2020: The Year of the Stump?

2020: The Year of the Stump?

This past Sunday was the first Sunday in Advent.  Instead of kicking off the Advent season with a story of Mary, or of Joseph, or of any number of people surrounding the birth of Jesus, our church decided to start with Isaiah 11—the story of a stump.

Isaiah 11:1 says, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

The rest of the chapter goes on to speak about the incredible peace that will be established by the one who is symbolized by the shoot, making it clear that the shoot represents Jesus the Messiah.

I think one of the reasons this passage seems so perfect to begin Advent this year is because, quick frankly, the year 2020 has given us a lot of stumps, hasn’t it?

It was almost as if in January and February of this year we had a great tree of optimism and potential growing proudly.  And then March hit, and it was like someone took an axe and straight-up cut our tree down.  All we were left with was a stump.

But if we learn anything from Isaiah 11—and if we’ve had the wisdom to learn anything from the year 2020—it’s that we serve a God of redemption, a God of resurrection, a God of new life. 

God looks at something like a stump—at the things that we’ve already written off as dead—and God says, “Watch me.  Watch what I can do with this.  I know you’ve already given up on this.  I know that all you see is a stump.  But watch me.  Watch the new life I can bring out of this.”

This Advent season is going to look drastically different than any other Advent we’ve ever experienced, which leaves us with a choice to make: 

Will we write off Advent 2020 as a lost cause, something that is already doomed from the get-go, a stump?  Or will we choose to trust that God has the potential to bring new life out of the things that appear hopeless?

It’s my prayer that this Advent we will choose the latter, that we will be people who intentionally choose to give God a chance.  You never know what God has in store for you this season.  It might be your best Christmas yet!

May God give us the courage to trust in God’s faithfulness to us, that in the midst of a year that has given us one stump after another, we would find hope in the shoot, Jesus the Messiah.  And as we recognize that our hope is in Christ, may we begin living in that hope here and today, embodying the new life of redemption and resurrection given to us by the God of all creation, who loves to say, “Watch me.  Watch what I can do with this.”

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This article was originally posted at https://fitzpastor.com/2020/11/30/2020-the-year-of-the-stump/. It was adapted from a sermon preached at First United Methodist Church Richardson on November 29, 2020 which can be viewed here: Traditional Service or Modern Service

Wesleyan Theology, Racism and Intentionality: Why Ignorance Isn’t Always Bliss

Wesleyan Theology, Racism and Intentionality: Why Ignorance Isn’t Always Bliss

When George Floyd was murdered, I didn’t immediately speak up.  I didn’t post anything on social media.  I sat back and watched and listened, primarily because I was afraid of saying the wrong thing.  It was then that I began to realize just how much I still have to learn…

My eyes were opened (and my heart was broken) when I read a Facebook post from one of our black staff members at First United Methodist Church Richardson.  In her post, she vulnerably and courageously shared about her experience of becoming numb to the stares that she receives, to the false assumptions that people make about her, and to the judgment she endures on a daily basis because of the color of her skin.

And then in the most selfless manner possible–in a manner that she did not deserve to have to write this post–she addressed her white friends and family and explained that one of the hardest parts of understanding racism is that somehow “intention” has incorrectly become the defining factor of what is racist.

If that were the case (i.e., if racism was defined by intention) it makes it a lot easier for me to confidently say that I don’t participate in racism because I don’t intentionally cause harm to people whose skin color is different than my own.

But what this friend and colleague then went on to explain in such a selfless and loving manner is that racism is so much more than individual, intentional acts.  Instead, it’s also systemic.  It’s built into the ways we operate as a society and a culture, and it expresses itself in all sorts of implicit biases we have.

One of the hardest parts of breaking the cycle is that we aren’t even aware of it in the first place.  In this case, ignorance is not bliss. 

I recognize that this isn’t a new idea to many people who are reading this…. but keep reading, because I think the next part is worth noting.

Ironically, as a Methodist pastor who prefers to see the world through the lens of Wesleyan theology, I think embedded in our theology lies both a problem and part of the answer.

When we talk about sin within Wesleyan theology, one of the ways that we’ve historically differentiated ourselves from some other Christian traditions is that sin is often understood as a “voluntary transgression of a known law of God.”  In other words, sin is personal, and intentional.

This is part of what enables us to talk about holiness.  When sin is based on intentionality, I can say, “Well, I feel like I’m pursuing holiness because I’m committing fewer intentional sins.”

You see how this parallels the way we think about racism?  If everything is individualized and based on intention, then it’s a lot easier to say, “I don’t do that.”

While “individual intentionality” is a major part of the way we talk about sin within Wesleyan theology, there’s a lot more to it.  Where I believe we often miss the mark (sorry for the sin pun there) is when we focus so little attention acknowledging the collective result of sin, the way that our individual decisions over the course of time collectively create systems and structures that are sinful.  The longer that we live into these systems, the more normative they become.  The more normative they become, the less we question them, and the more blind we become to their existence.

That said, as much as our overemphasis on the individual, intentional nature of sin might contribute negatively to the way we think about racism, I also believe that Wesleyan theology provides part of the answer in what we call prevenient grace.

The idea of prevenient grace is our recognition that God is at work in the world, and in our lives, even before we are aware of it.  Prevenient grace is “the grace that goes before.”  It’s the power of God that enables us to respond to God’s invitation to repent and reorient our lives toward Christ.  It’s also the power of the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and our hearts to recognize the sin in our lives, and the sin that is built into the structures and systems in which we live and operate.

It’s why, since the earliest days of Methodism, John Wesley spoke out against slavery.  He allowed the Holy Spirit to open his eyes to the societal sin of slavery.  It’s a part of our DNA as Methodists, a part of our DNA that we need to recover and lean into now more than ever.

So, is sin individual and intentional?  Yes, but it’s much more than that, too.

Is racism individual and intentional?  Yes, but it’s much more than that, too.

Until we ask the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to the sinful nature of the structures and systems in which we live, it will be far too easy to continue walking blindly behind the assumption that “I’m not racist” simply because I don’t intentionally cause harm to people of color.

