Sabbath In New York City: Contemplate

UntitledContemplate.

You may think, “I already have a ‘quiet time’ (prayer and Bible reading) every morning, so what’s different about sabbath?” Just like human relationships, our relationship with the Lord requires both quality time & quantity time. A daily quiet time (quality time) is a fantastic habit to practice, but ten minutes before work or ten minutes before bed may not be enough for what God has for you. A set apart 24-hour period provides more room be with the Lord and know him more (quantity time).

New York City does nothing to nurture this. There are billboards everywhere – on the windows of businesses, in the subway, on the side of buses, on the top of taxis, inside the taxi on a television screen, on phone booths (yes they still exist) – calling you to contemplate anything but God. There’s simply so much to do! You could eat out every night of your life in New York City for the rest of your life and never eat at the same place twice.* There are countless concerts, benefits, museums, and theaters for you to attend every night. The city provides entertainment and distraction in unending supply, which can easily choke out the voice of God. Church buildings such as 100 year old Good Shepherd (pictured above) are some of the few parts of the city free from hustle and bustle, signs and distraction. Sabbath provides rest and a call to contemplate who is truly important.

Contemplate is the most intuitive element of sabbath, since it’s the “religious” thing to do. In both Jewish and Christian tradition, sabbath includes corporate worship, reading Scripture, prayer, and silence. In sabbath we remember when Adam and Eve walked with God in the garden of Eden at creation (Genesis 3:8), and look forward to the wedding feast of the lamb where we will see him face to face without fear (Revelation 22:4). Contemplation is what truly separates sabbath from simply taking a day off.

Practicing a 24-hour period of sabbath focuses your attention on God. I often begin my sabbath with a prayer declaring that this is a sabbath unto the Lord. Orthodox Jews who practice sabbath use the ritual of lighting candles and reciting a sabbath blessing to welcome the special 24-hour period. When we intentionally begin a sabbath day, our perspective will be focused on the Lord. We become more aware, more in tune with what God might be saying to us throughout the day.

Contemplate doesn’t refer to fulfilling an obligation that makes God love or bless us more. Remember grace. God has already done everything necessary through Jesus. And there’s nothing we could ever do to make God love us more or less than he already does. Sabbath simply gives us extended time with the one who loves us most. God’s greatest delight in all of creation is you, for we are created in his very image (Genesis 1:27). Jesus gave his life for us on the cross so that our relationship with him could be restored. Jesus is called Immanuel – God with us. Sabbath gives us an extended time to be with him.

Practicing the principles of sabbath will look different for everyone. For most of us Sunday will be the best day where we can spend extended time with the Lord. However, as a pastor, Sundays are not very restful for me. So, my sabbath is most often on Friday. I often write in my journal, reflecting on my life in the presence of the Lord. I have time to go on a walk in the park and spend time with the Lord in prayer. I also have time to have impromptu discussions with others.

How has God wired you to best connect with him? Each of us connect with the Lord in different ways. Some connect best by being outside in creation, others by rallying others to a just cause in the name of Christ. Perhaps you need to be alone, journal your prayers, or read intellectually stimulating books. Perhaps you need to worship with others, discuss the Bible, or serve others. Spiritual Pathways is a great resource to discover how you connect with the Lord. North Point Community Church has even put together an online test to see which pathway(s) you most fall into. Sabbath provides us an opportunity to do these things – to spend quantity time with our heavenly father.

Here’s why this is so important. God loves you more than you can ever understand. You were created in his very image. In fact, he knew you before you were born, when you were in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). He knows the plans he has for your life (Jeremiah 29:11). He died for you. He has given you his very Spirit to live within you. He wants to spend time with you! Not just quality time, but quantity time too. Accept his invitation of sabbath and contemplate.

 

*http://www.omgfacts.com/lists/6434/You-could-eat-out-every-night-of-your-life-in-New-York-City-for-the-rest-of-your-life-and-never-eat-at-the-same-place-twice-ab731-3

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Sabbath In New York City: Contemplate

Sabbath in New York City: STOP

UntitledStop. You think that this would be easy, intuitive even. But it’s not, especially when our culture worships the idol of productivity.

