inside. Every light is turned on. It’s warm. Kids are playing Uno. Adults are playing Pictionary and telling jokes. Prime rib for dinner. Little cocktail shrimp. Apple and pecan pie for dessert. There is laughing. Storytelling. Hugging.
But you are outside. Looking in through a window. Missing out, left out, and left behind.
This last Sunday, I didn't feel like preaching. The theme was "joy," and I didn't feel joyful. It’s really hard for me to be fake. I’m a bad liar. I’ll always tell you the truth, and the truth is that joy cannot be forced.
You can try to create a little Christmas joy: Put up lights. Buy presents. Have a drink. Those things may bring happiness for a moment, but not genuine joy. You can’t make yourself be joyful.
As I was preparing to preach on joy I was talking with someone in an absolute miserable situation. And I thought, “It is inappropriate for me to talk about joy right now. Hope, faith, love – yes. But joy would come across as insensitive." I’m not sure if this is the time for joy. Should we just skip the joy candle in 2020?
Here's what flipped my perspective on joy. Maybe it will bring you some joy in a season of darkness.
A pandemic. A monumental election. Wildfires and hurricanes. Cries for justice. Economic disaster. Societal confusion. Is this THE END? Is this the Apocalypse?
It's election day in America. Many Christians are freaking out, as if the kingdom of God depended on the outcome of a vote. Both political parties have said this election is for “the soul of America.” I don’t want to diminish its importance. If you haven't already, vote! But the kingdom of God does not depend on the ballot box.
This is an email sent to my congregation in St. Louis, MO. It is an attempt to provide pastoral guidance and perspective to our congregation when so many people are frustrated, angry, and confused. With my colleagues, Pastor Bobby Walston and Pastor Paul Dickerson, we desire for our people to follow Christ faithfully in days of uncertainty.
In a contentious election week, your pastors desire to share a response to some common statements we hear. Our heart is for you. Our desire is for you to walk faithfully in Christ, without fear or despair. Our role is not to advocate for a political system. We are pastors. Our calling is higher, to guide you in the ways of God that you might walk faithfully in service to him.
In his 1981 book Megatrends, John Naisbitt taught that the more “high tech” a society is, the more “high touch” it must become. 40 years later, this is truer than ever. As I look at ministry in the trenches, I see “high touch” as the most critical ministry skill today.
When I visit family in Minnesota, I notice that my "o's" lengthen on words like "boat" and "snow." The accent returns. After a while, we start to sound like the people around us.
Last night I walked my neighborhood during the presidential debate. In nearly every window I saw the glow of a TV tuned to Trump and Biden. I caught the end of the debate. It was a tone and language that I warn my children against.
Language has the power to shape and form us. We are influenced by the voices around us, picking up their "accent." Our own language is often normed by what we hear. As a pastor in this cultural moment, I have a simple desire for my congregation.
I want us to listen to Jesus more than Fox News or CNN. More to Jesus than to Facebook, Instagram, or TicToc.
I want us to be more attuned to Christ than to a candidate.
I want us to echo the talking points of the Sermon on the Mount more than a Democrat or Republican platform.
My congregation will be hanging around Jesus in Matthew 5-7 in the coming weeks. I want us to absorb his language in the Sermon on the Mount as we go through an election season. I want us to be steeped in his distinctive accent. I want us to see how radically different his kingdom is.
In this sermon, Jesus says things that no one else is saying. In a world obsessed with power, position, and popularity, Jesus' stump speech sounds foreign. For instance, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3). The "poor in spirit" stand in contrast to the world's "winners," "victors," and "influencers." The values and virtues of the Kingdom of God contrast the trinket kingdoms of the world.
Poverty of spirit over power.
Dependence over control.
The humble over the proud.
The meek over the loud.
I want us to be formed more by the Kingdom of God than by the ways of the world. For the next month, I invite you to join me in digesting Kingdom language:
Pick up the accent of your King. Then people might even ask where you're from.
Your calendar reflects your priorities.
Your treasure reveals your heart.
Your schedule shows what you value.
Five months of crisis have blown up our old schedules, habits, and patterns. We have an opportunity to start over. Set a new path. Build a structure that reinforces what is most important.
The soil is tilled and turned over. It's ready for planting. Will you plant seeds or weeds?
Personally, I've been using a "daily pattern" to center myself on God and his word each day. It's not rocket science. It's not a new liturgy, but drawn from Christians gone before me. As a church, we're looking to start new daily patterns like this in the fall.
Would you help me? GO HERE to see a week of the "Daily Pattern." It's a short order for daily devotion and prayer. It's simple. It's adaptable. It can be used individually or in a group.
Try it for a week. Let me know what you think and if it helps you set a daily pattern in the middle of disruption.
After the death of George Floyd, there were an abundance of statements on racism and justice. For better or worse, I was hesitant to add to the list of "statements." Instead, I invested time in one-on-one conversations. Scores of them. Two of those conversations were with the brothers pictured above, Pastors Gerard Bolling and John Schmidtke.
In those conversations, I learned something: my assumptions were off. Assumptions about what people thought about racism. Assumptions about what they expected from the church. It prompted me to make a clear statement to our congregation. In retrospect, I should have done it sooner. But this is a long road and demands more than a single statement. Here’s a letter I sent to my church a this week. It's start.
These days you can’t make plans more than a week out. Ask any educator preparing for the school year. Things change daily, even by the hour. This leaves life feeling chaotic and uncertain.
So how do we go about our work?
Is it worth all the effort?
Should we make plans, or just throw up our hands?
I’ve been dwelling on Psalm 127. “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” (Ps. 127:1) This Psalm re-frames our perspective on work and planning when our work seems in vain.
In response to Psalm 127, here are three practices that I think capture its spirit. They put us in the posture of proper work and planning.