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The Longest Night of the Year

Christmas is almost here.

For some, there's a crescendo of eager expectation. Mysteriously shaped boxes with concealed contents, will soon be exposed to glowing faces. Family will gather. Traditions will guide and galvanize people who share a common story. Hearts and bellies will be made full. And for some, all things will be right and in their rightful place.

For others, there will be a humdrum marking of time, a stationary movement through the final days of the year. They are not Scrooges, as one might suppose, just realists surrounded by heartache or pain or loss or fear or a combination of each. History is their ardent teacher and loneliness their only friend. Both teacher and friend keep stagnant, any lofty aspirations.

And yet there are some who will choose, by grace born in a manger, to go headlong into uncertainty and transgress the boundaries of nature. They're more courageous and less complacent. They're moving to places most will not go: those difficult places, for the downtrodden and low. For it's here that you will find him, the babe born in a stall.

They will go into the night, fearless and full of light. They offer what little they have to those who can never repay. They won't be pretentious and snobby, wagging fingers meant to demean. They won't add insult to injury, by rehashing what might have been.

They will simply come close and pitch their tent, the way that Jesus did. And the night that grew for so long now, will soon be rescinded by day. Dawn will make the longest night dissipate as hope springs forth again.

 

Stretching the Pinky Finger: Courtney Hall Lee

I recently began taking guitar lessons.  I was musical as a younger person.  I missed making music and the guitar is something I always wanted to try.

My musical background gave me a head start with the beginner materials, and I have been fancying myself quite the intro-to-guitar hotshot.  I have been mastering the exercises rather easily; everything my teacher asked me to play sounded pretty good.  My teacher is a wonderful man with a calm demeanor and a lot of experience.  Since I raced through the assignment last week, he decided to fine tune the things he saw that could use work.  He pointed out some ways that my fingers could be better placed on the frets, and challenged me to use better hand positioning.

I tried to play what he asked me while making the adjustments he suggested.  I attempted to play a simple exercise while keeping my fingers where he told me to put them.  It was impossible.  My hand stretched awkwardly and my pinky finger simply could not reach the spot where he wanted it to land.  It hurt my fingers to try to reach the stretched out position, and I still could not reach the right spot.  The hotshot was taken down by her little finger.

My teacher then showed me something I had never really noticed.  The frets further up the neck, closer to the body of the guitar were closer together.  He told me to move my hand down to the fifth fret and to try the stretch again.  This time my pinky could make it.  But as I moved my hand back one fret at a time, the stretch became a bit harder each time.  Finally, we were back where we started; my hand was stretched to the limit and my little finger had no hope of reaching its spot.

He told me to work on this every day, and he was certain that some day soon I would be able to achieve the impossible pinky position.  He compared it to touching one's toes in a yoga class; if you forced it the first day you'd really hurt yourself, but if you practiced each day you would eventually get there.

Now, I can touch my toes.  That comes easily to me.  This little finger exercise, on the other hand, was downright daunting.  But I trust my instructor, and I will do the finger exercise each day, and I have faith that my little finger will make the stretch one day.

Just as I have wanted to become more musical, I have also wanted to strengthen my discipleship.  Figuring out exactly how to follow Christ is more difficult for me than being musical.  But the pinky finger situation reminded me of how I feel about discipleship.  Some things Christ asks me to do I would do well naturally.  Other things he calls on us to do can leave me feeling spiritually like an over-stretched pinky finger.

I struggle with discipleship perfectionism.  I want so badly to get it right, that sometimes I feel like a failure when I don't succeed at living every part of the gospel perfectly.  It can be so discouraging, and I wonder if I will ever be good enough for Jesus.  Some things I just can't get right, and I feel terrible about it.

But then I realize that I have been putting more faith in my guitar teacher than I have in Jesus.  I pay for my lesson, I know he will be there, and I do my best, I listen and learn, and I practice all week until I see him again.  He asked me to stretch my pinky and I couldn't do it.  But I never considered not returning next week.  I will practice what he taught me and continue to return to him as a student because I trust his authority on the subject.  When it comes to discipleship, I need to trust in Jesus's authority on the subject of life at least as much I trust my guitar teacher on the subject of playing guitar.  Jesus asks us to stretch our pinky fingers.  He realizes that we won't be able to do it at first; but if we trust in his instruction and practice it, we will get better at it.

