Jump

I’ve always thought daredevils were crazy. Not really my deal. Close friends of mine are adrenaline junkies, but I usually opt for the path of repose. They jump off cliffs at the beach; I sip soda from the sand.

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But I’ll never forget the first time I tried to gambade off a bluff with some of my buddies. The perch didn’t look that high from the safety of the boat, but as I clambered up the slippery rock face, and stood at the precipice of the highest drop I’d ever jumped, my abdomen and my Adam’s apple shook hands.

“The first step’s a doozie,” I smirked to my compatriot. “What in the world have I gotten myself into?”

A high dive will do that to you. Free falls from height should strike a little fear in your heart, right? It only stands to reason. “People have killed themselves doing this, haven’t they? My mother wouldn’t approve!” But there are times in our lives when the only way to step into the next big adventure is to take a leap into thin air.

One year ago today, I took another leap—another cliff jump—another free fall into our next great adventure as a family. A year ago last week, I stood on the platform of a church I had served for nearly a decade—a church I had built a great life and ministry in—a church that had been the nursery of our little Tribe. I stood on a gigantic platform of safety and announced that my wife and I would be holding hands and vaulting into a tiny, altogether different sort of pool. We would follow the call of God and plant a church in water we’d never jumped into before. And there was room for only two on the platform at a time.

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As we leaped, my abdomen and my Adam’s apple shook hands again. The first step was indeed a doozie. But as we left the ledge of security, we experienced the freedom that comes in the free-fall of faith. We gathered with an intrepid band of other adrenaline junkies in the backyard of a family friend, and began the adventure of building a brand new church from scratch.

The rock face was a little slippery at times. The adrenaline rush would swing between fun and fear on occasion. But we had front row seats to see God do something that could never have been witnessed from the conservative seat of serenity I would have normally chosen. Here in the free-fall, we saw God provide miraculously for His children. We watched a Jesus-calling begin to be answered by scores and scores of people saying, “Yes,” to Him. I watched my own life being stretched and strengthened as I learned first-hand what it is to depend completely on Christ, and unequivocally know His love for me.

FirstLaunchTeamA year ago today, I stood holding hands with my wife atop the scariest cliff we’d ever seen. There was only room for the two of us—no safety in numbers. Just the gut wrenching, “go-big-or-go-home” dive into the dream of God. But to our delight and amazement, God wasn’t hollering to us from Heaven. He wasn’t cheerleading from the cliff-face. He was welcoming us from the water. He was already in. He had already taken the jump before we had. Jen and I were merely joining Him in action.

It’s been a year. A year falling off the most fantastic mountain I’ve ever seen—a year of my guts sometimes shaking hands with my gizzards. But one year, nonetheless, of diving into the most pristine waters of God’s magnanimous plan for our lives. And I’ve learned a few things. I’ve learned that in spite of that dubious first-step, the genesis moment of life-leaping faith opens the door to an incredible adventure—one that you could never conjure on your own. And that if you hear the whisper of invitation from the King Himself, you can be sure that it comes not from some wispy cloud in the sky, but from a Heart love-packed for people in the harvest field below your feet. He’s already in the water.

Let abdomens everywhere begin shaking hands with Adam’s apples. May the free-fall of faith thrill you and wreck you and make you into the mission of Jesus. For there is no higher height to which you can ascend than leaping and lowering yourself into the waiting arms of God Himself.

Run For the Hungry

I don’t know anyone who enjoys being hungry. I know I don’t. In fact, most Americans have made the pursuit of food one of the biggest foot races in their life.

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We run to food every chance we get: for comfort, for celebration, for socializing, for fun. We don’t like being hungry, so we slather that aversion with super-sized servings of just about everything. Judging from the obesity rate in the U.S., now at nearly 36 percent, the run FROM hungry is about all the exercise we get.

