Help support the vision of Woodland Hills Community Church!

Help support the vision of Woodland Hills Community Church!
For those of you who would like to support the vision & ministry of Woodland Hills Community Church (the faith community I serve that continues to encourage me to minister outside the box), please click on the link just above.

Wednesday, December 31

Today’s Readings: Psalm 8; Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Matthew 25:31-46; Revelation 21:1-6a

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that you cannot make someone do something until they are truly ready to do it. They might do what you ask initially, but in order to make a lasting change the individual involved has got to be ready to commit to the action him/herself before that change can become lasting. Two examples of this come to mind. I’ve been involved with countless friends and parishioners who smoke. I’ve begged and pleaded with them to stop smoking (especially ones that have serious illnesses that are complicated by their smoking). In not one instance have my pleas for change worked. The smokers had to be ready to quit before they could actually quit. Same thing goes with individuals involved in abusive relationships. I’ve encouraged folks in these relationships to leave their abusive spouses/partners. Once again, the individuals were unable/unwilling to leave their spouse/partner until they were ready. I was reminded of this basic truth as I read today’s passage from Ecclesiastes that talks about there being a time for everything. That passage is a huge challenge for me because it suggests two things that I hate to hear: (1) the time tables involved aren’t mine, and (2) there is a time for things that I wish wouldn’t happen (i.e. “a time to destroy”, “a time to part”, “a time to let go”, and “a time for war”). All of these statements are brutal reminders that life isn’t about me. Today, many of you might be tempted to sit down and create a long list of resolutions for the New Year in hopes that you can force it to be a time to make some of these long-delayed behavioral changes. In a few days or weeks, however, you might become frustrated by how many of these resolutions have already fallen by the wayside. If that’s been your pattern over the years, instead of putting all of your energy into creating the list of resolutions; spend some of that time in prayer and discernment asking, “Is this the time for me to … [and you can fill in the blank here for youself].” Til next time…

Tuesday, December 30

Today’s Readings: Psalm 118; Isaiah 25:1-9; John 7:53-8:11; Revelation 1:9-20; Psalm 51

I’m generally not a huge fan of the Gospel of John. I’m not a fan of John’s Gospel for a variety of reasons. The anti-Semitic tone of the Gospel is difficult for me to digest (i.e. John’s Gospel frequently shifts the offenses that Matthew and Mark associated with the religious leaders of Jesus’ time onto the whole of the Jewish people). I also tend to better relate to those Gospels that do a better job of developing a sense of Jesus’ humanity. Given my concerns about the Gospel, I find it ironic that one of my very favorite moral teachings in all of the Gospels is contained in John. In fact, it just so happens that that teaching is contained in today’s reading from John. In speaking to the religious authorities who were ready to stone a woman who had been caught in adultery, Jesus directed the actions of the group by saying: “The sinless one among you, go first: throw the stone” (John 8:7 from The Message). What a powerful moral precedent that is for us to follow! I’ve been in faith communities, for instance, where they have railed against the irresponsible environmental practices of our government - and yet that same faith community ignored the fact that they had no recycling programs in place themselves. I’ve been in faith communities where they have marched on behalf of the rights of undocumented residents – and then they turned around and exploited this segment of the community by hiring undocumented residents for manual tasks around the church at rates that were below the prevailing wages of their community. I’ve been in faith communities that regularly decry the presence of racism in their city – and yet that same faith community ignores the fact that the racial composition of their own worshippers looks nothing like the demographics of the neighborhood around them. It is so much easier to try to “stone” others who fail to live up to the standards you profess – all the while ignoring your own shortcomings. Imagine how differently the world would look if we all started living by the values to which we try to hold others accountable! Today, when you find yourself getting all worked up about some injustice in the world – stop for a moment and take your own moral inventory and see if you are living up to those same standards before you start throwing stones at others. Til next time…

Monday, December 29

Today’s Readings: Psalm 147; Isaiah 12:1-6; John 7:37-52; Revelation 1:1-8; Psalm 65