May God give us the courage to ask for our eyes to be opened, for our hearts to be convicted, and for our heads and hands to do something about it.

 

Slow to the Pace of the Children

Slow to the Pace of the Children

If your family is anything like ours, this whole “shelter-in-place” thing has taken some getting used to.  Just when we think we’ve found our groove, some dynamic changes and reminds us that this is definitely an ongoing learning process.

For me, the first couple weeks were particularly challenging.  Just to be frank, part of the way I’m wired is that I’m driven by production.  I love to have a goal in mind and make things come together to bring that goal to fruition.  As a result, I felt a real tension in the early days of quarantine between my desire to “produce” at the same rate that I had been prior to this new chapter of life and wanting to be the best parent I could be to our three children who we were now schooling at home.  

On a regular basis, I found myself saying things to my kids like, “Hold on.  You need to wait until I’m done with my work,” or, “I’ll play with you in a bit.  I really need to finish this up.”

But then I had an epiphany.

I remember the day it happened.  It was right after breakfast.  The kids were still in their pajamas when they ran out to the backyard.  Our two youngest children got down on their bellies and started staring intently at something on the ground.  When I asked what they were doing, one of them said, “Daddy!  You have to come here!  Check out how fast this slug is moving!”BB53810A-1DA2-41AE-90C1-780A31011E3D

…”check out how fast this slug is moving”…

That is when I realized that things had changed.  Our pace of life had decreased dramatically…. and it was good.

It was then that I was reminded of my need to slow down and appreciate the blessings right in front of me.  I had been doing everything backwards.  Instead of saying to my kids, “Hold on, I need to finish my work,” I should have been saying to my work, “This can wait; I need to finish playing with my kids first.”

There’s a beautiful story in Genesis chapter 33 when Jacob and Esau reconcile after being separated from each other by anger and animosity for over 20 years.  As they meet together on a road, Jacob tells Esau, “I know you need to get to the city.  Go on ahead of us.”  When Esau says, “No, let’s go together!”  Jacob insists, “No, you go on ahead of us.  I have all of these children with me.  You can travel much quicker, but I plan to ‘slow to the pace of the children.'” 

I love that line.  “Slow to the pace of the children.”  What a beautiful reminder of the importance of dramatically decreasing our pace in life.  It’s no wonder Jesus constantly told people to have faith like a child.  I’m not sure child-like faith has as much to do with lack-of-knowledge or naivety as it does with simply slowing down and sitting at the feet of Jesus.

During this time of quarantine, I’ve needed these reminders.  Am I still getting work done?  Of course.  But this change in perspective has challenged me to reorder my priorities.  What are the blessings right in front of me that I’m missing because my focus is in the wrong place?  How can the time I spend with Jesus look less like a race to get something done and more like a toddler in pajamas, lying on her belly, staring at a slug in utter amazement?

Let’s all do our best to “slow to the pace of the children” and see what blessings we may notice right in front of us that we’ve been missing out on all along.

The Kingdom of God is Like… Chocolate Chip Cookies

The Kingdom of God is Like… Chocolate Chip Cookies

“The kingdom of God is like…

…a mustard seed”

…a net cast into the sea”

…a man who tosses seed onto the soil”

…a king who throws a party for his son’s wedding”

Over and over Jesus does his best to explain what the kingdom of God is like to his followers using parables and images with which they are familiar.  The reality is, the only way to attempt to describe something that is indescribable is to use metaphors.

Most people I’ve had the pleasure of pastoring over the past 15 years have heard me use a certain, favorite metaphor to speak about the kingdom of God that I’ve found helpful in trying to wrap my mind around our relationship with heaven, particularly the way that God’s kingdom exists as “already/not yet.”

Here’s the theological concept:

We know from scripture that we won’t be able to experience the kingdom of God in its fullness until Christ returns and God redeems all of creation.  That will be a glorious day, but’s it’s a day for which we must wait.

There’s good news, though.  Although we have to wait to experience God’s kingdom in its fullness, we do get the opportunity to experience hints of heaven here on earth today!  Paraphrasing something that theologian N.T. Wright likes to say, “In and through the person of Jesus Christ, God’s perfect future came crashing into our present reality.”  The kingdom of God exists as a paradox: it’s already here (in hints and glimpses) and yet it is not yet present in its perfect and final state.

Here’s the metaphor:

The kingdom of God is like…

…chocolate chip cookies.  

Yes, that’s right.  Chocolate chip cookies.  And not just any run-of-the-mill cookies, but the best chocolate chip cookies you could ever imagine, fresh out of the oven.  Can you smell them?  Can you taste them?

THAT.  That is heaven.

So if the kingdom of God is like the best chocolate chip cookies you could ever imagine, let’s just picture those cookies baking in the oven at the moment.  Yes, you have to wait until they’re finished to get to experience their perfection.  BUT, you’ve been given a gift…a gift called cookie dough.  And as you sit there licking the leftover cookie dough off of the mixing spoon, you get more and more excited about the cookies that are baking in the oven.  You KNOW that those cookies are going to be worth the wait because you’ve tasted the dough.  And if you think the dough is amazing, just wait until those cookies in the oven are finally ready!

It’s the same with the kingdom of God.  Although we have to wait to experience God’s kingdom in its fullness, we, too, have been given a gift.  On a regular basis, God gives us glimpses (or, tastes) of God’s kingdom, here on earth, today.  We just have to look around to recognize them!  And because the hints of heaven that we experience on earth are so good, we can have hope that when we finally get to experience heaven in its fullness, it is going to be absolutely amazing!

I don’t know about you, but now more than ever, I’m so grateful for those tastes of “cookie dough”–those hints that God gives us to remind us that there is something better in our future.

As we shelter-in-place to help flatten the curve of the current COVID-19 pandemic, it’s really easy to get depressed by looking at all the negative things all around us.  It’s easy because the fact is, there are a lot of negative things happening right now–let’s not discount that.

