Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Always Previous God: Stories of the God who goes before.

At Advent we treasure the breath-taking idea that God the Son willingly came to dwell with us as a man. Jesus is the only person in history who ever chose to be born. Ponder that. How would you choose to be born if you had the choice? I would choose to be born into wealth, status and peace, wouldn't you? Jesus chose to be born into poverty, scandal and danger. He was sent as the son of a suspect teenage mom and a blue-collar carpenter dad.  His family fled to Egypt as refugees to escape a murdering king. That's how God chose to be born. He chose to identify with every person who ever lived in poverty, scandal or danger. 

I've been thinking about Jesus' final words to his disciples though. "As the Father sent me, so I am sending you." (John 21) In that sense, His incarnation is both a gift and a stone in my shoe. I may not have been born into poverty, scandal or danger, but following Jesus means He will send me to people in difficult places to bring hope. You too. But He is the God who has gone before us, so we can take courage. As Tozer so beautifully put it, "Jesus is the always previous God." 

Of course, there are times when we have to take it on good faith that He is always previous,  but then there are those times when we glimpse that He has gone before us with such dazzling attention to detail that we gasp with awe at the fact that our future is really His present.  I want to tell you about 3 stories of our always previous God during the past season of our church. 

In the Summer of 2015 we were preparing to launch Southlands Whittier but couldn't find a venue for our Sunday gatherings due to start in the Fall. Kevin Meisch, Whittier's community leader had been pounding the pavement with no joy whatsoever.  Mandy Randolph, one of our elder's wives came to me at a leader's meeting and asked, "Does the road name Leffingwell mean anything to you?" I knew that there was a road called Leffingwell in Whittier, but called Kevin over to hear what Mandy was saying.

She proceeded, "I had a dream where I was driving through Whittier past all these auto-body shops and heard a voice in the dream say  'Set up shop left of Leffingwell.' Is there any venue that comes to mind left of Leffingwell?"  Kevin replied, "I know exactly what venue you're talking about. It's Parnell Park Community Center, and I passed it yesterday thinking it might be a good one." 

Kevin went to the community center the next day, booked their amazing space for a year with a massive discount, and it's served as a remarkable and strategic venue ever since.  God went before us and spoke to us in advance about what was to come. We've indeed set up shop left of Leffingwell! 

In April of 2016 we cast vision to Southlands for a Jubilee Campaign, aimed at removing all our remaining debt and building a war chest for church planting. The response from the congregation was remarkable and we were able to raise enough to pay off all our debt and save enough money for our next church plant. The only thing was that we didn't know where that church would be. On the same day that we were tallying up the pledges and money that had come in after our Jubilee Giving Day I got a call from my friend Scott Weatherill, who was pastoring a church in the Inland Empire. He'd been leading the church for 15 years but said that he felt like his tenure was over. He asked me if we would consider adopting the church as a community of Southlands. One of the reasons he felt like his time was up was that he was struggling to get his people to volunteer at the local food bank in their city and felt like they needed a fresh sense of mission to their city. I'll spare you the details, but took the request back to our elders. As we began to pray and talk about this possibility, I was reminded of a prophetic word that I'd received in February, some 3 months before the call. 
It was from Nick Fox, a friend with a strong prophetic gift who was living in Northern Ireland at the time. This is what he wrote on February 9th, 2016. 

"Hey Alan,

Great to hear from you. Funny that you replied as I was thinking I'd reach out to you.

Last night I had a dream that I was at Southlands and I remember absolutely nothing of it! But it did remind me to pray for you guys today.As I was praying I felt like the Lord was speaking so I took a few notes to send on. As you know I'm learning so test all of it!

One area I felt the Father really highlight to me is finances. I felt like there is a repositioning of resources coming(or maybe has), the sense I had was that there was almost a season where things will feel tight not because of lack but because of how much is on. I felt like the Father is saying that there is a new season of financial favor coming, for some reason April felt like the timeline on that. It seemed as though it'll start off in an unlikely manner but that it'll breed generosity in the greater Southlands Brea community.

I also sensed that the Father might begin speaking to someone on your team about the Inland Empire. I felt that there is a great grace for you guys there, surprisingly to me it might be the Rancho Cucamonga area where I grew up. I think there might be a unique partnership opening there, maybe possibly around a food bank(not completely sure on that)."

Financial favor in April? Partnership with a church with a food bank in the Inland Empire?   Needless to say, God was getting our attention and we began seriously considering the partnership which is now well on its way to becoming Southlands Chino.

Of course, these glimpses don't mean we just rush head long without planning. Wisdom and timing are vital. But again, the accuracy is uncanny, and God has got our attention. Yet again, we've glimpsed the always previous God. 

