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Lent 2017

28 Feb

Lent begins tomorrow (March 1). Prayerfully consider what  you want to remove from you life for this season. I promise it’s worth it.

I always want more. More food. More stuff. More money. More power. More friends. More hobbies. More time for myself. More. Lent is a time we rebel against more. The idea of willfully removing things from your life couldn’t feel more foreign to the modern human and couldn’t be more needed. Fasting, in the Christian tradition, is a period of time that you abstain from certain things–usually food–in order to clear space in your own soul for God to work. Fasting is about cultivating hunger. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled, Jesus said.

As we enter into the next 40 days of Lent (a time of fasting on the church calendar each year leading into Easter), I would encourage you to pick one or two things to remove. Your body or mind will fight against the idea. Fight back. There are no medals to be earned at the end of the 40 days. No one is forcing you into this. This is for you. It’s good for you. As you empty yourself, you’ll find yourself being filled with what God offers.

The focus of Lent for me this year is awareness. I feel like I’ve been experiencing life in a fog of constant information and stimuli. I want to experience a tangible awareness of God’s presence that I’ve been missing. So I’m reorienting my days away from consumption. Drastically less social media, a strict diet, and intermittent fasting. More silence, more creation of stuff that matters, and more awareness.

I’m praying that in the rhythm of fasting and feasting (Sunday’s are a time where you break the fast and feast), you’ll find God at work in and through you.

-Pastor Joseph

“If we think of fasting as breaking the vicious addictive cycles of loyalty to a consumer society, then we will certainly recognize prominent forms of addiction…that may admit of disciplined disengagement.” Walter Brueggemann

A Year of Living the Disciplines

27 Feb

Often, the life of faith is relegated to a moment that we accept the forgiveness of Jesus followed by a waiting period before we get the payoff for that decision (salvation). That’s the least captivating story you could write with your life. And it misses the entire point of Jesus’ message. The kingdom of heaven is at hand, Jesus said. And we are to live now as though that’s the case.

That means a radical reorganization of our lives. It means that we reject every falsehood—about our selves and about our world. In rejecting what’s false we cling to what is Real. We seek to actively bring about God’s justice on earth as it is in heaven. We live lives marked by generosity and abundance rather than greed and scarcity. We deny our ego/false-self and lean into what God has created us to be.

In other words, there’s work to be done—in us and in our world. That’s discipleship and it doesn’t happen without effort. We’re saved by grace through faith and it certainly isn’t our own doing. But keep reading that Ephesians passage. We’re saved for good works. Those good works won’t happen naturally. Because we’re selfish people who are endlessly effective at self-delusion. I am always the hero in my movie (regardless of how much of a jerk I am).

So this year we’re going to establish some rhythm in our lives. We’re going to engage a different spiritual disciple each month. It’s my prayer that these disciplines will be themes in your life and regular topics of conversation. I hope you feel challenged. I hope you have to face the ugliness of your own ego. And I hope you feel the comfort of God as you take steps away from what’s false and into what’s Real.

“He that began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.” We’re not doing these things to merit anything from God. He’s already pleased. He already calls us sons and daughters. We’re doing this to become who we are created to be.

Join us this month as we focus specifically on fasting during the Lenten season.

  • January- Simplicity
  • February- Submission
  • March- Fasting
  • April- Worship
  • May- Service
  • June- Meditation
  • July- Confession
  • August- Prayer
  • September- Fellowship
  • October- Solitude
  • November- Study
  • December- Advent (Celebration)

“The notion is not “sacrifice” as if this, of itself, somehow pleases God, but rather consciously letting go of ATTITUDES and BEHAVIORS that are in the way, that keep me from loving God, loving one another, and loving my own dignity.” (Richard Rohr)

This is a great primer on why discipleship matters from Dallas Willard: https://renovare.org/articles/why-bother-with-discipleship-1

Reflections on Family Dinner Groups

3 May

Last year I had an idea for how to adapt small groups into something I would ever want to attend. Small groups can be the worst. The thought of ten people crowded into a living room trying to force conversation about some new book with a “participants guide” makes me physically ill. Small group leaders (in traditional small group settings) feel a need to come with an hour of prepared content each week. And so something that is supposed to function as a place church members can actually get to know each other turns into a leader teaching the majority of the time and one or two group members dominating conversation for fear of a single moment of silence (which really does feel like life-threatening awkwardness) the rest of the time.