When I was in seminary, I had a wonderful instructor who helped us explore various dimensions of our spiritual lives. Her name was Jane Vennard. Jane had many areas of expertise – two of which included retreat ministry and prayer. I never had an opportunity to benefit from Jane’s guidance on how to organize spiritual retreats. I did, however, have a chance to take a class of hers title “The Life of Prayer”. In that class she radically expanded my understanding of what constituted prayer. Prior to the class, I had been very traditional in terms of what I considered prayer. Basically I thought prayer was those times you sat still with your head bowed and your eyes closed as you asked (& thanked!) God for stuff. That was it. I had no idea that there were other forms of prayer to explore beside that one type called intercessory prayer. During that class, however, we explored a variety of other ways to pray ranging from centering prayer to the Jesus prayer to the use of Lectio Divina. I was reminded of the importance of broadening one’s understanding of prayer by the psalmist’s opening words in today’s second psalm. In Psalm 65: 1, the psalmist began by saying: “Silence is praise to you, Zion-dwelling God, and also obedience. You hear the prayer in it all” (from The Message). The psalmist’s closing words in that verse reminded me of the most important learning of my seminary in Jane’s class on prayer: prayer isn’t an activity that we do at one moment in time – prayer is an attitude that we carry with us all the time. When we approach life that way, we have the potential of turning nearly everything we do into prayer. Today, if you aren’t already in the habit of thinking about prayer as an attitude rather than an activity, I would invite you to try that mindset on. If you do, you’ll be surprised at the many new places you'll find God present in your life. Til next time…

Sunday, December 28

Today’s Readings: Psalm 148; Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Luke 2:22-40; Galatians 4:4-7

Some of my parishioners have been asking me to post my sermons (I call them my reflections) on line. In order to meet their request, I’ll now make a habit of posting my reflections under my Sunday postings. Here is my reflection for December 28, 2008.
Sometimes I get myself in trouble when I forget to remember what a huge difference my faith makes in terms of the way in which I view the world. Let me tell you a story about something that happened to me recently that reminded me of that.

There’s a group of six friends that I have that gets together every two weeks for coffee and conversation. We’ve been doing so for quite a while now. Every one of us in the group is fairly outspoken about our opinions - so we are never short of things to talk about.

Well, last Fall there was one topic that seemed to dominate our conversations more than any other. Anyone want to take a guess what that topic was?

That’s right, the presidential election.

And there were two of us in particular who tended to dominate the discussion: my friend who I’ll call Mark – an ardent Democrat; and myself, a member of a third party who sees things much differently than most.

Mark and I would go round and round about the election, and I swear that he made it is sole purpose in life to win me over to his views. At times he acted as though I had committed the ultimate heresy when I would criticize the person at the top of his party’s ticket: Barack Obama.
After a heated Fall where the other four members of our group had to listen to our heated exchanges, things finally started to settle back into their normal routine as we started talking about our usual topics: fantasy football and upcoming vacation plans.

Then – out of the blue - two weeks ago Mark decided to have the group over to his house for a Christmas brunch. And it just so happened that the morning of his gathering was on the day when it was announced President-elect Obama had asked Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration.

I arrived at the brunch a little late so the others were already seated at the table. The other four group members did their very best to make sure that our conversation everything BUT politics. I’d never heard so many enthusiastic comments made about a person’s napkin holders and scrambled eggs before!

Finally, about 15 minutes into our time together, the moment we all knew had to happen – happened. Mark said, “So you probably heard that Barack asked Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. Go ahead and get it over with. Start gloating about how your concerns were validated,” Mark said as he hunkered himself down in his chair – preparing to be lambasted by myself.

The other four members of the group flinched and started scoping out the room for emergency exists.

I casually finished my sip of coffee, and then uttered six words the folks in that room least expected to hear: “I have no problem with it.”

There was complete silence in the room for what seemed like hours as people tried to wrap their minds around what had just taken place.

“You,” Mark began, “a person who disagrees with Rick Warren on a variety of issues ranging from stem cell research to gay marriage – are okay with Warren’s inclusion?!”

“Yep,” I said as I reached for a scone.

