Hello, Eastside

Eastside LogoIn October I said goodbye to the friends and the church that had become family in DC and headed west to be closer to my mom, my in-laws, and sunshine. After serving on staff at National Community Church for over six years I decided to take some time to write about the things I had learned during my time in DC.

By the time I got to California, Rachel, my wife, had already been there for three months. She began searching for a church to attend before I arrived and had landed at a place called Eastside Christian Church. She received a mailer from the church, and, seeing that it was less than five minutes away from our apartment, decided to check it out.

Having tried a handful of churches that weren’t quite the right fit, she was struck by how Eastside had a rare combination of friendliness and excellence.

The second weekend that I visited Eastside, there was a dinner following the Saturday night service. They wanted to feed everyone barbecue and cast vision for the church, much of which revolved around the plan to start more Eastside locations.

While we were waiting in line for food, Rachel heard a familiar voice behind us. Andie had hosted Rachel’s table at First Step with Gene, an event Eastside does for guests. They hadn’t kept in touch since then, but Andie was pretty much the only person at church who Rachel knew.

We started talking, and Andie asked what I did for a living. At this point I was not advertising the fact that I had been a pastor. In fact, I was hiding it. I was looking to be a normal church member while I pursued writing. So I just told her that I was an author. And naturally, she asked what type of writing I did.

I decided it’s probably not good to lie about what you do for a living, especially when what you do is write about how to bring people together in community to help them become more like Jesus, so I told her that I used to be a small groups pastor at our church in DC and that I wrote about small groups.

Her response?

“Oh, we’re looking for some help with our small groups.”

It turns out Andie is one of the elders at Eastside. Exactly what I was trying to avoid.

I kinda stumbled through a reply that went something like, “Uh, um, I really am just pursuing writing right now."

A couple of months go by, and Rachel and I are joining Andie and her husband Keith for lunch after church. When we walk up she introduces us to Greg and Dave who are both on staff on the Build Community team at Eastside, which is the team responsible for groups, among other things.

Later that week I have lunch with Greg and Dave where I learn that they’re moving to a small group model called “free market” and want to hire someone to run groups, although they haven't yet advertised the position or begun a candidate search.

Let’s recap.

My wife gets a mailer for a church five minutes away from our apartment and starts attending. The second weekend I’m there they have a dinner. Of the 5000 people who attend Eastside, the one person my wife knows ends up in line behind us. She just happens to be an elder who introduces us to two members of the team responsible for small groups who tell me that they’re looking to hire someone to run groups. It also just so happens that the church model (multi-site) and the small group model (free market) are the same church model and group model we used at NCC.

I’m not someone who sees the hand of God in every coincidence or random encounter, but I find it hard to chalk up that series of events to chance.

After a number of further conversations and interviews, it truly seems that this is something God has been orchestrating, and so I start my new role as the Director of Build Community at Eastside Christian Church this Saturday.

There are a lot of words to describe how I’m feeling: humbled, honored, a bit nervous. But I think most of all I’m excited to be joining a team that has both a passion and a plan to transform homes, communities, and the world for Jesus.

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God, Wheaton, and Larycia Hawkins

This past week Wheaton College, my alma mater, placed Dr. Larycia Hawkins, associate professor of political science, on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into her comments about Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God.

For those of you who may not be aware, Wheaton College is an evangelical Christian institution that requires all members of it's faculty and staff, along with all students, to sign a document indicating agreement with it's Statement of Faith.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, Wheaton tends to take what you might term a strict constructionist approach to its Statement of Faith with professors, and a more lenient approach with students. In other words, Wheaton would not prohibit a student from enrolling based on a minor theological dispute or discrepancy, but it would likely remove a professor for one. (If you're interested, you can read more about the situation with Dr. Joshua Hochshield.)

We could argue about Wheaton's strict constructionist approach to its Statement of Faith if we wanted to, but the fact is that it exists.

So what about Dr. Hawkins and her statement that Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Does it conflict with Wheaton College's statements about God?

Take a look at both of them:

Larycia Hawkins Wheaton College

I don't love my Muslim neighbor because s/he is American.

I love my Muslim neighbor because s/he deserves love by virtue of her/his human dignity.

I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind--a cave in Sterkfontein, South Africa that I had the privilege to descend into to plumb the depths of our common humanity in 2014.

I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.

WE BELIEVE in one sovereign God, eternally existing in three persons: the everlasting Father, His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life; and we believe that God created the Heavens and the earth out of nothing by His spoken word, and for His own glory.