As the Father sent Jesus, so He sends us. 
But we can take courage. Jesus is the God who goes before. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Are you Free NOT to Drink? A guest post by Brett McCracken

I went to an evangelical Christian college that did not permit the consumption of alcohol. I grew up in a household and a conservative church culture–Midwest to boot–where drinking was out of the question and seen as bereft of goodness. I’m the child of an American evangelicalism that has had a decidedly contentious (to put it mildly) relationship with alcohol.

But as I grew older, left home and left college, I came to see that drinking alcohol is a) not forbidden by Scripture (as opposed to drunkenness, which is) and b) actually quite wonderful. Like many of my peers who grew up in similar environments, I became rather fond of drinking fermented beverages in social settings, whether a Cabernet with dinner, IPA with friends or a single-malt scotch on special occasions.

Over time I noticed that it seemed increasingly popular amongst my fellow “twentysomething Christians” to embrace the fullest extent of liberty in the area of alcohol. I attended church small groups where beer and cocktails were regularly consumed; I went to parties where dozens of Christian college students and alumni were drinking from kegs and doing Sake bombs; I visited churches that met in bars; I went to Christian conferences where the “after parties” were raucous affairs at pubs; I met Christian beer critics, bartenders, pub owners.

I’m not saying any of this is inherently bad. In fact much of it is to be celebrated as harmless, good-old-fashioned “exhilaration,” as in the famous Martin Luther quip, “we should not be drunken, though we may be exhilarated.”

What worries me is this question: Are we so embracing our Christian liberty to partake of alcohol that it threatens to become less a “liberty” and more a shackling legalism–something we can’t, or won’t, go without? As my pastor Alan often says, are we as free to abstain from alcohol as we are free to enjoy it?

Other questions I think many of us would do well to ask ourselves:

Is alcohol a “nice to have” or a “must-have”? Can we go out to eat without ordering an alcoholic beverage? Attend a party and only drink soda? Dare to not have some booze in our house for a stretch of time?
Are we mindful of those around us, and if they struggle with alcohol in any way are we willing to abstain for their sake? Drinking alcohol may be a perfectly biblical, perfectly Christian thing to do. But if for others in our community it is a hardship or a temptation, then shouldn’t we abstain? As Christians, the ascetic call to deny ourselves perfectly good things for the sake of a community or a commitment is a worthy pursuit.
Do we wear our freedom as a badge of honor, as “proof” that we are under grace and thus can drink and party to our heart’s content? If so, we should check ourselves, because reducing grace to a sanctioning of pleasure is tragic; furthermore, if we are talking about freedom under grace, then what about the freedom to deny ourselves and go without? Grace makes this possible too.
Do we have a serious-enough understanding of how dangerous alcohol can be? Alcohol has a long and tumultuous history as an addictive wrecker of lives. We all know people who’ve been ruined or nearly ruined by it. We must be careful that our incremental habituation of it in our lives doesn’t become a controlling idol. Alcohol is not something to be trifled with.
Christians have the “right” to consume all sorts of things, though we are told not everything is beneficial or constructive (1 Cor. 10:23). Rather, we are instructed, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) and “do not cause anyone to stumble” (10:32).

This last part is key, something the Apostle Paul routinely emphasized (especially in Rom. and 1 Cor.). Because it is true that Christians have differing tolerances (“One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables,” Rom. 14:2), we should not pass judgment on or treat with contempt those with different liberties than us.

But we must also be real with ourselves. What’s the point of freedom if it doesn’t free us to enjoy, but also to abstain from, something in culture? And it goes beyond alcohol. There are all sorts of good items and activities in culture that we are free to enjoy in moderation. Food, fitness, movies, music, travel, sports, gaming, and on and on. But the minute any of this becomes something we can’t live without, or something we excessively consume to the point that we need it more than we enjoy it, we should be concerned.

Because ultimately, the goodness of something that we might consume is at its most good when we enjoy it in a God-centric way rather than a me-centric way. That is: when we see it as a gift from God and something to reflect glory back to him, rather than something that serves us and our needs.

Alcohol, like food or any number of things in God’s created world, is a good thing that can become a bad thing if we consume it recklessly, excessively or selfishly. It’s good insofar as we consume it not as something we must have but as something we can have, as a special delight of God’s glorious creation, which includes man’s creative (fermenting) genius. The freedom to drink should not be a freedom to drown one’s sorrows, prove a point or get a fix; it should be a freedom that fixes our eyes ever more on Christ, the giver of life who turns water into wine and makes all things new.

