The Gospel and Northerness; or, Preaching to the Why

C.S. Lewis called it “Northerness”. An overwhelming, bittersweet longing in your gut when confronted with the stark, harsh, beauty of the world. It rests heavy on a man’s heart and in his mind before bleeding into a sense of deep joy. Joy that I am very small and there is something very, very big of which I am a part.

I won’t try to improve on Lewis’s own description of northerness, found in Surprised by Joy:

Pure “Northernness” engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity… and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago. …And with that plunge back into my own past, there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country, and the distance of the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together in a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss…

It’s important for us to understand what Lewis means by “joy”. He says in the same book, “[Joy] is that … unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”

N.D. Wilson beautifully explains the moments that bring on a sense of longing for more in his book Death By Living:

Those moments in life when we realize that we are standing in open jaws, when we feel so small that it arrives with a dominating immenseness—when the stars are suddenly no longer twinkly things, but massive seething explosions punctuating an unimaginably cold and near-infinite nothing—those are the moments when we feel our true size, our true pitiful (feed me three times a day, keep me breathing, beat my heart once a second, don’t let me stay underwater for too long, don’t let me get hot, don’t let me get cold) dependence. Those moments are when we yearn. That yearning, that groaning against the curse, that desire to feel all that can be felt in a given moment, is how I think of northerness.

This sense of joy is the reason people flock to the Grand Canyon. It’s why families save for years and years to drive to Yosemite. It’s why a walk through the redwoods gives us such a childlike sense of wonderment. It’s why my Californian friends were so disappointed to learn that the namesake of Round Rock, Texas is just a little round rock. They wanted so badly to feel small standing next to some great giant circular boulder, towering over the central Texas plains. What they got was a little stone and a lot of disappointment.

We all long for and seek out things that make us feel small because it reminds us that we are part of something infinitely bigger than ourselves.

In Ecclesiastes 3:11, the Teacher says, “God has made everything fit together beautifully, but he has also placed eternity in the human heart.”

What the Teacher means is that God has woven together existence in beauty that goes beyond our capability of description. He has created an existence so vast in scale that we cannot possibly comprehend. And in His wisdom, He has placed a God-sized hole inside of our hearts so that we seek out this beauty, this magnitude, just to remind ourselves, in the deepest recesses of our souls – in a part of us that we don’t even recognize as existing – that we are missing something we should not be missing. He has set everything in its place, in its time, and all of it shouts His name because it shows us just how small we are.

Isaiah 55:12 looks forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises when mountains will shout God’s glory and trees will clap their hands. But Romans 1:19-20, says that the trees of the field are clapping their hands now, and the mountains and hills are singing now, screaming at the top of their lungs to remind us of our Creator.

As Christians, this truth, this universal longing for God, should profoundly affect the way we preach the gospel. The concept of northerness should change preaching from an argument or a set of instructions into a reminder. It is a presentation of a story of which we are all a part, and a reminder that we have a place within it.

The idea of northerness is one that many of the greatest marketers and business leaders have tapped into, but they call it something else. Simon Sinek (seen below) calls it “The Why?”

Successful leaders, Sinek says, don’t present a product and how it works as an answer to why you should buy something. Rather, successful leaders address the deep purpose that must be addressed. Why do we exist as a company? Why do we need this product? Why must we go to the moon? After answering the Why, they proceed to the how and the what.

Watching this video, I was struck with how often I and other Christians present the gospel as an answer to a question that no one is asking. We say, “Hey you should be saved. By praying this prayer. Because you want to go to Heaven and be with God.”

Well, no, not really. I don’t think I want that at all.

N.D. Wilson comments, “I don’t remember one particular lecture from my entire senior year of high school. And maybe a couple from my time in college. But those lectures happened to me. I engaged with them in the moment. They were never meant to be permanent.”

Preaching the gospel too often becomes a lecture happening to an audience. This is not the way it was ever intended. I know that because all of creation is designed to show people that there is more than this finite existence.

