Category Archives: Pastor Rob

June 24, 2013

Phoenix, Faith, and Adaptive Reuse

One of the most interesting things about downtown and Central Phoenix is the practice of what’s called “adaptive reuse.” Arizona is one of our nation’s youngest states, meaning we don’t have a lot of old historic buildings. The ones we do have aren’t that historic by East Coast historic standards, but if something’s been around for a while, here in the desert, there’s a pretty big and vocal group of folks who do their best to preserve it. One of the ways they do this is to encourage reusing a building for a new purpose or business instead of bulldozing it for new construction. This has become a popular option for many locally owned restaurants and coffee shops that have brought new life to some of our older and unique buildings.

These projects are probably not as cost effective as demolishing the original building and then re-building, but they help maintain some uniqueness and history in a metro area infamously known for it’s urban blight and whitewashed urban sprawl. In fact, as I write this, I’m sitting in the new indoor seating area of Shine Coffee, here in midtown Phoenix. This is what they call their “living room,” which is a redesigned and repurposed space in an older building that once served as a dentist’s office where the dentist and his family lived upstairs. It’s one of the most comfortable coffee shop seating areas I’ve experienced and the environment is helping spur my thinking and creativity. There are also plans to add a “pocket park” space outside and plans for a wine bar in another vacant part of the building. It’s things like adaptive reuse that makes Phoenix attractive to creatives who think outside of the box and see possibility in an old vacant building or empty lot and not another opportunity to build a Dunkin’ Donuts.

As I’ve been reflected on our first year of existence, in a way it feels like City Square Church as been an adaptive reuse project. We’ve taken something (religion), that many thought had already made it’s statement, had fallen into disrepair, and by all means should probably be demolished because it doesn’t have much left to offer the world. We’ve taken those bones and we’re trying to breathe new life into them. Our vision has been to preserve the beauty, the uniqueness, and to tap in to what Christianity was originally supposed to be, while at the same time re-invigorating it with new possibilities.

There’s a lot about church that we’ve held on to. We still have small groups that do bible study, encourage accountability, and whose members pray for one another. We’re putting the finishing touches on our Sunday morning service that has the bones of thousands of other Christian worship services, including great music, preaching, and holy communion. We’re proclaiming our love of God and of neighbor and reclaiming that early Methodist spirit of a church not bound by walls and a faith that is personal but equally social.

We came downtown, though, not just to build another church, but because we saw some pretty great things beginning to break through the surface: The arts, the food, ASU, entrepreneurs, community organizing, and exciting new development. Our intention has never been to fix or to rescue Phoenix, but to help in the work that’s already being done. Yet, what we felt might be missing is a public space for faith and spirituality that was as unique and exciting about everything else going on in the core of Phoenix. Well, after a year on the ground we feel like our assumptions were correct.

We’ve met all kinds of people in the community who never thought they would ever explore the topics of faith and spirituality ever again, outside of their own thoughts or private conversations. These are folks who now gather to discuss religion and spirituality every second Sunday evening of the month at Angel’s Trumpet Ale House and those who come to our “Community & Contemplation” service at the Icehouse to be led in a “spiritual but not religious” form of prayer and meditation. Then there are those who have joined us for one of our Sunday morning worship services and confessed that they never thought they would willingly attend a service ever again in their lives. Many folks may still never attend one of our groups or services, but we’ve heard from those who feel that our work has enabled them to re-claim Jesus from a judgmental and hurtful past.

But like any old building, even though you’ve given it new plumbing, electrical, structure, and a face lift, it can still have unexpected issues and needed repairs. It also needs to live in to it’s new vision and purpose. And this will be our work for our second year as a church. There will be some unexpected quirks and growing pains. There will be new choices, challenges, and opportunities placed in front of us. There will be temptation to fall back into old habits and to focus inward on ourselves. Yet, if we remain faithful to God’s call and the spirit’s work in the community, we will remain, facing outward, ready to serve those who are not a part of us. We will not see them as strangers or as things to be collected, but as neighbors and partners in the work that lies ahead. May we do so in the name of the one who came to lay his own life down for others and calls us to do the same. Amen.