A comment by Alan Frow: While I reject a legalistic approach towards alcohol, I've become uneasy about a growing sense of bondage to Christian freedom within our church, particularly as it pertains to alcohol consumption. With that in mind, I asked Brett McCracken, one of Southlands' pastors, if I could re-post his very wise blog on the subject. He has also written a great book on navigating the space between legalism and license more generally, called Gray Matters. You can purchase it at Brett McCracken . I commend it to you. I've chatted with all of the leaders of our discipleship groups that involve alcohol and have asked that for a season they go 'dry'. I also want to suggest that you consider giving up alcohol during Advent to ensure that we are not in bondage to our freedom. Let's not allow our freedom to become a stumbling block for the weak, and let's be sure that our freedom is not an opportunity to indulge the sinful nature. May this season cause us to drink ever more deeply of Christ by His Spirit!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

How now shall we heal?

The morning after the seismic announcement of Donald Trump as the new President-Elect of America, I woke up with the verse, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn," running around in my head. (Romans 12:15) My dialogue with God around that verse has been, "Lord, but there are people rejoicing and weeping in the same place! How do we respond to this?" I suspect this is exactly God's point. Presidential elections are always contentious, but I've never witnessed such venomous divisiveness as this one. I appreciated the conciliatory nature of Trump, Clinton  and Obama's post-election speeches, but they seem to have done little to smooth over the yawning ravine in our nation. The damage has been done. The wounds are gaping and septic. 

I gathered with 5 friends in my back yard to pray at 7am that morning. We do this every month, chatting over coffee through a chapter of Tim Keller's book on prayer, and then, well, praying.  This morning though, just 8 hours after the announcement, was quite different. We were candid about how we felt and who we voted for. This may be a uniquely American phenomena, and I like it. Political opinion is a public thing. 

We were all surprised by the results, some pleasantly and with hope, others with an element of shock, and some with grief. None of us expected a Trump win, and especially not a Republican sweep of the House and the Senate. It seemed like small-town, blue-collar America had silently flexed its voting muscle, sending shock waves of change through Washington and the nation. There was a general sense of gladness that the liberal agenda,  strutting with such confidence, had been given a bloody nose. But we were not all in agreement about the actual President-Elect. A number of us had deep concerns about his moral integrity, his ability to listen to wise counsel, and his treatment of minority groups and immigrants who now feel fearful and vulnerable. 

I was fascinated to discover that of the 6 of us, there had been 5 different votes. Only one man had voted for Trump and one for Clinton. The rest wrote in. We were men from three different cultures, in fact 3 different nationalities, ranging from our 30's to our 50's in age. In that circle  the guy who voted for Trump and the guy who voted for Clinton spoke up last, possibly for fear of being judged. Writing in was in some ways the easy answer.  Everyone had voted with a sense of conflict, and everyone, in differing degrees, had a mix of hope and trepidation about the next four years under Trump's leadership.  

Why do I include these personal details when everyone is making global predictions of the situation? Because I am a pastor, and while I care about global trends, I care more about how people respond to them. I'm also tired of trying to predict what the outcome of such decisions are. Some are confidently predicting the end of American Evangelicalism as we know it. Some insist on the demise of the Democratic party. Others the unravelling of the Republican party. Some have pronounced the onset of Armageddon, while still others the birth of a Great American Resurgence. And all these predictions are from Christian leaders! No wonder the Church is so divided and confused. While I can understand the temptation to make such certain statements, I believe a healthy, humble sense of uncertainty around global forecasts is what God requires right now. I care about a circle of 6 men in my back yard, and how they walk out Jesus' one-anothers together in the midst of political disagreement, in a way that mends fractures and heals wounds.

This nation is divided. Who will make the two halves whole? We will, and we must. We are called to be reconcilers and peacemakers. How now shall we heal, in the light of this seismic event?

1. Live with God's Sovereignty as our sanity 

"At the end of time, I Nebuchadnezzar, raised my head to heaven and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High, I honored and glorified Him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion, his kingdom endures from generation to generation." 

These are the words of the pagan king who turned to God after denying him and persecuting His people.  God's sovereignty enables us to honor a human leader we may not have voted in, knowing that he or she will ultimately answer to God. It also enables us to speak truth to power, because we do not walk in the fear of man but of God. If we are hopeful, God's sovereignty keeps us from triumphalism  reminding us that no human leader can be the King that we need. If we are despairing, this verse  reminds us of the Sovereign power of God to change a leader's heart, no matter how hard it is, and to restore sanity to anyone who looks to Him

God's sovereignty means that he can change a man like Trump and also use a man like Trump. He may be used in the hand of God to stem the liberal tide and restore robust  nationhood. If this is the case I will rejoice, but have concern for the rising tide of cultural Christianity that confuses the kingdom with patriotism. Trump may be used in the hand of a Sovereign God as an instrument of judgment upon this nation. If that is the case, then the Church will be tested and will come out purer and stronger. If God is Sovereign, then no politician is Satan and no politician is Savior. Let's live that way, knowing that God ultimately raises kings and brings them down. 