We’ve been seeking fulfillment in a billion different things that never satisfy. Things that turn to dust in our mouths. Relationships that end by death or changes of heart or geography. Identity in jobs – until we get too old or too replaceable. Identity in abilities until all of a sudden I’m 35 and my basketball prowess on the court has changed from a quick first step and a smooth jumper to cheap fouls and old-man-elbow rebounding techniques because my body just doesn’t do what I want it to do anymore. And in everything we try, every pleasure sweet on our tongue, every shiny new product we attempt to sedate ourselves with, we are never satisfied. Because you and I are small, and we were made for much, much more than the latest iphone and houses full of stuff.

So we preach the gospel with all the gusto of some sort of three-step eternal insurance policy?

My brothers, this should not be so.

The gospel is an invitation. Preaching – our communicating the gospel – should be a raucous shout to come drink the living water and never thirst again. Preaching is a plea, joining in chorus with the yearning in each of our souls for more – for joy made complete.

On Leadership

This past month, Todd Engstrom asked, “What are the necessary skills, character traits, and cultural understandings a leader should possess?” I spent some time searching through books, articles, and blog posts on leadership, and found a few common themes strung throughout the business, sociological world, and the world of church leadership.

I want to focus this blog from a Christian leader’s perspective, but to say that Christian leaders possess characteristics that are completely separate from leaders outside of the church would create a false dichotomy, so understand the purpose is not to say these skills, traits, and understandings are somehow “better” or “higher” than others. In fact, for the most part, they are incredibly similar, if not the same.

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The Real Story

If I’m being completely honest, there are a lot of things in the Bible that I don’t understand.

I’m not necessarily talking about things that I can’t articulate, explain Biblically, or work through systematically. For example, I could define to you the Trinity – One God existing in three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But I can’t fully wrap my mind around it.

One of those things I long struggled to understand comes from the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35.

“Jesus wept.”

The simple statement is in the middle of the story of Lazarus in John 11. Lazarus’s sisters come to Jesus because Lazarus is sick. Jesus waits around a couple days, then goes to Bethany, where Lazarus has already died and been in the tomb for four days. Then, Jesus goes to the entrance of the tomb and commands Lazarus to come out, alive, spawning the most egregious overuse of a thinly-veiled codename in all science fiction. But I digress.

Here’s what is confusing to me about John 11:35. Why does Jesus cry? Why does the Lord of the universe, who John describes just ten chapters prior as being the One through whom all things are created and by whom all life is sustained, shed tears over the death of His friend?

Why does Jesus, who will moments later raise Lazarus from the dead, weep because Lazarus has been laid in the tomb?

Furthermore, why would Jesus cry over Lazarus’s being laid in the tomb, knowing that in a short time, He will be put to death on a cross, buried, and raised to life, putting death itself to death so that Lazarus will spend eternity with Him in glory?

The passage always confused me because I thought the story was about Lazarus. But the story isn’t about Lazarus. The story is about Jesus.

Jesus isn’t weeping for Lazarus. Jesus weeps because Lazarus, Martha, Mary, you, and I were never meant for death.

Jesus weeps because the pain of separation Martha and Mary feel – the pain that is causing such deep grief and such deep mourning – is a pain that we were never meant to endure.

Jesus weeps because all men have sinned, are separated from God, and are condemned to die just as Lazarus has died.

When the people saw Jesus weeping, some asked, “Couldn’t he who healed the blind man also have kept Lazarus from dying?” They didn’t understand the story of which they were a part. Jesus had already told the disciples, “For your sake, I am glad that I wasn’t there, so that you may believe.” We see this come to fruition in verses 44 and 45 when many of the people who had come to mourn with Mary and Martha see Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead and believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

A year and a half ago, Ronnie Smith, a former pastor at The Austin Stone, moved to Libya with his wife and son to teach chemistry at a local school. He loved Libya and the Libyan people deeply, and his greatest desire was to see the people of Libya know peace and prosperity and the joy of knowing God through Jesus Christ.

On December 5, Ronnie was shot and killed in the streets close to his home.

That morning, the staff at The Stone gathered together, and we prayed for Ronnie’s family, for Ronnie’s students, for Ronnie’s killers, for the people of Libya.