So many of us are intimidated by discipleship.  We aim to please and we want to get it right.  But for some reason, in this area where it matters most, we are prone to discouragement if we can't do it all perfectly on the first day.  I think that many people stay away from faith because they know they aren't perfect and fear that they can't live up to the expectations.  But those of us with that worry need to think of Jesus like a devoted and experienced guitar instructor.  He isn't holding the keys to the kingdom out of our reach.  He isn't asking us to play an expert level song when we first pick up the guitar, and if we fail then we are just too useless to play guitar.  He invites us to take intro level lessons as many times as we need to.  He will always be there, he will give us exercises that may hurt, and he will love us as students for doing our best.

So don't give up after the first lesson.  Or the tenth, or the one-hundredth, because the demands will keep increasing as we grow.  Just keep practicing, enjoying the sounds of progress and returning to spend time with your teacher, because he wants to teach you and he wants you to succeed.

jimipracticing

World Peace Day (Not In Service)

What do you say when you feel like words have lost their meaning?

Perhaps the naively optimistic among us, myself included, are waiting on some sort of a miraculous dialogue that will heal our wounds. And yet, words by the barrel, blasted into cyberspace, never materialize into anything resembling true conversation.

I long for a word that would quench our thirst for peace like a stream in the desert. If only someone could construct and compose various characters, symbols, vowels and consonants into something coherent that rings of truth and justice. There's a reason we say that truth has a ring to it. It's not something we can always quantify but we know it when we hear it. Even though an ensemble of voices, pundits and echo chambers entertain our ears, the truth stands out.

And yet, even truth has lost its ring to those who have chosen repeatedly not to hear, or to listen, or to learn history, or to stop talking long enough to wait for the faint ring that rings loudest in the presence of silence.

As the pastor of a new church start, the most prominent thing that I do is to speak, but the most important thing that I do is to listen. I know it's Wednesday, but I'm not exactly sure what we are going to do yet on Sunday morning considering turmoil in our immediate community. We're still listening. Perhaps it's time for us as a church to sit in stillness, in prayer, in tears and brokenness beside a candle of hope, and to call out once again to the Word who became flesh. And once we hear, then maybe we can embrace the struggle of living a life that matters as an evidence of our faith. If you are longing for that kind of hope in the midst of a confusing world of noise, we invite you to join us.

notinservice

 

Tale of Two Churches

Yesterday, I had the privilege of visiting two United Methodist Churches in the heart of Charlotte, NC. And while these churches were just three and a half miles apart, my first impression was that they couldn't be more different from one another. One church was surrounded by immaculate homes with well-manicured lawns and roads that were beautifully designed and tree-lined. The other church felt much less like a commercial for the 'American Dream.' It was gritty and raw and real. It was surrounded with broken asphalt, leaning fences, boarded up windows and noticeable signs of impending gentrification.

At one church I felt underdressed and at the other my designer t-shirt and maverick shades made me feel a bit like an uppity outsider.

maverick-glasses

However, inside of both church buildings, the people embodied the spirit of Christ. In both buildings, I met truly humble people who loved God and their neighbors. Their laughter and smiles were as contagious and infectious as their warm welcome towards me. One church gave me the gift of an area network connection, the other church sent me on my way with 18 honey buns, but both were generous with what they had been given.

After some reflection, I'm reminded of what God has been planting in my heart for years. It is something I desperately want to see realized in Reactivate Church as we continue to grow. I envision being a part of a church of those educated in college and those educated in the school of hard-knocks, a church of generous economically disadvantaged people and a church of generous materially wealthy people, a church with hues and shades of every skin pigmentation, a church that listens to one another, learns from one another and leads with one another. Imagine a church where each person is valued for the unique gift that they bring to the community.

Afterall, people are people, no matter where we come from or how aesthetically pleasing our surroundings. We all have fears, failures, hopes and dreams. We all have a story. And Jesus prays for our stories and lives to be united to one another by his grace and for his purpose.

I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith in him is being talked about all over the world. - Romans 1:8

Anywhere & Everywhere :: Guest Blog :: Courtney Hall Lee

This week, Reactivate is on the move. We are reminding ourselves of a guiding principle, that "church can happen anywhere." So this week we will have corporate worship at Erik and Emma's house, a couple miles up the road, in Huntersville, NC. As a new church start, we are reimagining what it would look like for a church to gain mobility and become a movement. Read Courtney's personal thoughts below and engage in the comment section.

- Jesse


Church can happen anywhere.

I have an old friend who has never been very religious.  She has also lived a bit of a wild life.  Every time someone in her family has a baptism or a wedding, she jokes that when she steps into a church that she will probably get struck by lightning.

