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Chris Russo's Blog

16 years ago

anchor

Many of you know this already, but on December 12, 2000, everything changed for me. I was a freshman at the College of Charleston and I was living a very empty life. I thought  life was all about me and what I could get from others. I had no sense of higher purpose and didn’t have any kind of beliefs to speak of. I had a deep, internal sense that there had to be more to life than what meets the eye, but that was about it.

That night, I had a dream that would forever alter the trajectory of my existence. In the dream, I was a dark soul descending into a dark chasm. In front me was an expanse of light more brilliant and brighter than I could possibly put into words. Ascending into that light were huge, glorious faces looking down at me as I descended away from them into the blackness. One of the glorious faces was my friend and roommate Ashwin, who was a Christian. I woke up from the dream knowing that if I died in that moment, I was not going to heaven. I went into Ashwin’s room at about midnight and communicated to him that I knew I wasn’t straight with God. He proceeded to lead me in a prayer where I surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. I asked him to come into my heart to be my Lord and Savior. I was immediately filled with a presence that I had not known before and I knew that life would never be the same again. Ashwin let me read his Bible that night and I read it for about 3 hours. The words seemed to be on fire and felt intensely personal. I woke up that next morning and could still feel the glow I had felt the night before. A new journey had just begun.

As of yesterday, it’s been 16 years since that night and journey is definitely the right word for it. I’m not going to even attempt to encapsulate all that I have experienced and learned in a single blog post, but I do want to share a couple of the insights I’ve gained that may be helpful to you.

  1. We are 3 part beings

We have a spirit, a soul (the mind, will and emotions) and a body. Why is this relevant? Because it’s possible for something to change in your spirit and for your soul and body to not catch up right away. The night of December 12th, I believe my spirit was renewed and that cannot change. That was permanent. In Romans chapter 8, verse 10, the apostle Paul said,  “But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness.” When someone unites their life to Christ, a permanent change takes place and that is what is meant when someone is “born again.” That being said, we still have the mind, the will and the emotions to contend with. Those remained largely unaltered in me and the process of sanctification began. That is the process I will be in until I’m room temperature. The process by which believers partner with God in the constant renewal of the soul into the image of Christ.

This process is far more arduous and difficult than I could ever have imagined. There are deep, unalterable truths that I believe to the core of my being and yet, I often find my mind and will fighting against the very beliefs I would die to defend. There is no question about it, a spiritual war takes place all around us and in us. To the dismay of many, ignorance and/or disregard of this war does not profit anyone in the least…it only makes us more vulnerable.

2. Jesus is the constant anchor of my soul

In reference to Jesus, the author of Hebrews says in verse 19, “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain…” When I can lean on my own understanding, I do. I like to break things down into neat little boxes and generally have life figured out. But how many of you know that you only need to be alive for a day to realize that life cannot be figured out? The ups and downs I’ve had over the years are beyond my ability to comprehend and put into words. The trials have been, at times, next to unbearable. What those trials have taught me however, is that there is a presence in me that is greater than this world. The night of December 12th, 2000, I asked Jesus Christ to come into my heart. I realize there are many different views as to who Jesus is, but I firmly believe that he is the Son of God and the only path to salvation. I believe he lived a sinless life, was crucified and raised from the dead on the 3rd day. I believe he overcame death, hell and all the powers of darkness. His presence in the human soul brings resurrection. It’s because of his presence in my heart that I’ve been able to stand my ground. I’m all about determination and willpower, but human beings were not meant to do life apart from their Creator. That is why Jesus came. He came to reconcile man to God because of the presence of sin and his great love for us. It is only as we unite our lives with Jesus that we experience the union with God that he came to usher into the human race.

The journey has been hard and rewarding…simple, but profoundly complicated….difficult and yet, triumphant. I have no idea what the future holds and I know it may sound cliche, but I know who holds the future. I still have plenty of rough edges and my quest for truth is certainly not over. I encounter situations, circumstances and dilemmas daily that continue to lead me back to the overwhelming conclusion that I don’t have things figured out. The one constant for me that has not and will not change however, is that Jesus is my Savior. He is my rock, my source, my supply, my peace, my anchor, my light and my everything. I look to him to lead me in ways that I can’t lead myself. He gets my anger, my fears, my worries and insecurities and he’s using them to weave together a tapestry that will bring honor to his name and light to others. My hope for you? That you would discover in Jesus what I’ve discovered. That he is the God-sent messenger to reconcile humanity to God.