June 7, 2013

Creative Blocks, Car Repairs, and The Search for Meaning

This has been a very strange week for me. Sometime, around the beginning of May, I realized my creativity, ability to generate ideas, and create any kind of sensible workflow was basically non-existent. After trying to push through my funk I realized I wasn’t going to get anywhere unless I took a few steps back. I thought it might be a good idea to take a week where I could spend part of my days resting, getting some projects done around the house, and also taking some time to go to different parts of town to explore and work on my writing.

Well, we all know how the good ole “staycation” works out. I’ve put in more hours than I planned with work, unable to pull myself away from the phone and e-mail. But the most frustrating thing has been trying to fix the air-conditioning in my car, something I originally thought might take an hour or two. I’m currently sitting in a coffee shop, near my house, after dropping my car off at the mechanic for the third day in a row. This ongoing car repair saga has not been helpful for my stress level or my bank account.

My own inconveniences were put into perspective the other day, though. A colleague/friend/mentor of mine has been struggling with her health over the past couple of years, but I was still shocked to get an e-mail informing me, and others, that she had experienced a major stroke and was lying, unresponsive, but in stable condition, in the hospital. This comes on the heels of another good friend and colleague who just underwent brain surgery and was diagnosed with a malignant tumor. To be honest, I feel a deep sadness over both of these situations.

Over the years I’ve stopped asking God, “why do these things happen?” I don’t think it’s in God’s nature to give people massive strokes or cancer. Instead, I believe that God calls us to be an extension of God’s healing presence when others are suffering or are in need. I’ve found it far more helpful to be present with those I care about and to do whatever I can to relieve even a fraction of their suffering. Yet, sometimes, even us pastor-types still don’t understand pain and suffering.

In the New Testament, Luke’s gospel tells the story of a mother who was grieving the death of her only son. It’s a story that will be read in many churches, this Sunday. As Jesus and the disciples arrive at the mother’s village, Jesus stops those who are carrying her son’s body and says to the mother, “do not weep.” He then goes over to the man’s body and tells him to rise. Miraculously, the young man rises, speaks, and is reunited with his mother. Those who witness this then rejoice and praise God for what has happened. (Luke 7:11-17)

Normally, I’d probably offer some in-depth analysis on this passage and explain to you the symbolism and meaning of this miracle in the larger narrative of Luke’s gospel. However, this week, I just can’t intellectualize this story. I need the hope that this story offers. I need to believe in the new life that Christ gives us in every moment. I need to know that healing and life will ultimately overcome illness and tragedy.

This week, I need to bring it all to Jesus and I need to hear him say to me, “do not weep.”

May the God of love, healing, compassion, and of the peace that surpasses all understanding be with us now and forever. Amen.

-Pastor Rob

May 9, 2013

Can Anything Good Come Out of Downtown Phoenix?


Photo: Kelsey Wong, Design: Little Giant Design

Have you ever kicked yourself for standing on the sidelines too long? Have you ever failed to follow your heart or your gut and then missed out on something special? In my lifetime I have probably done that more than I like to admit. One of the biggest risk I’ve taken, though, is City Square Church, and it’s been far more rewarding than I could have ever dreamed. City Square, however, was a great risk to take only because Phoenix was, and continues to be, a great risk to take.

This past Sunday I preached at our first ever Sunday morning worship service, or what we new church start pastors call a “preview service” (We’ll have more previews on June 2, July 7, and weekly in August as we head towards our public “launch” or “grand opening” on September 8, 2013).

During the sermon I posed the questions: “Can anything good come out of downtown Phoenix?” and “Can anything good come out of religion?” My answer to both of these is an enthusiastic “yes!”

But we have to go beyond just agreeing that these things, can be, and are indeed, good. We have to be active in making Phoenix and religion good, even if they aren’t perfect and even if they are risky.