I’m painting a caricature, for sure. There’s a lot of good that can come out of traditional small groups. I’ve been a part of a few that have been meaningful to me. But largely, they’ve been weird. The focus of my effort to make something new for Center City wasn’t novelty. We don’t want or need to be innovative (for the sake of innovation). The goal was to make something that I would want to go to. In that way, it was selfish. But my hunch was that a good amount of people shared my view of small groups but had never been given any alternative.

The idea came to me while listening to a sermon on the Eucharist. The thought was simple: Why don’t we just eat together? It’s a natural thing. People are disarmed around a dinner table. Conversation flows. It’s normal. Real community or (less irritatingly) real friendships are formed in the natural rhythms of life. People want to eat together. And the early church grew as they broke bread in one another’s homes. If it worked for them, perhaps it would work for us, I thought.

So we tried it. There was no pressure and no leaders. We just wanted willing hosts that would open their dinner tables up to see acquaintances become real friends/family. There was no rigid content requirements. We asked the church to read a great book together with the suspicion that if the book was any good, it would come up naturally in conversation.

And as this first round of family dinner groups comes to a close, I am happy to report that it was a beautiful success. In January, I wrote a letter to the church about hope for the groups in which I said:

“As we prioritize time with one another, we’ll move past the pleasantries of functional relationships into a genuine space where love is formed. We are all yearning for connection with people and yet continue to live isolated and fragmented lives. I don’t want that to be true of our community. If we’re really family, we should be spending regular unhurried time together.”

It happened, I think. There were a ton of new relationships that formed between people I wouldn’t have thought would get along. There were big ideas wrestled with together. People bore each others burdens (gave a crap about each other). People prayed for each other when their relatives died. Great food was shared. There were lots of laughs as people were free to simply be themselves and felt no pressure to be insightful or astute. In other words, I think it looked a lot like the kingdom.

Another benefit (and this was perhaps the most meaningful to me) was that these groups gave people an outlet to express the gift of themselves. We didn’t ask hosts to fit into any mold (type A, confident public speaker, gregarious, etc…). We just asked them to open their homes and be themselves. It delighted me to see people really engaged that I never thought would have any interest in “leading”.

In June we’ll kick off round two. If you’re a part of Center City and reading this, I want you to be a part. Host a group. Join a group. Know and be known by each other.

web dinnerjpeg

Center City Church: What God is Doing

9 Mar

“God’s will”, as people refer to it, only makes sense to me in retrospect. I have no clue what God is doing in the present. I act off hunches—little whispers from Elsewhere that can change the whole course of life. Moving to Charlotte began as an inkling that wouldn’t go away. It certainly made no sense to turn down a “dream job” with a nice salary to go to a little fledgling church-plant with no money and no promises. All of those little feelings that nudged Chelsi and me toward Charlotte make a lot more sense now than they did then. Similarly, last year, I had no clue would what come of my message about racial reconciliation to our congregation of 150 white, young professionals. But what’s happened since then has taken us all by surprise.

In April of last year, officers in Baltimore arrested Freddie Gray (a black man). While in police care in transit, Gray suffered severe injuries to the neck and spine. He died as a result of those injuries a week after the arrest. The country’s attention was fixed on Baltimore for weeks. There were many protests and demonstrations that garnered constant media coverage. The conversation about the events that transpired with Freddie Gray and the subsequent reaction of Baltimore-area residents dominated the social media landscape. Generalizations abounded and everyone seemed to know exactly what was really going on there. Language like “those thugs rioting in Baltimore for no reason” kept popping up on my feeds. It bothered me profoundly. There was utter carelessness with what was being said. The people demonstrating in Baltimore were being intentionally dehumanized by people with much passion and little empathy—many sweeping statements and precious few facts.

