Distractions & Prayer

I struggle with a regular prayer life, which makes me kinda feel like a Lenten Loser.  Lent is the time of year where we’re supposed to get better at the whole prayer thing, not worse.  It’s like spilling coffee all over the inside of your car while the outside is getting washed (you know, from the bumps of the automatic carwash — I can’t be the only person to have experienced this irony).

“I’m not very good at prayer” is usually caused by one of two factors: Time and Distraction.

Let’s talk about these, won’t we?

If you fall into the “I’m not very good at prayer” category because you don’t set and keep a time to pray, then be of good cheer: your problem isn’t as bad as you assume.  Speaking from experience, this is merely a case of a bad diagnosis.  How discouraging it must be to think that we are bad at connecting with God when, in reality, it’s just a matter of moving the day around.  To put it more succinctly: “I’m not very good at setting and keeping a time for prayer.”  It’s not that I’m bad at prayer, it’s just that I’m bad at scheduling.  Perhaps this problem isn’t as hard to fix as it seems.

How do I fix my time issue?

Setting a time for prayer is easy.  Keeping it is hard.  Most everything else you do is in strict observance to the clock.  An alarm tells you to get up, a boss tells you to be at your desk by 9, your English prof demands a paper by midnight.  Somehow you abide by these rules every day.  Every stinking day.  The reason we struggle with setting a time for prayer is that there’s no direct negative correlation, at least not that we detect.

First, decide in advance when you’re going to pray.

Without a specific time in mind, a prayer time left to chance has a good chance… of being forgotten or pushed later and later in the day until your Colbert/Netflix binge lulls you to sleepytime.  I know you’re not a morning person because of how angry you will get when I suggest this: get up earlier in the morning so that you can pray That’s the only way it works for me.  If I miss my 5am wake up call, I can occasionally get away with pushing it to 5:30 or 6, but, after that, the chances I will have a solid prayer time are quite diminished.  Just set a time and do it.

Second, decide where you’re going to pray.

Pro tip: if you want a deeper prayer life, don’t multitask it.  By this I mean don’t drive/take a shower/read the news feed as you pray. Indeed you could pray during these times, and maybe you should, especially with how you drive (just seeing if you’re still angry about the morning thing).  But multitasking is a myth.  We can only do one thing at a time.  Multitasking is just doing two things in quick succession — and wasting time and energy switching between the two.  By deciding where to pray, you set aside a mini sanctuary that is meant for only one purpose.  For me, it’s my Mom’s old drawing table, set up in the dusty corners of my basement.  I know that when I sit there, facing that direction, it’s prayer time.

Third, decide how long you’re going to pray for.

You’re working on time management, right?  Time management includes when you start something as well as when you stop.  For me, it’s one hour.  That’s a HUGE bucket of time in my day, but, for my life, it’s vital.  It may sound like a long time to you, but here’s the stinger: after an hour, I don’t want to stop & the time flies by!  That’s strange.  Do yourself a favor and don’t try to win any saint medals – just set a realistic time limit (10 minutes? 20 minutes? 5 minutes) and see where it goes.  Pastoral disclaimer: if the Holy Spirit has you go longer, don’t drop my name as a reason to stop.

Now that you’ve got a plan for making and keeping a prayer time, you’ll find another prayer deflator: distraction.

Distraction: I’m bad at concentrating [squirrel] during prayer.

This one is common to everybody.  Praying along, and all the sudden you can’t stop thinking about your March Madness Brackets or how to replace the rotors on your Nissan.  You’ve probably heard someone tell you to push the distractions out of your head.  Here’s some advice: don’t.  Explore the distraction.  Follow it, doing so in a conversation with God.  You can push it aside but it’ll keep crawling up onto the table.  Put a lasso around it, consider it in the presence of the Lord.  Why does this distraction come to mind?  If you can treat your distractions as a gift, you may find that the Spirit of God is pulling the conversation in a better direction.  I have found that entertaining the distractions with Jesus in the mix has an arresting effect on what was initially seen as a troublemaker.

Prayer is a conversation, not a presentation

If you were sitting at this table conversing with me and saw what I just saw, our conversation would’ve stopped.  I won’t go into detail (you had to be there) but, when that bird flew into the… sorry, you had to be there.  Wouldn’t it be weird if I went on talking as if it didn’t happen?  You’d think I was zoned.  OR what if I apologized profusely for the distraction and kept asking you to forgive me for it?   Awkward, right?  Hardly conversational.  There is no powerpoint in prayer, we’re not onstage, and there is no pressure to present yourself as someone you’re not.  Be free.

Pastoral disclaimer: if the distraction is a voice that tells you you’re no good, etc., don’t entertain that.  That can be pushed aside because it’s simply not true.

If it’s a time issue, you can fix that.  If it’s a distraction issue, try just going with it.  Can you imagine a prayer life that wasn’t based on anxiety and instead found a home in just giving it your best shot?  That’s the kind of thing you’d do for a friend, and that’s exactly what the Holy One invites us to.  Grace is amazing.  It’s Lent.

How have you conquered these two obstacles in prayer?  Where’s your struggle?  What’s your challenge and/or encouragement to others?  I’d love to hear!




Posted in lent, prayer, spiritual formation | Leave a comment

Handful of Animal Crackers and a Swig of Milk

My favorite snack as of late is a handful of animal crackers and a swig of Vitamin D milk.  I put 5-9 in my mouth and then marry the cookies (inter-mouthily) with the milk.  This saves dishes (except for a small cup) and gives just the refreshment I crave at the time.

Someone gave us a huge container (10 pounds!) of said crackers, and we’re all finding that the seemingly endless supply makes our family feel very rich indeed.  It doesn’t take much.  A scarcity of animal crackers, on the other hand, raises a level of exclusivity, like a signature series of goods.  When they’re there, I eat them.  When they’re not, you guessed it: I don’t eat them.