But more and more, right under our cuisine-sniffing snoots, an altogether different race is being run. Today in San Diego, as many of 30% of the households can’t make financial ends meet each month. That means that 640,707 people are making the no-win decision between paying simple household utilities and buying groceries. One in four children are food insecure. They’re hungry, and there’s nothing they can do about it.

A few years ago, my wife and I stumbled across a Thanksgiving morning event in downtown San Diego called: “The Run for the Hungry.” It’s a 5K/10K fun run through the streets of the Gaslamp and East Village districts of the center city. The proceeds go to support the efforts of The San Diego Food Bank, which serves nearly sixteen million meals a year to people who need them.

I’m running again this Thanksgiving, if you want to join me. And every year, while I’m running the race, I ask myself the same question. Thanksgiving morning, before all the family face-stuffing begins, I take inventory: “Am I hungry?”

HungryPhysical hunger, especially the sort experienced by so many struggling people in the city center, is a blight that we must stand up against. It’s basic, it’s solvable and everyone can do something. So Thanksgiving morning, I will…do something, that is.

But chances are, if you’re reading this from your high-speed internet connection or $500 smart phone, you’re not all that worried about where your next meal is going to come from. You know where to go get your next grub. You have an app for that. But ask yourself: “Am I hungry?”

No matter what challenges or comforts life has dealt you, your heart is plagued by a different sort of hunger: a soul craving. You were custom-made with an intrinsic appetite for something bigger than yourself. You were crafted with a God-thirst right at your very core. You try to quench it in every conceivable way. You feed the appetite with every sort of delicacy. But it’s a hunger that can only be satisfied by the Life-yielding Bread of God.

“Am I hungry?” I ask myself, “Hungry enough to run for it?” Am I thirsty enough to reach for the Living Stream? Has a longing for something bigger—something God-sized—consumed me enough that I’ll stop at nothing to possess more of Him?

The spiritual discipline of fasting is powerful. It leverages the reminders of physical hunger for spiritual purposes. As the body’s craving for food increases, it begs the soul-question more and more: “Am I hungry—hungry for God?”

Pastor and author, John Piper, who has written extensively on prayer and fasting, says that, “Fasting is the exclamation point of the prayer: ‘God, I need you!’”

Take a look around you. Maybe drive down a city street or two. There are hungry people everywhere you look. Many need food, of the sort your local grocer can provide. But as you reach out to meet that significant need, ask the question your heart’s been begging you to examine: “Am I hungry?”

Maybe your next move is to step away from the super-size-me steeplechase and forgo a meal or two for a spiritual Q&A with God. In fasting and prayer, allow your physical hunger to sharpen your spiritual dependence on Him.

For when God is the supreme hunger of your heart, He will be supreme in everything. And when you are most satisfied in Him, He will be most glorified in you.” (John Piper)

31 Flavors

My car alarm went off last night. The clock struck one and my SUV lit up the neighborhood. Now, this alarm isn’t one of those “other” annoying car sentries that constantly whine when the wind blows or after a bassy-stereo drives by. My alarm NEVER goes off—until last night.

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I startled to attention, stumbling around in the dark for my flashlight, and made my way to the front door. Something was definitely wrong. This doesn’t just happen in my driveway. And when your car is honking and blinking and generally raising cain at zero dark thirty, you don’t just roll over and go back to sleep.

Turns out, one of the kids didn’t close their door all the way and the alarm had been engaged. For the first time in its life, my SUV’s alarm was sounding simply when the wind blew, much to the chagrin of my next-door neighbor. No hoodlums stealing my stereo; no robbers removing my radials. Just the wind. Just a door left open a crack.

But for many people, another door has been left ajar. The alarm sounds may not be going off yet, but there’s a problem in the driveway. There’s a bomb under the bed. There’s an IED in the doorway of their life. This bomb lurks in the shadows. It ticks silently away, disguising itself in the camouflage of selfishness. It is the powder keg of prejudice.

“Not me,” you resist. “This is 2013. I’m a progressive person. I went to college, for crying out loud. I’m no bigot. I love everybody.”