Needless to say, the conversation that followed was lively as we had a chance to process things on a deeper level.

As I look back on the conversation, there was one resource that I wish I would have used that morning that would have helped me better articulate my position.

That resource?

This morning’s passage from the Gospel of Luke.

“This morning’s gospel reading from Luke?! What does that have to do with the topic?” you might wonder.

“Yes, this morning’s passage from Luke.” Let me tell you why I think it would have been a helpful one.

As the text was working on me this week, I happened to stumble across a wonderful commentary on the passage that helped totally reframe my understanding of the story of Simeon’s encounter with Mary, Joseph, and little baby Jesus. It was a commentary done by R Alan Culpepper – Dean of The School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta, Georgia in the New Interpreter’s Bible.

One of the many things that Culpepper pointed out in his commentary is what brought each of the people in this morning’s story to that pivotal moment in the Temple.

“Devout Simeon,” Culpepper wrote, “was in the Temple because he was prompted to be there by the Spirit.”

“So how about Mary and Joseph?” you might wonder. “What brought them?”

Well, Mary and Joseph’s reasons for being there were much different. It wasn’t the Spirit that brought them there to that moment, Culpepper notes. “Jesus’ parents were there because they were fulfilling the requirements of the Law” (New Interpreter’s Bible 71).

Now if the rest of today’s narrative from Luke’s Gospel had unfolded the way things tend to unfold today, Simeon would have spent all of his time and energy arguing with Mary and Joseph about whose motivations for being in the Temple were the most pure. They would have separated themselves into ideological and/or theological camps, attacked the other side, and purged the Temple of those who saw things differently than themselves.

Thankfully, Simeon, Joseph, and Mary had much more sense than we have today. They refused to allow their differences to divide them. Instead, they chose to focus on what had brought them to that moment in the first place: the experience of God contained in that baby.

As I sat with Culpepper’s words, I realized that that – in a nutshell – is what continues to amaze me about that baby, Jesus. Two thousand years ago, that baby had the power to unite the Spirit led faction and the tradition-led faction so that they could stand together in the common stream that swept them toward the redemption of all creation. In a similar way, on January 20th followers of that baby will stand together on a stage in Washington, DC – those who support stem cell research and those who oppose it, those who support gay marriage and those who oppose it, those who defend a woman’s right to make reproductive decisions for herself and those who oppose it – and humbly ask for God’s blessing on their individual and collective lives.

The secular world will tell us that people who have substantive differences have no business hanging out together on the same stage. It will tell us that our time and our energy would be spent denigrating those who are different from us. That our goal should be to obtain political power so that we can silence – or better yet crush - those who would have the gall to see things differently.

And yet that baby born 2,000 years ago in that lowly manger would tell us something different. As the song that guided our 11:00 o’clock Christmas Eve service last Wednesday reminded us: that baby changed everything!

And so friends, as we go out into a world who would have us act one way, my prayer is that the followers of that baby never lose sight of the ways that he calls us to be so that one day we may find ourselves claiming Simeon’s words for ourselves as we say together: “release me in peace as you promised. With my own eyes I've seen your salvation; it's now out in the open for everyone to see.”

Amen

Saturday, December 27

Today’s Readings: Psalm 99; Proverbs 8:22-30; John 13:2-20; 1 John 5:1-12; Psalm 97

Some might look at today’s set of readings and wonder what the passage from John is doing there. After all, we just barely celebrated the birth of Jesus and here today’s passage from John is already talking about his departure! Well, the way I see it that passage makes an essential point about Jesus’ life that applies to our spiritual lives during this Christmas season. And what point is that? It’s the point Jesus makes about the importance of doing what he has done. In responding to Peter’s reservations about having Jesus wash his feet, Jesus said: “Do you not understand what I have done to you? You address me as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master’, and rightly so. That is what I am. So if I, the Teacher and Master, washed your feet, you must now wash each other’s feet. I’ve laid down a pattern for you…” (John 13:12-13 from The Message – emphasis added). That notion of Jesus having laid down a pattern for us to follow is a theme that could consistently be applied throughout Jesus’ life. Whether it was Jesus’ appearance in the place you would have least expected it (i.e. the manger), to his time spent in dialogue with his own faith tradition (i.e. his participation at the Temple when he was twelve), to his baptism, to his embracing of the outcasts; Jesus consistently set down patterns for us to follow. Some of us occasionally lose sight of that powerful truth when we emphasize Jesus’ divinity to the point that we act as if Jesus was capable of only doing things we ourselves could never do. As a result, we quit trying to follow Jesus’ patterns. In the final days of this Christmas season, I would urge you to hold before you Jesus’ life and ministry and treat them for what they are – a pattern laid down for you to follow. Til next time…