If I were you, I’d try it.  Before you do, allow me to offer one caveat: this doesn’t work with skim milk.  At that point, you might as well have a mouthful of croutons instead.  Croutons are far too concentrated to take an entire mouthful at once, skim milk or not.  The first idea that pops into my head is replacing the milk with Ranch dressing.  Do as you like, but don’t knock it until you try it.

Sometimes I’ll do that with an Oreo cookie — cookie, milk, enjoy.  But never with croutons.  Please don’t do that one unless you really want to.  Either way, be sure to let me know how it goes.

I thought I’d write this because it’s hardly political yet moderately divisive. Your input is welcome.

Posted in time wasters | Leave a comment

Emily’s Back

I’m so proud of Emily.  Two weeks ago we were there (boys/Emily’s parents) for her graduation ceremony.  Even in recovery she’s a straight-A student.  She worked hard, took advantage of every training and therapeutic opportunity, and put in the effort.  We even met a few of her pals.  Of course, everyone in the residence talked about her kind heart, lovely soul, authentic care for others.  It was a great celebration full of real life struggle and victory.  We went to dinner at a cool restaurant and got home — together again after many weeks.  It’s good to have Emily home.

One question that gets asked in recovery is “will it work?”, which is an obvious question without a simple answer.  There is no guarantee, no warranty. People are more complex than refrigerators.  It’s like when I hit a weight loss goal.  Did it work?  Yes.  Will it work?  That depends on the decisions I make each day.  I’m currently 20 pounds over, thanks in large part to the wonderful ministry of casserole and cake that our family has been blessed by.  But yeah, recovery is an ongoing process with milestones, a process made complex by the desire all of us struggle with — we want to do the things we know we shouldn’t.  Addiction is that plus a million, because now our brain chemistry is part of the hijacking.

If I were Emily, I would feel like everyone was watching me, which isn’t much fun.  I remember a moment in 4th grade where I fell off my chair and let out a seismic burst of gas from my pant region.  Everyone turned around.  Even the teacher was appalled.  Sure, I can laugh about it now.  Or you can, whatever.

People have been very supportive during this time.  I have a new appreciation for our family, our friends, and the community of believers.  It’s going to be tough for some people to know what to do in response now that Emily’s home.  I would take the low and slow approach: say hey, but don’t feel pressure to do an inventory or give a rundown or anything.  Most of us have the inborn desire to make sure we ask how someone is doing — we ask how they’re feeling, what they need, and how they really feel.  That’s a great, caring inquiry that can become overwhelming through repetition.  If 2-3 people ask, that’s one thing.  Imagine hundreds giving that kind of attention, albeit with good intention.  Just thinking about it makes me want to take a nap.  I can’t imagine what that must be like for Emily.  You have permission to smile without making your concern overt.  We know you care.

I think her post puts it well.



Posted in Family, Uncategorized

Leave of Absence

It was announced yesterday at Renovation Church that I am on a Leave of Absence for the month of February.  I want to tell you why that is, what’s been going on, and what we’re doing right now.

Our lives have been full and good, blessed by the Lord and a delight in many ways, but it should be said that our family has its share of challenges.  We were totally surprised to discover that our daughter had Down Syndrome.  Our oldest son underwent a serious cranial surgery at 18 months old.  My mom died way too young, leaving us without a mom/grandma who loved us and supported us in many loving ways.  And the joys of ministry are always paired with intense demands that will take a toll on any family.

Through all of this, my wife Emily has been dealing with depression/anxiety.  Though she pursued various levels of treatment over the past 14 years, it has proven to be an ongoing struggle for this awesome wife and mom who committed to stay home with the kids while I worked.  Treatments and therapies were in the off-and-on mix as Emily soldiered on to make our daily lives happen.  All of this with a special needs daughter and two rambunctious boys, plus a husband who surely means well but still leaves dried toothpaste on the sink, often sprinkled with stubble.  I know it sometimes felt like having three little kids and a pretty big kid.  Nonetheless, Emily always made it work.  We always had clean clothes to wear, food to eat, and the bills paid.  I’m telling you: she’s amazing.  I did as much as I could to help at home, but she carried much of the load, pressing on through all kinds of stuff that had largely been pushed out of the way so our family could keep going.

About two years ago and out of nowhere, Emily had a seizure.  As far as radamdavidson.com goes, this post about what happened has been the most popular thing I’ve ever written.  Family and friends were wonderfully supportive.  We discovered that her seizure was caused by a lack of sleep.  All that to say: make sure you’re getting enough sleep!  Of course, I say that as a guy who can fall asleep in a matter of seconds. Emily, on the other hand, has dealt with insomnia for most of her life.

It was just a bit after that time that Emily had a common cold.  She took an over the counter medication that helped with the symptoms but also, to her surprise, helped her cope with the depression/anxiety.  Over time and initially unbeknownst to me, she developed a habit of always taking this particular medication, not for its intended purpose but rather as an anxiety management tool.  As the months rolled on, she was taking it with greater frequency and at greater amounts.  As can happen with any person regarding nearly any substance, Emily developed an addiction to the cold medicine.

I should pause here and say that I’m no expert when it comes to addiction.  I once thought it to be an ethical issue, but it’s not.  I believed that the best thing you could do is tell a person to stop because it could destroy them and everything they’ve got, but addiction isn’t rational.  In fact, as I understand it, addiction rewires the brain so that a person will do anything to get their drug of choice.  No, this doesn’t absolve personal responsibility.  But it does help optimists like me come to terms with the fact that you can’t be positive and pray this away (God can heal broken arms, but He tends to heal through doctors and casts), you can’t will this away, and you can’t guilt this away.  Save your logic for another day.  Addiction is a disease.  Telling someone to stop based on reason alone would be like you telling me to grow hair on my head again.  I am a man of great faith, but that’s probably not going to happen.

