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.


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.”


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.

Sucker For a Good Guitar

I’m a sucker for a good guitar. I can’t help it. It’s like I’m hard wired for it or something.


Ask my wife. There’s a special, MJ-only enclave in my house, filled with my stringed-favorites. I know each one and have taken great care to make sure they stay just the way I want them: polished and ready to play.

The first guitar I ever bought is there. It’s an old Takamine Santa Fe that wears the loving abrasions of years of play. The action has been sanded to absolute perfection and anyone who picks it up can tell that this little gem is worth hanging onto.  There’s a couple Taylor acoustics in there too. One is old and warm. The other is snazzy and tricked out. Both are models of careful craftsmanship any guitar picker would be proud to own.

GibsonHeadstockThere are friends from Fender and amplifier acquaintances from Vox and Orange. But encased behind bullet-proof hard cases sit two of my favorite people. A Gibson Les Paul Supreme is beautifully finished in a rich mahogany and inlaid with scrollwork on the neck. Next to him is a stocky, unpretentious vintage Telecaster that’s as old as I am. Both have a character all their own. Each had a particular purpose when they were made. Each holds a special place in the eye of their owner.

Several months ago, when God really began to stir a new song in me, I sensed Him drawing me to a new platform—one I’d never considered climbing onto—right in the center of the city. God began to work in the hearts of others around me too, calling them to a new sort of symphony. Like the guitars in my cabinet, we have each been handcrafted by our Creator for a particular purpose. Nobody looks the same; our unique qualities make us all different. But at the center of each person in the plan is the careful craftsmanship of the Sovereign Creative. He has meticulously made sure that each instrument stays just as He wants us: polished and ready to play.

Don’t know what kind of model you are. Maybe you’re snazzy and tricked out; maybe you’re old and warm and wear the loving abrasions of years of play. No matter what kind of package you come in, remember something very important.

Remember your Owner is a sucker for a good guitar. He can’t help it. You occupy a special place in His heart. He has set you apart. And you’re just the sort of gem He is committed to holding on to.

Don’t be afraid to place your life into His capable, masterful hands. He knows how to get the best music out of you. And no matter what stage He leads you toward, know that He has already composed a beautiful, musical masterpiece for you to play. Follow His lead with radical abandon. What you’ll hear along the way is the uproarious applause of Heaven itself. And that is the sensational sound you can find nowhere else in all the world.

Look to Dad

I walked up a long flight of stairs this morning. It took me a while to make it to the top, but I enjoyed every step. Because, you see, this morning I held hands with one of my favorite people all the way: Addison Grace.


At age nine, Addie is my oldest daughter. She’s a little under four feet tall, but her personality’s as big as all out doors. She loves reading and tether ball and anything silly. She never meets a stranger and has a heart softer than any I’ve ever known. Addison was born with Down Syndrome and without equivocation, she’s the apple of her daddy’s eye.

This morning, I marched next to my little soldier into a challenging environment. A couple weeks ago we moved to a new house in the center of San Diego. We enrolled the kids in a new school too—one right down the street. But leaving the comfort and security of our previous place brought lots of additional challenges to the little ones. And Addie has struggled the most.

Different can be difficult, can’t it? Being the new blonde in the barrio is no walk in the park either. And Addie has wrestled this new transition in her own forty-five inch way. Dad was along this day to observe her new classroom, her new teacher, her new aid and her new friends. He was marching alongside to survey the land and underscore the truth that “Dad has your back!”

I watched as my diminutive darling jumped into her work, pushing her little glasses back on to her nose over and over. Biting her lip to scrawl out her spelling words, she would turn toward me after each one to see if I was still watching.

“I did it, Dad!” she would say. “You’re doing great, babe,” I would reply. And the entire time, I never missed a thing. I was standing just close enough to show my smile, a thumbs-up of encouragement and a wink of warmth as I watched in rapt attention.

Addie was working with her aide most of the morning. Between you and me, I’m not sure this lady’s going to work out. She’s gruff and preoccupied. She’s disinterested in Addie and Addie can tell. She exudes an attitude of distain and this dad takes a dim view of it. Within five minutes, the aide seemed as though she had somewhere more important to be. And Dad never missed a thing.

But over and over, as my daughter completed each direction, she would glance toward her dad for approval. And over and over, Dad delivered. Addie looked to her dad for support because she was sure—no matter how unpredictable her surroundings—that you can bet the rent money on Dad. Even if a soft look from others might be rare, she knows Dad loves and never stops loving.

A simple smile from Dad was enough for Addie today. All she really needs in all this world is the knowledge that her father waits in rapt attention of her every need. She can sigh in relief, in spite of the chaos all around her, because she knows Dad has her back.

It struck me, as I stood over that little desk this morning: I’m exactly the same way. Sometimes life throws enormous challenges into my path. Transitions are often very tough. And different can be difficult.

But no matter what my day holds, I have a Father prepared to patiently walk up the long flight of stairs with me. He marches beside me into the fray. And He is unafraid.

You may face disappointment or disdain, but your Dad takes a dim view of it in your defense. Glance toward the warmth of Who He is. He stands close to you, waiting in rapt attention of your need. And He never misses a thing. His faithfulness never subsides.

Life has thrown Addie some challenges. But the same dad that walked her up Stair Mountain this morning, walked her right back down in due time. Your Dad will do the same for you if you’ll only grab His hand.

Did you catch that wink? No matter what, you can be confident of this: Dad loves and He never stops loving. That is an enduring, eternal, unalterable fact. And you can bet the rent money on it.

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.


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.”


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.


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.”