Friday, December 26

Today’s Readings: Psalm 150; 2 Chronicles 24:17-22; Acts 7:55-8:8; Acts 6:1-7; Psalm 126

One of the curious things I’ve learned about faith communities is that many of them are in love with the notion of having a prophetic leader. At least they love the idea of a prophetic leader in the abstract. When it comes times to actually receive a ministry whose voice is prophetic, however, many faith communities are not so thrilled about the idea. Why is that? Why do we love the idea of being prophetic in the abstract but resist it in the concrete? I can’t speak for everyone in answering those questions, but I do have an answer based upon my own life experiences. Over the years I have observed that many people think being prophetic means simply criticizing those with whom you disagree. Conservative congregations, for instance, think someone is being prophetic if he/she rails about the Roe v. Wade decision and the legalization of domestic partnerships in various places around the country. Liberal congregations, on the other hand, think someone is being prophetic if you criticize the Bush administration and decry the erosion of civil liberties in our times. As long as you stay within those comfortable confines (i.e. criticizing your “opponents”), the voice of a prophet is safe. It is only when you move outside those comfortable confines and start challenges the beliefs and practices of the community to whom the prophet is speaking that things get a little dicey. That’s certainly what Zechariah found when he summoned the courage to prophetically speak to King Joash and the community about their ways of being. When Zechariah said, “You can’t live this way! If you walk out on God, God’ll walk out on you” (2 Chronicles 24:20 from The Message); the community adopted a two-fold response: first, ignore him and hope he goes away; and then kill him if doesn’t go away. As we culminate the Christmas season when prophets have played such an important role, I would invite you to think about whom you consider to be a prophet. Do you consider someone to be prophetic simply because they share your opinion and protest those with whom you already disagree, or do you have a different definition of what being prophetic means? Til next time…

Thursday, December 25

Today’s Readings: Psalm 98; Isaiah 52:7-10; John 1:1-14; Hebrews 1:1-4

There are many passages in the Bible that get a bad rap because of the way they have been used by some. Today’s passage from the Gospel of John is one of those passages. Some folks use the passage primarily as a weapon in the debate about Christology. Those who have a high Christology (i.e. those emphasize Jesus’ divinity) use it against those who have a low Christology (i.e. those who emphasize Jesus’ humanity). For me, to use the passage solely within the context of that debate would be a huge mistake! The way I experience the passage is that it invites us to think about the essence of Christ as being foundational in all of creation. This means that things like Christ’s compassion, love, mercy, justice, healing, and reconciliation permeate all aspects of creation. What a wonderful thought! Today – on this Christmas Day – I would invite you to think about the ways in which the essence of Christ is foundational in your life. May you have a Merry Christmas and may your life exude the essence of the Christ-child whom today we welcome. Til next time…

Wednesday, December 24

Today’s Readings: Psalm 96; Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20; Titus 2:11-14

One of my favorite verses in all of the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament is included in today’s reading from the book of Isaiah. That verse is Isaiah 9:6 which reads: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (NRSV). Why do I like that verse so much? I like it because it invites us to think of the expression of the Divine that we Christians know as Jesus in a variety of ways. One of my favorite ways of thinking about the Christ-child comes from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrasing of that same verse. Peterson paraphrases the word “peace” as “wholeness”. His interpretation of the verse from The Message reads: “His names will be: Amazing Counselor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness. His ruling authority will grow, and there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings” (emphasis added). I love that language because it suggests that one of the Christ-child’s purposes is to point us toward wholeness. I can think of no better descriptor of Jesus than that. This Christmas Eve I would invite you to think of your own descriptor(s) for this baby whose birth we have so eagerly awaited. Those descriptors will go a long way in determining the ways in which you relate to the Divine. Til next time…