As we (myself, extended family, close friends) confronted Emily on this, trying to strike the balance between grace and truth, she faced the fact that indeed this was an issue, and that something needed to be done.  She pursued counseling with an addiction specialist, did some intensive impatient and outpatient treatments, and even went to Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings.  All along the way, only one person in the medical/therapy world said that they had heard of such a unique case of addiction, especially when it came to her drug of choice.  Nonetheless, Emily soldiered on as I reduced some of my extracurriculars to be home more.  We did our best to keep a balance.  It kinda worked.

When we got around to Christmas/Winter break 2018, it became apparent to me and to our extended family that things were not getting better.  An appointment with her doctor confirmed that yes, Emily was still using.  Everyone we talked to stressed the need for her to go to a treatment center.  Of course she hesitated because of 1) cost 2) inconvenience and 3) the honest belief that she could kick this on her own.  Early on I believed that she could stop with the right treatments and the growing support network in our community.  With this new level of severity, our extended family members who were fully in the know were all thinking the same as me: we need to do something more to help Emily.

It was bad and getting worse.  I knew I needed to do something, but I wasn’t sure what.  They say that addicts have to hit rock bottom before they change.  What they don’t say is what rock bottom looks like.  The obvious rock bottom — death — is exactly what we were trying to avoid.  In my prayers, I started saying things to God like “why aren’t you fixing this?” or “what do I do now?” and even “I feel forgotten.”  Have you ever felt that way?  I did.  It was about a month ago.  I was sitting on the ottoman in our front room, waiting on hold as I was desperately trying to get someone at our doctor’s office to set Emily up for an appointment ASAP.  A medical assistant listened as I laid out the situation.  Although they didn’t have any appointments available until March (!), she was trying to find a way for someone to see Emily.  I spent enough time on hold to hear the whole album.  I silently prayed “Where are you, Lord?”  Suddenly the on-hold music stopped and the voice on the other end said “don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about you… hang on for just a sec, ok?”

Not forgotten.

Someone may be asking “why didn’t you say something sooner?”  The church is an amazing community that is designed for mission.  One critical component of this unique community is that we carry each other’s burdens.  Believe me, I get it.  But I knew that once this went public, it would be out there.  It’s not that I wanted to live a lie or keep things covered so we’d look good.  Far from it.  I was motived first and foremost to protect Emily from yet another layer of pressure as a Pastor’s wife.  I wanted to maintain the dignity of my wife and children.  I believed, until about a month ago, that she could do this on her own.  And, I didn’t know it was quite this bad.

I reached out to the area Superintendent (my boss & the person who oversees the group of churches that I’m part of).   He listened well, offered support and encouragement, and helped lay out a plan of how best to respond so that Emily could get the care she needed, the church would continue to function, and our family could find healing.

I called our insurance carrier and asked them about coverage.  I didn’t know until now that some rehabilitation centers can run $1,000+ per day, and that insurance like ours will often cover some of a one-month stay.  Every bit helps, but it sure did limit availability.  Like before, I was on hold as our insurance rep called different facilities to see if they could take Emily as a client.  And, like before, the on-hold music blared on as an ironically cheerful soundtrack to our family crisis.  I was connected with a place in Grand Rapids that sounded perfect but, upon deeper investigation, turned out to not take our insurance.  I cannot describe to you the feeling of utter helplessness I had in that moment.  The person on the other end said “you know, there is a place that does take your insurance… write this number down.”  I wrote it down.  Desperately.  She said “I’m going to let Roy know you’re calling.”  Okay.  Who’s Roy?  Doesn’t matter.  I called Roy and he said “oh yeah, just got the text about your situation.  Sounds like we need to get a place for your wife tonight.”  I sighed in relief.  We set it all up and made plans to hit the road as soon as Emily’s parents got to the house to watch our kids.

A few minutes after we left our medical insurance rep called me back to see if we made any progress.  I let her know about the bizarre chain of phone calls that led us to Emily’s instant treatment option and the rep said “that’s such a relief… I was praying for you guys the whole time because I knew it was desperate…”  Mind you, this isn’t a Christian insurance carrier per se.  It was apparent that the Lord was lining things up in miraculous ways.

Not forgotten.

For the past few weeks Emily has been in a residential treatment facility where she takes classes, does therapy/counseling sessions, and works hard to get the right coping tools.  Deep issues that have knocked around in there for years are finally getting the attention they’ve long needed.  Though it’s no island getaway, she’s getting the time away she needs to make it so that she can once again be the wife and mom that God has wired her to be — and undoing the bad wiring of addiction.

Yesterday I preached about the Power of Disclosure.  I went out on a limb and talked about all this stuff in both services.  I laid it all out there, doing my best to point to Jesus in all of this.  Do you know what happens when we’re real?  When we tell the story as it is?  When we expose the darkness to light?  God has room to heal like never before.  I won’t start preaching again, but I will say that sharing this, first with church leaders, then congregation, now you, is a great risk.  A published blog post can’t be unpublished.  People will see and think differently.  The stigma attached to addiction is something we all know and either despise or hold to… often a mix of both.  Yet, for every one point of risk in this, I believe that there are ten if not a million opportunities for someone to find the grace of Jesus in a new and freeing way.  If this helps you in your journey, I’d like to think that it’s worth it.

My only regret is that this is Emily’s story, and I wish it was she who was able to share it and not me.  I can only share my perspective.  So here’s where I’m at.  I have been given the gift of a Leave of Absence so that I can focus on self-care and family care.  I will be working with a counselor to process all of this.  I will be… taking up a hobby?  I don’t know.  As it turns out, my job is what I’d be doing for fun anyway, so this will be interesting.  In the meantime, the church will function well without me (I really believe this) and I’ll do my best to focus on what only I can do.  I’m going to lean into Jesus and let Him do His thing, which is something only He can do.