But if we open our eyes to the work of God in the world, we start noticing that even in the midst of a crisis there are hints and glimpses of God’s perfect future.  Doctors and nurses working selflessly on the front lines to test and treat patients, grocery workers stocking the shelves with food, those who work in nursing homes caring for the elderly, families spending more time together because of canceled events and activities, people finding creative ways to connect with each other digitally, and a rediscovery of all the things that we used to take for granted can all be examples of God’s good work in a world that is longing for heaven.

The cool part is, not only does God give us these tastes of “cookie dough” on a regular basis, but God also calls us to become “cookie dough” for those around us.

My encouragement to you today is two-fold:

  1. Look for the cookie dough around you.  Where have you witnessed hints of God’s kingdom on earth (even in the midst of a global crisis)?
  2. Become the cookie dough for others.  Ask yourself, how can my words and actions give others a taste of God’s perfect future?

And if you happen to be inspired to bake some actual chocolate chip cookies while you’re at it, that’s ok.  The world can always use more of those, too.

 

No Such Thing as a Ruined Art Project

No Such Thing as a Ruined Art Project

Parenting has a way of teaching you lessons—lessons that you never knew you never knew until you find yourself in the middle of some crazy scenario and you’re pretending like you know what you’re doing and really you’re just doing your best to keep it all together while you’re learning along the way!

When I talk to new parents I often tell them that you can read all the parenting books you want—and they might help a little—but when it comes down to it, each family is so unique that we’re really all just making it up as we go.

While there are entire blogs dedicated to parenting lessons, there is one lesson I want to share today: there’s no such thing as a ruined art project… there’s simply a new opportunity to make it even better than it was before!

Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s the night before the project is due at school.  There’s been a lot of effort poured into the project.  There has probably been some drama trying to decide what colors or materials to use.  But you’re finally there.  It’s finally complete and ready to be turned in the next day.

Inevitably, like a law of physics, the moment you turn your back on that project is the moment that one of the younger siblings goes full-ninja and starts adding doodles with a permanent marker while no one is looking!

Of course, the moment it does get noticed, World War Three breaks out and a giant sense of panic sets in.  While the older sibling is crying, “It’s ruined!” you—the parent—find yourself making promises that you’re just not sure you can keep.

“No, it’s not ruined! That’s… uh… totally fixable. In fact… uh… I think that kind of gives me an idea of a way we can make it even better than it was!”

Meanwhile, you’re scrambling in your mind to come up with a way to fix the disaster right in front you.

Have you been there?

It’s in those moments that we have a choice to make: we can either get stuck in our sense of panic (and have nothing to turn in the next day!), or we can decide to act and make something happen.

And quite frankly, we’re faced with this choice a lot in life.  Life has a way of throwing us curveballs, and we can sit there and say, “It’s all ruined. Why did this happen? And it’s all his fault!” or we can say, “Well, what now?  I guess it’s time to get to work.”

A couple weeks ago I preached on this dynamic from John 9 as Jesus’ disciples ask him about a man who was born blind, “Who sinned that this man was born blind?  Was it the man?  Or was it his parents?”  And Jesus essentially says, “You’re asking the wrong question.  Don’t get stuck asking, ‘Why?’  Instead, start asking, ‘What now?’”  Then he goes on to talk about God being glorified in and through the blind man (who Jesus then heals).

Theologian N.T. Wright writes, “The chaos and misery of this present world is, it seems, the raw material out of which the loving, wise and just God is making his new creation.[1]

In other words, the art project of your life that you think is ruined is actually just another opportunity for God to step in and redeem it into something that is even bigger and better than before.

So whether it’s COVID-19 throwing you for a loop, or any number of disappointments that life has thrown your way, you have a choice to make.  Will I get stuck in the realm of “Why?” or will I make the transition to asking, “What now? How can God be glorified in this?”

Don’t get me wrong—making that transition it a lot easier said than done.  But God is in the business of redemption, and with the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us, God invites us to join in that project of redeeming the “ruined art projects” of this world all around us. 

[1]Wright, T. (2004). John for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-10(p. 134). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

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This illustration was originally a part of a sermon preached at First United Methodist Church Richardson on March 22, 2020.  Click here to watch the sermon in its entirety.

7 Things I’ve Come to Love About FUMCR in My First Year

7 Things I’ve Come to Love About FUMCR in My First Year

Ok, so technically I’ve been on staff at First United Methodist Church Richardson for longer than one year, but this week I’m celebrating the one-year anniversary of being given the privilege to lead our modern worship service.  And I’m taking this opportunity to brag on my church a bit.

Let me also give the disclaimer that I have a deep love for each community into which God has called me into ministry over the past 15 years.  The good things I’m about to say about FUMCR are not in contrast to the previous churches I’ve served.  I’ve had previous opportunities to brag about the wonderful people of Mt. Carmel Church of the Nazarene, of Crossroads Christian Fellowship, of First United Methodist Church Duncanville, of Christ United Methodist Church, and of Wellspring Free Methodist Church.  Well, now it’s FUMCR’s turn.  So here goes:

1) I Love Our Podcast

When I first learned that I was going to be appointed to FUMCR, one of the first things I did was listen to the church podcast, More Than Sunday.  Eric and Julie sounded great, and the interviews were so intriguing.  I remember thinking, “This is so professional! That would be a ton of fun to be on the podcast someday.”

Shortly after joining the staff, I learned the truth.  Yes, Eric and Julie had been doing a good job, and yes, the guests were really interesting, but the real star of the show is a guy who never gets credit: our producer, Kyle Henson.  He takes good content and makes it sound amazing!

And although scheduling guests, writing interview questions, conducting interviews, and recording bumpers takes a lot of work (let’s just say we have a lot of outtakes!), the podcast has introduced me to some of our most incredible church members, allowed me to dive into the stories of a variety of guests from our local community and given me a front-row seat to the wisdom of theologians and pastors from around the country.