God bless,

Chris

 

3 years in.

church

About 3 years ago, the announcement was made that I was the new Columbia campus pastor. I cannot believe it’s been 3 years, already. I cannot begin to condense and distill all that I’ve learned in this 3 year period. It has been harder and better than I ever could have imagined.

I could not have possibly conceived of all that I had to learn and all the ways I would need to stretch to walk in this new season. My wife and I have gotten to pastor and learn from some of the most incredible people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. This season has meant so much to my family and I. We left the comfort and support of a great church family in Charleston to walk into the unknown and to open the next chapter of the adventure that God had in store for us.

Because we’re still learning and growing, it’s hard for me to look back and see what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown, but I do want to share a couple of key lessons.

  1. Leadership is about trusting God

At the end of the day, I’ve learned that in and of myself, I don’t have a lot for people. In the past 3 years, I’ve done a ton of counseling with people in all different walks of life. I’ve sat with couples in some of their darkest moments and given comfort to people in the places of their deepest pain. I’ve learned that I’m not smart enough to take care of the issues and problems of those around me. I used to entertain delusions that I could save people or fix them or both, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Leading and pastoring people means praying a lot and allowing God to use you to make a difference in their lives. I’m a vessel and a conduit, but I certainly don’t have anywhere close to all the answers. To quote a poet I listen to, I’m a crooked stick that God sometimes uses to draw straight lines.

2. Following God means embracing uncertainty and risk

On paper, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense for Abbi and I to leave the familiarity and comfort of our season in Charleston. We were around great people…I was working in vocational ministry….we had a house, 2 kids and a dog….life was going pretty good! Columbia wasn’t a part of some master plan that Abbi and I concocted to realize some grander goal or aspiration. On the contrary, the opportunity opened up…it seemed like it was from God….and we went for it. We didn’t know the people and we didn’t know what this season would bring. All we felt certain of is that God had more for us and that “more” meant moving to Columbia, SC. God has continued to affirm to us, in many different ways, that we made the right decision.

3. New seasons of leadership mean new seasons of growth

I knew that I was moving up in my position of leadership, but I didn’t realize the internal growth that would need to accompany my new ministry role. I knew that I’d be leading at a higher level. I knew that leading a staff would have it’s own new set of challenges. I knew that being the leader of a campus would require me to grow in areas that I hadn’t grown in before, but I definitely underestimated the character development I was in for. I have encountered situation after situation that has clearly required me to become a better man, a better pastor and a better leader. I don’t know who I’ll be if and when God calls us to a new season, but I know I’ll be much better off than when I first came to Columbia.

I guess the biggest thing I want to say is, “Thank you.” First, thank you to God who continues to lead and guide me and often times, in spite of me. Thank you to my wife who continues to support me and follow me even though I have a tendency to say, “Ready, fire, aim!” Thank you to my leadership at Seacoast Church. Thank you for continuing to believe in me and support me even at times when I doubt myself and the plans God has for me. Thank you to all our friends and family in Charleston. Your continued support for Abbi, myself and the kids has made this season so much easier and smoother than it ever would have been without you. Last, but certainly not least, thank you to the Columbia campus! Thank you to all of our elders, our friends, our phenomenal staff and great volunteers. You are a special group of people and you have done nothing but embrace Abbi and I, which has meant more to me than I could ever say.

I just turned 34 years old and I have no idea what God has for my future. I’m not kidding. I tend to be a control freak and it continues to frustrate me that God is not in the habit of tipping his hand when it comes to the future. That being said, if this season in Columbia is any indication, I can only imagine that the future will be jam-packed with blessing, opportunity and trials that will continue to stretch us and grow us for God’s glory, our good and the benefit of others.

columbia

 

 

 

Puzzling reflections

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You know, in this life we only get to see a little bit. In 1 Cor. 13 verse 12 Paul says,  “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.”