As I’m doing my part, Emily will do her part as she continues through rehabilitation.  We talk via phone with some regularity, and she even has the opportunity to do video calls with Lexi who insists on another rendition of The Wheels on the Bus.  Emily sings her heart out.  She’s a good mom who’s doing her best to come back again.  I love Emily and I’m proud of her.  I look forward to the time where she can share some of her journey with you.  I trust that God is building a great big story of grace out of all this mess.

Thankfully we have a supportive family and congregation.  People are stepping up in amazing ways.  We are humbled by the love and support, but not surprised.  After all, we are part of a community that is doing its best to become more like Jesus.  Though I dislike the attention, I can’t help but get excited about how God is going to use this.

Am I happy?  Um… no.  Not right now.  I’m kinda in shock.  However, I know I’m being formed; I trust the Lord, I choose joy.

This is just a side thought, but Leave of Absence, which is kind of a redundant phrase, isn’t it?  It’s a customary and fitting title for what I’m doing, it’s just that I’m struck by the oddity of a Leave of Absence.  I’m on a leave.  What kind?  A leave of absence.  Oh… is that the kind where you’re gone?  Yes — very different from a Leave of Presence, which is where you ignore what’s going on around you.  I wasn’t daydreaming, I was on a Leave of Presence: still here, but not really.

That’s kinda funny to me (and probably to me alone).

I look forward to sharing more as time goes on.  Thanks for reading.  We appreciate your prayer in all of this.  Pray for Emily, for our family, for healing, and for God’s redeeming of bad stuff.  The Lord has been so faithful in all of this, and, quite frankly, He’s the only one who can make this right again.   I believe; help my unbelief.

My friends: choose joy.  You are not forgotten.





Posted in Family

2019: A Year of Community (Renovation Church 01/06/18)


Someone emailed me yesterday and, at the end of their email, wrote “can’t wait to hear the first message of 2019!” which reminded me of two things: first, this is the first Sunday of the new year.  It’s hard to believe that it’s the first week of January with it being 50 degrees outside, by the way. Yesterday I joined with many other Michiganders in wearing our state outfit for balmy wintery days: shorts and a winter coat.  I know it looks strange, but it totally makes sense if you live where we live. This outfit is a two-peninsula combination of denial and acceptance. We accept that it’s winter with our winter coat, but we deny winter with our shorts and sandals.  I don’t know why this works but it does. So yeah, this is the first Sunday of the new year, and we’re going to be running our air conditioning on the car ride home. That Saturday email reminded me that tomorrow would be Sunday. With the kids home from school for the past two weeks, we’ve been kinda disoriented on the day, the time, the season, etc.  As a parent, I can’t wait for school to start. As a pastor in a church with more than a few school teachers, I say to you that I’m so, so sorry. But yeah, it’s Sunday, and it’s a new year, and here we are, ready or not.

The end of the year is always busy for me.  But even with everything else that’s been going on for the last few weeks, I want you to know that I’ve been thinking about this particular Sunday with great intensity.  My family life has been more than a handful lately, the Christmas season at Renovation was chock full, our year-end stuff in the office was intense… but through it all I’ve had a little piece of my mind settled on Sunday, January 6th.  I sensed God calling us to something in 2019 — something unique — a theme for the entire year. 2019 will be a very important year for Renovation church.

Let’s talk a little bit about what’s happened in the past year at Renovation.  Our church has gone through much change. We changed our building, our seating, our staff, and even our name.  2018 had a theme: that theme was “change”. We didn’t plan it that way, we certainly didn’t brand it that way, but that’s kinda how it fell into place.  I’d like to hope, with humility and thanksgiving, that the changes were healthy and good, and I trust that it will increase our ability to achieve our mission to help people find, follow, and be like Jesus.  And I pray that, as God led, we made changes that were necessary — sometimes difficult, but always exciting. And with that physical change with our building, our name, etc. came personal change. People’s lives were changed.  I’ve changed. You’ve changed. Hopefully, both of us for the better, by which I mean, more like Jesus. 2018 — it truly was a year of change. It kinda happened by accident. No, let’s say it better: it happened, I believe, by God’s perfect timing.  

So let’s talk about how God might be leading us in 2019.  Just as He led us through a year of change, and 55 years before that of faithfulness as His church, so I believe He will continue to lead us forward into the year ahead.  

I’m learning that sometimes God speaks to us through our dissatisfaction and discomfort.  As a leader, I’ve had a growing discomfort with how we’ve been doing as a church. We still don’t have it quite together yet.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining, I’m not unhappy, and I’m certainly not thankless. By God’s grace, Renovation Church is a strong church.  We are generous, having raised more than double our goal for One Less Gift 2018, and that on top of that you gave for Project 2018, early proceeds to Project 2019, the operating budget, Snack Packs, benevolence, mission trips, and more.  I praise God for His generosity through you. We are a praying church.  We saw some bold, renovating prayers lifted up and answered in 2018.  We are a worshipping church.  We lift up our voices and sing out, hands and hearts raised.  We are a serving church — as we serve the community around us at places like Colonial Acres, with Jesus Loves Kalamazoo, in Haiti, and right here at Renovation in all the ministries that happen every week.  We are a Christ-Centered church, meaning that we lift up and follow the Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ.  We value and listen to the scripture, we show strong hospitality and kindness toward others, and are unique — not looking to be hip but rather simple and down to earth.  We exist to help people find, follow, and be like Jesus. We are a church on a mission.  Just last month you shared over 100 names of people you were praying about inviting to a Christmas Eve service.  We saw almost 500 people here between three services — over 100 more than last year.

We’re blessed to have a solid Kids Ministry under the leadership of Pastor Tiffany Cronin. We see God regularly moving in our kids — from the deep questions they ask to the prayers they pray and the fun they have.  They’re drawn to this place, and that’s a gift. We have a talented and committed ministry team working with our kids in each service, and, in Tiffany, a pastor who demonstrates servant leadership and excellent ministry.  