When it comes to Phoenix, we have to keep the momentum going in downtown, we have to spread the word about downtown, and we have to bring people downtown so they can experience what is good.

For those who consider themselves religious and who are specifically followers of Jesus, we can’t just talk about what a nice guy Jesus was, we have to live his values of love, compassion, justice, mercy and forgiveness on a daily basis. These can’t just be values we hold, but a way of life through which we transform our community and the world. We have to show that churches and religion aren’t aging buildings or a set of rules and judgments, but are a people who live into the loving and compassionate people God calls us to be.

Most importantly, we have to share and live this “good news” together.

So, if you missed our preview service, I want to extend an invitation to you to join us on this journey. We’re entering an exciting time in the young life of this faith community and we want to include everyone we can. If you’ve been on the periphery waiting for an opportunity to jump in, this is a great time. If you want to know what the next steps are or just want to hear more about who we are and where we are going, join us for “Coffee With the Pastors” at Songbird Coffee & Tea House on May 19th.

I don’t want to end with a selfish invitation to join my “thing,” though. Whether or not you’re ready to take a risk on religion, I want to invite you to help make Phoenix awesome. Phoenix needs not just your presence, but your ideas, your creativity, your passion, and your compassion. So much is already happening and will continue to happen as this city comes alive. So, whether or not you ever step foot into a City Square Church program or activity, please join me and many, many, others in making Phoenix, especially downtown, a great place to live, work, play and be in community with one another. If you’re standing on the sidelines, right now is the time to step into the game. Take a risk on Phoenix, you won’t be sorry.

April 25, 2013

The Importance of Getting to Know Our Neighbors

There’s something that bothers me about seeing neighbors gathering in the streets to celebrate things like the killing or capture of our national enemies. Why does it take tragedy and violence to bring us out of our houses to meet our neighbors through mourning or rejoicing with them? How do we move to a place where we celebrate in the street with our neighbors just because it’s something we practice regularly as a community?

I moved to Phoenix a little less than a year ago, just before starting my work with City Square Church. We looked at a few different houses, but settled on the one we ended up buying because we liked the feel of the neighborhood. It was quiet, yet you could easily walk to a nearby intersection that had various cool restaurants, coffee shops, a gym, and much more. We could take the kids to a nearby park and walk/run on the nearby canal path.

Now, when you move to a new neighborhood, in Phoenix, at the beginning of summer, it’s unlikely you will have much interaction with your neighbors. During our brutally hot summers we tend to stay inside or scurry from one air conditioned place to another.

But when the heat broke, in the fall, we began meeting a lot of our neighbors. We were invited to a few neighborhood barbecues and block parties and found that most of our neighborhood was made-up of families with young children, just like us. Now, when we go on our evening walks with our kids we run into our neighbors. Sometimes we stop and chat for a few minutes, other times we exchange a wave and a hello.

A few months ago our house was broken into and the intruder stole some things from our bedroom. The next day I walked around our block and notified my neighbors, many of whom I had yet to meet, of what had happened. They appreciated knowing about the robbery but I also ended up having more in-depth conversations with them, adding a silver-lining to an unfortunate event. I thought to myself, though, that it shouldn’t take my house getting robbed to get out and get to know my neighbors better.

Recently, I learned that a 2009 Gallup poll found only 12% of Arizonans believe the people in their community care about one another (For this stat and a ton of other good information about Arizona, check out The Arizona We Want 2.0).

In other words, at best, people don’t think their neighbors care about them and, at worst, we don’t think our neighbors trust us and/or we think they hate us.

It’s no secret we have trouble being neighborly, here in Arizona. Suburban sprawl creates cookie-cutter communities with two car garages, high walls and the lack of places for the neighborhood to gather. Freeways and un-friendly streets for bikes and pedestrians discourage walking and biking. All of these things create fewer natural interactions for people to have with one another. In addition, many of our laws promote a self-preservation/no trespassing/I can shoot you if I fear you mentality. We especially fear immigrants and just about anyone who doesn’t look or think like us.