2.  Live with God's incarnation as our mandate 

God is on His throne. But God got off his throne and came to earth, to love unlovely people who were different from Him. This is an equally important truth to remember. In the Church, because the Cross of Christ has reconciled us in our diversity, we need to give each other space to rejoice and mourn this decision without judgment. Remember that if the Roman government had been overthrown in Jesus time, Simon the Zealot would have rejoiced, and Matthew the tax collector would have mourned. Jesus seemed to be okay with having both guys as his disciples. So should we. Towards outsiders, to be like Christ is to walk towards those who think differently from us and love them.  We can be larger than our own political opinions. There is a larger call to love not just our neighbor but our enemies. Are you delighted with our new President-Elect? Go and love someone who is devastated. There are many women, people in the LGBTQ community, racial minorities and  immigrants who feel incredibly vulnerable. Go and empathize.  Are you fearful of our new President-Elect? Go and love someone who is excited. There are many who have felt  judged and condemned for holding conservative opinions these past 8 years who are now glad to have a strong leader pushing against the liberal agenda. Go and listen to them.  Let's all climb off the throne of our water-tight opinions, and humble ourselves as peacemakers. 

 3. Stand on the common ground of Biblical Unity. 

As Christians, we will disagree politically until Christ returns. The solution is not to stand on our opposing political platforms and reach towards each other across the ravine. It's to go and stand together on an older, more solid platform. "On Christ the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand!" This doesn't mean we drop our political convictions. It just means we hold them more lightly than our Biblical creeds. The fact is that political parties and platforms are fickle. They will shift, shake and  crumble under our feet,  but  Christ's kingdom will never be shaken. A Biblical faith empowers us to stand with the political stranger on the solid platform of Christ.  

So the 6 of us shared earnestly and honestly, with freedom to disagree on what we hoped and feared about our new President -Elect. Then we prayed through the Lord's prayer, standing upon the truths that bound us together eternally. We are adopted sons of the same Father. Our true country is in heaven. And our great desire is for His eternal kingdom to come here on earth.  

It was Christian Citizenship at its best.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

"I want our church to be a safe place." A guest post by Peter Frow.

I want our church to be a safe place.

I want it to be a place where the un-churched and those who are groping after the truth or seeking help in their distress, may come and not feel any trace of finger-pointing Pharisaism. A place where the members walk always with a profound sense of God’s grace, and knowing that there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, are careful to abstain from condemnatory attitudes and conduct.

For the great good news of the Gospel is that we don’t have to clean up our lives in order to come to Jesus. We come to Jesus and He then makes us right with God, both as we come to faith in Him and then by an ongoing process of becoming like Him in our behaviour and character. Thus the church must open its arms wide to sinners of all descriptions, for the Great Physician comes for the sick and not for the healthy.

The Gospel is inclusive in its essence.

Yet just as we may not exclude anyone on the grounds of race, gender, nationality, age or any other criterion, for all are in need of God’s salvation, so too we may not exclude anyone from the pursuit of holiness, without which no-one will see the Lord. We may not presume to lower the bar for anyone, for we all alike must press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. It is God who sets the bar and it is nothing less than complete Christ-likeness.

I want our church to be one that demonstrates the Christ-like ability to say not only, “I do not condemn you,” but also, “Go and sin no more.”

A church where one is encouraged to do what is not pleasing to God is not a safe place.

A church where one is misled as to the truth of God is not a safe place.

I want our church to be a safe place.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Fast in the Fall Day 3: "Aslan is on the Move"

In C.S. Lewis's allegory, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan is a Christ-type lion who dies to break the Witch's spell over the land of Narnia. Though the four children in the book are devastated by Aslan's death, Father Christmas comes to tell them of his unexpected resurrection. There is a beautiful passage in the book describing it. "They say Aslan is on the move - some say he has already landed," he said.  "At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer."  

To me this fast has been a little like hearing news that 'Aslan is on the move.' There have been many undramatic, yet definite rumors of Jesus and His kingdom landing in our midst. I personally have seen some clear answered prayers that I have been praying for a while. I've  heard news of someone becoming a Christian as we broke bread last night, of two young people deciding to be baptized, of numerous strained relationships getting healed, and many people receiving dreams and visions. Most of all, we've feasted on the fulness of his presence as we've gathered to pray and worship. 

The kingdom of God is at hand. "Some say He has already landed."

Today, before we break our fast tonight, I would like us to focus our prayer on our mission, impossible with man, yet possible with God. As the kingdom comes, it must extend beyond us to those who do not yet know Jesus. 

Firstly, can we pray for the Spirit's power to be personally brave and adventurous on mission at home? Can we own Jesus' words to the man who was delivered of demons in the Decapolis? "Go home and tell your own what God has done for you and how he has had mercy on you?" (Mark 5:19) Lets ask God to help us be good citizens of our cities, to own our daily rhythms of family, work and play for the gospel. Lets ask Him for ways to tell of his mercy naturally in our conversations. Having 6 baptisms on Sunday was a beautiful sign of how Jesus is jin the move to seek and to save what was lost. Let's pray for many more in the next few months.

