Fridays are for sermon prep…and for fun

Fridays have been my sermon preparation day since I started my new call as a missionary to downtown L.A. So far, so good, as no one has booed me out of the pulpit yet (not that I literally use a pulpit since I usually sit on a stool). People at least humor me by laughing at the jokes I make and most return the following week. So writing sermons on Fridays–and usually more time on Saturdays–seems to be working so far.

But I remembered today that when I first started I added a category called “Personal” so that I would post photos of our family for those who wanted could keep up with us, especially our 23-month-old Avery. So before I dig into my sermon for this weekend here are some recent photos of our little one who has become fascinated with shoes, sunglasses and hats. This could be a problem…enjoy!

7-11 Principle (Part 5)

In Part 4 of the 7-11 Principle I highlighted the challenge it is for American Christians in general to be sharers instead of plunderers. Followers of the 7-11 Principle seek the prosperity of their city first before seeking the prosperity of themselves–modeling God’s perfect love which always overflows toward others.

In this post I want to spend a little time talking about what prosperity means in the biblical text and what that might look like to apply it to our everyday lives.

The word translated “prosperity” in Jeremiah 29:7 and 11 is simply the Hebrew word shalom. This word is a rich word that means far more than “an absence of war” but a complete life where in every aspect of life things are good. Tim Keller’s sermons have influenced me greatly related to this idea of shalom and his thoughts are captured in his book Generous Justice from which I will paraphrase.

The Hebrew mind would have seen all of God’s creation as a great tapestry that has been skillfully woven together. Thus the state of shalom is nothing less than the flourishing of life relationally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. With this in mind then as sin entered the human race through rebellion against God in Genesis 3, we have the great unravelling of God’s good tapestry. Relationships are marked by blame and violence. Physically human beings now experience hardship, sickness and ultimately death. Emotionally we now feel guilt and shame because we can’t live up to our own expectations and fail to do what is right. Spiritually we are separated from God and seek self-salvation through legalism/religion or liberalism/irreligion. Lack of shalom is the great tearing apart of the fabric of life as it was meant to be.

With these thoughts in mind reading Jeremiah 29 has a richness that I think is significant. When God promises that He has plans to “prosper” you this is a comprehensive kind of peace He is bringing. God is promising a quality of relationships, emotional well-being, physical sustenance and spiritual intimacy that cannot be attained on our own. I’m not saying God is promising to heal every sickness or guarantee financial security, but He is promising to weave back together your life. But the 7-11 Principle holds here still. This promise of shalom is for those who are committed to seeking this same shalom for the city in which they live. God blesses those who seek to weave back together the torn apart fabric in their cities, neighborhoods and communities.

This might mean that in Christ’s name you start a tutoring center in an underserved neighborhood. Perhaps you would start getting to know neighbors and invite them over for dinner in order to make your apartment complex a more welcoming place. A group might use their artistic skills to renovate a building. Business leaders make sure they pay fare wages while still remaining profitable. Church leaders stand alongside the disenfranchised in order to change policies that are unjust. Art is created that promotes reconciliation instead of violence and sensuality. Bringing shalom to your city could look like a million different things but it always seeks to weave back together something that was torn apart.

In many ways this is living out the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” Is there poverty in God’s presence? Is there racism or greed? Do kids go hungry? Is there disease in heaven? Bringing God’s shalom to our cities looks like a foretaste of God’s kingdom that He will establish on earth when Jesus returns.

As you look around your city, where are the torn pieces of fabric? What might God want you or your church to respond to? Do you have a community you can do some prayerful imagination with?

Easter reminds us that Jesus took the cross to take the blame for our sin so that He could give us His shalom. He allows Himself to be torn apart so that we could be woven back together. His resurrection is the beginning of the undoing of the chaos that sin brought into God’s good world. His ascension marked the beginning of His body, the Church, continuing His restoration project on earth until He returns. The Church is to bring God’s shalom into every area of life we can imagine. This includes people recognizing their torn apart lives caused by sin and submitting themselves to the only true Lord who can piece their broken lives back together. But it also means more than this because Christ’s shalom never stops with an individual but overflows through a person to others. What a privilege to be part of the weaving back together of God’s good creation.