New York does not stop. It’s the “city that never sleeps.” It literally takes an act of God – heat waves, hurricane Irene, hurricane Sandy, winter storm Juno, etc. Whether working to survive or in pursuit of one’s dreams, New Yorkers have a hard time stopping their work. And if that wasn’t enough, there is an unending list of tasks calling for our attention.

Emails, text messages and, increasingly the cursed app notification. In a journey to find relief from our modern, always-connected life, Paul Miller or theverge.com left the internet for a year (you can read about his experience here). During his journey, he interviewed Douglas Rushkoff about “Present Shock,” the affect of always-connected technology on our lives. Our obsession with the now creates loops that, on some unconscious level, our brains compel us to complete. For example, the red circle on the top right corner of an app. The un-replied email. The unanswered text message. When you see a notification, your brain creates the beginning of a loop that can only be completed by responding to said notification. Rushkoff encourages us to occasionally “pause” from the digital so that we conform technology to our schedule instead of vice versa.

But if the digital weren’t enough to constantly keep up with, the “analog” laundry is never finished, the dishes are never done, the house is never complete. There’s always something to be done – more the be created, existing to be perfected, and further out to be planned. In the midst of all this, culture quietly screams: be more productive. To stop is only to prepare to be more productive. Maximize all of your time and energy while at the same time staying on top of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, email, text messages, etc.

Sabbath means stop.

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. Genesis 2:1-3

The creator was more productive in seven days than is humanly conceivable (regardless of whether one believes in literal or figurative days). Science, math and very the laws of reality were all brought forth from him. Simply the amount of matter created is beyond what we can barely imagine. To begin to get an idea of what we are talking about, spend a moment contemplating the ultra-tiny and the ultra-big at scaleoftheuniverse.com. After all this, God stopped. THIS God could have created a trillion other universes, a trillion other dimensions and a trillion other realities. Maybe he did! Yet he stopped. God is un-limited, yet he stopped.

Here is the truth that sabbath teaches us: we are not God. We are limited. When we take time to stop from our labor, we are reminded that we are not God. We embrace our limits. Stopping confronts the question of trust: Will we trust that the infinite, all-powerful God will take care of us and our concerns when we keep the Sabbath? To never stop is to produce in ourselves a god-complex. In so doing, we shackle ourselves to an impossible standard. We cannot stop, for we are god. Recently at a church leader’s conference, Pete Scazarro was introduced as a “busy guy,” but he quickly corrected that he is not busy. He is limited. This is a true perspective of our lives. We are limited.

Jesus fully embraced his limits. Part of the miracle of the incarnation was that Jesus (the Creator, the un-limited) became limited. Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to pray (Luke 5:16). After his grandest miracle of feeding over 5000 people with almost nothing, Jesus went up on a mountainside by himself to pray (Matthew 14:23). There were always more people to be healed or taught. But Jesus embraced his limits and often stopped doing ministry. He knew that his central ministry would be his work on the cross. As his disciples, we also must trust in the cross of Christ, not our own efforts.

The first challenge of Sabbath is to stop for a 24-hour period. My advice is not to “try out” a few hours or even half a day. Pick a full 24 hour period to stop from your work. Smaller periods of stopping throughout each day are good, but stopping for a full 24 hours is a completely different experience.

As I said, we live in a culture that worships productivity. In fact, I would even say we are addicted to productivity. And like any addiction, you must chose to stop. It will be difficult. It will take time. It will take hard work. There will be withdrawals. But it will be worth it. Perhaps your first step should be to stop using technology for a full 24 hours.

As I have practiced stopping on my Sabbath, it has been extremely freeing. I will often be reminded of something I failed to plan or complete in my work or personal life. But since I have decided to stop on my Sabbath, I give myself permission to not worry about it. I know that I will get to it another day. Obviously more pressing things can come up that need to be dealt with, but 95% of the time it can wait. I often have to remind myself that it is not that important, and in the grand scheme of things it never is. I do not have to get back to that email, text message, or notification. I am free to let the loop can go un-completed for a day.

I am actually obligated to stop. I am not God. I am limited. I am trusting in the one who is un-limited. And by stopping, I am free to rest, delight and contemplate.