We have an amazing Student Ministry under the leadership of Pastor Scott Osborne.  Our Middle School and High School students show regular signs of spiritual formation in how they take their faith seriously, follow God passionately, and invite friends to join each Wednesday.  Our adult leaders who work with small groups of students make a major impact, and Pastor Scott leads and serves that ministry so well.

We see the effective and passionate leadership of Lynda Haskins in our Go ministry, the wisdom and pastoral care and community leadership of Pastor Craig Glass with our adults, the effects of a well-run church in Christa Hauke, our Director of Operations, and the depth and passion for worship in the leadership of Hank Bunting.  I’m so grateful for God’s blessing of Renovation Church, and in how He works and blesses through our lead staff, and I know you’re thankful for our lead staff, too.    

But there’s one place in our church — at major part — where I feel some discomfort.  And, like I said, sometimes speaks through our dissatisfaction and discomfort, especially as we lead.  The area I’m talking about is community. In our church, community is designed to happen in groups. We have some lifegroups that meet and have met for years.  It’s not that we’re bad, it’s just that we need to focus more energy and resource into groups, especially as we transition to a multisite church. In every church I’ve been part of, small groups took the most effort and offered the greatest challenge.   Small groups are tough! But we need community, and we’re going to find community, not in a big group like this, but in smaller groups of 8 to 10 people.

Community is a big word that has multiple meanings.  Dictionary.com defines community as a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.  That’s how you describe a neighborhood, a city, a region.  We are Southwest Michigan — we reside in a specific locality, share a government, bump into each other at stores and games, call soda “pop”, wear shorts with our winter coats, etc.  That’s level 1, basic community, but it doesn’t describe the church. There’s a second definition that goes deeper: community: a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists.  This is more of a community within a community.  Common interest, distinct from the larger society.  This would be like the Rotary or maybe a disc golf team or people who like to hunt or build robots or something.  Quite honestly, some view the church this way — it’s like a club, we have a common interest, and we’re different from the outside world.  But that doesn’t quite cut it. This definition doesn’t describe the community of a church, either. It’s not enough because it’s not what Christ died to give us.  Right? Did Christ die to give us a common interest? No! He died so that we could live. That’s way more important than a chess club or a golf tournament.

Here’s a definition I cobbled together for community that might get us closer to what we’re going for: a group of diverse people who share a common connection with Jesus Christ.  Called by God to be the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and commanded to love each other and impact the world.  This might be closer to what community in the church is supposed to be. It acknowledges that we live in a communal region, but there’s more.  It acknowledges that we’re set apart from the bigger community, but it goes deeper. Much deeper. We’re different, diverse, not the same as each other.  Yet we have a common connection through Christ, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel, with Christ as the hub. We are called by God — chosen and sent on a mission to be the church.  We rely on the strength of the Holy Spirit, not our own, which reminds us, too, of the fact that we’re called to be holy. And we love each other, not because it’s a good idea but because Christ commanded us to (we’ll see that in a minute).  Not only do we love each other, we love the world that God loves and try to make an impact with the gospel.

For community to work, we need a bunch of different people gathered around Jesus.  We need to see ourselves as a community of people called out, which means we abandon our will and follow the will of God.  We need to operate by the power of the Holy Spirit, leaving our own powers behind. And we’ve got to love each other. Only then will we impact the world.  

Can I ask a question: how can we truly love each other if we don’t really know each other?

(Let that hang for a minute)

Maybe you’re asking me a question: what do you mean by “love” each other?  You say “I love my spouse. I love my kids. I love my extended family. I love tacos.  Whatever.” What is love? Haddaway asked that question with a song from 1993. eHarmony offers a handful of definitions of love, most of them pushing you to upgrade to their platinum dating service (from what I briefly researched).  Psychology Today talks about what love is and isn’t. The Greeks had words, multiple words and definitions for love — different variations. Eros is the kind of love between husband and wife. Phileo is the kind of love between brothers.  Agape is the gracious love that God has for us — an unconditional, divine love. We are made to experience and know different kinds of love. So when we ask this question (how can we truly love each other if we don’t know each other) — what kind of love are we talking about?

Well, what does Jesus say?  We’re the church, right? And we exist to help people find, follow, and be like Jesus.  In John 13:34-35, Jesus says this:

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 13:34 — Love one another.  The Greek there is agapao allelon.  Agape love is divine, unconditional love.  Allelon is “one another.” That’s the love that Jesus has for us: he says “as I have loved you unconditionally with a divine love, so you must love each other unconditionally with a divine love.”  That’s the kind of love that people in the church are supposed to have for each other. How can we have that if we don’t know each other? If we don’t have community?

Did you notice that Jesus calls this a command?  It’s not a suggestion, or a strategy, or an option.  It’s a command.  Jesus commands us to do stuff because, if we had the option, we probably wouldn’t do it, even if it’s good for us.  Kinda like going to the gym. New year’s resolution, anyone? Has anyone made themselves — commanded themselves — to go to the gym?  

It may not sound very loving for Jesus to command us to love — but it is.  Just like we tell our kids when they’re young to obey us, not for their displeasure but for their safety and success in life.  Jesus has the same motivation. You will love one another. You won’t feel like it, it won’t come naturally, and you’ll tend to avoid it with plenty of good, maybe even spiritual sounding excuses.  Just do it. Jesus is our Lord, our boss, our leader, and He commands us to love one another. Not for our displeasure but for our safety and success.

This is a good command with a positive effect for everybody involved.  When we love each other, everybody wins. When you love me, I find a spiritual and relational safety that I need, that can’t be satisfied anywhere else.  I know that I can come to this community, brokenness and messiness apparent, and you’ll love me. When I love you, even when you may not seem to “deserve” it, it reminds me of how gracious God is to love me even though I certainly  don’t deserve it.  He commands it because we need it.  You need to be loved, and you need to love.  I’m not talking about romance, and I’m not talking about just family — I’m talking about the church.  This is important enough for Jesus to command it of us.