2) I Love Our Staff

We have right around 60 people on staff at FUMCR.  This is the largest staff I’ve ever been a part of.  I had been curious to see what the dynamic of a church staff would be like with this many people.  What I’ve come to learn is these 60 people deeply love Jesus and are doing everything they can to work as faithful stewards of God’s calling on their lives and of the resources with which they’ve been entrusted by our church family. And they’re succeeding with flying colors!

Shortly after joining this team, I was immediately impressed with the balance of the FUMCR staff between professionalism and collegiality.  There is sense of professional motivation and drive to do excellent work that motivates everyone to bring their best to the table.  And yet, there is also a sense of humility and teamwork that recognizes that each of us can only do our best when we get to know one another, support one another, laugh with one another, and even disagree with one another in love.

Our Senior Pastor, Clayton Oliphint, has created a staff culture that is “seriously fun:” we’re serious about the mission to welcome people for Christ, grow people in Christ, and serve people with Christ, and we have a lot of fun executing that mission (I just made that term up… but I might use it again in the future!).

3) I Love Our Church Family

From day one, the church family at FUMCR has welcomed Megan and me and our children in with open arms. They’ve extended me grace after grace in doing my best to learn their names.  They reach out on a regular basis with encouraging phone calls, emails and even cards in the mail.  But even more significant than the care that they’ve provided for me is the care that they consistently provide for others, and for each other.

It seems like each week—particularly during our current Year of Service—I hear new stories of the amazing work that our church members are doing in the community.  They take this “love your neighbor” thing seriously, and it shows!  In an effort to assess the effectiveness of a church’s impact on its community, church leaders often ask, “If this church disappeared tomorrow, would the community miss it?”  In the case of FUMCR, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

It’s also been fun to see the persistent drive of our church members to expand the capacity of our church to reach new people for Christ.  Countless members do this by volunteering on a weekly basis, giving up their own time to usher, to greet, to run slides and lights and video, to serve food to the homeless, and to participate in the many ministries of FUMCR. Additionally, I regularly have people come to me with new ideas they have for ministry.  The cool part is, they don’t just drop the idea in my lap and forget about it, they willing to step up and serve to bring those ideas to fruition!

4) I Love the City of Richardson

Ok, so this one isn’t directly about FUMCR, but it has definitely become a part of why I love doing what I do.  I’ve quickly come to learn how unique the City of Richardson really is. Its primary growth came from the telecom boom, with employers like Texas Instruments and Collins Radio bringing in top engineers from around the country.  One line that I’ve heard several times since we moved here—and I’ve come to affirm its truth—is that these engineers didn’t stop working when they clocked out at 5:00pm; they simply redirected their energy and talents into creating the community systems that support our city still today.  PTA’s, civic clubs, nonprofit cooperative groups, city governance and management, neighborhood associations, churches, I could go on and on.

The fabric of our community is strong.  It has become more and more obvious as I’ve been involved with Richardson Interfaith Alliance (RIA) and Helping Agencies Serving Richardson (HASR).  When hate speech rears its ugly head in one corner, the community rallies to denounce it and show solidarity with the victims. When a tornado devastated several homes and businesses last October, organizations like Network of Community Ministries stepped up and mobilized the hundreds of volunteers who wanted to lend a hand in the relief efforts.  When the hospitals, or the school district, or the nonprofits addressing homelessness and mental health (as just a couple examples) need the community’s support through fundraising, residents of the City of Richardson rise to the challenge, every time.

5) I Love the Freedom to Innovate (and Fail)

Back to the church—I love that there is a culture that allows space for innovation, knowing that new ideas won’t always succeed.  I am definitely an “idea person.”  We have an ongoing “joke” on staff that for every 20 ideas I come up with (which can be accomplished in just a matter of minutes sometimes J), one of them will be a good one.  So if I say something that obviously isn’t a good idea, I’m just 18 bad ideas away from the next good one!

In all seriousness, it has been so much fun to experiment and innovate with our modern worship service.  And yes, even in just the first year, there have been things that we’ve tried that didn’t work.  But there have also been some things that we’ve tried that have worked really well, and it’s so energizing to see how God is using those new ideas to bring more people into our community of faith.

6) I Love the Genuine Care for All People

Again, this one comes from the “top-down.” Granted, the “top-down” concept doesn’t really work here, because of the intentional lack of hierarchical structure.  But my point is this: Pastor Clayton genuinely loves all people.  You can see it in the way he speaks with congregants following each service.  He looks them directly in the eye and listens to them as if they’re the only person in the room.  He constantly preaches about the importance of being a “big tent church,” not because he doesn’t want to say anything “political,” but because he can’t imagine a church that doesn’t provide a safe space for people of all political persuasions, all backgrounds, all struggles, all perspectives to gather and worship Jesus Christ together (which I believe is a “political statement” in and of itself). 

What’s really cool is to see how this gets translated to the staff, to the church family, and into the community.  As we plan programs and ministries, our staff is constantly asking, “Who are we leaving out?  Who doesn’t have a voice at this table?  What are we saying/doing that might unintentionally be causing harm to someone?”

Our church family seems to get it as well.  It’s one thing to serve “those people” (whoever “those people” are). It’s quite another thing to invite “those people” to become a part of “us.”  Over and over, I am blown away by the stories I hear of how people joined the FUMCR family, invited by those who have had the humility and courage to invite “those people” to become a part of “us.”  This is only made possible when a congregation sees all people as children of God.

And lastly, this gets translated into the community.  The more I get to serve alongside my friends at Richardson Interfaith Alliance, the more I hear about their respect for FUMCR and our openness to support our community members from other faith traditions.  It’s also really cool to hear the reactions of non-church-members when I tell them I’m a pastor at FUMCR.  They usually say things like, “I love FUMCR! Pastor Clayton probably doesn’t know me, but he did this one thing for my family a few years ago that made such an impact on us.”  Or, “Our neighbors go to FUMCR.  They are such great people.”