And we wept. We wept over the pain of separation, over having a friend who was no longer with us. We wept for Anita and Hosea who had a husband and father taken away. We wept for Ronnie’s students who loved him deeply.

But we did not weep for Ronnie, because Ronnie’s story was Jesus.

We did not weep for Ronnie because he was standing before the throne of God!

I don’t know God’s ultimate sovereign plan in Ronnie’s death. I really don’t. But I stood in a room with a hundred people who loved that man deeply, all crying out prayers to God “Save the men that murdered Ronnie! Reveal yourself to the men that killed our brother! Exalt your name in Benghazi through the death of our friend!” 

That is the honest prayer of my church. And our God hears. He is making Himself known throughout Libya and America through Ronnie’s death and through Ronnie’s wife Anita as she proclaims Jesus name in English and in Arabic because her story is Jesus, too.

The final thing we did in that staff meeting the morning of Ronnie’s death was worship. We sang songs of praise to Jesus, who conquered death on the cross. We could worship in honesty and with hope because of what Jesus says of Himself to Martha in John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.

I don’t want to make The Austin Stone out to be some sort of super hero church like we have it all together and are spiritual giants because we consistently make mistake and are consistently in need of God’s grace. But I have been so deeply blessed by the witness of this church through its response to Ronnie’s death. My pastors mourned deeply. They didn’t pretend to have the answers. They were honest in tears and cracked voices.

But the story of our church is Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection and His coming return. So even now, while we mourn, we can worship and look forward, expectantly, to the day when Jesus will set all things right.

The Christian Community

I’ve always been a loner.

It manifests in a couple ways. For one, I just tend to get lost in thought and start wandering off. Janelle and I recently went to Pedernales Falls State Park with some friends and a good 50% of the pictures Janelle took of the scenery involve me wandering around by myself staring at rocks or bugs or the water. Maybe I’m less of a loner in that sense, and more socially awkward.

The other way it comes up is probably a bit more in line with culture. At a young age I totally bought into the great American idea of self-sufficiency. Through hard work, persistence, and talent, I can do great things on my own.

For many people who grew up in church, it’s an idea that replaces the gospel. I grew up worshipping at the altar of self-sufficient moralism. If I can just try harder, I will kill this sin and God will be pleased with me. But the gospel says that I was dead in sin and separated from God, but He sent Jesus to live a perfect life in my place, to die the death I deserved, and to be resurrected so that I have the hope of salvation through the work of Jesus Christ.

The gospel should be the death knell of any illusion that I could possibly do anything on my own.

And that’s where I usually stop, at “Christ has saved me.” But Jesus Christ has not only saved me from sin and guilt. He has saved me to an eternal hope, the power over sin through the spirit, and a new family of believers. I have been adopted as God’s son, brought into a community of brothers and sisters bound together in Jesus through the Holy Spirit.

Since I’ve been at the Stone, one of the biggest things God has been working in me is my desperate need for community for the sake of my becoming more like Christ. To this point in my Christian life, I’d always viewed Christian community more as a resource for potential friends. As far as growing in holiness, I’ll take care of that on my own.

I recently came across an incredibly interesting community in Austin. Here’s a selection from the organization’s “about me” and mission statement:

  • We offer a true sense of community for all of Austin … and strive to give back to the community that supports us.
  • Austin .. is our priority, we are not introspective and we wish to see good things happen for everyone in this city. [We exist] to do good for the community [through] charity and volunteer work.
  • Mission: To provide a safe haven and family environment for all of Austin … [and] support the city.

To be honest, that’s pretty much how I’ve always looked at Christian community. It’s a group of people coming together for the purpose of friendship and to go out into the community every once in a while and do some good stuff – fix up a park, maybe deliver meals.. some sort of service project. If I was to look at the description and mission statement of the organization above, I would probably say it lines up pretty much exactly with what I think Christian community is all about.

The problem is the organization above is from the Facebook page of the Vampire Court of Austin. Which is, apparently, a thing that exists in this town.