In April of last year in Charlotte, Center City Church was in the middle of series on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. I was scheduled to speak the week after the events in Baltimore transpired. When I read the passage that had been assigned to me months before, I was overwhelmed by the convergence of everything. It really seemed to me that the Spirit was trying to say something to the Church—and more specifically, to Center City Church.

Charlotte was recently ranked 50th out of America’s 50 largest cities for upward mobility. What that means is that a child in Charlotte has the worst odds of any major American city of moving from the bottom fifth of incomes to the top fifth. In this beautiful city that I love so much, there is a strong racial divide that most people pretend doesn’t exist. Charlotte is booming economically. We’re growing at a rapid pace. But behind the mask of expansion is the same old dividing lines that have always been present in the Southeast. Glittering Charlotte is still haunted by the ghosts of its history.

It was with all this in mind—the stark racial divide that was exposed in Baltimore and the reality that Charlotte wasn’t much different—that I preached a sermon out of Ephesians 2 to a homogenous congregation of white young professionals. In the passage, Paul urges two groups of people to recognize that in the person of Jesus, God has reconciled two groups of people and created in himself a new humanity out of the two. In the message, I read excerpts from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that he wrote in prison and excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s stunning “Letters from a Birmingham Jail.” The message was clear (at least to me): In Christ we’re called to lay aside every distinction that separates and recognize our shared identity as sons and daughters of God. This doesn’t take away from the particularities that make us unique individually. Paul is saying that all of those distinctions are to be understood in the context of a new humanity that we are all a part of in Jesus. I preach a fair amount of sermons. Some of them feel like they mean something. Some of them feel meaningless. But this sermon is one that has really stuck with our people. Even when I was preaching it, it felt more significant than I could articulate. I knew somehow that it was the beginning of something new for our church. But I had no clue what it would be.

In April of last year, David Docusen (my boss and genuine friend) heard of an opportunity in West Charlotte (a side of town where the racial divide is crystal clear). From that moment until now, a massive amount of thought and work has gone into exploring a move for our church there. And it’s happening. Yesterday, David put ink to paper. We’re thrilled to be joining what God’s been doing for a long time in that neighborhood. (Read more about the project here. It’s as exciting of a project as anything I’ve heard of.)

So we’re stepping into the unknown. “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all,” John says. I would add to that verse, “but God is Mystery; in him there is no clarity at all.” We’re just acting off the hunch that we’re supposed to do something that doesn’t make a ton of sense. But God is all over it. I’m excited to reflect in a few years and see how all this fits into the story that’s being written about Center City Church. Of one thing I’m sure, God is up to something.

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier…His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14-16)

Lent

10 Feb

I always want more. More food. More stuff. More money. More power. More friends. More hobbies. More time for myself. More. Lent is a time we rebel against more. The idea of willfully removing things from your life couldn’t feel more foreign to the modern human and couldn’t be more needed. Fasting, in the Christian tradition, is a period of time that you abstain from certain things in order to clear space in your own soul for God to work. Fasting is about cultivating hunger. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled, Jesus said.

As we enter into the next 40 days of lent (a time of fasting on the church calendar each year leading into Easter), I would encourage you to pick one or two things to remove. Your body or mind will fight against the idea. Fight back. There are no medals to be earned at the end of the 40 days. No one is forcing you into this. This is for you. It’s good for you. As you empty yourself, you’ll find yourself being filled with what God offers.

For me, I’ll be stepping away from social media on my phone and only checking from my computer during designated short periods each day. The focus of Lent for me this year is awareness. I feel like I’ve been experiencing life in a fog of constant information and stimuli. I want to experience an awareness of God’s presence that I’ve been missing.

Here’s a pdf of a devotional some of us at the church are going to be using during the 40 days:

http://static1.squarespace.com/static/5509ed1de4b01b466742ac0c/t/56b4c5dc27d4bdaa286ada6e/1454687715021/TGC+Chelsea+_+Lent+Guide+2016+%28online%29.pdf

I’m praying that in the rhythm of fasting and feasting (Sunday’s are a time where you break the fast and feast), you’ll find God at work in and through you.

-Pastor Joseph

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