WE BELIEVE that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, was true God and true man, existing in one person and without sin; and we believe in the resurrection of the crucified body of our Lord, in His ascension into heaven, and in His present life there for us as Lord of all, High Priest, and Advocate.

So do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Yes... and no.

To conflate the Islamic and Christian understandings of God is to do a disservice to both faiths. Each of them ascribes different characteristics to God and believes God desires to be worshipped in very different ways.

But believing different things about God does not necessarily mean that they believe in different gods.

Consider this scenario.

You're walking down Main Street and round the corner onto First Avenue just in time to see a 6'2", 200 lb, muscular man wearing all black punch another, much smaller man in the face. The larger man proceeds to tackle the smaller one. You, not being very physically imposing yourself, decide not to engage directly but run across the street and call 911. Within 60 seconds the police show up, and since you're already running late to a meeting, you continue on your way.

Now, let's look at the same story from a different perspective.

You're walking down First Avenue towards Main Street. You see a man and a woman fighting, and the man pulls out a gun. You grab your phone to call 911, when out of nowhere another man punches and tackles the assailant, keeping him pinned down until the police arrive.

The two eyewitnesses in this story probably believe two very different things about the larger man, nearly opposite things in fact. The first eyewitness likely believes he's a terrible criminal. The second almost certainly views him as a selfless hero.

But the fact that they believe different things about the man does not mean that they're describing different men. Sure, one person gets the description right and the other gets it wrong, but they're not describing different men. They're describing the same man differently.

I would argue that the same is true for Christian and Islamic descriptions of God. Muslims and Christians both describe God as all powerful, all knowing, etc. Both hold that there is one God. There is enough in common between the descriptions that a reasonable person could conclude that they're talking about the same being, even though there are obviously some irreconcilable differences in their descriptions.

What does all of this mean for Dr. Hawkins continued employment at Wheaton?

Going simply by her public statements, it seems to me that Dr. Hawkins still holds to Wheaton's Statement of Faith, even when taking a strict constructionist approach to that statement.

In fact, I would argue that only someone with a particularly overconfident and narrow-minded (read: Pharisaical) understanding of who God is would be able to state with 100% certainty that Muslims and Christians worship different gods.

You can hold that belief while still leaving room for others who disagree, but it takes a great deal of hubris to take that belief a step further and claim it is something about which you cannot be wrong.

Perhaps in private conversations Dr. Hawkins has expressed reservations or doubts about the exclusivity of Jesus or argued that Islam and Christianity are equally valid ways of approaching God.

If that's the case, Wheaton College isn't the best place for her. If you have significant doubts about the core mission of an organization, you probably shouldn't be working there. The Democratic National Committee isn't going to hire a dyed in the wool Republican, and a school with the stated goal of training students in Islam isn't likely to hire a Christian professor.

But assuming that what Dr. Hawkins has said in private is no different than what she has said in public, she should be reinstated immediately.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: What’s Next?

Wow, nine weeks, nine fruit.

I can honestly say it's been transformative. Not in that, "I'm a totally different person, and my life has radically changed" sense, but rather, my actions have actually been different.

I certainly haven't acted perfectly in every situation, but I did find myself saying, "I'm supposed to be patient, so I'm just going to relax and not stress out about this." "I'm supposed to be gentle, so I'm going to respond softly to this person."

Of course, the biggest danger when a spiritual growth plan comes to an end is failing to start a new one, to lose momentum and the ground gained.

So what's next?

Well, January 12-21 we're doing a corporate fast (details forthcoming) that will be a great way to set the tone for the year.

And of course, February 1 we'll start the Elements sermon series based on the fruit of the Spirit; begin our Bible reading plan centered on the fruit; and kick off the Elements small groups.

In terms of Scripture, I'm going to read through Luke and Acts this January. I figured it made sense following Christmas to read one of the Gospels, and Acts' focus on the work of the Holy Spirit will be good preparation for further reflection on the fruit of the Spirit.

If you haven't figured out where to go next in the Bible, I'd encourage you to join me in reading through Luke and Acts this January. In Luke, I'll be looking for where I see the fruit of the Spirit evident in Jesus' life, and in Acts I'll be watching for how the Holy Spirit works.

I'll also take the opportunity to encourage you to consider leading an Elements small group. If you've never led a group at NCC before, you can read more here, and for those of you who have, here are the registration instructions.