I believe, however, that we can do better than 12% of us who think our neighbors care about us, and we can start by finding out who are neighbors are. In Luke 10:25 a lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” But the lawyer isn’t satisfied so he pushes more, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus then goes on to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. During Jesus’ time, Samaritans were considered anything but neighbors as they were seen as unclean and inferior. Yet, Jesus tells a story where those who society considered to be upstanding citizens and righteous religious leaders pass up a man who has been robbed and beaten and is lying in a ditch. But it’s the Samaritan who comes along, helps the man, and turns out to be the hero. In a scandalous reversal it’s the last person that anyone expects who Jesus identifies as the “neighbor” in the story.

It doesn’t matter who we are, we are all called to be good neighbors. It doesn’t matter who our neighbors are, if we don’t get to know them, we’ll let our stereotypes and misconceptions get the best of us.

If our neighbor is everyone and we are called to be good and compassionate neighbors, ourselves, we don’t have to go far to meet them. Your neighbor lives next door to you, sits in the office down the hall, is sleeping on the sidewalk tonight, comes from another country and might look different than anyone you’ve ever met.

Why do we need to get to know our neighbors? Because if we don’t, when people are in trouble, when they are disillusioned, when they are broken, they may have no one else to lean on. When we don’t know our neighbors it’s easy for distrust to take hold, for our fears to get the best of us and see our neighbors as “the other.” But when we know our neighbors fear and mistrust turn to love and compassion, and those are things worth celebrating in the streets.

So what are you waiting for? Go meet your neighbors.

April 4, 2013

Giving Away What Really Matters

In my last post I wrote about the difficulties associated with journeying through the darkness to find those things that give life and those things that matter most to us. When we truly discover those things, however, we will still question ourselves. We will quickly look for certainty. Is this who I really am? Is this what I’m really supposed to do?

Faith, is about giving up certainty.

I meet so many people who are looking for work or are unhappy in their current job and just want to follow their dreams and passions. In fact, I go to bed at night thinking about these folks and praying for them. When I wake up in the morning I often ask myself, am I doing enough to help them? But then I doubt. I doubt that there’s anything this terribly flawed pastor, husband and father can do to help others. There’s not enough opportunities out there, not enough time, not enough money. There’s jobs but not the “right” jobs.

Faith, is about giving up certainty.

And then there are the folks who aren’t working, on purpose. Well, sort of. They’ve left corporate jobs, jobs that allowed them to sock away enough savings that, just when those jobs had sucked the last bit of life out of them, they were able to walk away and spend a year or two following opportunities they were passionate about. Yet many of those opportunities don’t exist, they must be created, they must be fought for because our own minds and our world will fight against them. It’s hard to push forward when you start to doubt because you’ve heard “that will never work,” for what seems like the ten-millionth time.

Faith, is about giving up certainty.

Traditionally, the Gospel story that we encounter the week after Easter is the story of “doubting” Thomas. The disciples are huddled away in a room somewhere, heart broken over Jesus’ death and terrified that they may be next. Suddenly, the risen Christ appears to them, only for a few moments, but long enough for their hope to be restored. But everyone wasn’t there. Thomas was out grabbing a bite to eat, or something, and when he returns and hears what should be good news, he’s skeptical. Clearly, his friends are delusional. Thomas must believe without seeing. He must have faith. But he only believes when Jesus reappears, a week later, and Thomas can physically touch him.

Thomas is all of us. We have to see and touch in order to have faith. We have to know something will work, will be successful, profitable or meaningful. We can’t take that first step without certainty.

Faith, is about giving up certainty.

There are days when I’m terrified because I don’t know what’s going to happen a few years down the road or even a few months down the road. I worry about my career, my reputation and I worry about my family more than anything. I want certainty and I want to do whatever is necessary to hedge my bets, to create a safety net and to ensure my future and my family’s well-being in case I fail. I can’t give my time or talents to anyone or anything else because I’m not certain about my own life. Sorry, friends, but you’re on your own.

Okay, so those are my worst days. On my best days I’m that guy who can’t stop thinking about all of those people who just want to follow what they’re passionate about.