Her joke used to bother me because I wanted her to understand that God isn't waiting to wallop party girls on the head the first chance he gets.  But now I also know that there was a second problem with her line of thinking: the idea that God is confined within the walls of a church.  Was the only reason he couldn't get access to her to enact his vengeance because she stayed away from churches?

I believe, like most Christians, that God is everywhere.  He doesn't need a steeple to show up.  But I do think that God is pleased when we get together in his name to worship and build community.

My husband and I once had church at dawn beside a canyon in Hawaii.  I've had church with my little girl tucked into her bed at night.  Heck, I even have church on Twitter sometimes.  Maybe this attitude is why I was immediately ok with the idea of going to a church plant in a house in my neighborhood.  It just makes sense to me.

I know that to many people, the idea of visiting with and worshipping with strangers in their living room may seem awkward.  Those large church buildings give us places to hide.  There is no back pew in a living room!

I'm an introvert, so I get it.  I do.

If you are happy in a church that meets in a traditional space, that is a good thing.  But my prayer for everyone is that just like they know that God can see us everywhere, they know that church can happen anywhere.  Maybe even your living room.  How convenient is that?

This Sunday we are going to visit with some great people from Reactivate Church in their living room.  I've never been to their house, but I hear there is a church there.

It is my prayer for you that you get to have church someplace unexpected soon.

Guest Blog :: Courtney Hall Lee

I met Courtney when she reached out through the online platform called, "Meetup" before she and her family recently moved to North Carolina from Connecticut. Here's a snippet of her story and her hopes for the church that currently meets in our living room.


Courtney Hall Lee

I’ve always been a person of faith.  Sure, my faith has been more central to my life at certain moments rather than others.  Over the years I have deepened by knowledge of my faith both intellectually and spiritually. I have a rich prayer life. I have even taken a year of classes at a seminary.

What I have not always been, however, is a church goer.

I’m that person who is constantly “church shopping”.  When it comes to churches, at times I have felt like Goldilocks; some are too large, some are too small.  Some are too boisterous, some are too sullen.  Some are too formal, some aren’t formal enough.  It seems that I have never found the one that is “just right”.

My childhood also plays into my confusion regarding church.  Sometimes it was central to our life and we attended hours-long services dressed in our Sunday best.  At other times we were unchurched and didn’t attend for years.  Like myself, my mother has always been a woman of steadfast faith.  She instilled the importance of Christ in me.  However, we are also alike when it comes to attending church, never quite finding ourselves at home.

I recently learned that one good model for a church is to consider itself an “incarnational community”.  A group of believers who are aware of the presence of Christ in their company, and who let him lead and inspire their worship, study and service to others.  After all of my soul searching and church shopping and denomination researching, I realized that I simply craved relationships with other people who craved a relationship with Christ.  The rest doesn’t really matter much.  The apostles in the earliest churches did not have denominations or programming or sound systems to consider.  They longed to be with other believers to learn their faith, share a holy meal and care for each other.  They met in houses and knew each other by name.

Sounds a lot like Reactivate Church.

Reactivate is a small group of believers who are committed to starting something special.  I have come to know people by name and to hear the things they believe and the ways they need prayer.  I am able to greet and pray with a group of Christians who are all truly excited to build an incarnational community.  It is nothing fancy, but it is real, committed and loving.  Everyone is there for Christ, and for one another.

Those apostles in the earliest church put the wheels to something amazing in motion.  The Holy Spirit blazed down upon them and together they activated what we know as the church.  Now in 2016, let’s join each other in Re-activating church.  I’m excited to see what God has in store for us.  I hope that sometime soon you can join us.

Spectator Dreamers

For the last week and a half our television hasn't changed channels. Like so many of you, we have been mesmerized by the Olympic Games in Rio. 

There have undoubtedly been many moments of heartbreak as well as moments of intense joy and victory. We have witnessed tears streaming down the faces both of the victors and of those who with every ounce of energy and God-given talent came up short in their particular event. And even those who finish without ever stepping foot onto the podium and hearing their own national anthem, you have to respect the fact that they dared to try. They dared to dream.

My wife, Camille, can attest to the fact that nothing makes me leak out of the eyes quite like the Olympics. When we’re watching she will look over at me on the couch sniffling and choking back tears. The thing that inspires me the most is the determination and courage, oftentimes from very young athletes, to believe that a particular dream could become a reality.

MANUELL

The question I have been wrestling with is this: Has the church become a community of “spectator dreamers?” Have we let dreams die in our own lives and local congregations? Have we instead tried to live vicariously through the dreams of other people? Do we watch sports so that we can be victorious with our favorite team? Do we read romantic novels so that our mediocre relationships seem less humdrum? Do we raise our children and coerce them to chase the dreams that we let die during our own adolescence?