Secondly, can we pray for the launch of Porterbrook in the next month? Porterbrook has been our primary training forum for a theology and life of mission over the last 5 years. It's been a powerful way of equipping folk to be part of our multiplication journey. Pray for many new signups, and for God to continue to use it to train missionaries to be sent from Southlands.

Thirdly, let's keep praying for our friends planting One Light Church in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Pray for unity within the team and favor  at work and school in building new relationships with locals. Pray for God's protection, patience and presence with them as they go about planting this church for His glory.   

Finally, let's be praying for God's clear leading in our next steps of 3 in 3, our church's multiplication vision. As elders, we are coming close to a decision about a potential opportunity to 're-plant' a church in the Inland Empire. We need God's guidance in this  regard and would appreciate the prayer. 

Thank you so much for journeying faithfully in fasting and prayer. 
Aslan is on the move! 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Fast in the Fall Day 2: A United Pursuit

Jesus' reminder that, "What is impossible with man is possible with God," is good reason to fast and pray. There are situations in our lives that are humanly impossible to manage or solve. In fasting and prayer we bring the impossible to the God of the impossible.

One of the things that seems humanly impossible to me, is unity in a church. There is such a growing diversity in generation, culture, personality, class and preference in our church. We support different political parties and sports teams, have different alumni and live in different cities. We meet in three different communities on Sundays.  Some of us are single and some are married. Some are wealthy and some are poor. We really have no business being a united family, but that is what we are, by God's grace. It's both delightful and just really hard work.

As difficult as it may be though, we know that unity is possible because Jesus asked the Father for it on our behalf. "I do not ask for my disciples only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me."(Jn 17:20-21) 

The unity that Jesus asked for has been given to us by the Spirit, but is maintained by us, through humility, gentleness, and bearing with one another in love.(Eph 4:1-12) Because the church is organic, unity is never achieved forever, just like any garden or body needs constant maintenance in order to remain healthy. When we neglect the maintenance of our unity, the Bible says that 'bitter roots spring up that defile many, giving the devil a foothold and grieving the Holy Spirit, who made us one.' (Eph 4:25-30) Neglecting unity is simply not an option! 

With this in mind, we drafted a Southlands Unity Charter in 2010 to help us maintain the unity of the Spirit and attain to the unity of the faith. This has helped us enormously, not only within our leadership team, but also between husbands and wives, life groups, business partners, and even between churches. I want to ask you to re-visit it today as you pray, and see if there is some way that you can give yourself to unity maintenance in the church.  Where can we repent, forgive, reconcile or overlook an offense? Where can we protect unity by refusing to gossip or by showing honor?  

You may think that this is not very spiritual, but remember Jesus' prayer, that when we are united, the world believes that the Father sent Him. Unity is our witness to a skeptical world that Jesus, the Reconciler, is real! The Scripture promises that when the brethren dwell together in unity, there the Lord commands His anointing and blessing.(Psalm 133) Unity is both intensely relational and incredibly spiritual.   

So let's pursue this God-possible gift together and see what God will do!
See you tonight. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Fast in Fall day 1 : A Kingdom within Reach.

Twice a year we fast for 3 days as a church, coming together each evening  to seek God in worship and prayer. Although fasting is not always pleasant, it's always worth it. God has met with us in remarkable ways during these times, healing us, encouraging us, and leading us. Although He meets with each of us in unique ways, I usually blog each morning to provide a common theme around which to pray and prepare our hearts for our gathering that evening. So here we go, Day 1 of our Fast in the Fall.

After the launch of Jesus' ministry in His home-town synagogue, He travelled around with a very uncomplicated message. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matt 4:17) For Jesus, the kingdom was not something distant and remote. It was near. It was breaking in. It was within reach. All the prophets, culminating with John the Baptist, told of a Messiah who would deliver Israel as a suffering servant. And now He was finally here, the Lamb of God, taking away the sins of the world. This is the gospel!  But see how Jesus didn’t just come preaching the gospel? He preached the ‘gospel of the kingdom.’ (Matt 4:23) In essence, He was saying, "Through my life, death and resurrection I will establish a new reign, a new administration that is within reach for those who receive me as their King."

For Jesus, entering the kingdom of heaven wasn’t just describing somewhere we go when we die. He was describing something we receive while we’re alive. Dallas Willard said it like this in his book, The Divine Conspiracy, “ Becoming a Christian is not about getting into heaven after you die. It’s about getting into heaven before you die. The treasure we have in heaven is also something very much available to us now. We can and should draw upon it as needed, for it is nothing less than God himself and the wonderful society of his kingdom even now interwoven in my life. This is not by-and-by, but now.”