I’m so glad that I don’t know everything! When I think about my past, my present and all that I see around me in the world, things are confusing. I can’t put the pieces together. When I make the mistake of putting too much stock in my own opinion and perspective, things get out of whack real quick. I start to get very stressed out because the conclusions I come to, which are based on my imperfect understanding, are awfully grim. There are things I see in the world and things that have happened in my life that I just don’t get. When I try to understand them, I just get more confused.

This verse is very freeing to me. It means there’s room for mystery. It means there’s room for, “I don’t know.” It means there’s room for, “I guess I’ll find out on the other side.” That takes a lot of pressure off of me. No matter how much I read, no matter how many podcasts I listen to, no matter how much scripture I memorize, I simply will never figure out all the complexities of this life. It’s just not gonna happen. God will continue to teach me and reveal things to me, but I’m just not gonna know the whole thing on this side of heaven. I’m ok with that. I think the reason that’s the case is because God wants us to trust him. He wants us to trust his heart and his character. You don’t need a whole lotta trust or faith when you know everything.

So, what about you? Are you living by faith or by sight? If you live by sight, you’re gonna hurt yourself and others. You’ll think you see it all and you may even feel confident of that, but you’ll be wrong. In your confidence in your own sight, you’ll make colossal mistakes that you don’t need to make. When you live by faith, there’s room to breathe. There’s room to say, “God, I just don’t know about this one, but I’m gonna trust you and see what happens.” My prayer is that you’ll choose the latter…that we’ll all choose the latter.

God, I love you and I trust you. I recognize that there’s a ton of stuff that I don’t understand and won’t understand this side of heaven. Help me to walk by faith and not by sight. Help me to posture myself as a child that is in constant need of his Dad for guidance.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen.

2 Corinthians 5:7 “For we live by faith, not by sight.”

Election Day

Working from acceptance or for it?

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The difference between working from acceptance or for it cannot be overstated. Working for acceptance means that when it comes to relationship with God and people, your primary motivation is to be approved and validated. You need people to like you and you are practiced in the art of impression management. You tend to not like it when other people are being approved because your tendency is to see them as competition. It’s OK to like being liked, but it’s another thing to need it. If your primary motivation in life is to work for acceptance, no amount of approval is ever enough. This probably is a big part of your relationship with God, too. Even though you may know that God loves you and has accepted you, that reality has not made into your heart. There is a sense that if you could just do enough good, maybe he would approve of you too.

I know that world all too well and am trying to find a better way. Working for acceptance is exhausting. You need everyone to like you and no matter how many followers you have on Instagram and no matter how many compliments you get, it’s never enough. You feel like if you could just be accepted by the right people or if you could just achieve enough, the need for approval would go away. If you work for acceptance, you peddle your identity on social media or in different social circles and you’re only as good as how others respond to you. I’ve lived this way for far too long and I can tell you it’s no way to live.

Working from acceptance is an entirely different thing. If you work from acceptance, you like being liked but you don’t need to be. There is a deep assurance that first and foremost, God accepts you. You’ve received Christ as your Lord and Savior and you know that God is pleased with you. You are assured of the fact that you are his beloved son or daughter and that nothing can change that. You’ve been assured in the depths of your soul that you are accepted by the One whose opinion matters more than anyone else in the universe. This deep and abiding revelation has freed you from the daily grind of impression management. You are shedding the grave clothes of mask-wearing and people pleasing. If people don’t approve of you or if they reject you, that is nowhere close to the end of you. Your sense of self-esteem does not rise and fall with how the outside world responds to you.

This way of living is not normal, but it is available. God loves you exactly as you are and wants to assure your heart of his love for you. He can usher you into a much more enriching existence if you are willing to follow and trust him. Old patterns of thought and harmful paradigms are not easily dismantled, but it is possible. The journey towards healing starts with honesty and that is where I would encourage you to start.

Are you working from acceptance or for it? I’ve worked for acceptance for a very long time and I’m making the slow, but important journey towards healing. I don’t want to need the approval of others and I don’t want my deepest fears to revolve around what other broken people think of me. There is Someone in the universe whose opinion of me does and should matter the most and he’s where I want my sense of identity to come from. I hope you’ll join me.