Henry David Thoreau said that so many of us live lives of “quiet desperation." And similarly, Benjamin Franklin once wrote that, “Many people die at twenty-five and aren’t buried until they are seventy-five.”

The only antidote I know for a mediocre life is faith.

So be inspired by those who dream, but don't fail to dream yourself. Look at where God is moving and pray about how you might join in God's dreams. Write down the things you hope to see realized. Tell a trusted friend. And today, put one foot in front of the other in following those dreams.

"Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see." - Hebrews 11:1

Becoming Fearless

We live in a world that provokes and promotes anxiety, insecurity and fear. We're told from parents, peers, preachers, and pundits about the insurmountable mountains we face. And if we're not careful our soul will shrink back from our God-given ability, capability and responsibility of becoming fearless agents of change.

In the Christian faith, we pray bold prayers that Jesus taught his disciples to pray; not least of which is, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."  And yet, the shadow of doubt in the face of what we perceive are insurmountable obstacles, overwhelm and immobilize us.

Because of the gap between our faith and fear we tend to live in a defensive posture. Our actions become measured and calculated, so much so, that we never attempt the impossible, but only what we think we can do and still save face. And this type of living tapers our witness in the world because it contradicts our purported belief in a God that kicked sin, hell and death in the teeth once and for all on the cross and through the resurrection. It contradicts our belief in the reign of a just and righteous King named Jesus.

The psalmist wrote, "even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me." I'm curious about what would change in the world if I was not as timid as I tend to be. What would change if I believed, to the point of action, that the Good Shepherd will sometimes lead me to and through extremely difficult places for the purpose of illuminating an alternate reality.

Lord Jesus, give us the strength to forgive, when we're resentful, the courage to be generous, when we're selfish, the audacity to love in the face hate, the wisdom to speak words that need to be spoken, and the assurance that we are not alone.

You are with me. I will not fear. You are with me. I will not fear.

pablo (31)

 

Hamster Wheels and Airplanes

There are more weeks than I care to admit when I wake up on Monday morning and feel like the hamster wheel is calling me to climb back on and spin a while. I go through my routine: brushing my teeth, putting on my eyeballs, making a strong cup of coffee, making sure my oldest son is getting ready for school, fixing his hair, driving him to Parkside Elementary and starting my busy routine as a church planter, husband, son, friend, dad, mentor, etc.

I think that’s the reason I like to fly in airplanes.

It’s not something I do often. The people in the airport are hurried but with purpose. There are big hugs in airports, tears that are shed, hearts that are joyful and/or sad. There is a destination. The pilot has a plan. The engines begin to spin and I’m thrust back in my seat as the weight of gravity sits on my chest. Some turbulence rocks the plane during the initial turn to gain altitude, and within minutes things settle down, the sun peeks over the horizon and the world that I had previously known, now looks so small.

Airplane

The season of Lent, the 40 odd days leading up to Easter, gives Christians perspective in the same way that flying does. It lets us evaluate the things we have made routine. Routine is not bad but it must be constantly examined. Everything is on the proverbial chopping block for Christians during Lent. And with the view of the cross and resurrection emerging again, new ideas emerge on how I might be faithful to Christ in the coming year with my new routines.

 

Don’t Forget to Dream.

I’m reminded not only of the brilliance of Martin King but also of his passionate Christ-like action, his persistent ever-increasing grit and his unbridled hope that provided fuel for a tumultuous journey.  His poise in the face of great criticism on Meet the Press in 1960 when he was younger than I am now, wrecks me.  His famous, “Dream” speech in 1963 and the prophetic “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech in 1968 brings me to tears every time.  In his final words before the crowd in the latter speech he proclaimed,

Like anybody I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now, I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain and I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with ya, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.  So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

Screenshot_2016-02-21-23-21-32God given dreams are hard to suppress. They eek out of our hearts, our mouths and our lives. They remain, like a silhouette in the distance, when the tides of a complex cultural reality, demeaning mockery and ridicule wage war against them. They remain. Somewhere in the dreamers subconscious, hidden underneath the nostalgia and excitement of the dream, is the very real knowledge, that dreams cost us.

I love the one liner about Joseph in Genesis.  It simply says, “One night Joseph had a dream…(37:5).” And that, my friends, was the beginning of an incredibly joyous and oftentimes painful journey!

What is your God given dream that won’t be silenced? How can you step more fully into it this Lenten season?

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