Sabbath in New York City: STOP

Sabbath in New York City

Untitled New York is non-stop. It’s not an easy place to live. I keep hearing from people that since they’ve moved to the city, they’ve faced new physical ailments. And not just allergies. My view could be skewed a bit, because a majority of the transplants I know are Christians who are living on mission for Jesus, therefore the enemy could be attacking them at a higher proportion. But even without the attacks of the evil one, New York is a difficult place to live. It really is non-stop. Something is always going on. You have to walk everywhere in the elements. That fact alone makes New York a difference physical experience from most places in America where the only real walking we do is from a building to a car or walking in a shopping mall. Everything is more complicated. I live in a 5th floor walkup, so when I leave my apartment, I’d better be sure I have everything I need for the day, or it will cost me 88 steps. Most people don’t have central heating and air. We have these things called radiators in the winter and window units for only the essential rooms that need to be cool during the summer. Most people use public transportation (which can at any moment become stressful), and the rest drive in one of the most congested places in America – not a stress-free experience.

But beyond all that, there is a relentless pervasive push towards productivity in New York City. This is the city where dreams are made of, so get to it and pursue your dreams! Don’t waste your time. So many young professionals move to the city to work themselves to death for a maximum of seven years before moving somewhere else. So many artists move here to work 40 hours a week so they can work another 30-40 in pursuit of their real passion. Then there are the swaths (it’s such a large portion of NYC that it’s often hard to comprehend) of working poor working multiple jobs 60+ hours a week to provide for their families. All I’m saying is: it never stops. The city does sleep. But when you’re awake, there’s that pervasive pressure to achieve, to produce, to provide. It never stops. More than most places, work/achievement/productivity, is an idol in New York City.

Everyday Church is doing our part to fight this with annual all-church retreats focused on rest. We believe that rest, and specifically Sabbath, is so counter-cultural to our city, that we must spend extended time focusing on it. Throughout the 2-day retreat, we focused on the four elements of Sabbath: stop, rest, delight, and contemplate (the four elements are not original with me – they come from Pete Scazzero at New Life Church in Queens, NYC).

As I have incorporated  sabbath-keeping into my life in the past year or so, I’ve discovered is that Sabbath is a choice. More than anything else, it’s a choice. Unless we decide to stop, rest, contemplate and delight, we won’t. Our entire culture is against us. But even in the Old Testament, God had to make it a commandment (the longest and most specific commandment of the famous ten) for the people to follow it. While it is no longer a commandment for the salvation of the Christian, we do a lousy job of accepting the gift of sabbath from the Lord.

The worst thing about sabbath-keeping is that most pastors, don’t practice it. There’s an ugly belief out there that the pastor never really gets a day off. That was definitely the experience in my home as the son of a pastor. This is the most backwards thinking. We think that because the pastor serves the people, that his/her work is never done. Well, in reality work, period, is never done. No matter what you do for your profession, there is always more to do, more to improve, more to innovate. In church planting the pressure to be a successful pastor of a growing church never ends.

Now, I’m not saying that as disciples of Jesus that we are required to practice Sabbath. The Lord of the sabbath himself (Jesus) said: “the sabbath was created for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Satan twists this truth to tell us that the sabbath is a legalistic practice from the Old Testament that should be completely thrown out. Instead, we should embrace the life-giving principles of sabbath, all the while remembering that it is only by God’s grace that we are saved (not by our sabbath-keeping). I think it’s ironic that we are able to reconcile the old testament practice of tithing (not even in the 10 Commandments) to the new covenant, but believe the lie that sabbath is worthless.

Practicing sabbath breaks these lies, and can enrich our relationship with Jesus. Sabbath declares that we are not God – even if we stop working, the world and everything we care about will keep going without us (Stop). Sabbath declares that we are not machines – we are human beings (Rest). Sabbath declares that we gain our worth not from what we do – we are children of God, free to delight in all that he has created (Delight). Sabbath declares what truly matters – an eternal God who is worthy of our undivided attention (Contemplate). This is Sabbath.

I dream about a church that is known by their value of sabbath compared to the insecure need to be productive in New York City. People will ask about what kind of God this is that loves us so much – a God who doesn’t judge us based on our productivity or our sabbath-keeping.