If you’re like me, you’d like to think this sort of thing couldn’t possibly happen in my driveway.  You might even take a quick peak and comfort yourself with the knowledge that your tires are still on your truck. But don’t just roll over and go back to sleep. Whether the alarm has sounded or not, the truth for most of us is that there’s at least a door cracked open somewhere in our lives. Maybe just a smoldering ugliness just waiting for a spark. Prejudice goes by other names, you know. Things we consider normal or comfortable. People or places that are our favorite. Words we say without thinking. Maybe it’s a stereotype you apply to others, or a term you use in jest. Maybe you joke with ethnic slurs or words like “retarded” or “loser.” What do you whisper under your breath when someone “invades your territory” who looks or walks or smells differently than you? What ways to you entertain prejudice in your life and convince yourself it’s perfectly reasonable?

We discriminate based on appearance and ancestry, on gender and age and ability and more. We chase after one person’s affluence, while running from the poverty we see in someone else. We show favoritism in subtle and brazen ways. And all the while, the IED is ticking at the side of our road. How do we diffuse the bomb before it goes off? How do we control the fire before the conflagration burns us and the people around us?

IJohn_420-21Three things are required to diffuse the powder keg of prejudice in our lives.

1. Love Extravagantly: This is a church for people who don’t have it all together. We have all kinds of people and backgrounds here. We’re choc full of Catholics and Charismatics, doubters and derelicts, agnostics and atheists. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done. We believe Jesus loves you extravagantly. And so do we.

2. Serve Selflessly: Jesus loved, and Jesus served. Try serving someone else selflessly. Nothing gets your mind off your stress like serving someone else’s.

3. Invite Liberally: Prejudice pushes away. You kill it by inviting people in with liberality. A liberal invitation to others means assuming a posture of openness, of kindness. You break the power of bigotry and hate when you intentionally soften your heart to others and invite them into a community with kindness.

Center Church is a little like Baskin-Robbins. Like any self-respecting ice cream shop, we have 31 flavors of people. We have vanilla and mocha, but don’t limit ourselves to serve only one or the other. I love chocolate, but we don’t just stop there. There are multiple flavors and variations of people at Center Church. Some are plain; some are exotic. Some come simple; some come sprinkled with eclectic toppings. But we value every flavor in the ice cream cabinet here. And we serve them all, all the time.

If you want to value people like that, you’re welcome here. And chances are, you’ll end up saving yourself a very noisy trip to your driveway in the middle of the night. Because the powder keg of prejudice has no power where it has been rained upon lavishly with love.

So It Grows

A couple of weeks ago, my next-door neighbor dropped off a house warming present. She walked up the center of my yard with a bright, big smile on her face and four baby plants in her arms. “These are for you!” she exclaimed. “I thought your kids might like to watch them grow.”

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She released her tender grip on two pairs of bean plants, still in their plastic containers. Each of my kids stared wide-eyed at this new curiosity, wanting desperately to grab the one earmarked for them. My neighbor giggled her delight at the warm reception.

“These little babies will be growing beans in no time,” she smiled. “Watch and see!” And with that she wheeled and waltzed back down the stairs.

The Tribe stood around for a moment contemplating their next steps. Then a flurry of activity began. Four little pots were assembled in a row and soil filled to the brim. Little hands dug little holes, just the right size for little bean sprouts. There was primping, patting and even a little pontificating about how big these little sprigs would grow. Each pot was watered and tenderly set into its place. And then we waited.

Each morning over the past two weeks, as the Jones Tribe walks out the door and into our day, we pass by four little bean plants. Each day they receive water and sunlight and a cheery conversation from my three year old. And each day we’ve continued to wait.

Bean PlantYesterday was different. There, hanging from the tip of the tiniest, little leaf were two brand new beans. It’s like they showed up out of nowhere: perfect, fresh and custom made by their Creator.