Obviously, it’s problematic for my understanding of what Christian community looks like to be pretty much identical to how the Vampire Court of Austin understands its community. What it means is that I’ve removed Jesus from the Christian community. Without Christ involved in the center of the community, then what’s the point – other than to maybe get some friends and possibly fix up a garden in 78704.

The Bible is pretty clear about the purpose for Christian community: to build the body of believers up to maturity in Christ and to tell other people about Jesus.

Hebrews 3:13 says we need community so sin doesn’t come in and wreck our hearts. 

Ephesians 4:11-21 shows that we need community to be built up in Christ as mature believers.

Proverbs 28:13 and James 5:16 says we need community for our health.

Romans 10:14-15 and 12:3-8 says the work of evangelism is accomplished through the body as a whole.

According to Scripture, a healthy Christian cannot exist apart from the community of believers, nor can a healthy Christian remain aloof from the body.

So what does this look like for me?

Well, for starters it doesn’t look pretty. Actually, it has a tendency to be messy and feel kind of awkward. And I don’t particularly like it all the time. Every bit of my flesh recoils and squirms when I confess my hidden sin to my brother in Christ. Every part of my flesh screams bloody murder when someone looks me in the eye and preaches the gospel into a particular part of my life where I am struggling with doubt or fear or shame. “NO THIS IS MY SIN AND I’LL DEAL WITH IT!” Maybe that’s the feeling Paul’s describing in putting the flesh to death.

I don’t think that’s necessarily an uncommon experience, even Biblically. Acts 2:42-47 describes the early church being “devoted to fellowship.” They didn’t come together as Christians and suddenly start running around like besties. They were deeply committed to each other because they were a new family – the people of God. Too often I’ve walked into a group of Christians and refused to be committed to fellowship. The people are too weird, we’ve got nothing in common, this dude kind of gets on my nerves. Why should I be committed to them?

The answer to that question, I’m realizing through God’s grace, is so that through the community I can be molded into Christ’s image and the gospel can be proclaimed where it is not known.

Secondly, it’s refreshing. The “freedom in Christ” actually is freeing! I don’t have to hide who I am from other Christians. I don’t have to pretend to have it all put together. For years, I’d thought it strange that I had “Church Friends” and then I had my actual friends. I could never figure out why. I kept seeing all of this talk in the Bible of fellowship in Christ and how the early church lived together in such community that they were sharing their possessions and providing for each other and it just seemed like some weird commune. But what I’ve realized over the past month is I have this friend dichotomy because I’ve been real with one group of people and tried to hide myself from the other.

There is freedom in Christ. There is hope in Christian community. I can’t do this on my own.

God the Father

Truth be told, I don’t like to blog. You know those words that give you a bit of a gag reflex? Janelle hates the word “flesh”. Me – I hate the word “blog.” But I do think it’s important to keep our support team (and anyone else who takes notice) up to date on what we are doing throughout the residency at The Austin Stone, so every month I will be giving a sort of recap. I’ll also be doing some posts which focus entirely around books or journal articles that I’ve been reading.

I think my last post left you on a bit of a cliff-hanger, so let’s get right to it.  As I explained in that last entry, Janelle and I had two weeks to find another $2100/month to be able to cover our living expenses. So here’s what happened, just as blunt and straight forward as possible:

God showed Himself faithful.

God called us here, and He provided for us. During those two weeks, we had another group of supporters come on, some supporters pledged to up their monthly giving amount, and Janelle found a job at the Center for Survivors of Torture as a part-time fundraiser, where she will have the opportunity to come on full-time in another three months. We’re not living a lavish life, by any means, but God has provided in a way that is so astounding that it’s hard to really even comprehend, to be honest with you.

Here’s the thing, just like I said in that other blog, if I had known that we would come down here and not be fully-funded and have an incredibly short amount of time to raise a large sum of money, I would not have come. I’m just being completely honest. I wouldn’t have come. In fact, I probably would have pointed to not being funded as a sign that God wasn’t leading us here.

“Oh, he’s just not opening doors up, so I think He’s calling us to wait.”

But that’s not true. He was calling us here all along, and even in all my pretense and words, I don’t know that I ever really trusted Him to provide during the time we were raising funds in Dallas before quitting our jobs, using up almost all of our savings to break leases and service contracts and move to Austin and pay brand-new deposits. And I say that because if I had known how painful it would be, I would not have come.