7) I Love that Our Big Church Feels Small

Needless to say, going from a church plant that started with literally zero members to FUMCR that has 6,500 members came with a bit of culture shock. Part of the shock, however, was that as big as FUMCR is, it really does feel small.  Quite often, when I tell newer church members how many people worship at FUMCR on a weekly basis they are surprised by the number, saying, for example, “Oh wow! I never would have guessed.  I’ve felt so seen and welcomed and invited in, a feeling I usually associate with smaller churches.”

There are many different reasons for this, and each congregant has a unique experience that shapes his or her perspective.  For some people, it feels small because of the accessibility and personal attention from the church staff.  For others, it feels small because of their connection to a small group or Sunday school class.  Still for others, it feels small because they’ve received a warm welcome upon visiting.  This is obviously one of the most significant challenges for a large church, so I love that FUMCR has created this type of culture.

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No, this list is not exhaustive.  I could probably write an entire book about what I love about this church, but these seven will have to do for now.  All this to say, I feel so blessed to be a pastor with the people of FUMCR and I can’t wait to see what God has in store for our future!

To find out more about this wonderful community of faith, visit www.fumcr.com.

Jesus “Flattened the Curve” and We Should Too

Jesus “Flattened the Curve” and We Should Too

Covid-19 is throwing us all for a loop.  As we practice “social distancing,” people are spending more time than ever on social media, posting opinions and graphs and memes and complaints and pictures of empty toilet paper aisles.  One comment leads to a heated reply, which leads to another heated comment.  And just when we thought we couldn’t be more polarized and divided as a nation, we find ourselves confined to our homes without any sports to cheer for!

And there’s this term we keep hearing in response to Covid-19: “flatten the curve.” You’ve undoubtedly heard it by now. If for some reason you haven’t, the idea is that if we were to chart out the rate that this virus is spread, without any intervention, the rate would potentially have a very sharp increase, leading to a very high peak on a bell curve.  Meaning that a lot of people would get sick really quickly.

And if a lot of people get sick really quickly, then our hospitals and clinics get overwhelmed and are not able to handle the demand.

So, the argument to “flatten the curve” is that by practicing “social distancing” in creative ways–like hosting church services online instead of in person–we are able to slow down the rate that this virus is spread.

This doesn’t mean that the number of people who get the virus is necessarily decreased; it’s just that they don’t all get it at once.  And by slowing the rate, or by “flattening the curve,” we give our hospitals and clinics a much better opportunity to respond effectively in treating people who become ill.

This idea essentially illustrates the difference between feeding the momentum or breaking the cycle.

Now I don’t know about you, but this was a new concept to me.  In fact, if you would have asked me a week ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what “flatten the curve” even meant.  And yet today, I’ve heard it so many times that it’s become a second-nature phrase in just a matter of days!

It struck me this week as I was spending time studying John 4 in preparation to preach about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well–while also watching and listening to the news–that this idea of flattening the curve isn’t new.  In fact, it’s something that Jesus was doing 2000 years ago!

Think about it.  Again, when you “flatten the curve,” you’re choosing between feeding the momentum or breaking the cycle.

Over and over throughout Jesus’ ministry, he is constantly “flattening the curve,” choosing to break the cycle of momentum in a variety of ways.

In the story of the woman at the well, Jesus could have followed cultural norms and fed the momentum of patriarchy by not associating with a woman, but he doesn’t.  He breaks the cycle.  He flattens the curve.

Jesus could have fed the momentum of tension between Jews and Samaritans, but he doesn’t.  He breaks the cycle.  He flattens the curve.

Jesus could have perpetuated the division caused by the argument about where true worship was supposed to take place (v. 20-24), but he didn’t. He breaks the cycle.  He flattens the curve and instead says, “You’ve got it all wrong.  You don’t understand.  True worship of God isn’t about this mountain or that. It’s about worshiping God in spirit and in truth.”

Over and over, when given the option to perpetuate the momentum or to break the cycle, Jesus chooses to flatten the curve, to do something radical that would completely change the trajectory of the future.

And the truth is, we are called to do the same. 

Practical example: While my mother-in-law was town last week she decided to make a grocery run (which, as many of you know, has been quite an adventure recently).  She made her way through the chaotic aisles, between people who were fighting over the last of this and the last of that–kind of like shopping the day after Thanksgiving. When she finally made it to the checkout line–which was enormous–there were two, young Asian women in line in front of her.  One of the women turned around to my mother-in-law and out of the blue says, “Thank you for smiling at us.  You have no idea how much that means to us.”

How terrible is that? That simply because they are Asian, they have been treated so poorly during this outbreak that a simple smile means the world to them? How is this real life?  How have we come this far?  How have we let this virus sicken us in ways that go way beyond the physical symptoms of illness?

I read an article from a local news agency that affirmed this notion.  Covid-19 is perpetuating the momentum of racism in our own backyard.  People are giving into the lies of fear and anxiety in ways that are not flattening any curves.  Instead, they are increasing the rate of hatred toward one another.

So, we ask what does John 4 have to do with us today?  The reality is, today more than ever, we are faced with decisions and opportunities. Are we going to feed the momentum of racism, division, and hate?  Or are we going to step into our calling to flatten the curve?

Ask yourself, how can I help flatten the curve of division?

How can I help flatten the curve of irresponsible social media posts?

How can I help flatten the curve of social isolation (which is different than social distancing)?

How can I help flatten the curve of misunderstanding people with different abilities, or beliefs, or political perspectives?

How can I help flatten the curve of anxiety?

In the same way that Jesus constantly flattened the curves of division and hatred in the first century, we, too, have an opportunity to change the trajectory of the future of our homes and our communities.

It’s my prayer, that God would give us a sense of peace and purpose in this moment, that we could become the non-anxious presence in a world that is flustered, that we would have the courage to call out the things that people are saying that just aren’t right, and that as we do so, people might look at us and say, “Oh, that’s the church.  I see it now.  They might not be meeting in a building these days, but they’re more clearly the church now than they’ve ever been.”

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This is an excerpt adapted from a sermon “Encountering Jesus: The Woman at the Well,” preached at First United Methodist Church Richardson, on 3/15/20.  Click here to view the sermon in its entirety (as well as the rest of the worship service).