Jesus' kingdom ministry was not only a proclamation of the gospel. It was marked by a dramatic demonstration of power through prayer. He healed all those afflicted with various sickness and pains, and set free those who were oppressed by demons. (4:23-24) His kingdom came from the outside-in, setting right God's created order. During this fast, can we ask God for greater expectation and boldness for God's kingdom to come in these ways? While all physical, mental and emotional healing will only be complete when King Jesus finally returns, healing is a normal mark of the kingdom and should be on the increase where God's people are praying for it with humble boldness. Fasting is also a key to bringing the kingdom into  particularly obstinate situations. "This kind only comes out through prayer and fasting." (Matt 17:14) Let's present these situations to God as we fast. They are not out of reach of the King. 

But what of repentance? Why did Jesus preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand?" We have to understand that His message of repentance was revolutionary to the Jewish people who viewed Israel as the Kingdom of God and its Roman oppressors as the enemies of the Kingdom. You don't tell an oppressed people to repent, do you? You tell their enemies to repent! But the kingdom stretches way beyond any political or cultural boundaries, calling everyone to give their ultimate allegiance  to King Jesus, in order to come under his loving reign. Repentance, viewed through  kingdom lens, is the acknowledgment that I have made someone or something else king in my life. Repentance is resisting the urge to blame someone else for my problems. Fascinating that the church in Acts 16 were accused of stirring up trouble in Thessalonica because they claimed that, "There is another King, one called Jesus!" Today, can we allow the kindness of God to lead us to repentance, as we turn from having other kings or shifting the blame, and re-pledge our allegiance to King Jesus who is able to save us in the most harsh and hopeless situations. It may  worth spending some time reading Matt 6:25-33 , and asking, "What things have I sought after that have distracted me form seeking first the Kingdom of God?" His kingdom comes from the inside-out as we repent and allow him to transform our affections and our shift focus.

Finally, let's rejoice in the fact that it is not because of our condition, but because of His grace, that the kingdom comes!  Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father's good pleasure to bestow on you the Kingdom!  (Luke 12:32)  Happy Fasting!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

My First Black Friend: a tribute to Lizzie Mohame

 The first time I met Lizzie Hadebe, she had a tattered old canvas backpack slung over her shoulder with the words, "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain," scrawled across the top in thick black letters. I was 17, fresh out of high school, full of missionary zeal and youthful naivete'. She was in her late 20's, already engaged to her future husband, and she seemed like a wise old soul to me. My first impressions were that she was both uncompromising and motherly.  First impressions can often be misleading, but on this occasion they were spot on. She quickly became the moral and spiritual rudder of our team as only a mother can, and she and I developed an unlikely yet easy friendship. We were part of the first multi-ethnic band of musicians and actors to travel around Apartheid South Africa with an organization called Youth for Christ, using the arts to speak out about racial reconciliation.

Lizzie was black. She grew up in Soweto, the epicenter of political unrest in our nation and the home of Nelson Mandela. It was 1990, the year  Mandela was released as a political  prisoner and hero of the struggle against Apartheid. It would be 4 years before Apartheid would finally be abolished, but the cracks in the establishment were beginning to show and the nation was a boiling cauldron of fear and anger. Our team was based in Soweto, and spent most days teaching classes in schools, because teachers in Soweto had a 'revolution before education' policy, so students were simply not being taught. We felt that if we could help students pass their English and Mathematics exams during school hours, then we could speak to them about Jesus and reconciliation after hours. It worked pretty well, but our team was overwhelmed and intimidated. Every one except Lizzie, that is. Lizzie was in her element. She was born to teach kids and completely unfazed by the protest marches, derelict classrooms and general volatility of our situation.  

Traveling and living together as actors and singers creates its own natural bond. But our friendship was cemented as Lizzie told stories about growing up as a black South African in Soweto. I'd been so ignorant about how the laws of our country had robbed the majority of the nation of family, wealth, health, education, and ultimately, dignity. I would listen in stunned silence, my ignorance melting and my indignation mounting. How did I not know this was going on? What kind of propaganda had kept me living in such blissful denial of the harsh realities of Apartheid? It was a cataclysmic time for my young mind. Lizzie's gift to me though, was her complete lack of bitterness. She was matter-of-fact about the harshness of her life, yet so lacking in self-pity. She refused to rub salt in my white wounds. Her relentless grace towards me accelerated both my healing from white pride and prejudice, and also my desire to be active in the dismantling of Apartheid.

