This month: 181 - Online Church
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Josh Ross

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In January of 2014, I traveled to Barrow, Alaska [1] . It’s the northernmost point of Alaska, which means the United States cannot go any further than the place where I stood. My travel was far from a vacation. I prefer warm beaches, large urban areas, historical sites, arenas, ballparks, and places with a plethora of restaurants. Barrow is a town of a few thousand people with a few local places to eat, a community center, an indoor hockey rink, a hospital, a school, and a grocery store. Weather in the winter time can reach -60 wind chill, and you can find snow and ice on the ground every month of the year.

I traveled to Barrow both for a sermon series I was preparing to preach and a book I was eager to write. My curiosity got the best of me when I discovered that towns above the Arctic Circle experience 65-75 days every winter without seeing the sun. More interestingly, research shows that there is often a peak season for depression and suicide attempts, and surprisingly, it is not in the period of darkness. It is when the sun comes back. The phrase that launched this entire journey to Barrow to write a book and to preach a series began with this, “The problem is reentry.”[2] One person said this, “You don’t have enough energy to make a plan before then. It’s too much trouble. Once the light starts coming back, there’s more energy, but reasoning is off.”[3]

Now, let me be clear, I found the citizens of Barrow to be extremely hospitable, gracious, welcoming, and kind. I did not find them to be overly depressed, paranoid, or anxious. On the other hand, for over a week, they became teachers, instructors, and story-tellers who reframed for me what it means to navigate seasons of uncertainty and darkness.

This is a game-changer for us as we attempt to navigate the current crisis we are in. Covid-19 has completely knocked us out of rhythm. Every business, organization, and church has had to pivot as we adapt to walk this road. How we reengage and reenter into the fabric of life is going to take focus, care, thoughtfulness, and intentionality.

When we find ourselves traveling paths in which a cloud of uncertainty hovers, we begin to reach for reentry. Everything in us wants to reenter and reengage. We want normality and familiarity. We want what we have lost. We want something new that reflects something of old. One way to put it; we want our lives back.

I’m a seven on the enneagram. Maybe you haven’t been indoctrinated into the world of the enneagram, so I’ll break it down like this. Sevens are adventurous, enthusiastic, and we’re often dreamers. Typically, we are glass half-full people. We avoid pain at all costs. We have the gift of reframing. Here’s what this means in our current crisis, I want to run to reentry. Right now, I want to reimagine what reentry and reengagement will look like, and I want to rally to it. I don’t want to stay in this darkness. I want something fresh.

As a healthy seven, I’m reminded that it’s ok to peak into the future, but I need to live in the now. I know it’s ok to make plans for the future, but I need to seek first what God is up to today. I also need to embrace the reality that how we live into the future isn’t going to be like how life has been in the past. Covid-19 has changed the world. Life moving forward isn’t going to be like it was in the past. Sure, maybe we’ll return to forms of normality in the future, but it’s going to be a while. We can wait to see if familiarity returns, or we can adapt to what it means to remain connected to God and to others. We’ve been dealt a hand that we never asked for, but these are the cards we have to play, so what are we going to do with it?

When executive orders are lifted, and when groups of 10 and more can begin to meet again, I anticipate that reentry is going to be harder than some people think. Especially for churches, we need to prepare for this. I don’t envision there being a Friday when orders are lifted, and on Sunday the church gathers in full force to sing Living Hope and It is Well. Reentry is going to be gradual, in phases, and slow. For some, they will be eager to return to life, and for others they will be extremely cautious.

I’m concerned about a few things as we walk this journey. 

I’m concerned about health and safety. This is why I try to model in my life what the experts have encouraged us to practice: social distancing, safe at home, wash hands, etc.

With that said, I’m just as concerned about a couple of other important things.

I’m concerned that it has taken time for us to live into social distancing and staying away from others. The other day, Kayci and I were outside talking to a few friends from 15 feet away. Our mail carrier walked down the sidewalk, and we all immediately scrambled to give each other space. Social distancing is a muscle we’ve had to learn to exercise. Unfortunately, it’s not a switch that we can turn off and on. When the time is right, we’re going to have to unlearn specific practices in order to properly reengage neighbors and friends.