My most important spiritual discipline

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The issues of life have a way of snowballing, don’t they? Stresses from life, work and relationships…fears about the future, regrets from the past and concerns about the present…and all the while we’re supposed to live lives of purpose and focus. How in the world are we supposed to stay grounded and have a relationship with God in the midst of all that?

One verse about Jesus’ life helps me to understand how he accomplished so much in the time he was here. Luke 5:16 says, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” This is such an important passage to me. Pretty much ever since I gave my life to Christ, I’ve tried to do this.

One of the most important things to me is having a beautiful outdoor spot where I can get alone with God. When I go, all bets are off. My prayers are not well-formed or thought through. I just allow my heart and soul to unplug. I tell him whatever is going on in my mind and my goal is to simply connect with him. I generally don’t have one specific prayer request or thing I’m asking for. My goal is just to be real and share the most intimate issues of my heart with him. Sometimes this looks like anger or confusion. Sometimes it looks like exasperation and fatigue. Sometimes the only thing I know to do is just be still in hopes that I’ll experience his peace. It’s the time when I’m the most real and vulnerable and it’s the time I connect with him the best.

For me, this is the most important spiritual discipline. The spot I pick needs to be away from people and I love it when it has some natural beauty. I gotta feel like nobody is looking at me and that I’m free to just uncork. One thing that I definitely want to be said about my life is that “Chris often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Could that be said about you? Jesus accomplished more in 3 years of ministry than any of us will accomplish in decades. If anyone had the ability to keep his mind clear and focused, it was Jesus. If he found the continual need to back away from people and the hustle and bustle of daily life, how much more should we?

Life has a way of ganging up on you. Things can accumulate in our hearts and minds leaving us feeling cluttered and disoriented. This simple practice of withdrawing to a lonely place to connect with God can be a game-changer. I don’t worry about what I’m gonna say when I get there and I don’t really make a plan…I just go. I don’t set a timer or worry too much about how long I’m going to be there either. It’s about quality, not quantity. My goal is to unplug and connect with the God who created me. I may not know anything about you, but I do know that you suffer from the same attacks that all humans face. I know that life has a way of crowding you out and making you feel small and stressed. I know there is a real enemy out there that is against the work of God in your life. My encouragement? Make at least a monthly practice of withdrawing to a lonely place and praying. For me, it’s best if I do this at least once a week. The rhythm is up to you, but I highly recommend you follow Jesus’ lead in this important spiritual discipline.

Stuck on the diving board

diving board

Have you ever been stuck on a diving board? I certainly have. It’s the worst feeling on the planet, especially if the pool is packed around you. There are people waiting in line behind you and spectators all over the place just waiting for you to make a fool of yourself. For some of us, we also have all kinds of videos playing in our heads with all the things that could go wrong…especially if you’re about to try something that’s a little out of your comfort zone. You’re pretty sure you can do it, but you’ve never done it before, so there are no guarantees.

There are some people who are high flying off diving boards. If this is you, you don’t even think about it. By the way, you nauseate the rest of us, but we love to watch and secretly live through you. You step up and do a back flip with a twist as if there wasn’t even a possibility you could fail and then you jump up there and crush a gainer nailing the landing perfectly. You live in a place some of us can only dream of. On the other side of the spectrum are those that may jump, but you’re not gonna try anything interesting. For those in that camp, I respect your decision. I mean, you have nothing to prove and why risk disaster? I totally get that. You may not even be interested in pushing yourself outside your comfort zone.

I live in what I believe to be the worst place…somewhere in the middle. I have an internal need or desire to try new things, but I’m scared to death of it. What that ends up looking like is me being afraid before I get up there, second guessing myself while I’m up there and every once in a while, pulling off something at least somewhat cool. A trip to the pool is a win for me if I can get myself to get a little out of my comfort zone.

Here’s the thing, whether or not a diving board is your jam, I’ve become convinced that greatness cannot be achieved while living inside your comfort zone. They are mutually exclusive. I have yet to read a book or hear a sermon where the author or speaker talk about how they stumbled into success while living safely inside their comfort zone. Their breakthrough achievement ALWAYS involves doing or saying something that was terrifying to them. What’s worse, the fear didn’t even go away before they did or said that terrifying thing. They had to fight through it. It was on their shoulder the whole time, telling them they were gonna fail and how awful it would be when they did. And yet….