Avoiding Temptation: Say “Yes” to Say “No”

Avoiding Temptation: Say “Yes” to Say “No”

I just recently joined a Crossfit gym that is really near our house here in Richardson, TX.  Every night, they post the next day’s workout on their Instagram account so you can dress appropriately.  On a recent Wednesday night, all the Instagram post said was “5K.”

I turned to Megan and said, “Surely we can’t just be running a 5K.  It’s supposed to be 30 degrees outside! Plus, we never run that far all at once in Crossfit.”

Megan said, “Well, you better dress warmly just in case.”

So I dressed warmly and brought my running shoes.  Sure enough, when I walked in and asked, “Are we seriously about to run a 5K this morning?” the coach smiled and said, “Yep!”

Now I don’t mind running when there have been times in my life when I’ve tried to be a runner.  But it takes some practice and some training.  When I’m not in “runner mode” then I really dislike making my body run.

When the coach outlined the course for the morning I noticed that the path was going to take us from the Crossfiti gym, through the neighborhood, passing right in front my house along the way.

So we stretched and warmed-up a little.  When the coach said, “Go,” we all just started running.

Now, this wasn’t a very big class, so it didn’t take long for us to all get separated by our individual paces.  Just a few minutes into the run I found myself running alone.

And that’s when the voices of temptation began…

“Josh, what are you doing?  This is crazy.  Just start walking.  You shouldn’t be out here.  It’s too early.  It’s way too cold.  You’re too out of shape.”

And all I could think of was Dory from Finding Nemo:  “Just keep swimming.  Just keep swimming.”  That was me: “Just keep running.  Just keep running.”

But then where it got really hard was when I was all alone, running right by my own house.  At 6:00 in the morning.  In 30 degree weather.

Those voices were strong… “Wow, it looks warm in there.  You should just stop and go home.  There’s coffee in there… warm. coffee.”

It took everything within me to keep running, but I had my goal in mind, and I knew if I just kept my feet moving, I could do it.  So when I reached the end, I felt like a million bucks!  But wow, the temptation to give up was real and strong!

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In a recent sermon, we talked about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, found in Matthew 4.  Immediately following Jesus’ baptism where God affirms Jesus’ identity and purpose in the world, we recognized that the temptation of Jesus was less about enticing him to do something evil, and more about distracting him from living into his true calling.

The same is true with us.  More often than not, our temptations are not merely drawing us toward something “bad.”  More importantly, they deny us from living into the whole person that God has designed us to be!

With that slight change in perspective, our approach to avoiding temptation changes as well.  Instead of always saying, “No, I will not do that.  I will not give in,” and always running away from the things that tempt us, we should look to say, “Yes,” to something else that can take its place–“yes” to something else that contributes positively to the work that God wants to do in our lives.

Instead of constantly saying, “No,” to compulsive shopping, what about saying, “Yes,” to establishing a regular time of prayer?  Instead of just saying, “No,” to another drink, what about saying, “Yes,” to spending time in God’s Word?

Kind of like running right in front of my house on that cold, COLD morning.  It was one thing to say, “No,” to the temptation to stop running and go inside for a cup of hot coffee, but what really kept me going was saying, “Yes,” to the goal of finishing.

Think about the things that you’ve been struggling to say, “No,” to recently.  And then pray that God would open your eyes to the things that you need to say, “Yes,” to in its place.  Don’t continue to let temptation draw you away from your true calling as a child of God.  Instead, with that goal in mind, keep running–one step in front of the next–toward the person that God has designed you to be! 

9 Life Lessons I’ve Learned From Crossfit

9 Life Lessons I’ve Learned From Crossfit

For the past 9 months I’ve been secretly doing Crossfit.

Ok, so it hasn’t been a complete secret, but I haven’t posted much online about my involvement.

For one, I wasn’t completely sure I could stick with it. So, nine months in, I feel like I’ve been committed enough to “own it” now. Secondly, I haven’t wanted to be one of “those Crossfit people” who are constantly posting about and talking about how they do Crossfit. But on this side of my Crossfit experience, I can see why “those Crossfit people” are always posting about and talking it. The truth is, I love it! It’s the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done, but it’s also one of the most rewarding. And the reality is, the more you do it, the more you realize that the rewards are about so much more than just the physical and athletic development.

So, for fun, here are nine life lessons I’ve learned (or have been reminded of) through Crossfit:

1) Just Show Up

This has been my motto from day one. When my schedule allows, my preferred Crossfit class time is 5:30 AM. I hate when my alarm goes off at 4:50 AM. And every time it does, a voice inside my head is doing its best to coax me back into bed: “You can take the day off. You’ll go tomorrow. Go back to sleep.” I have to mentally tell myself, “Just show up.” I know that if I can just get there, I won’t regret it.

This is the same with most things in life. We always have a voice inside our head trying to talk us out of the things that matter, and yet, we also have the power to fight that voice off. We may not always be motivated by the end result of something because it seems so far off, but if we tell ourselves to “just show up,” we’ve already taken a major step toward that goal—whatever it is.

2) Coaching Helps

One of the major elements of Crossfit is the coaching. At Crossfit OD, we have some wonderful coaches who are chalk full of valuable information. If I’m not in a particularly good mood for some reason, it’s easy for me to ignore what the coaches are telling me, or to even get offended that they’d suggest I’m doing something incorrectly! But every time I open myself up to their wisdom, I see results. The truth is, coaching helps.

The same is true in life. As much as we’d like to think we can do things our own way, it often takes an outside observer to point out areas for potential growth and to suggest practical steps of development. If we aren’t open to coaching, we find ourselves ignoring the wisdom of those who have gone before us, and we get offended when they offer help. However, the moment we invite someone to speak into our lives, we allow our potential to be taken to new levels.