Tuesday, December 23

Today’s Readings: Psalm 96; 1 Chronicles 16:19-27; John 5:30-47; Colossians 1:24-29; Psalm 48

One of the lines from today’s first Psalm really captured my attention. Psalm 96: 8-9 reads: “Bring gifts and celebrate; bow before the beauty of God; then to your knees-everyone worship” (The Message). That line helped me realize that while I’ve thought about gifts I need to get for the people in my life this holiday season – I haven’t thought much about what gift I should get God. And then it hit me what “gift” God might like. You see I have a second cousin who lives in Oregon that I haven’t talked with much since I came out fourteen years ago. In fact, I haven’t talked to her at all since I met my partner Mike back in 2001. When Mike and I had our wedding in 2003, we did send her an invitation; but the invitation was never acknowledged. The only time I hear from her these days is at Christmas. She always sends a card – and each year the card is addressed only to me. Every year I throw away her card out without opening it because I feel as if it is an offense to my family since she refuses to acknowledge Mike and my relationship. This year, however, I’ve decided to do something different. M gift to God will be extending a bit of the grace that God has given me to my second cousin. I’ll open her card and actually display it with the other cards I receive. In other words, I’ll break my usual pattern and bring a little less bitterness and animosity into the world this Christmas. That will be my gift to God. What will yours be? Til next time…

Monday, December 22

Today’s Readings: Psalm 75; 1 Chronicles 16:8-18; Matthew 25:31-46; Ephesians 3:7-13; Psalm 77

I had a very tight family growing up that spent as much time together as possible. Each of us led busy lives that took us in dozens of different directions, however, so we didn’t get to spend as much time together as we would have liked. My dad Bob worked 6 days a week at the post office and volunteered his time to serve on the local school board. My mom Freda was a homemaker who volunteered tons of hours in our church’s women’s groups; she also volunteered to serve on our city’s planning commission. My oldest brother Gene worked for the Air National Guard and volunteered on the local Search and Rescue chapter. My second brother Keith worked in a warehouse and served as a union shop steward. My sister Karen worked in the volunteer services division of a local hospital and volunteered in the Christian Education and music departments of her church. Because of our hectic schedules, we had to make the most of each opportunity we could find to hang out – and holidays were the only time we could count on to get every one together. As a result, they took on added importance. My mom had a habit of doing something that greatly annoyed one of my siblings. Whenever she would find someone who was going to be alone for the holidays, she would invite them over to enjoy the holiday with us. This drove one of my brothers insane. He felt like our family was losing what little time we had together since we would include “strangers”. One of my most memorable Christmases was the time we included Beth (a blind woman who had just moved into our community) and her five year old son in our holiday celebration. As I thought about my mom’s holiday practice this holiday season, I realized it was her own way of living into Jesus’ words from today’s passage from Matthew: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink…” (Matthew 25:35 from The Message). We often think of the acts that Jesus spoke of that were indicators of a rich spiritual life – the things we do for “the least of these” – as being part of on organized, missional effort (i.e. let’s go down with the church group and serve lunch at the soup kitchen, let’s be a part of the church’s service at the prison, etc). While those collective expressions of one’s faith are important contributions, my mom taught me that most often the opportunities we have to do for the least of these happen spontaneously within the context of our individual lives. Today, I would encourage you to be more aware of these opportunities as they spring up around you and make the most of them. Til next time…

Sunday, December 21


Some of my parishioners have been asking me to post my sermons (I call them my reflections) on line. In order to meet their request, I’ll now make a habit of posting my reflections under my Sunday postings. Here is the reflection I gave on December 21, 2008.
I’ll never forget one of the first battle wounds I picked up in my practice of ministry. It came during the very first internship I ever did during my seminary years. Let me set the battle scene up for you by giving you a little background.