There was a deeper voice inside. A voice inside whispering to them that this is a divine moment. They didn’t have all the answers at the time. They didn’t necessarily know the opportunity cost of not doing whatever that challenging thing was. They just had a premonition that if they missed this moment, things would not be as good as they could be. I just heard a quote the other day that expresses this thought. It’s something like, “People tend to overestimate the value of what they have and underestimate the value of what they could have by changing.” That’s not verbatim, but you get the point.

I may not know much about you, but what I do know is that the road to your God-ordained destiny is going to be paved with moments like these. Moments when you experience a great fear inside that is telling you that moving forward is a bad idea. In those moments, the overwhelming temptation will be to back down and stay in your comfort zone. But you’re also going to experience a voice inside that’s deeper than the fear. That voice will be saying, “Go for it. This is an opportunity you need to take. This is a moment you need to seize. Charge!” I’m not saying this is the case every time, but I do believe that sometimes, that voice is the voice of God. So, where are you stuck on the diving board? I love this quote from the movie, We Bought A Zoo….“You know, sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage. Just, literally, 20 seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” This is your moment, charge!

Here is one of those tiny moments where I overcame the fear just a little bit (-;

Please don’t have it together

perfect

Quite honestly, I meet too many people who have it together. You can tell the type, can’t you? They just exude a sense of arrival. In our age of social media, it has become easier and easier to convince the watching world that our lives are great. Our kids are always adorable, our lives are messy, but in all the right kinds of ways. We’ve, with the help of Jesus of course, escaped the brokenness of the world. We always smile, we never fight with our spouses and we certainly don’t struggle with ongoing mental, emotional and spiritual brokenness. Welcome to the world of TOGETHER.

We all have those people in mind, don’t we? Those people that we are pretty certain have life figured out. The fact that they wouldn’t say they have life figured out adds all the more fodder to our idea that they have life figured out. Truth of the matter is, I struggle with trying to pretend I’m one of those people.

People don’t really know what to do with brokenness. Try telling someone how your day is really going and watch the glaze go over their eyes. Most people don’t really care how you’re doing. Unfortunately, that’s just the reality of the situation. Sure, out of guilt they’ll pretend to, but most honestly don’t. Most people want to hear that you’re doing great because that helps them perpetuate the lie that they’re doing great too. It’s a vicious cycle.

Honestly, I’m tired of trying to have it together and I’m tired of being around people who pretend to have it together. But, what’s the alternative? Are we all supposed to be emotionally raw with everyone around us? Should we post our most miserable moments on Facebook instead of our most joyous ones? How can we be “positive,” but also real? I have some ideas.

  1. Find a mentor or two

People who think they have it together are allergic to relationships that assert the opposite. Sitting down regularly with a mentor means that you have a relationship in your life where the fundamental understanding is that someone is further along than you. This helps break down the pride and leads us closer to reality.

2. Have at least one person in your life who isn’t impressed with you

I love the way my wife honors me. She is a phenomenal woman and she reminds me regularly that she thinks the world of me. That being said, my wife is a truth-teller. It is simply not in her nature to not speak truth or act like she agrees with something she doesn’t agree with. I may get tons of head nods and smiles from other people, but Abbi is going to let me know what’s up. This is so incredibly helpful when it comes to keeping me grounded.

3. Share about your brokenness

I’ve heard it said before that we impress others with our strengths, but we connect with them through our weaknesses. There are tons of social situations where I’m tempted to talk about my strengths. Especially if I feel inferior or uncomfortable, I’ve mastered the art of sharing something I’m good at in a seemingly humble way. Let’s not do that. Instead, even when we know we could probably impress others, let’s go the other way in an effort to connect. Paradoxically, there are few things more impressive to me than someone who is incredibly strong who doesn’t seem to know it or isn’t impressed by their own strength. That’s a rare thing in our day and age!