Did you notice, too, that this command to love each other, when it’s carried out, has an impact on the world?  He says “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” There’s a “side effect” to community that shares the love of Christ: people notice.  And they’ll find it peculiar and odd and maybe even think it’s kinda cult-y, yet they’ll be drawn to it because they need agape love. I’m here to tell you that the world is longing for the kind of community that the church — Renovation Church — is supposed to be.  We have something here that people are dying to discover.

Here’s irony: we live in a hyperconnected world where you and I can be reached via telephone, email, text, snapchat, fax, telegram, facebook, instagram, and through Siri and Amazon Echo, yet our culture has never been more lonely.  Loneliness is becoming an epidemic — a health crisis. Experts say that loneliness is just as much of a health risk as being obese. A recent study by the American Psychological Association shows that lonely people are at greater risk for premature death.  Roughly 53% of americans polled reported that they have meaningful, daily face-to-face social interactions with friends or family, which means that almost half of us have no meaningful daily interactions with friends or family. Adults age 18-22, deeply entrenched in technology and interconnectivity, proclaim boldly that they are the loneliest generation.  

There’s a difference between connection and community.  In connection: we can communicate, one self to another, as needed.  In community, together we share something beyond ourselves.  Connection is what happens when you’re standing in line at Little Caesars and talk about the sunshine with the person behind you while you’re waiting for your pizza.  It’s nice to converse, but there’s not a lasting bond. Community is where bonds are made over a shared experience, a constant commonality, a shared love and purpose. Jesus provides this: we have the shared experience of spiritual formation.  We have the constancy of His presence in every second of our lives. We know the love of God and share that love with each other. And we have a shared purpose: our lives are not our own, we were bought with a price.

Think about the loneliness epidemic.  What does the scripture say to our isolation?  What does it say to people who are hyperconnected but lack community?  Where does God speak to this issue?

Consider just a few of the one another passages in scripture:

Be devoted to one another in love.  Honor one another above yourselves. Romans 12:10

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.  15:7

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2

Encourage one another and build each other up.. 1 Thessalonians 5

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other… James

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds… Hebrews 10

The church, if when it works right, is the answer to the loneliness epidemic.  Actually, we should say that Christ is the answer, and that the church is trying her best to keep up.  That’s why we’re having this conversation today, right? Jesus said “love one another… that way, people will know you are my disciples.”  It didn’t come easy for the first disciples. The early church had to work on this constantly.  Something in us resists one-another-ness.  

If they had to work on loving one another in community, so will we.  But it will be so worth it.

The divine, unconditional agape love of Christ has a certain shape, a certain vibe to it: focused on others, self-sacrificial, encouraging, accepting, and even confessing sins to each other.  That’s risky. But this is what we ultimately need: not connection but community. And not just any community, but a community centered on Jesus: the one who is the source and example of unconditional, divine, self-giving love.  He says “see how much I love you? Now you love each other like that.”

Impossible?  Yes. But only for one reason.  The only thing that makes this kind of community impossible is if we don’t seek out this kind of community.  In other words, it’s there if we want it.

Renovation Church, welcome to 2019, and welcome to a Year of Community.  This is so important for us to figure out as best we can.  It’s important enough that we’re dedicating the year to this overarching goal of deepening our community with each other, with the people you see around you and the people who aren’t yet here.  Community will be the underlying theme, evident in all we’re doing.

Throughout all of 2019, we’re going to be working at deepening this kind of community at Renovation Church.  We’re launching something this Tuesday — the Life Group Experience — that we hope you’ll consider being part of.  Our kids connect in Renovation Kids on Sunday mornings; our students connect on Wednesday nights… for the next 6 weeks we want to experiment with a way to connect adults in an instant life group.  We’re calling it the LifeGroup Experience.  

What is the LifeGroup Experience?  It’s a bunch of people who connect with each other in medium and small groups to build community and become more like Jesus.  It’s interactive. It’s accessible. It’s encouraging. It’s challenging. And it’s an experiment. We’re going to try it: 6 weeks, 90 minutes long, childcare and food provided.  But it’s so much more than that.

You know, it might be easier to describe the LifeGroup Experience by what it’s not:

The LifeGroup Experience is not…

Just a bible study – of course we will study passages of scripture, digging deeper and applying wider, but bible mastery is not the ultimate goal.  

Just a social gathering obviously we will connect with each other, learn names, play a ridiculous icebreaker game or two, and get to know people, but a casual nametag party is not the ultimate goal.  

Just a class lecture sure, there’s going to be somebody talking for little bit and maybe even a few notes jotted at an “aha” moment, but information dump is not the ultimate goal.  

Just a checkbox on the list – churched people expect to be nudged into a small group, and rightly so, but being in a group so you can put a checkmark [DONE] in your small group box is not the ultimate goal.  

So… what is the ultimate goal of the LifeGroup Experience?  Spiritual formation in community.  That’s it. The ultimate goal of our LifeGroup Experience is spiritual formation, which is the ongoing process of becoming like Jesus.  

“But,” you ask, “can’t I become more like Jesus on my own?”

No.  Spiritual formation is something we do individually and together.  Our individual times with Jesus build into our together times with Jesus, and our together times with Jesus feed into our individual times with Jesus.  In other words, spiritual formation is incomplete without a meaningful connection in Christ-centered community. This, by the way, is what the church is meant to be: a Christ-centered community.  

Have you ever wanted to actually see Jesus?  I’ve never seen Him face to face, but I “see” Him in community — when someone looks me in the eye and reminds me that God is with me, when a person serves another with selflessness and joy, when I see how we carry each other’s burdens in prayer.  Without community, I miss these opportunities to see Jesus, which leaves a gaping hole in my spiritual formation. When I experience the presence of Christ in community, I find a spiritual strength that cannot be replicated in isolation. Left to our own devices, we isolate ourselves and become remarkably lonely and spiritually empty.  It’s our fallen human nature. God our Father calls us to community, gathered around His Son Jesus and filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s not that I am the church — it’s that we are the church and Christ is the head.