Matthew 7:7-11 gives a good picture of something I’ve been learning through this whole process.

You know those random things you remember from your childhood – some inconsequential afternoon riding your bike with friends, or a Sunday evening dinner with your family? One of those random stories I remember is driving to church with my parents. I asked them why I couldn’t have a Nintendo. I don’t remember what their exact answer to me was, but I do remember how stupid an answer it seemed.

“When I have kids, I’m going to give them everything they want,” I told them.

I didn’t really even grasp at the time how moronic that was. If my parents gave me everything I ever wanted, I would be dead. Let’s just be honest. Kids are stupid. Young boys are especially stupid. Can we agree on that? I spent a good portion of my holidays with family running around in a pasture with my cousins shooting BB guns at each other. I’ll call that Exhibit A.

Parents don’t give in to the every whim and wish of their children. Good parents don’t, anyway. But good parents give good gifts, and our Father God is so much more than just a “good parent”. He is the perfect Father, always present, never failing, never needing to apologize or make up for mistakes.

We asked God to provide for our needs in Austin, and he could have just let us win the lottery or something. He could have just let our Village Church home group made up of doctors and business men and women completely fund our time in Austin. But our Father is much, much better than that. Rather than let us go along, feigning faith in His provision, He took us to a place where we had no other option but to cry out “Lord, I need you to provide or we will be penniless and homeless.” Then He provided.

Now, here we are – fully funded, with an actual understanding of what it means to have a Heavenly Father who will provide for us and give us good gifts.

Dangerous Prayers

Janelle and I are in Austin! Well, we’ve been in Austin for a couple of weeks, actually. We’ve almost got the apartment set up, and I’ve reached the point where I have just come to accept the few boxes remaining in the bedroom can could probably function as some sort of modern decor. I’m pretty sure Janelle feels otherwise.

Austin and The Stone already feel like home. On Monday night, we gathered with other residents and interns on top of the Whole Foods building downtown and had a time of worship, fellowship, and prayer for the city and the different ministries we’ll each be a part of in the coming months. (“My church gathered on the roof of the downtown Whole Foods” might be the most Austin sentence I’ve ever said.)

I officially started on Tuesday, and that’s where the title of this entry comes from. I was accepted into this residency later than the other church-planting residents, and with that came the extra burden of trying to raise support in a very short amount of time. A little over two months to be exact. We filled out our budget, sent it in to the church and began to raise our support around that budget of $2800 per month.

I’m just going to be honest because I don’t know how else to say things. When this process started, I prayed one of those stupid prayers. It wasn’t stupid because it was wrong theologically or anything. It was stupid because it was dangerous and it is probably going to hurt. It’s like when you pray for patience and just dismiss that you’re praying to the God who calls Himself a refining fire to purge the Israelites of their iniquity, and who says through Paul that we develop perseverance in our faith through His testing. God answers those dangerous prayers. What I asked God for was that He would not only provide for us the financial support we needed, but through the process He would teach me to trust in His provision.

Some of you just slammed your head on your desk. “Provision is the hardest one!”

See, I thought He was teaching me this when a number of potential supporters from our church in Dallas just weren’t going to be able to help us like I had hoped. But funding began to come in from our friends who had just gotten married or just had babies, and family members who believed in us and wanted to invest in us, and we were overwhelmed at the generosity. When we moved down here, we were at 80% of our goal and were feeling pretty good about it.

But if I’m being honest, I don’t think I ever really started trusting God for His provision. I wanted to believe I did, and even told myself I did — “Hey, God really provided for us and it came from somewhere other than where we expected.” But I didn’t really believe it. We were just well prepared to send out enough letters and we knew enough people and a million little reasons why it worked out.

But then I started work on Tuesday. And by “started work” I mean I spent 9 1/2 hours doing HR paperwork. But as I sat down with one of the Stone’s number crunchers, we quickly realized that my budget was wrong. (Now would be a good time to mention that I don’t do numbers good.) I had accounted for all of our expenses, savings, school loan payments, and all of those sorts of things and totally forgot to take into account taxes, social security, and tithing. Where as I started the day off feigning trust in God’s provision and secure in that 80%, I suddenly found myself around $2100 below my actual budget needs.