Sabbath in New York City

Finding Peace in Acadia

I daydream about taking a break from my life and living for a summer in Bar Harbor, Maine.

This summer I went on vacation to Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. It was one of the best decisions for a vacation that I’ve ever made, and I can’t wait to go back. I traveled by myself and camped out in the park’s campground. Several people gave me confused or shocked looks after they asked, “who are you going with?” But it was amazing to go my myself. I went to Acadia seeking the beauty and peace that only national parks can bring.

My first day there, I rode my bike along the carriage roads built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. many years ago. There was beauty around every corner, Rockefeller made sure of that. The road wound back and froth between trees and opening up onto the best vantage points for each vista, lake or mountain.

Though it was raining, I set out the next morning on a hike through part of the island with a national park ranger. From watching the National Parks documentary*, I had heard about rangers who were deeply devoted to the parks, with almost endless, secret knowledge of each place. It was true. At each point, the ranger pointed out not only an interesting fact about a rock or plant, but also the history of the place. She told us of the families that once owned the area and answered any question we threw at her with great passion. As a few of us stuck around to ask her more questions, it was clear that this was not just a job. She loved this place with all her heart.

A special place in the park is a secluded beach, only a few hundred feet wide. Sand Beach’s sand is different from most, as it is made up of mostly crushed sea shells. The water is much to cold to swim in, though plenty of children did their best (I’m told the temperature is usually around 51 degrees). One night, I joined a couple dozen others on the beach to gaze at the stars. If you’ve ever been able to see the Milky Way galaxy with the naked e

ye, you know how wondrous and mesmerizing the stars can be. A park ranger pointed out several constellations, and we saw a couple shooting stars. Usually in New York City, I can see 3-4 stars if I really try hard. In fact, the ranger described the experience as something that the parks are striving to preserve along with the landscape and wildlife. In our modern cities with all of their artificial lights, there are few places where we are able to truly gaze at the stars like humans have for thousands of years. No wonder the ancients were completely captivated by the stars. They make you feel quite small.

photo

One of my favorite memories came the last afternoon in Acadia. The island is encircled in walls of granite that jut out into the ocean. At one bend of the island, I climbed out up to where the rocks drop off a few hundred feet to the ocean below. Sitting on the edge, you can hear the ocean waves, the occasional seagull, and the bell of a green buoy. Just off the coast are a small number of large rocks clustered together that can be mistaken for a group of fish or other sea creature (hence the buoy). It was late afternoon when I was there. I sat down near the edge, closed my eyes and listened to the buoy chime out it’s steady warning. It was one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. After a few minutes, a large family with 6 kids arrived and disturbed my place of peace. But thankfully I had received what I needed from the spot.

My experience at Acadia was markedly different from my first National Park, Smokey Mountain National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina. The Smokey mountains are absolutely fully of peaceful, beautiful places, but the surrounding area is most different.  Entering and exiting the park is a shocking experience. Driving along the North Carolina highway dotted with houses, street signs, light traffic and power lines, you’re met with the entrance to the park. Once you enter, you are surrounded by nothing but trees. No signs, houses, power lines or cell service. As you exit the park into Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the change is even more dramatic. The wildness road of nothing but trees in the park is juxtaposed with blatant tourist attractions from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not to mini golf to whatever chain restaurant you desire just outside the park. It breaks my heart how often we choose the fickle things of life while transcendent peace is literally next door (there’s a sermon in there somewhere).

Anyone who has traveled to a National Park in the United States has certainly had a similar experience of finding peace in the parks. But Acadia is a unique national park, as it was mostly donated by wealthy landowners in the early to mid-twentieth century. So, there isn’t a point like in other parks where you enter “the park” and are cut off from civilization. Most of the interior of Mount Desert Island is national park, but the coast it is surrounded by a small harbor towns where people have lived for hundreds of years. My favorite, Bar harbor, is on the east side of the harbor. It has a number of small restaurants and shops focused on outdoor activities. There are no chain restaurants or obnoxious tourist attractions. It’s a small town that is vitally connected to the park but hasn’t been corrupted by tourism. When Rockefeller Jr. built the carriage roads I biked, the locals feared that Acadia would become like Coney Island (Gatlinburg, Tennessee). Thankfully it did not. Back in New York City, I often find myself daydreaming about spending a few months by myself at mount desert island, living in Bar Harbor. There are so few places to find peace in New York City. It’s the peace, the transcendent beauty of Acadia that calls my heart back. I can’t wait to go back.