Sometimes people hear the word “LifeGroup” or “Small Group” and a list of experiences and expectations subconsciously pop up.  Or, if you’ve had no experience in a Small Group, you find yourself thinking about how bizarre and/or scary this might be.

If you’ve never been in a small group:

You might be afraid you’ll be singled out or put on the spot as a newbie.  Have no fear. We expect that we will be meeting a bunch of people for the first time. When I started my last year of Middle School we moved, so I ended up changing from one school district to another.  That was scary, since everyone in my grade knew everyone else, knew how to get around, where to get in line for lunch.  For me, it was nerve racking. If you’re thinking about coming to the LifeGroup Experience, don’t worry.  No one has ever done this before.  Ever. We’re all gonna be newbies.

You might feel like you don’t know enough about the bible, church, or God, and there’ll be a graded test where everyone gets an A and you get an F, and you’re in your underwear because it’s one of those school dream/nightmares.  This is not a classroom or a lecture, and no one is looking for people to have the right answers. Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you’re in the right place. And you take your next step in finding, following, and becoming like Jesus.  There is no entrance exam.

You might imagine a weird ceremony with candles and Latin and initiation rites.  Nothing like that happens here. We will use traditional bulbs for our light source, speak in a regional dialect, and the only initiation rite will be when you write your name on a nametag. Just between us, you don’t even have to put your real name.  

You might assume that we’ll sit at a table and talk on and on about uncomfortable things, and about 30 seconds in you’ll hope for some kind of natural disaster to give you reason to bolt.  This is actually a fitting concern.

If you’ve never been part of a small group, rest assured that the LifeGroup experience is designed with you in mind.  

Now… if you have been part of a small group or two (or 20) in the past, we should talk.  I don’t think this will compare to your previous experiences in quite the same way.  There will be similarities, though. Most people have a mixed bag of experiences in groups.  We should first clear up some unrealistic expectations.

Unrealistic Expectations: Dreams vs. Reality in LifeGroups:

Dream: My ideal LifeGroup would be like the tv show Friends, where we have a Phoebe and a Joey and all the rest, and it would be funny but also have serious moments, and we’d hang out in a coffee house.  

Reality: Most LifeGroups are at least a little awkward but always worth it because of a transformative experience, much of which comes as a result of being with people who may be very different from you.  

Dream: If I join a LifeGroup, I will finally feel like I know everyone at Renovation Church and we can be like one big family again, holding potlucks and celebrating everyone’s birthday, etc.  

Reality: While our typical Sunday has about 300 kids, students, and adults between both services, our church is actually much larger.  If we counted everyone who calls Renovation Church “home”, we are more like 550 to 600 people. It’s extremely difficult to know 300 people.  It’s impossible to know 600. At this scale we couldn’t possibly know every person. The key is for everyone at Renovation to know at least a few people pretty well.  We can maintain a limited amount of relationships, and LifeGroups are designed to maximize opportunity for connection.

Dream: A perfect LifeGroup should be inspiring, deep, fun, snack-fueled and worth my time as an important and busy person, so this better be good.  

Reality: LifeGroups are intended to bring about Spiritual Formation, not meet a consumer need.  We live in a culture that teaches us to be miserable until we get what we want. We are constantly pushed to displeasure with our experience and our stuff, so we throw it away and buy something new, which is the fuel of consumerism.  Unfortunately the church in the US has been infected with consumerism, too, with much of it supported, mostly unintentionally, by leaders. For this to work, it will require a different posture: one of submission to Jesus, giving and not necessarily getting, and as much openness as we are able when it comes to our unique journeys.  

That’s the LIfeGroup Experience and it starts this Tuesday evening.  Yes, childcare is available, and yes, there will be food.  Now — for us to be able to watch your kids and for you to eat, you’ll need to let us know in advance that you’re coming.  Sign up on your response card now. And if you’re thinking “oh, I’ll just grab some food on the way…” think again, because we plan on bringing in Chick-fil-a.  Waffle fries. Amen.

The other thing we’re launching is another chapter of Rooted.  Rooted is a 10-week interactive small group experience like no other.  If you haven’t done Rooted, I highly encourage you to check it out. It’s our hope that everyone who calls Renovation Church “home” will do a chapter of Rooted.  We see major spiritual formation and community in Rooted.

So, between these two: the LifeGroup Experience and Rooted, would you prayerfully consider making a commitment to a year of Community?  If you’re already part of some kind of small group, where you have not just connection but community, where you are known, loved, encouraged, challenged, strengthened, please know that we’re not asking you to bail on that group.  But, if you’re part of a large population here at Renovation, you probably don’t have any kind of community connection. Here’s your chance. We’ve done our best to remove the typical barriers (child care, food, accessibility, long time commitment) and now we leave it up to you.  We know that Tuesday nights couldn’t possibly work for everyone, schedules are tight, etc. It’s our hope to get this off the ground and possibly launch other LifeGroupExperiences in different time slots.  We need to get this one figured out first, though.   

Look at 1 Peter 1:17-25.  Peter was one of the disciples, by the way, who was standing there when Jesus gave the command to love (agapeo) one another.  It’s this divine, unconditional love that builds a community — not just a connection but true community.

Focus in on verse 22 — Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.

By God’s grace, we can do this. We can be the church that Jesus is calling us to be.  The next step is ours.

 First question: are you a follower of Christ?  If not, today’s the day to cross the line of faith.  Be purified.

If you are — have you obeyed the truth?  Are you remaining in obedience?

Do you commit to loving each other with the agape love of God, deeply — not at the surface but from the heart?  It’s a commitment, a choice, an intentional next step.

Jesus said it clearly: a new command I give you — love one another.   

By God’s grace, may 2019 be a year of Community at Renovation Church.  Amen.  