Also, Lizzie was not a one-cause woman. As important as it was for her to see racial justice and reconciliation,  what hurt her more deeply, even more than racism, was the rejection she suffered from her family when she converted to Christianity. Her father was a priest in the Zionist Christian Church, a toxic blend of ancestor worship, animal sacrifice and Christianity, and had ostracized her when she refused to have a goat sacrificed for her 21st birthday. She bore these scars deeply, but still took me to visit him one day in an attempt to rebuild bridges. Lizzie lived as a reconciler between race, gender, class and family fracture, because she understood that she had been reconciled to Jesus, and drew from Him as her life source.

This past Sunday, we held a forum on race at our church. Although racial fracture has been front-and-center in our nation recently, we didn't have the forum just because it was a relevant socio-political thing to do. We had it  because we believe that racial reconciliation is central to the Gospel. In Galatians 2, when Paul opposed Peter to his face for refusing to eat with the Gentiles, he said, "You are not living in line with the gospel." Of course the evening of lament, empathy and education connected to the racial turmoil of our times, but we believe that it has always been at the heart of the gospel for the Church to live as a reconciled community. If Christ has truly destroyed the dividing wall of hostility between people of different cultures, it remains for us to walk towards one another through the rubble of our history. The gospel can heal us of racial pride, prejudice, passivity and pain. But we need to realize that for minorities, being healed of the pain of racism is often a '70x7' work of grace, because their experience of racism is often recent and repeated. To say, "Just get over it," is a tremendous display of ignorance of the raw depth of ethnic minority's pain. 

One of the panelists at our forum, when asked about a solution to racial fracture in the Church, answered, "The greatest need is to develop real friendships across cultures." I couldn't agree more. I have been challenged and changed more through real friendship than any Facebook debate or expert panel.  But this requires that we overcome our passivity and preference for people who are just like us. It can be ankle-breaking work to walk towards one another through the rubble of our hurts and histories. But the rewards are so rich.

The church I led in Johannesburg helped Lizzie and her husband, Humphrey Mohame, to plant a church in their home town of Orlando, Soweto in 2007. Sadly and shockingly, I received the news in June this year that Lizzie had passed away quite suddenly after a brief illness. As I sat in our race forum on Sunday night, I felt a debt of gratitude to my first black friend, for her brutal honesty and relentless grace towards me. Lizzie never had a Facebook account or sat on an expert panel, but her friendship towards me in some way echoed through to our forum together in Brea, California, 25 years later. 

In her death, Lizzie has left a priceless legacy and has gained her truest Friend. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

When Church Planting feels like Church Pruning.

So, the send-off of our team to plant One Light Church in Chiang Rai, Thailand, has come and gone. What a momentous night it was, soaked with tears, buoyed with faith-filled worship and weighted with sober gratitude for this intrepid team of men, women and children who are laying down their lives to make disciples of Jesus in a nation largely unreached by His gospel.

In the words of John Piper, "Mission is secondary. Worship is primary. We do missions because Jesus is not yet worshipped by a people in a place. We do missions in order that the white-hot worship of the Son of God may go up from every nation, tribe and tongue." This is the reason we plant churches. We believe the local church is God's primary mode for making disciples; people who will worship Jesus with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength. 

Although the team have not all left yet, the sense of loss here is palpable. Dear friends who have become family are not going to be around in the same way, and while social media, skype and air travel make the world a much smaller place, we cannot know these friends in same way we did. The book of Acts, full of bitter-sweet gospel good-byes, gives us permission to rejoice and grieve at the same time at these moments. Perhaps those are the two most appropriate emotions right now; simultaneous gratitude and grief. Gratitude, because we know they are going to be planted to bear much fruit, and grief, because we feel like we have been pruned. That's the thing, isn't it? Planting a church feels like planting for those going, and pruning for those staying. Both planters and senders pay a price, but it's a very different kind of price. 

So what does it look like to care for those going as well as those staying at this time? To shift the metaphor, what does it mean to take care of both the child and the mother who has given birth? Both need to be healthy in order to survive and thrive. Our concern is for all all three of our communities who have each sent excellent people to Thailand. We can never replace the people who have gone, but we are trusting God to replenish us. As elders, we've particularly been asking God for wisdom for Southlands Brea, a community that has sent out around 150 missionaries and leaders  in the last 3 years. What mother that's given birth 3 times in 3 years would not feel a need for replenishment after that? 

Make no mistake though, the joy of new life has made it all worthwhile. We have absolutely no regrets. John's Gospel describes it like this; "A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world." (John 16:21) We have witnessed such stunning new life as we have sent people to Fullerton and Whittier, and now anticipate the same in Thailand. Even as we speak, there are opportunities opening for us in the Inland Empire too. God, by his extra-ordinary grace, is making us into a fruitful family together, and this fills us with joy. But we want to look at what it means to be this kind of fruitful family in a wise and sustainable way. Jesus' assurance to us in John 15 is that the Father prunes, not because we are unfruitful, but because we are fruitful, and because He wants us to produce more fruit!  