The disciples were pursuing what they were passionate about: God’s kingdom made fully known and present on earth; peace, justice and well-being for all of creation. Yet those hopes and dreams were shattered with the death of their leader. It would be faith that would move them forward, faith that is not immune to doubt, but the faith that if we give ourselves away, we will eventually realize the dreams and goals of the kingdom.

Even though Lent is over and we are early into the Easter season, let’s give up one more thing, let’s give up certainty. Let’s have the faith that if we work for the needs of others, that if we help other people follow what they are passionate about, that the rest will be taken care of.

So call that friend, family member or acquaintance and tell them you are here to help. Volunteer at that charity or non-profit that you’ve always been meaning to help with but just couldn’t find the time to (and to read more about the benefits of giving of your time and resources, check this article out),

Give up certainty.

Embrace fatih.

Follow your passion.

Change one life.

Change the world.

March 21, 2013

The Hard Work of Discovering What Really Matters

I deeply appreciate Holy Week. I don’t think it would sound quite right to say I “love” it or that it’s my favorite part of the Christian liturgical cycle, but I appreciate it. We spend the season of Lent preparing for Holy Week, stripping away those things that distract us and separate us from God and our neighbor. During Holy Week we are faced with dealing with the deep realities of our lives and our world. No longer are we focused on giving up coffee, or social media, or taking on a new spiritual practice, we are pushed to go deeper than that: we must deal with injustice, suffering and death.

The story of Palm Sunday, Jesus’ “grand” entrance into Jerusalem is the beginning of the Holy Week narrative. Jesus’ followers and those who lined the streets for what actually wasn’t such a grand entrance, believed this was a new beginning. And it was a new beginning, however, it was a beginning to a story that had a different ending from the one they expected.

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was a joke compared to how a Roman official would enter a city. Their entrance would have been in true opulent fashion, with armed soldiers in a show of prominence and imperial power. So, Jesus’ entrance is meant to be ironic. He comes in on a young horse (donkey in other gospels) with his ragtag bunch of followers, mocking the roman processional. He’s the humble king, riding into town, not as a military ruler, but as the Messiah, the anointed one, who fights the battles of the world with love, humility, healing, compassion and restorative justice.

We spend so much time in our lives trying to attain that prominence and power, looking to find the next best thing, upgrading, getting a promotion or that big break. The more status we attain, the more stuff we get, the happier we will be; that’s what the world tells us, anyway. However, Jesus’ processional reminds us that it’s not about how flashy our stuff is, but it’s about the values we carry with us.

I’ve been intrigued lately by stories of people and businesses who are moving away from a “profits first, ask questions later” model and are working to build companies and products and cultures that benefit our lives and our world. There’s this story of an entrepreneur and millionaire who, after selling two luxury residences, now lives in a 420 square foot studio apartment because he found it was love, not stuff, that made him happy. Or this story about companies who intentionally pass up higher profits because people and the environment are just as important as making money. These stories are only possible because people were willing to ask the hard the questions and make meaningful changes. Sometimes, you have to walk through the darkness to find the light.

The Holy Week narrative will continue, recounting what happens when love goes up against violence and injustice. Initially love will not win and there will be intense suffering and darkness. There will be questions of God’s justice and goodness. There will be grieving and hope will be a far off fantasy. The Christian story would not be compelling if it ended there because all too often we hear that story, we live that story, where darkness crushes the light, where hate wins out over love.

So we remember that the story never ends there because when we strip away all of those things that we think we need, we uncover something new, things we didn’t think were possible: love, compassion and humility, true meaning and value. It is then that we glimpse the image of God that sits at the core of our being. It’s an image that is buried under so many misconceptions of who we are and what makes us happy, buried under so much pain, suffering and hopelessness. But it’s an image filled with so many possibilities of hope that we find on Easter morning when we discover the tomb is empty. Until we get there, though, we must continue to journey inward, to strip away, to empty ourselves so we can discover those things that really matter.