My first full day on the campus of my seminary, I saw an advertisement for a position at a church in a northern suburb of Denver. The job description said the position’s primary duties involved working with a community meal program. I interviewed for the job a day later and found myself clicking with the pastor. Four days later I was hired, and I began my work at the church immediately.

I spent most of my first two months on the job orienting myself to the church and getting to know the people of the community.

By the time that first quarter of seminary ended, I was convinced that I had already learned everything I needed to know about the practice of ministry. In fact, I was looking for exciting new challenges, so I approached the pastor and asked her if there was anything extra I could do for the church over the holidays.

“Sure,” she said without missing a beat. “We’ve gotten most of the planning done for the kid’s Christmas pageant, but we haven’t done anything with the adult Sunday school class. Why don’t you talk to “Steve” – their leader - and see if they’d be interested in helping out.”

Steve was the long-time leader of the adult Sunday school class. He was the son of a Methodist pastor who had spent his life working as an engineer. He was a brilliant man who was probably one of the best-read people I have ever met. He knew more about biblical studies, Christian history, and theology than most of my professors in seminary!

The only drawback I had in working with Steve was that there was an attitudinal barrier that I would have to overcome. You see Steve looked a little bit like a human version of Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh. And he had even less energy and enthusiasm than Eeyore! In the 10 weeks I had worked there, I had never seen him smile even once. I think there was a time there somewhere in October when I think Steve made eye-contact with me, but I couldn’t swear to it. Steve’s usual habit was to stare at the floor when he talked.

“This’ll be a good chance for me to put on the old Peterson charm and win him over,” I thought to myself.

Little did I know...

“So Steve,” I began, “the pastor asked me to see if I could get the adult Sunday school class involved in the Christmas pageant this year.”

“Oh really,” he mumbled.

“Yep,” I replied.

“That’s odd, because she knows I hate Christmas.”

“Oh…” I said – as my voice cracked a little. “And why do you hate Christmas?”

“Actually, I misspoke a second ago. I don’t hate Christmas. I just hate what people in the church have done with it.”

“Such as…” I said - buying myself a little time to think.

“Such as the way they distort the story in order to create a Hallmark card. Take the time of the year we celebrate Christmas. Every reputable biblical scholar knows that Jesus was probably born in the spring and not in December,” he said – warming up. “But the early church leaders had to co-opt other faith traditions and moved their celebration closer to winter solstice.”

“Oh yeah…”

“And that description of Mary that folks are so fond of. Much of the language about her ‘status’ is the result of a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for ‘young woman’. People have messed it all up.”

“Uh, huh,” I said nervously – not sure where he would go next.

“And don’t even get me started on the so-called three wise-men!”

“I won’t” I blurted before he could finish his rant. “Let me see if I can talk to the pastor and get back to you with some ideas that might work for you.”

And with that, I staggered away from my encounter with Steve licking my first battle wounds.

While I could appreciate Steve’s all-consuming passion for truth, I couldn’t help but feel that he was missing out on something in his experience of the Christmas story.

As I was trying to put my finger on what Steve was missing out on this week, I stumbled upon a wonderful sermon titled “Have I Got News for You!” by a colleague of mine named William Self who helped me understand my frustrations with Steve.

In discussing the importance of one’s approach toward telling a story, Rev. Self pointed us toward the events surrounding the construction of a railway bridge in 1943 over the Mae Klong River in Thailand. Most folks know about these events because they were first portrayed in a book written in 1952 which was later turned into a movie. The title of that Oscar-winning film was “The Bridge On the River Kwai”.

Fewer folks, however, are aware of another version of those events as written by Ernest Gordon – a theologian who later served as chaplain at Yale University. Gordon’s book was titled “Through the River of the Kwai”.

So what made Gordon’s account of those events different from its more famous counterpart?
Its emphasis.