I’m concerned that fear, unhealthy forms of anxiety, and paranoia have taken hold of hearts and that they are slowly rotting the souls of people. I think everyone needs to read 1-3 articles every day or two to remain informed about what we are facing. Yet, every article and news source scanned after that doesn’t add to knowledge; instead, it slowly robs us of hope, joy, and peace.

Back to my time in Barrow. The healthiest people I encountered while there had these three things in common:

1.     Roots. They had roots that had been firmly established. I’m referring to convictions, a foundation, principles they intentionally chose to build their life on. Multiple times I’ve taught that if you wait until the storm hits to attempt to establish roots, it may be too late. Some people have found that to be true over the past few weeks. Yet, at the same time, we serve a God who can anchor us even while in the storm. Roots need to be remembered, nurtured, and recited.

2.     Rhythm. In the winter time, rhythm is what kept people engaged in relationships and community. You can’t sit on the porch and sip on tea. It’s too cold. You can’t go on walks. Frost bite will set in after 10 minutes. Yet, people with a healthy understanding of rhythm get creative with how they keep themselves connected to the fabric of society.

3.     Don’t go into survival mode. In Barrow, those who went into survival mode in the winter time were the most prone to depression and paranoia. Those who chose to live each day with a purpose claimed to be able to live from a healthy place. In Covid-19, the first couple of weeks, many of us went into survival mode. Yet, the more we have lived through this, the more we see that there are some aspects of life that will take time to be restored. There has been a lot of loss. Loss of life, loss of jobs, loss of security, loss of income, loss of health, loss of relational connection, loss of freedoms. I’ve encouraged our leaders at Sycamore View multiple times to not go into survival mode. This isn’t a race to see how long we can tread water. Instead, let’s embrace each week as an opportunity to dream with God and to engage in mission.

As much as we have had to adapt and make changes, there are a few important truths we can bank on: God’s heart is still beating, the mission of God keeps going, the gospel of Jesus doesn’t need to be rewritten, God is on the move, and the church (God’s people) are invited to be a part of it.

If we care about what kind of people we’re going to be on the other side of this, we must care deeply about what kind of people we are becoming each day we travel through this. We aren’t going to be peaceful, courageous, and healthy on the other side of Covid-19 if we aren’t daily choosing to press into God in ways each day that keep us rooted in peace, courage, and hope.

We can do this.

We can navigate this journey with God.

God is committed to navigating this journey with us.

Let’s move at God’s pace.

Keep in step with the Spirit.

The mission of God goes on, and we have a role to play.

Reentry matters. Even if it is months down the road, let’s begin preparing for reengagement now.


[1] Barrow changed names since Josh’s visit. It is now called Utqiagvik

[2] Associated Press, “In Alaska, Darkness and Depression Descend,” New York Times, December 18, 2005.

[3] Ibid.

JoshRossFrom the ages 8-12, I lived in a small town in East Texas called Crockett. It was named after Davy Crockett, because apparently when he was on his way to fight in the Alamo, he stopped there to get a drink of water or something like that.

It was my dad’s first preaching job, and our Sunday mornings looked like this; my mom would pile her 3 kids in our maroon Astro van. Then, we would begin our shuttle service around the town. We would pick up kids who were black, brown, white, rich, poor, and everything in between. It was back when you didn’t have to wear seatbelts in the back seat, so we would cram into the van and drive to church. Once we got to the building, I witnessed a church that faithfully loved up on every child who came.

At the time, I didn’t realize how this Sunday morning shuttle service, and the hospitality of the Grace Street Church was teaching and shaping my heart for God’s Kingdom. It was in Crockett that I declared Jesus as the Lord of my life through confession and baptism, and it was in Crockett that God began orienting my life for a calling so much bigger than anything I could have ever imagined.

***

If racial tension were a beach, a red flag would wave today signifying high surf and strong currents. Every camp has its extremists, yet what you hear are most minorities screaming for help and to be heard, and most whites who don’t really know how to respond, which means they either shrink into a shell, or stand still unsure of what to do or what to say about the current social climate.