May we live out the 7-11 Principle this Easter as a demonstration that He truly is risen, sharing God’s shalom with our cities and neighbors as we weave back together torn apart places.


Vision for downtown LA and cities (Part 2)

In one of my first posts I gave an overview of the need for churches to be planted and renewed in the major cities of the world and particularly in downtown L.A. Not only did the 2010 census estimate at least 15,000 new residents moving to downtown L.A. between 2000-2010, church planters and pastors I’m talking with think it’s conservative to estimate another 15,000 residents coming in the next 10 years. Just to keep up with population growth, we would need 30 new churches of 200 people each! Only a handful have started and I’m excited that Union Church is seeking to reach the diverse neighborhoods of downtown L.A. as it starts new ministries and continues the faithful presence it has had in Little Tokyo and throughout Southern California.

As I talk with church planting networks in Southern California, the East Coast and Northern California, everyone agrees that downtown L.A. is a strategic area that needs more churches to consider some kind of investment to build Christian communities in the various neighborhoods here. The need is for gospel-centered churches to work together to bring shalom to downtown L.A.

I have personally been so encouraged over the past few Sundays as I have begun my new role as pastor of Union Church of Los Angeles. I’ve met several visitors who are already calling Union Church their new home, getting connected and beginning to serve. They love that the church has nearly a 100-year history of sharing the gospel to its neighbors downtown and throughout Los Angeles. They enjoy seeing a diverse community of different races, backgrounds, ages and stages of life worshiping together. If you visit you’ll see blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos. There are several inter-racial couples as well. You’ll see 20-year-olds and 70-year-olds. Some are single and some are married. A few kids will be running around. We have college students, grad students and working professionals. Some are coming from the high-rise lofts and some come from Skid Row. We have committed Christians and those just checking out what it means to follow Jesus. The one thing we have in common is that each one of us is a fallen human who needs to rediscover that we are the song of God. It’s a beautiful picture of what the kingdom of God in its fullness will look like when Jesus returns to establish the New Jerusalem on earth (Revelation 21:1-2).

As we build this new community we are learning what it looks like to love another out of our common identity as God’s creation in need of the grace that comes through Christ alone. The Holy Spirit empowers us to be a movement in the city and in the world. We hope you’ll join us!

7-11 Principle (Part 4)

In my last post I said Jeremiah 29:11 promises that God has plans to prosper you but that must be understood as intricately linked by the preceding command in verse 7 to “seek the prosperity of the city” that they were exiled in. So before we start memorizing Jeremiah 29:11 as a mantra for personal comfort in a chaotic world we should recognize that the promise comes with an assumption of our outward-focused positive engagement with the cities, neighborhoods and communities that God has placed us in. This is the essence of the 7-11 Principle: “You don’t get 11 without first doing 7.” God is assuming you are committed to bless whatever Babylon He has placed you in (that could be in the suburbs, downtown city-centers or rural countryside) and that you understand your prosperity is directly linked to your commitment to seeing the prosperity of your city as a Christ-follower.

The 7-11 Principle highlights the challenge for Western Christians who have been placated by the myriad of churches that have sincerely worked hard to meet spiritual needs and keep people interested in spiritual things.  Even the best of our churches feel this tension each week as we recognize if the music is off or the preaching isn’t passionate enough or the parking is too difficult or the children’s ministry isn’t captivating enough or the hospitality team was too “in your face”…that we might lose a significant amount of parishioners to another church nearby that does one or all of these things better. It’s not a secret that the for the vast majority of churches, 80-90% of “growth” is via church transfer and not from reaching those who are unchurched.

As I think about how to help people (including myself) engage with the 7-11 Principle on a daily basis, I think we must confront the reality that many of us Christians are better at plundering our cities (to borrow a Tim Keller term) as consumers rather than prospering them as kingdom-minded Christians.