Our little hands played their part in helping these little beans along. But for all our planting and watering and waiting, we were only bystanders. It was God who made them grow. It was God who was at the very center of this genesis—and these little babies had His fingerprints all over them.

The Apostle Paul said of the church that,

It’s not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow.

(I Corinthians 3:7 MSG)

For the past many weeks, a group of expectant people—a new tribe—has been fawning over a new planting. Little hands have carved out little places of possibility for a new church at the center to grow. We have planted. We have done some watering. But in the end, the growing is up to God. The fruit of this endeavor belongs to Him: perfect, fresh and custom made.

October 20, 2013 will mark our very first gathering. I can hardly wait to check for beans. But as excited as I am, there’s no guesswork here. As surely as the bean plant will produce a harvest in due time, so too will God’s church.

I’m a lot like my smiling neighbor. Center Church will be growing beans in no time. Watch and see! God is at the center of this genesis and as is always the case, these little babies too will have His fingerprints all over them.

Walk To the Crowd

A few years ago my wife and I attended the greatest concert of my life. U2 was coming to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and with them over 100,000 true believers to witness it.

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The night of the concert, we drove into Los Angeles. We got in the serpentine line of cars toward the parking lot and waited our turn. We gathered our things and began walking toward the pulsing stadium of people. As night fell and the concert began, the air was electric. There was so much anticipation. There was so much expectation. And the boys from Dublin didn’t disappoint. It was amazing!

I’m a huge fan. I’ll admit it. I love their music. I love their vibe. I’m a U2 lifer. But as the concert began to draw to a close, Bono, the lead singer, did something that surprised me. He walked from the back of the stage with only an acoustic guitar strapped to his chest. As the throngs of people in the stadium hushed, he began to talk about his faith. All the lights in this enormous arena were extinguished and Bono stood alone in one, solitary wash.

Bono_acousticHe spoke of justice and love, and of a God who cares for the people of this world we live in. And he punctuated his brief remarks with a tribute to the most powerful force in all the world: Grace.

What came next sent chills down my spine. I wasn’t alone. There, with one simple instrument, Bono began to sing the timeless hymn, “Amazing Grace.” To my utter amazement, the sea of fans all around him joined in his chorus. Cell phones began to illuminate all across the basin of the 100,000 strong, singing at the top of their lungs. What had been pitch black just moments before was now awash with thousands of miniscule specks of light, swaying to the King’s melody.

And God was glorified right there in that throng of U2 believers.

As I sat there, stunned by what I was witnessing, I recognized a powerful truth. The supremacy and eloquence of God’s grace has a way of invading and overwhelming darkness with His inextinguishable light. He’s in the business of showing up in the midst of the biggest crowds and illuminating the truth for all to see. In fact, Jesus has made a habit of seeking out those kinds of places and flicking a Bic®. The darker the environment, the brighter the light shines.

When you walk toward the biggest crowd, with the biggest hurts, in the biggest need of a Savior—like maybe the center of a city near you—don’t be surprised if you bump into Jesus along the way. He always walks that direction. He always shows up in the midst of the greatest need. And if He is at your very center, don’t be alarmed when you sense Him leading you that same way too.

Wherever you find yourself today, walk toward the greatest crowd of people you can find. Look for the most dire need and the most under-served community you can locate. Pull out the little cell phone-sized light in your heart and let it shine brightly for Christ.

The amazing song of Grace is rising in the center of our city. And hell will squint at the brightness of our little lights, as we lock arms and sing at the top of our lungs.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1:4-5 (NIV)

 

Taking the Field

I’m kind of a baseball nut. Always have been. I was the kid that collected baseball cards and lived on Big League Chew®. I slept with my glove under my pillow and clipped the box scores every morning. I played all the time and practiced in between because I was all about “The Game.”

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As I grew, I gravitated toward friends who loved it too. We shared war wounds and regaled one another with stories of our ball park intrigues. They were my teammates—my band of brothers. I’m friends with many of them to this very day. Shared passion will do that to you. And I would have it no other way.