*The National Parks: America’s Best Idea by Ken Burns. It’s on Netflix. Go watch it.
**Usually my posts are about church stuff. But John Muir often talked of the national parks as the most beautiful of cathedrals, so I think it fits. There’s also something to be said about the role of God in creating these transcendent places.
Finding Peace in Acadia

Church Planting Drop

I often hear about new church plants in the city, and I remember a plant I visited in the East Village that unfortunately only lasted about a year and a half. The planter had recently moved from the midwest and had only been in the city for a few months before launching a weekly worship service. They had a great theater space, and I went to their launch service. As I listened to the sermon, it was clear that something was “off” about it. The bulk of it was a story of the planter and his wife when they first visited New York City. They had a powerful conversation with a homeless woman on the train whose faith amazed them, and it gave them a desire to plant the church. As he told the story, it was like he had never seen a homeless person before. If you live in NYC, you know that it’s almost a daily experience. It quickly became apparent that this planter had moved to New York, but his cultural context had not.

Usually I am not a big fan of the dumbo-drop of a church planter into a new context with a short timeline for starting a church. I’m not saying that some planters shouldn’t do it or won’t be successful. I’m just saying I’m not a huge fan.

When you think about it, here is a general expectation often put upon church planters:

1) Raise about $1 million (for an urban setting in a 3-5 year plan toward financial independence. This usually includes talking to everyone you’ve ever met, family, friends, churches and asking them for money – no pressure if the church plant fails)

2) Move to a new city (moving is always stressful; and it’s more difficult when moving to a urban setting; it’s even more difficult if you have children)

3) Live in a new culture (many planters I’m familiar with are from the midwest & move to a city to plant. The scope of learning a new culture can be underestimated, since we’re still in the United States. But if a missionary is going overseas, we assume that they will have to spend some time leaning the culture)

4) Start a new organization from the ground up (find office space/work from home, hire staff, purchase equipment, build functional systems, build teams, develop leaders, make a discipleship plan etc.)

5) Launch weekly worship services, weekly small groups, and service opportunities (all three of these by themselves are more difficult in an urban setting and a suburban one. Finding a meeting space is always a struggle. Storage and transportation is a constant issue. Don’t even get me started on the cost of all these things. People also have smaller homes/apartments).

So, here’s my plea: slow down. Spend time just getting to know the culture. Don’t multitask. Learn the culture first and then plant the church. If you try to do both at the same time, both could suffer. It might mean waiting a year or two before you start the process of planting. You may have to get a job outside of church, or be on staff at an established church in the city. It will take humility and patience. My experience was being an intern for 3 years before being on staff at a church in NYC. However, when I was hired, my NYC experience was a huge asset (to ready more about my story, click here). Here are a couple examples I know of others who have done this:

Chris Travis moved to NYC and taught middle school math at a public school for two years before starting Everyday Church.

Pete Armstrong moved to NYC and spent time as an Associate Pastor at City Grace Church before planting Dwell Church.

Recently I’ve been hearing about more and more churches that are equipping planters by allowing them to be “church planters in residence.” I hope this trend continues and grows.

Were you a planter that moved to a new city to plant a church? What was your experience?

Church Planting Drop

My Story in Church Planting

My experience with New York City and church planting includes amazing highs and depressing lows. It started in 2005 when I took the class: Introduction to Church Planting. I was a student at Ozark Christian College hoping to become a preacher of some kind, most likely at an established church in the midwest, close to home. I had actually never heard of “church planting,” but it sounded like good thing that maybe my church could give money to. It was much more than I realized; it was something that I couldn’t get out of my mind. I remember my professor, Dave Smith, speaking so emphatically about the influence and importance of urban centers (specifically New York City), and the lack of churches planted in them. As I took more of his classes, I kept thinking about NYC and how crazy it would be to go there one day.  During my senior year, Dave let me know about a summer internship at Forefront Church, a 2 year-old Orchard Group church plant in Manhattan.