God commands us to “Seek the welfare of the city” but we love to plunder instead of share. What do I mean? Jeremiah 29:5-6 says:

5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.

Too many Christians read verses 5 and 6 and stop there. Jeremiah is describing the good life: building homes, starting families, eating good food, having parties…isn’t this why we choose to live in certain places over others? If we have the choice, we live in the city we do in order to get all we can from it. You might have chosen your city because of its weather, proximity to work, closeness to friends and family or the lifestyle. We choose the places we live for the good life. But Jeremiah forces us to ask: How many of us are here to make our city a better place to live for everybody else so that people will see God’s goodness? We too quickly stop reading at verses 5 & 6 which talk about our own prosperity when verse 7 tells us that the means of this is first seeking the prosperity of others. Did you notice that the Bible commands us to “Seek the prosperity of the city” instead of seeking the prosperity of ourselves, our families or our pocketbooks? God is a sharer not a plunderer. To paraphrase John Piper: “God’s love is a conduit, not a cul-de-sac.  Perfect love always shares. Perfect love always overflows.”

Do you love your city like God calls you to or is your natural inclination to plunder it? God promises that if you’ll seek the prosperity of the city, you’ll prosper as well.

I have a friend who passed away last year. He owned a manufacturing company but had spent the last several years focusing on improving the lives of the poor around the world through business mentoring and supporting indigenous Christian leaders. He sought prosperity of others before himself. But what most people don’t know was that he had the same commitment to help others in the very community his business was located in Southern California. He was committed to seek the prosperity of the city that he lived and worked in.

He made sure his company was profitable and running efficiently so that his workers could have jobs. He helped employees rise within the company so they could gain confidence and build a better life for their families. At his funeral I saw dozens of his workers who all could share stories of how they personally experienced him as their boss seeking their best just like he did for people in Africa and Asia. He truly lived out the 7-11 Principle. He lived as a sharer, not a plunderer. He sought the prosperity of his city.

God does not command us to seek the prosperity of ourselves or even our own families…but of the city, the community, our neighbors. Why? Because in seeking the prosperity of our city we reflect the heart of God. God is sharer of His goodness. And guess what? Jeremiah says that the prosperity of the city is directly linked to your own prosperity.

Pastor Tim Keller comments on our call to live out Jeremiah 29: “The most powerful way to show people the truth of Christianity is to serve the common good. The monks in the Middle Ages moved out through pagan Europe, inventing and establishing academies, universities, and hospitals. They transformed local economies and cared for the weak through these new institutions. They didn’t set out to ‘get control’ of a pagan culture. They let the gospel change how they did their work and that meant they worked for others rather than for themselves. Christians today should be aiming for the same thing.”

Unfortunately, many Christian leaders (again including myself) have been distracted from helping people seek the prosperity of their city because we have kept congregants busy with church programs and events meant to keep them interested and engaged–often on our expensive church campuses. We have spent far too many resources in a viscous cycle of trying to be cool and relevant and do whatever it takes to keep people interested in a media-saturated world that has produced droves of neighbors with small attention spans and even smaller tolerance levels of anything uninteresting. In the midst of this very real challenge, I want to take small steps today to seek the prosperity of the city God has placed me in and find myself in the middle of God’s plan of prospering my family with a life infused with God’s goodness. I want to live out the 7-11 Principle today by allowing Christ to subdue the plunderer in me and release the sharer that God has meant for me to be. It’s the only day God has given me so I’ll spend my time prayerfully asking God to show me where to take my next step today.

In my next post I’ll take a deeper look into what prosperity means in the biblical text and applying it to our everyday lives.

The 7-11 Principle (Part 3)

In my last post I talked about how the exiles in Babylon were likely hearing two divergent invitations as to how to live in the city they were held captive in. Should they succumb to the pagan culture and become like the Babylonians to survive or separate themselves from Babylonian ways and trust Yahweh to deliver them like some prophets were saying (false ones according to Jeremiah)? The prophet Jeremiah offers a third way in chapter 29: Be faithful to Yahweh by seeking the welfare and prosperity of Babylon (Jeremiah 29:7).