Today, I’m still an avid San Francisco Giants fan. I bleed orange and black. But my understanding of “team” has only grown. I find myself on a different playing field now, drawn toward the ballpark in the center of San Diego. But nowadays, I spend more time looking at the people milling around the stadium than the uniforms on the field. The people of the center of San Diego are my passion now. And I would have that no other way.

This Sunday marks the beginning of a totally new kind of team in my life. Sunday, the Launch Team of Center Church takes the field. Like the comrades of my youth, these friends share my same passion. We have been drawn together with a mission as our common core: “Christ at the Center of Me. And me at the center of His city.”

Only this mission isn’t a game; it’s real life and the stakes are high.

This Sunday, it begins. The team is forming around a common purpose: to love people and serve the city. Over time, we will share war wounds and regale one another with stories of lives that have been miraculously changed. These will be my teammates—my band of brothers and sisters. And I’m confident this new adventure will anchor friendships that I’ll have the rest of my life.

It’s nearly time to begin. Time to lace up the spikes. Time to bust out the bubblegum. Time to get the old head in the game.

The people of the center of San Diego are our mission. And this Sunday, the Launch Team gathers for the first time: to pray, to grow, to connect as friends with a common passion. And I would have it no other way.

All About the Center

When God wants to make sure a profound truth is not lost, He leans in close and plants it deeply upon the heart—right at a person’s very center.

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Eighteen months ago, God began a great remodeling in the interior of my life. Like any good builder, He started by throwing out unnecessary things. It was as though a dumpster had been dropped off at my front door and the furnishings I had grown so accustomed to began breaking and going on the trash heap. But God, the Builder, was up to something. And when God is up to something, it’s always good—brokenness or not.

I followed Him on a journey that was very difficult for me. But challenges shape us and transform us if we let the Builder do His work. For me, that year and a half turned out to be one of the greatest spiritual reconstructions of my life. God met me there upon the rubble pile of what I though was so indispensable. And He began inscribing a profound truth on the walls at my broken core: “I want the center.” With my permission, He wrote His name on the doorframe of my heart. It belonged to Him.

John 12:24 says: “…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Homeless_womanFruitfulness is the Father’s desired destination, but the starting line always involves a fall—a descent into selfless Christ-following. God saw the harvest in the distance and would lead me through a valley of death to get there. The Builder began to tear down the barriers I had built to protect myself from the suffering of others. He pulled at the earplugs that muffled their cries. He kicked holes in the fortress of my comfort and challenged my sense of entitlement. All this to remodel my life for His purposes.

I began to listen to the words of Jesus with fresh ears. I began to retrace His steps and open my heart like He did. I began to walk the neighborhoods at the center of my city. I saw the challenges, the need and the great opportunities all around me and I thought, “Die first. Fruit second.”

I sensed the greatest hurts. I trembled at the greatest risks. I saw the greatest density of people. I saw the fewest churches. As my heart pounded at the disparity, I heard it again: “I want the center.”

You’re never more fully guided by the ambition of Christ than when you walk toward crowds of hurting, empty people with the Good News of life and healing. Jesus did it all the time. And while I’m not exactly sure where Jesus might go on a weekend lap through San Diego, a hundred bucks says that by the end of His trip He’s had a carne asada burrito in Chicano Park. Too many people. Too many hurts that need healing. Too central to ignore.

The ambition of the Builder is the same today as it’s always been. He still leans in to plant that unassailable truth in human hearts.  And because of His great love for you, for me and for His great city of San Diego, He is leading a small, intrepid group of Christ-followers on the adventure of their lives—and it all starts with a step into the center of the city. “Die first. Fruit second.”

Can you see the suffering from where you sit? Can you hear the crying from your seat? Maybe Jesus is whispering the same words to you that He whispered to me: “I want the center.” All it takes is a simple surrender. All it takes is a descent into selfless Jesus-following. All it takes is “Christ at the center of me. Me at the center of His city.”