Posted in Community, formed, personal growth

Ancient-Future Worship

Here is an excellent summary of Ancient-Future Worship, proposed and propagated by Robert E. Webber, written by Joan Huyser-Honig and Darrell Harris

A glimpse from the article:

While fewer people today are eager to argue about religion, many “spiritual but not religious” people are nevertheless intrigued by the idea that every religion has its own story. Conversations with all kinds of people helped Webber sum up these stories in The Divine Embrace:

  • Secularism: There is no god who has created, who has revealed himself, and has redeemed the world. Reason and common sense help us make a new world of peace and prosperity.
  • Eastern or New Age spirituality: We are all part of the problem, and we are all part of the solution.
  • Christianity: We are all part of the problem. Only one man is the solution, and his name is Jesus. He stretched out his arms on a hard wood cross so that all of us could enter God’s divine embrace.



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Christmas Tree 2018

We got our Christmas tree last night, a room-filling Douglas fir, complete with a few pine cones still holding on after the long ride from the forest.  We can thank German Lutherans for the practice of erecting a tree and decorating it for Christmas.  Without them, who knows what symbol we would’ve chosen — maybe a porcupine, or, perhaps, a furnace filter.  I can’t get excited about either of these, except for the idea of a Christmas porcupine, since that’s the only decoration that cats would leave alone, especially if the porcupine were decorated with cucumbers.  Aren’t you glad we don’t do something as bizarre as a Christmas Porcupine?!?  Instead we stomp out to the deep woods, cut down a healthy, beautiful, growing tree, thus ending its life years before it even had a chance, and we drag it to our homes and put it up in our living rooms, like some kind of hunting trophy for herbivores, and attach myriad colorful things to its every square inch, as if celebrating its demise.  After a few weeks we throw it outside so the people can take it away, or we burn it, or we throw it into the same woods — a sick homecoming, if you will.  We certainly don’t do anything as bizarre as a Christmas Porcupine adorned in cucumbers, and I’m ok with that.  

Ah, what the aliens must think of us.  If they exist.  Do they celebrate Christmas and decorate their furnace filters?  

Don’t get me wrong — I love a good Christmas tree and I love Christmas.  I just hadn’t thought of the ceremony of the tree from this angle.  And I sure hope Emily doesn’t read this, since she might think me a grinch of a husband, especially after I complained about how I hate putting lights on the house for Christmas.  I’m thrilled about our tree, and I’m honored that it gets to spend its last few weeks in our living room arboretum.  It’s already been decked out in lights.  Ornaments are to come.  The star will go up top, per usual.  And Emily in her kerchief and I in my cap will soon settle down for a long winter’s nap.  Why are we tired?  Because getting a Christmas tree is a lot of work, but it’s okay because the kids love it and it stimulates the local economy. 

We bought our tree from a greenhouse just down the road from our platz, aka zuhause, aka place where we keep our wohnzimmer.   His name is Corstange and he sells excellent trees.  He tied it to the roof of our station wagon with orange twine formatted in hearty knots.  Mac was kind enough to cut the twine and release the tree from the luggage rack, which means the tree was indeed our luggage.  We lugged it from our driveway to our living room (wohnzimmer) and put it in the tree stand.  This is a special tree stand that cannot possibly tip over.  The whole house would have to drastically change angles for that to happen, and the spoils of evergreen would be the least of our worries at that point.  Our tree stand was given to us by Dave the Engineer, a kind radio professional and donator of practical gifts.  It’s made from a huge piece of OSB cut into a perfect circle of 4 diametrically measured feet, making its circumference 150.72 inches — over 12 feet!  Can anything with a circumference of 12 feet tip over?  Not likely!  Imagine a paper clip held up by a cinder block.  It’s NASA-level redundancy here.  All for Christmas.

But lo, the bolts that held the tree in place were bent by some aggressive tree work carried out last year by truly yours.  5/16”, coarse thread, shiny and new.  Thank you, Home Depot.  Just one trip to a hardware store during a project is a triumph in my world.  Zac watered it as Emily strung lights around it.  That was last night. Who knows what today’s adventure with tree will bring?  History has taught me something here.  When I get home in a few minutes, I know it’ll need to be straightened up a bit, as the ol’ beauty will have lost her center of gravity after some settling (I’m talking about the tree, mind you).  Chances are that Mac and Zac have put ornaments on the moment they got home from school.  Lexi has likely harvested an ornament to play with in some other room of the house.  When I walk into the loving rom, Emily will exclaim “look!” with a big smile and arms open wide to present the tree.  This moment will make me profoundly happy and I can’t wait until it happens, which will be about 10 minutes from now.  I love my family so very much. 

Last night, while we were getting the tree settled, we had the movie Home Alone running in the background, setting the right mood. Yet one question remains: why isn’t Kevin’s dad, Mr. McCallister, bothered by the idea of his little kid being home alone for several days during the holiday season?  He just doesn’t seem to be all that concerned.  We see Kevin’s mom (Catherine O’ Hara) smoosh her face together and shout “KEVIN!”  on the plane, but what does dad say to this crisis?  We don’t know because the scene cuts away. I can’t help but imagine Mr. McCallister telling his rightly concerned wife to relax, it’s not that big of a deal, and that she should be more concerned about the garage doors being left open than about their industrious son.  Admittedly Kevin McCallister is industrious, brilliant, and surely shows his mettle in bamboozling the Wet Bandits®, but it sure would be nice to see dad a little freaked out about the safety of his kid.  Am I alone in this? 

I remember something at this time nearly every year.  I remember — vividly — that Christmas trees are very thirsty.  I remember this because of the horror of discovering an empty water thing in years past and wondering if I had contributed any kind of discomfort to the poor giant plant, whose only crime was that it was too beautiful to stay outside.  Then I remember that it’s already dead.  Then I remember how sharp those needles are, especially when they dry up.  Guess what I’ll do when I get home?  That’s right: ask Zac if the tree needs water.  Thank goodness he’s small enough to get under there.  Yet another industrious child.  He will not, however, be left Home Alone. 

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