Thanks for joining us on this nine-week adventure with the Holy Spirit. I'm excited to see what He does with a church full of people seeking to live out the fruit of the Spirit, to model the character of Jesus. We're praying and believing that God will use this to continue His transformation of our neighborhoods, workplaces, and cities.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Reflections on Self-Control

This is a guest post by Susannah Cafardi, NCC Barracks Row Saturday Small Group Director.

Fall Leadership Summit—when the fruit of the Spirit challenge was initially issued—was nine weeks ago; our corporate Daniel fast earlier this year lasted ten days; most marathon training plans are 18 weeks; and a Masters’ degree program is rarely less than a year.

Spiritual, physical, and intellectual results all require daily self-control and many small choices between the beginning and the goal. As we come to the end of this challenge, I am thankful for moments of intimacy with Him, the opportunities to bless others, and the clarity that I’ve found in the practical application of Galatians 5:22-23.

But getting to this place requires daily decisions that I often overlook and fail to have the self-control to make. In hindsight, I am thankful for the prayer, journaling, and fasting of the last nine weeks. And while it hasn’t been a great season of life (I’ll spare you the details), God has been faithful.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Were there times where I pounded my fists and cried? Yup. Did I get frustrated and feel like I couldn’t do anything right or catch a break? More times than I’d like to admit. Have I been challenged by what I’m learning about His character and my shortcomings? Definitely. Have I grown spiritually? You bet.

So what if that was just the pre-game?

Let's continue to encourage each another to spend more time in His presence, to make small decisions like they are big ones, to use challenges as an opportunity to dig in rather than retreat, to live out the Scriptures in our daily lives, and to not become complacent with yesterday’s manna.

Game on.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Thoughts on Self-Control

It feels a little weird to be writing about self-control during the week of Christmas. Between all of those presents and Christmas ham—not to mention indulging in all of the hometown food—it doesn’t exactly seem like a season of self-control.

But then, thinking about it a little more, I realized that what we’re celebrating this week is probably the penultimate act of self-control. Almighty God; Creator of the universe; Source of all that is seen and unseen; the One who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent comes to earth as one of His creations, as a human, foregoing His power and position to walk among us.

Not only that, His purpose for doing so is to facilitate the ultimate act of self-control, the appropriation of our punishment for our rebellion on Himself.

This Christmas, let’s enjoy the merriment and festivities. It is a joyous season, a season for feasting not fasting. Christ the Savior is born!

But let us also look to the example of Jesus, let us lay down our rights, our right to be right. Let us engage our loved ones with self-control, biting our tongues, controlling our tempers, and showing the same love and grace Jesus showed, even when it is not received or understood.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Reflections on Gentleness

This is a guest post by Susannah Cafardi, NCC Barracks Row Saturday Small Group Director.

Christine Caine made an assertion when introducing an individual Scripture passage: “The story starts where every story starts, before the story starts, and the story ends where every story ends, after the story ends.” Insomuch as we are involved in the stories of others, I think that loving them with a spirit of gentleness requires a similar acknowledgement.

I’ve struggled with putting my finger on how to conceptualize gentleness – seeking God for a strong, tangible illustration to share. But I was missing the lesson He was trying to teach me. Gentleness is found in the day to day and the moments that barely hit our radars.

I guess this means that I get to practice gentleness with my professional peer who doesn’t pull her weight and with the boy who was unknowingly hurtful in our last interaction. It means that He’s challenging me to practice gentleness in a way that recognizes that I’m involved in only a small part of each of their stories. Funny – I was kind of hoping for something that seemed more earth shattering since honestly I think that might be easier.

But the fact that opportunities to practice gentleness are so pervasive leads me to realize that in cultivating gentleness, I really can impact many others wherever they are in their stories.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Thoughts on Gentleness

A gentle answer turns away wrath

but a harsh word stirs up anger.

-King Solomon of Israel

Part of my job as a pastor is to occasionally tell people things that they don’t want to hear.

Let’s just say it’s not my favorite part of my job.

But it has taught me the value of gentleness. Even delivered without any particular edge or harshness, the truth can hurt, but an extra measure of gentleness soothes like salve on a wound.

Now I know pastors aren't the only people who have to do this. If you supervise employees, have kids, or want to be a true friend, sometimes you have to say things that people aren’t inclined to like.

I’ve found a couple of things help me to be more gentle.