Jeremiah instructs the exiles in verses 5 & 6 to build houses, settle down, invest in the economy and grow families. He then tells them in verse 7 to pray for Babylon and that their prosperity is directly tied to Babylon’s prosperity. If Babylon prospers, they will prosper as well.

This is all very important to understand before we decide to memorize and apply verse 11 to our own lives in the specific contexts in which we live:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV)

Verse 11 must be read within the context of verse 7. The prosperity promised to God’s people in verse 11 is all part of God’s plan to use a 70 year captivity in order to bring prosperity, hope and a future about. Yahweh has already said that any prosperity that will come to them will be directly tied to them seeking the prosperity of the city (not of themselves).

So this is where the 7-11 Principle comes in: “You don’t get 11 without first doing 7.”

You don’t get God’s plan to prosper you outside of you being committed to seeking the prosperity of the city, your neighborhood and community. God’s promise in Jeremiah 29:11 isn’t a verse intended for personal improvement or self-actualization. God’s promise is to a faith community committed to seeking the prosperity of their city as their primary mission.

The problem is that most of us Americans are better at plundering our cities (to borrow a Tim Keller term) as consumers rather than prospering them as kingdom-minded Christians. I’ll talk about that in my next post.

The 7-11 Principle (Part 2)

In my last post I began explaining the 7-11 Principle. I shared how Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you…”) is one of the most popular memory verses amongst Christians (with various products available for purchase as proof) but largely is not understood within its context of the Babylonian captivity. Take a look at what Jeremiah shares in the previous verses to the exiles in Babylon:

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jer. 29:4-7, NIV)

The Babylonian’s invasion of Jerusalem not only resulted in the plundering of precious resources like gold and silver, they also plundered the people. Jerusalem’s exiles were the best and brightest of the city. One can imagine that the Jewish exiles in Babylon were being pulled in two directions. The Babylonians were likely saying, “Give up on Yahweh and follow our gods. Become one of us!” But Jeremiah 29:8-10 reveals another voice the exiles were hearing:

Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD. This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.”

Jeremiah 28 records how the prophet Hananiah claimed that the LORD was going to free the exiles from under the yoke of Babylon, exactly opposite to what Jeremiah was saying the LORD was saying. If the Babylonians were saying, “Become one of us and embrace Babylon” then the false Jewish prophets were saying, “Stay true to Yahweh by resisting Babylon!” Who were the exiles to believe?

Jeremiah comes into the middle of this and offers a third way: “Stay true to Yahweh by blessing Babylon.” What? This doesn’t make sense at all! Bless our enemies?  Being faithful to Yahweh is being faithful to prosper the city that we are held captive in?

This whole section of Jeremiah 29 deserves a more thorough reading within its context than I can provide here but even a surface reading reveals that verse 11 needs to be understood within the context of verses 4-10 (I know that sounds obvious but it’s amazing how often we fail to know the context of Scriptures we recite!)

This is the basis for the 7-11 Principle: You don’t get 11 until you do 7.

I’ll explain this more in Part 3 next week.


The 7-11 Principle (Part I)

No, I’m not talking about indulging in Slurpees or eating 99 cent hot dogs from this well-known convenience store. The 7-11 Principle is something I coined in between church services earlier in the year to help people remember the context of a well-known verse from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, chapter 29.

Jeremiah 29:11 says,

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (NIV)

A quick Google search reveals how popular this verse is and the marketing effort targeting Christians to purchase a myriad of items referencing Jer. 29:11. You can buy plaques, rings, journals, T-shirts, bibles, pen sets, magnetic strips, bookmarks, CD’s, pendants and even a cooler to keep your soft drinks cold! Why do people like this verse so much? Because it reminds them that no matter how difficult life gets, God is in control and will take of His own.

But that wasn’t the point of my sermon. I wanted to help people understand that Jeremiah was writing to the exiles living in Babylon. They were in enemy territory and were praying for God to deliver them from the hands of their enemies and return them to Jerusalem. But Jeremiah says God has a different plan. We’ll look at that in my next post.