4. Start comparing yourself to Jesus

You know, the more you spend time with Jesus, the more challenging it will become to convince yourself and others that you have it together. The world will say you have it together once you get your image under control. Just buy a house, post the right things on social media, smile a lot and a handful of other things and then you’re in. It’s that simple. But if you start spending lots of time with Jesus, your brokenness will become more and more clear. For those of us who call ourselves Christians, we have said that we want to become more and more like Christ. Part of that process is facing deeper and deeper levels of our own depravity. The cool thing about God is that he doesn’t shame you, but instead he brings you hope and healing.

There is more that could be said, but please don’t have it together. When we act like we have it together, we just perpetuate the vicious cycle that our culture lives in. We also inadvertently make it harder for those around us who are struggling to be real with us and with themselves. Life is hard enough. We don’t need people around us constantly reminding us that our lives don’t measure up, but this isn’t about throwing stones. The best way to affect social change is to embody what you want to see in the world around you. (Ghandi) So, let’s do it together.

Immersed in God’s word

God's word

The Bible is my favorite book, period. The purpose of this post isn’t to convince you that it’s God’s inspired word or that you need to read it. If you’re not already at least somewhat convinced of it’s importance and power, I don’t know that this post will be super helpful to you. I’m speaking to those who realize the Bible is incredible, but struggle to make it an enjoyable part of their daily routine.

Perhaps the 2 most basic disciplines for the Christian’s spiritual journey are reading the Bible and prayer. The application of most sermons you hear tend to point towards these 2 disciplines in some way, shape or form. It’s hard for me to imagine having a growing and vibrant spiritual life if you’re not regularly hearing from God through his word and communicating with him in prayer. I try not to approach these disciplines with a “religious” or legalistic mindset, but I would strongly admonish every Christian to make sure these are daily habits. That being said, I used to have a very difficult time connecting my time in God’s word and prayer.

I would read a passage, feel somewhat inspired by it and then set the Bible down. I might take out a journal or try praying in some other way, but the prayer time never felt connected to anything I had just read. I always felt these two disciplines should be married and intertwined, but they always felt very disconnected. Something changed for me last year that has permanently shifted how I approach these two disciplines.

A pastor at Seacoast recommended that I read The Divine Mentor by Pastor Wayne Cordeiro. For me, it was a very simple, but profound read. In the book, Pastor Wayne shares the S.O.A.P. method of studying scripture. The S stands for scripture, the O stands for Observation, the A stands for application and the P stands for prayer. The idea is simple and I’ve been following this method every day for about 6 months.

Here’s what I do….I follow a basic Bible reading plan on the YouVersion Bible app. I’m doing the Bible in a year plan, so I start by reading through the different scriptures for the day. After I’m done with that, I take out my journal. As I’m reading through the different scriptures, I’m trying to pay attention to any passages that stick out that God may want me to focus on. After I’m done reading, I’ll pick one passage that I want to journal about. I date and title the entry and then I write the passage down for the S portion of the exercise. Then I write down any observations I have. I don’t try to be super deep or anything. I just try to be attentive to anything that sticks out to me from the passage. After that I’ll write down anything that sticks out for application. I don’t try to inundate myself with lots of to-dos, but I just want to make sure I’m always approaching scripture with an attitude that says I want to change. Then I write my prayer out. I pray whatever I’m feeling for the day and just let that go where it goes. I do this every single day and it has completely changed the way I approach reading the Bible and prayer.

Because I date and title every post, I’m going to be able to look back at 2016 and easily look through everything I felt the Lord impressed on my heart this year. If my kids or loved ones ever want to look through my journals in the future, they’ll be able to see what I felt God had communicated to me throughout my life. The discipline of S.O.A.P. has been life-changing for me and my time with the Lord in the morning is the most valuable portion of my day. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

That being said, there’s nothing magical about Pastor Wayne’s method. If you already have one that works for you, please stick with it by all means. I just wanted to briefly share what I’ve been doing in hopes that it might be helpful to you. The Bible is God’s inspired word and is an indescribably valuable asset, but it must be accessed. To access the infinite wisdom contained in its’ pages, some type of method must be employed. I heard a pastor say recently that “the best system is the one that works,” so on that note, I encourage you to keep growing through the intentional disciplines of reading the Bible and prayer.

 

 

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