One is humility, which comes from a profound awareness of my own fallenness—along with a recognition that I don’t know it all, don’t have all the answers, and could be missing something.

The other is love. Sure, love might mean speaking a hard truth.  But it isn’t love if our motivation is to put someone in their place, say “I told you so,” or assert our authority. If we speak out of love, if our heart is truly for the other person and wanting what is best for them, then we can speak gently.

Of course, the value of gentleness extends beyond just hard conversations. A gentle spirit towards an overworked waiter, a frustrated customer, or an angry spouse can work wonders and be a light that points them toward Jesus.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Reflections on Faithfulness

This is a guest post by Susannah Cafardi, NCC Barracks Row Saturday Small Group Director.

In his book, Finding My Way Home, Henri Nouwen talks about active waiting being a move not from nothing to something but from something to something more. He writes that a waiting person is someone who is present to the moment and believes that this moment is the moment. So often I get so distracted by what I think I see on the horizon that I lose the opportunities of the moment. Living out faithfulness has challenged me that in the midst of whatever I’m waiting for, I need to be fully present in the moment.

And guess what? When I am spending time in His Word and in prayer, I notice opportunities to be faithful and situations where He chooses to use me. I’ve taken several impromptu trips to Boston to hug a friend who recently lost her mom and had the chance to bless my parents with various trips around the country. I’ve cultivated lasting friendships with colleagues due to “chance” seating arrangements and collaboration on what seems like thankless projects.

If it had been up to me, I would have long since settled down with a "permanent roommate," and my current life would look much more “normal” for someone who will turn thirty-three on Monday. But being faithful requires me to embrace this moment – spiritually, professionally, personally, relationally, and athletically – and to be faithful in the opportunities each and every moment brings.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Thoughts on Faithfulness

The depth of your impact is determined by the duration of your investment.

I get bored with stuff after about 18 months. Jobs, hobbies, whatever. After 18 months, I’ve kinda figured it out, looked it over, and I’m ready for what’s next.

About a year-and-a-half after coming on board at NCC I got a call about a job opportunity from a friend of mine. It was a similar role to the one I was in, but it was at a much larger church, and there was a good chance I could get a promotion within six months.

It was an agonizingly difficult decision. Bigger organization, more responsibility, and I’m guessing I would have made more money, but as Rachel and I prayed and fasted, we felt God calling us to stay right where we were.

That experience taught me a lesson I’ll never forget: the depth of your impact is determined by the duration of your investment. There is something about pressing through, about going deeper, going further, about being faithful, that leaves a mark.

Faithfulness breeds trust, and trust breeds strong relationships. This, of course, has qualitative impact on the people nearest us, but it also has a quantitative impact. When you’ve been around a job for a while, you’re able to get things done that you can’t when you’re new. You get a longer leash, more latitude; people buy in to your ideas more easily because you’ve already proven yourself. This in turn increases your level of productivity.

Faithfulness also allows us to move from aptitude to excellence. We rarely achieve excellence in the short term. Sure we may be a good friend, a good employee, a good musician, but only a long term investment in a person, a position, or a passion will allow us to be a great friend, a great employee, a great musician.

It’s really tough to practice faithfulness for a week. Faithfulness inherently takes a lot longer than seven days. So this week, let’s ask God if there are any areas where we know we are called to be faithful but haven’t been acting faithfully. Let’s ask Him if there are any places where we’re looking for a change but He is calling us to be faithful. And let’s ask Him for the strength to remain faithful.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Reflections on Goodness

This is a guest post by Susannah Cafardi, NCC Barracks Row Saturday Small Group Director.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
-Galatians 6:9-10

I tried to live this out this past Thanksgiving weekend. On the upside, I had plenty of opportunities to be a blessing to those around me. There were diapers to change, dishes to wash, babies to carry, and photos to take. My parents were thrilled, and my brother was thankful. I found that looking for opportunities to bless others really can be fun and can make great memories. But, I had moments where I really struggled with my attitude, and I came home exhausted. I realized that I had walked into the weekend with self-centered desires and I hadn’t carved out sufficient quiet time (well, at least not until the buildup of sniffly toddlers, sleeping on the floor, a few social curveballs, and seven people and two cats under one roof dropped me to my knees).

While I’m thankful for the opportunity I had to serve, I hope I learned a valuable lesson. Doing good without becoming weary can only be accomplished when I am releasing my desires for acknowledgement and attention and I am not forgoing time in the Word and in prayer just because I’ve become focused on performing good actions.