When people ask me, “What do you think of this #blacklivesmatter stuff?” My immediate response is, “Do black lives matter to God?” Because if we answer that with a yes (which any follower of Jesus should), then we must wrestle with what it means to pursue whatever needs to be done to restore dignity, beauty, and reconciliation.

Here are 4 points to consider as we partner with God to live into His dreams for His world.

Embrace the Gift of God’s Colorful World

A dear friend, Don, challenged me a few years ago that one of the primary goals of racial reconciliation is not to be colorblind, but to embrace humanity as colorful. Being colorblind is helpful; I just don’t think it is realistic. To be colorful means that each tribe, nation, peoples, and language has a history with stories that have shaped their existence. Revelation 7:9-10 doesn’t describe heaven as a place where all redeemed bodies are reshaped into one skin tone, but rather that God’s creativity still shines through. If read right, heaven isn’t where ethnicities go to die, but where they go to be fully redeemed. The cross is where racism, elitism, and every unhealthy form of privilege went to die. And the resurrection is where the church was launched to set in motion God’s ultimate plan to bring together everything that has been divided.

Live to Shrink the Gap

The word “intercession” has become one of my favorite words; in fact, I’m currently preaching a 10-week series called Intercession at Sycamore View. In 1 Timothy 2:1, Paul writes, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone.” He could have just said to offer up prayers for everyone, but he didn’t. Intercession is a way to pray, and it is also a way to live. At the heart of intercession is to “create a meeting” or to “shrink the gap.” Isn’t this what we ask for when we pray for others? We are asking for a meeting to be created between God and a person. We plead with God to shrink the distance between a divided, confused heart, and to mesh it with His.

To live as intercessors also means that we stand in the gap. Wherever forms of injustice, blight, confusion, depression, or the loss of dignity exist, intercession calls us to step into those places—not as those who fix the problem—but as those who listen for ways God is redeeming hurting hearts and communities. To intercede is to get involved with the work of God, and the work of God is messy.

Tolerance Isn’t the Goal; Reconciliation Is

The more I study the life and teachings of Jesus, the more I see that His desire for humanity is not tolerance and cordiality, but reconciliation. Paul didn’t invite Jews, Gentiles, rich, and poor to shake hands in the marketplace, but rather to join together in a common community and mission for the sake of the gospel. And they believed it. Scales fell from eyes, privileges were laid down, and Jesus-followers learned to listen and respect each other as they worked in and for the Kingdom. When we fail to passionately pursue Jesus’ desire for diverse communities, we fail to properly embrace “let your Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.” Tolerance is easy, yet leads to entitlement and apathy. Reconciliation is hard, yet it leads to life.

Redeemed Tables

Nearly every time when I hear people say, “I’m not a racist, but…,” the next few words reveal a racist heart. On a few other occasions, I’ve heard people begin by stating that they’re not a racist, and then they proceed to name all 4 of their black coworkers and friends. Pursuing the heart of God begins by acknowledging the pieces of my heart that are not of God. They must be rebuked so that the fullness of God can be embraced. Racism, elitism, and entitlement will have no place in heaven, and they shouldn’t have a place in a redeemed person’s heart either.

One challenge I give our church is to take time to eat a meal with someone from another race or economic bracket. Reconciliation happens best when feet are placed under the same table. Tables are more than the place where food is eaten; it is where stories are shared. In 2015, one of the greatest redemptive acts for my white sisters and brothers might just be to sit at a table with a person of color, and to ask them to tell you stories of their lives, challenges, experiences, and difficulties. And when they pause after a story is told, respond by saying nothing more than, “Tell me more.” Shared stories teach us to love and respect all of humanity, and asking people to share their story is one of the most effective ways of letting people know that their lives matter.

***

Let’s pursue and cultivate our eternal reality now.

Let’s embrace our eternal future as a life to be lived right now.

Let’s be guilty of loving relentlessly and spreading grace liberally.

Let’s pursue the other—whoever “the other” might be—as image-bearers of God.