So in 2007 I came to the city, not knowing a soul, but knowing that God was calling me here. The internship was a wonderful experience and by the end of it, I had fallen in love with the city. I knew that God wanted me to stay, so I found an apartment and went on a job search. I was actually able to help my Dave with some of his classes when he started bringing them to the city. In fact, one of the guest speakers led a ministry here in the city where I was able to work at for a few months as an administrative assistant. It was a very random job, but it was a job! I continued to be involved at Forefront Church, leading a small group and leading the setup team for Sunday mornings. It was a pretty exciting time. All I knew was that God led me to New York City and that I wanted to be involved with church planting.

After a few months of being a Forefront, I was asked to come on staff for a leadership residency. It was the perfect opportunity to learn the nuts & bolts of what goes into a young, successful church plant. For a year I was doing all kinds of stuff – leading interns in service to the community, setting up for worship on Sunday mornings, maintaining the church website. It looked like this was the church that God had planned for me to be at in New York.

However, as I started the second year of the residency, I became restless. I was tired of doing anything and everything. I wanted to move to focus on a few specific things – teaching, discipleship. However, the ministry needs were nearly all geared toward administrative tasks that I was doing, which I can be good at, but are not my complete passions in ministry. As the residency ended, it was clear that if I stayed at Forefront, I would be doing the administrative tasks which I didn’t want to do. This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for where I thought God had been leading me.

During that same year, I was getting burned out of focusing all my ministry energy on the background of the Sunday worship services. I began thinking about different ways of doing church that were focused more on relationships than just Sunday worship. I devoured books about house churches, being missional, missional communities, and other church leadership buzz words. The more I read, the more I realized that no church I knew was even coming close to doing any of the things I read.

Suddenly the plan I thought God had for me didn’t make any sense. He had led me to New York City, He led me to Forefront Church, He provided a job, then He provided this residency. Now when the residency was over and…? On top of all that, I continued to wrestle with a different way to do church, which made me debate if I should even stay a part of Forefront. Honestly, I questioned whether I should even be a pastor. I didn’t want to leave New York, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next. I ended up getting a part time job in retail during the evenings. It really felt like a step backwards in my career. I had no idea where God was leading me or how my recent experiences fit into his plan.

Then I met Chris. Chris was planting a new Orchard Group church in upper Manhattan, called Everyday Church, and they were looking at doing things a little differently. They had just started meeting as a home group on Sundays where they ate a meal together, had communion, and looked at a story from the Bible. They didn’t have a worship service yet. It was definitely different from my church experience so far. As I got to know Chris and the rest of the staff, it was clear that we had a similar vision of what church could look like. I reluctantly decided to join the staff part time. The church was very relationally focused. They didn’t have a “launch date” for their weekly worship services like most church plants I knew.  Instead, they met as home groups and served their neighbors. They didn’t do any marketing, but relied on relationships to grow. They would start a monthly worship service when it felt appropriate. I loved it.

I led one of our home groups and soon became the worship leader when we started our worship services. I had never led a band before, but I was willing and able. The church was only like 40 people, so it was a little less intimidating than leading a large congregation. We didn’t even have a sound system! For the first year, we met as home groups three weeks a month and then for worship once a month. We steadily grew until we started a third home group. In 2012, we added a sound system to worship and starting having it every other week. I also started serving full time at Everyday. Everyday had a balance between relationships and worship that I hadn’t experienced before.  That summer we celebrated the baptism of 7 of my friends at Everyday. As I’ve looked back on my whole experience in New York and in church planting, Everyday Church is where God wanted me – it just wasn’t around when I first got here!

This year we’re transitioning our home groups into Everyday Groups, which are more like missional communities. I’m even going to be leading the launch of our next one. Stay tuned to hear about my experience with it!

So that’s my experience with church planting so far. It has been harder than I ever thought possible. I expected it to be difficult, you know, like facing an exciting challenge. I didn’t expect my dreams to be shattered and re-arranged. Though it’s often quite difficult, I can’t see myself serving the kingdom anywhere else doing anything else.

My Story in Church Planting