Now, look, did God change the numbers on me? No. My inability to understand taxes is what messed up the numbers. But I asked Him to teach me to trust in His provision and here I am. If I had done the budget correctly, we would still be short the amount we need, but would I have moved to Austin? Well, that part I’m not too sure of. Here’s what I do know — I have two weeks to find 21 more partners to commit to supporting Janelle and I at $100 a month for 24 months.

Does God answer prayers? Yes. But too often I fall into this trap that if He answers my prayers then it’s going to be a comfortable thing. But our God sits as a refiner’s fire, to mold us and shape us into the image of Christ that we may come to know Him in fullness in glory. Every time I pray one of these dangerous prayers — prayers where I ask God to shape and mold me — He answers. And it hurts. Sometimes it hurts because your ankle gets broken (that’s another story entirely), and sometimes it hurts because you’ve just packed up your wife to move to a new city where, unless He raises up supporters in a very short amount of time, you’re going to be eating nothing but Ramen for a while. This isn’t because He’s some 9-year-old boy frying ants with a microscope, but because He purges sin from us like venom from a wound.

So, here we are, forced to rely on God’s provision. We have until September 20 to find 21 more supporters who want to see the gospel take root in Austin, TX. We need 21 supporters who will be coworkers in the truth by supporting us, just like Gaius in 3 John verses 5-8.

Will you support us? Check out the support page to find a link to the secure giving site. If you are already on our support team, please continue to pray for us, for Austin, and for the churches here and pass this blog on.

The Next Step

cropped-312275_10101447329921127_1704276666_n.jpgSeven years ago, I moved to Dallas. It’s almost hard to remember life before I got here. I came to Dallas in pursuit of training for the call to vocational ministry that God has placed on my heart. During my time here, I met and married my wife Janelle, graduated with a Masters of Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary, got a dog, cleaned pools for 4 1/2 years, and had the opportunity to minister to people all over the city. Over the course of these 7 years, God has grown me as a follower of Christ, as a leader and as a man. At times, this growth has come to great excitement and rejoicing on my part. At other times, this growth has come as the result of His wonderful grace in breaking my legs when I refused to bow my knee, removing from me idols, pride and arrogance. He has been faithful always.

Now it’s time for the next step – for another opportunity to serve, to grow and witness as God shows Himself faithful. This fall, I will move to Austin, where I am joining the Pastoral Residency Program at The Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, TX. The program is designed for those who have spent time in ministry and desire to be further equipped to lead in the Church. As part of a small cohort of other pastors and church-planters, I will have a unique opportunity to minister at Austin Stone’s West Campus while receiving specialized training and mentoring from the senior staff.

My heart is to plant a church that plants churches, reaching the unengaged, jaded and disillusioned in the states and over-seas, sharing the hope of salvation through faith in Christ, and building up believers so that they build up new believers. For two years, this residency will allow me the chance to minister full-time in the areas where God has gifted me, while also further developing the skills needed to plant and lead that church.

This opportunity to minister in Austin requires that we raise our own support, so Janelle and I are asking that you partner with us prayerfully and financially for 24 months, beginning in September of 2013. Through a unique set of circumstances, God opened up the doors for me to join the program that had seemed closed, making it clear that this is where He is leading us. I believe He will show Himself faithful again by raising up partners to prayerfully and financially support us in this ministry.

Will you become one of our partners? Doing so will help to spread the Gospel in the city of Austin and beyond! We are asking that you prayerfully consider committing to a monthly donation of any amount or making a one-time special gift donation. Check out the SUPPORT page to see the different ways in which you can partner with us.

Thank you so much for prayerfully considering this opportunity. God has blessed me with so many amazing friends and family members who have supported me in so many different ways over the years. Thank you in advance for continuing to do so. I’ll be using this blog, in part, to give updates about what is happening in our lives down in Austin and how exactly God is moving, so make sure to check back often!