So, in the month of August, we will do community specific sermon series. Southlands Whittier will do a series on the Holy Spirit, Southlands Fullerton will do one on the Psalms, and Southlands Brea will do one on 'The Fruitful Church.' It will be a reminder about why we are called to be fruitful, how we recover from fruitfulness, and how we sustain fruitfulness. If you consider yourself part of the Southlands Brea family, please join us this Sunday as we begin the new series. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A Vigilant Summer

You wouldn't normally associate vigilance with summer, would you? Summer is usually about  slowing down, resting up, and kicking back, which can be a much needed thing in our helter-skelter world. From a military point of view, summer is generally associated with, "At ease!" rather than, "Stand to Attention!" But I want to make an appeal for Christian vigilance within the slower rhythms of summer in order to avoid a spiritual summer slumber fest.

Our leadership team is nearing the end of a week of vigilant prayer through the night. (even though many are coming and going on vacation) We each took turns with a 3-hour shift to pray for the church, much like watchmen would stand guard for 3 hour shifts during Biblical times. Admittedly, not everyone prayed for the whole 3 hours, but every 3 hours someone was praying. It's been a great week of vigilant prayer.  The Lord has been near and He's spoken clearly.  

For me, 4 factors motivated this week of vigilant prayer, and while I don't expect everyone to be praying exactly like this, I want to explain why I believe God is calling us all to be especially vigilant this summer.  Being vigilant is not the same as   panic. Nor does it mean that we are on the defensive, expecting an attack. An army on the offensive  needs to be vigilant as they take enemy ground too.  Biblically, being vigilant refers to a state of spiritual wakefulness and watchfulness, particularly as it pertains to prayer, temptation, and mission. (Col 4:2)

So why a vigilant summer? 

First, we need to be vigilant because we're sending. We're about to send an intrepid team of 11 adults and 7 children to plant One Light Church in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Church planting is always a kind of stealth mission, as people go with the gospel to set up an outpost of the kingdom in foreign territory. But to go into a region that is largely untouched by the gospel, (94% Buddist, 0.7% Christian) is an against-all-odds spiritual battle. This requires serious spiritual fire cover so we wanted to give ourselves to that. The harvest is ripe, but there will be no harvest in Chiang Rai without a real fight, both by those going and by those sending. Let's be praying for Jesus' provision, protection and courage for the One Light team. And please join us at 133 for their send-off on Wednesday night 20th of July at 6:30pm.

Second, we need to be vigilant because we're birthing. Southlands is about to give birth for the 3rd time in 3 years! What a remarkable gift to be fruitful. However, as with physical child birth, the well-being of both baby and the mom are of vital importance. If the baby thrives(which I believe it will!) but the mother dies, that is a tragedy. Giving birth is a joy, but there is also real pain and real danger involved. You guys, Mom is having another baby! And just like any family needs to be on high alert when mom has a baby, so the Southlands family needs to be on high alert at this vulnerable and joyful time. Here is a helpful article from Ed Stetzer on what-to-expect-when-youre-expecting-church.html. I realize that a summer season can scatter us, but I ask, particularly during a season of birthing, that when we are at home, we show up faithfully as a church to worship, witness, pray and serve. Let's take responsibility both for the health of the baby and the health of the mom.

Third, we need to be vigilant because of our cultural moment. Political uncertainty and ethical instability is causing understandable anxiety in our nation at this time. Irrespective of where we land politically, we need God's wisdom and courage at a time when the Church is facing huge pressure to compromise or panic with the erosion of our religious liberties. A very current example of this is Senate Bill SB1146, a bill that threatens to close Christian Colleges in California. (Article here by our very own Brett McCracken SB1146 tolerant-california-will-not-tolerate-christian-colleges/. ) Let's be praying and voting against this bill. We need the courage to protest without panicking, and to keep on with the job of making disciples. The Church has typically shone brightest in the darkest cultural moments as it has simply got on with the job.

Finally, we're to be freshly vigilant because of our enemy. (Ephesians 6:10) I've had numerous  people come to me highlighting battle/war/army imagery, and I have sat up to take notice. Our enemy the devil is disarmed by the cross, but he still prowls around like a roaring lion seeking to intimidate, deceive and tempt. Lions love to isolate their prey from the herd so that they can pounce. Don't allow your self to be isolated from Christian fellowship. Every one of us is a soldier in God's army, and we are an easy target in isolation. We cannot let our guard down, even during summer. We must remain vigilant, grounded in the Word, fighting with the prophetic, reliant on the Spirit, following our Captain Jesus, and falling into rank in His army, the Church. As the old hymn reminds us, "Onward Christian soldier, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, going on before!"

Let's make this a vigilant summer and watch what our God will do.