3) Community is Key

What brings someone to Crossfit is the workout; what keeps someone in Crossfit is the community. The first time I showed up at Crossfit OD, I had no idea what I was doing. I actually showed up in regular clothes during a class, just to ask about what Crossfit is, and how I might go about signing up. Little did I know that all these people I was staring at in awe would soon become my teammates and biggest cheerleaders. I’ll never forget the first time one of the “pros” asked my name, welcomed me to class, and then encouraged me in my workout. From that point forward, I’ve found myself finishing workouts and lifting amounts of weight that I could never do on my own. And when I miss class, they notice.

This point is very pertinent in my line of work in the church. While many different elements of the church experience might bring someone to a particular congregation, it’s always the community that keeps them coming back. The same is true in most aspects of life. Unless we surround ourselves with people who will constantly cheer for us and encourage us, we will never reach our greatest potential.

4) Excuses are Limitless

I can always think of an excuse to not go to Crossfit—the trick is listening to that excuse or not. “It’s too early.” “I’m sore.” “I’m tired.” “I’ve got a full day today.” “I’m just going to make this an ‘easy week.’” “I skipped a couple days already, so what’s one more?” This part of Crossfit is mental. I’ve learned that I must exercise my mental strength to get past these excuses, as much as I exercise my physical strength. And those are just the excuses to show up! There are even more excuses once I’m in class. “There’s no way I can lift that much.” “I’m not going to be able to finish this WOD.” “I’ll just scale this one today.” “There are only 30 seconds left, so I might as well stop now.” Again, the difference is made when my mental strength allows me to ignore these negative thoughts in my head.

Life is full of excuses as well. Whatever your situation, you can always talk yourself out of it. Particularly as we give in to the temptation to constantly compare ourselves to others, we make excuses about why we don’t “measure up.” STOP DOING THAT! You can be great! You just have to get past the mental battle that is holding you back.

5) If At First You Don’t Succeed, Keep Failing Until You Do

In Crossfit, I fail a lot. But honestly, I probably don’t fail enough. Failing isn’t fun, so I often stop just short of failing. The problem with this method is that I’ve probably missed some PR’s because I didn’t try “just a little more weight,” or “just one more rep.” On the other hand, when I have allowed myself to fail, I’ve recognized the things that I need to work on, and I’ve been able to improve as a result, leading to success at bigger, higher, and faster levels.

I wonder how much potential we eliminate in life by being afraid to fail? I bet it’s a lot! Instead, by viewing failure as an opportunity to learn, we keep pushing the envelope past what we know we are able to do, into the realm of surprising ourselves by what we are capable of doing. When we give ourselves permission to fail—or maybe even when we pursue the point of failure because we know it’ll help us grow—we find ourselves surpassing expectations, sometimes the expectations of others, and sometimes our own.

6) Humility

Prior to doing Crossfit, I had never worked out seriously or regularly in my life. In fact, that was one of my biggest excuses to overcome before starting: “I’m going to be so much weaker than everyone else there.” And you know what? That was true! I was so much weaker than everyone there. The key word is “was,” because once I humbled myself and gave in to that reality, I opened myself up to growth. Was it humbling? Yes! At times, I’d even try to set up my bar in the furthest corner of the box so no one could see how much weight I wasn’t lifting. Crossfit also has a natural way of reminding you that you are human. The moment I begin to think, “This is going to be easy,” I’m re-humbled by the challenge. But again, through humility I’ve grown.

Life can be humbling as well, right? There are experiences in life that level the playing field, reminding us that we are ultimately not in control. We can do our best to pretend we are tougher than those challenges, relying on our own “pretend strength” to fight through them (which never leads to growth), OR we can humble ourselves, ask for help when we need it, admit our faults and areas of weakness, and start the intentional process of growth—whether personal or professional.

7) Looking Like You Know What You’re Doing is Half the Battle

I say this one kind of “tongue in cheek,” but it’s actually true. My high school chemistry teacher told us to “dress for success” on test days and he claimed that we would score higher as a result. I think there was something to it. I just invested in a new pair of Crossfit shoes, and even though they can’t automatically make me lift more or run faster, they do give me a new sense of confidence that translates into positive energy as I workout. Compare that to the days I need to do laundry because I’m at the end of my workout clothes and I find myself wearing some running shorts that are a little on the short side… shorts that I can’t exactly do hand-stand-push-ups in… if I’m not comfortable and confident in what I’m wearing, then I’m already operating at a deficit!

Again, this might seem a little vain, but when we feel comfortable in the way we are presenting ourselves (even if we “fake it ‘til we make it”), we operate with more confidence. This is why it’s important to dress up for a job interview. This is why I like preaching in my “preaching shoes!” This is why wearing a tuxedo in a wedding makes you automatically feel like a “baller.” This is why the people I’ve golfed with think I’m a good golfer when I show up (but then they learn the opposite truth as the round progresses). Looking like you know what you’re doing is half the battle! (Disclaimer: while this is half the battle, it’s always the half that immediately precedes the workout that humbles me and puts me in my proper place)

8) The Perceived Problem is Not Always the Real Problem

One major thing that I’ve learned about physical fitness is that nutritional fitness is 80% of the challenge. While I might think to myself, “Wow, I’m just feeling weak today. My muscles must be fatigued,” the truth is, it’s probably my nutrition! The perceived problem is not always the real problem.

This is definitely the same in life. We often diagnose the problems we see based on just that—the things we can see. More often than not, there is something that lies deeper beneath the surface that is causing our perceived problem. The trick is being able to think abstractly and introspectively as we try to determine what is really going on. Often, it takes an objective third-party, like a therapist or counselor, to draw those answers out.

9) Don’t Worry About What Other People Think

This circles back to a couple previous points about humility, excuses, and community. Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to working out for those of us who haven’t done much of it in the past is the intimidation factor. When I first walked into Crossfit OD and saw all of those athletes doing hand-stand-pushups, pull-ups, box jumps, and throwing weighted barbells above their heads, my first thought was, “They are going to laugh at me.” As childish as this sounds, you have to understand, I was really weak when I started. I absolutely had to decide not to care what other people thought, or else I would have never given Crossfit a chance. Of course no one ever did laugh at me, but this temptation to care what others “might” be thinking (even though my mind paints it inaccurately toward the negative) is something I have to remind myself to ignore on a regular basis.

In life, I’ve found that the people who might struggle with this the most are also those who have some of the kindest hearts. It’s this same innate desire to please others that creates a person of compassion, but also a person who may tend to create false ideas in their own minds of what other people may be thinking. Sometimes we just need to throw those thoughts to the wayside and say to ourselves, “Even if they are thinking negative things about me, I’m not going to let their thoughts hold me back from my potential.” Depending on your personality, this is sometimes easier said than done.

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So there you have it. I do Crossfit, and I’m proud of it. I still don’t think I’m going to start posting about it constantly, but I certainly have a better understanding of the motivation behind those who do!

A special thanks to Carrie Wageman and all the wonderful coaches and athletes at Crossfit OD for your continued encouragement and growing friendships.

What about you? Do you do Crossfit? What life lessons have you gleaned from your experience?

13 Things I’ve Come to Love About Bakersfield in My First 8 Months Here

13 Things I’ve Come to Love About Bakersfield in My First 8 Months Here

1) History

Bakersfield has a lot of history (relatively speaking, that is… nothing in California has THAT much history). I particularly love the history of country music in Bakersfield, having introduced the “Bakersfield Sound” to the world. Stories of the gold rush and Mr. Baker’s original “field” are fascinating as well.

2) Food

One of the things I’ve been pleasantly surprised by in Bakersfield is its array of good restaurants. It’s not hard to find amazing Mexican food in Bakersfield, but it also doesn’t take much more than a quick search on Yelp to find numerous hotspot eateries around the city.

3) Weather

Having moved to Bakersfield from Dallas, we have definitely experienced differences in weather. Don’t get me wrong—the weather in Dallas is far more desirable than many parts of the U.S., but there are three things I do not miss: humidity, ice storms, and tornadoes!

4) The All American Barber Shop

Truthfully, I dropped in on the All American Barber Shop because I thought their Instagram feed looked cool. Eight months and several haircuts later, I’ve come to love my regular visits. All the barbers are super down-to-earth and they treat every customer like one of the family.

5) Crossfit OD

If you would have told me 8 months ago that I’d be competing in the 2017 Crossfit Games I would have told you that you were crazy.  I’ve always enjoyed being active and playing sports, but weightlifting?  Yeah… we didn’t do much of that on the high school tennis team!  Thanks to Carrie Wageman, the amazing team of coaches she has formed at Crossfit OD, and the culture of encouragement and positive competition they all create together, I’m finding myself in the best shape of my life, surrounded by a ton of genuinely good people.

6) Friendliness

Which leads me to the general friendliness of Bakersfield. It truly feels like a little piece of Texas in the middle of California, Southern hospitality and all. People smile at each other while walking down the street, conversations begin in the middle of checkout lines, and everyone seems to have a one or two-degree connection to everyone else (even though there are almost 400,000 people living here!).

7) Downtown

Every downtown has its pros and cons, and maybe for a time the negatives of downtown Bakersfield outweighed the positives, but I think that tide is beginning to change. All it takes is a cup of coffee with one the many residents who have chosen to make the downtown area (and its surrounding neighborhoods) their home and you will have your eyes opened to the charm and appeal of our city center. From the restoration of historic homes, to the investment in community-encouraging development, to a pervasive appreciation for the arts, downtown Bakersfield has a wonderful momentum building up from within it.

8) Fox Theater

Speaking of jewels in downtown Bakersfield, my wife and I went to see Brian Regan at the Fox Theater a few weeks ago and I was blown away by the venue! It is intriguing on the exterior and absolutely beautiful on the interior. What a treasure to have had this theater preserved so well over its many years in existence!

9) Innovation

In my 8 months here, I have met more people who are thinking innovatively about Bakersfield’s future than I have ever met in the several other cities in which I have lived. These are people like Darci Atkinson who owns The Kitchen, a business that offers cooking classes to school children, hosts private parties and offers incredible prix fixe meals, or Alyssa Haas, of Kern Innovation and Technology (KIT), who hosts hack-a-thons and other events to get children and young adults excited about advancements in technology, or Daniel Cater and Austin Smith, whose recent additions to downtown Bakersfield—17th Place Townhomes and Café Smitten—have positively tipped the scale of public perception almost overnight.

10) Optimism

Just like the chicken or the egg, I’m not sure if the innovation in Bakersfield is driving the optimism, or if it’s the other way around. Either way, there is a palpable excitement about the future of Bakersfield slowly growing in the hearts of its residents. Bakersfield is a city with a ton of potential, and for the first time in a long time, those buds of potential are beginning to bloom.

11) Landscape

One line that we have heard over and over is, “Bakersfield is two hours from anything: two hours from the beach, two hours from the mountains, two hours from Los Angeles. You can’t beat it.” And while that sales-pitch does hold true, I would also argue that Bakersfield isn’t just two hours from good things, great things exist right here! The landscape here has actually blown me away. The rolling hills that lead up to Tehachapi, the mountain ranges that seem to emerge out of nowhere (not something you see in Texas…), the variety of colorful trees all around the city, and the sunsets! I have been so surprised at how amazing Bakersfield sunsets are; they’re gorgeous!

12) Compassion

I already mentioned the sense of Southern hospitality that exists in Bakersfield, but that can be done just in passing. More significant is the longer-term sense of compassion that is not hard to find amongst Bakersfield’s residents. This city is not hurting for non-profits. There are tons! And they are doing great work to make Bakersfield a better place.

13) Pride

Lastly (for now, anyway), I have come to love the sense of pride that exists in Bakersfield. It’s so fascinating to me what a quick Twitter search can find: tons of teenagers longing to get out of this city and explore the “real world.” However, after meeting many young professionals in Bakersfield, I’ve found that most share the same story. They, too, once longed to leave Bakersfield, and they did. But for some reason or another most felt a pull back to the city in which they were raised, and upon their return, they discovered a new appreciation and sense of pride for this city they call “home.”

 

What is it that YOU love about Bakersfield? What have been your pleasant surprises about this city?