You see instead of focusing exclusively on the interaction between the British and the Japanese antagonists, Gordon’s focused on something else: how the British prisoners interacted with one another during their time of imprisonment. The prisoners’ faith was a huge piece of Gordon’s story.

When the British prisoners first realized they weren’t going home anytime soon, Gordon remembered, they began to develop a more active devotional and prayer life. The depth of their spiritual lives, however, was limited. “We knew that the thrust of our praying was to be delivered from this prison camp and that was it.”

Over time, however, things began to change.

“We began to pray,” Gordon noted, “about how we could relate to one another in those bad situations. No longer was our prayer, ‘Why God?’ but it was, ‘How should we act God?’”

The most defining moment in their spiritual growth came on Christmas Day 1944. That day the British prisoners had unexpectedly been given the day off from their forced labor and a little extra food for their meal that afternoon. As the prisoners milled around the work yard, the men sensed something was different. From one of the barracks, the most unexpected of sounds arose: a soldier started singing a Christmas carol.

The sound of that carol cut across first the infirmary and then across the entire the camp. Those who heard it and were able to walk dragged themselves to the parade field where they sat in a circle and continued to sing some of the beloved carols of their faith.

That day – that Christmas Day – Gordon wrote three words that have come to define the Christmas experience for me this holiday season: God touched us…

As I put Gordon’s words down, I finally figured out what was missing from Steve’s assessment of the Christmas story in our encounter nine years ago.

You see Steve had experienced the Christmas story on one – and only one – level. He had engaged it as if were simply a journalistic piece of writing whose sole purpose was to communicate – to borrow words from the lips of Sergeant Joe Friday from Dragnet – “the facts, just the facts ma’am.”

But is that really the purpose of the Christmas story? Or could its purpose have been something more.

As I re-read the Christmas story this week with Ernest Gordon’s words in mind, I realized that the story was filled to the brim with ways that God touched us.

I thought, for instance, of Elizabeth and her husband Zachariah and the way that God touched the barren couple through the birth of their precious son John – the Baptist.

I thought too of the young woman named Mary and the way that God touched her through the unexpected arrival of her beloved son – Jesus.

Everywhere I turned in the Christmas story I saw God’s fingerprints evident in the lives of those who had been touched.

Even now – as I look around the sanctuary this morning – I see those whose lives have been touched by God and who themselves have been drawn into the Christmas story.

Friends, over the next four days we have the chance to celebrate a story that had the power to reach across 1,944 years and touch the hearts of beleaguered war prisoners and transform their lives. The only work we have left to do then this holiday season is to answer one simple question: will we open ourselves to the power of the Christmas story and let God touch us as well?

Amen.


Saturday, December 20

Today’s Readings: Psalm 27; Exodus 15:11-18; Matthew 25:14-30; 1 Corinthians 2:7-13; Psalm 74

One of the words that is most difficult for people in progressive churches to use is the word “evangelism”. There are many reasons for this. One reason is that many progressives have come to equate evangelism with pushing your beliefs down another person’s throat. Another reason is that progressive people think of evangelism as a memorized spiel that one person recites to another that’s laden with scriptural quotes and creedal assertions. Needless to say, none of these things elicit warm, fuzzy responses from most progressives. I don’t think those are the only ways to do evangelism, however. In fact, I would go so far as to say that those two ways represent perhaps the least effective ways of doing evangelism. So what’s a more effective way for us to think about evangelism? In speaking of the work of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul noted: “God offers a full report on the gifts of life and salvation that [God] is giving us. We don’t have to rely on the world’s guesses and opinions. We didn’t learn this by reading books or going to school; we learned it from God, who taught us person-to-person through Jesus, and we’re passing it on to you in the same firsthand, personal way” (1 Corinthians 2:11-13 from The Message). The passage gives us what I feel are two of the best ways to think about evangelism. First, evangelism should come from an experiential place predicated on sharing one’s experience of God - not a cognitive place predicated on sharing one’s beliefs about God. Second, evangelism should come from a personal place based on sharing one’s story - not an impersonal place based on sharing the creedal assertions of others. If you think about evangelism in those terms, then evangelism becomes very, very easy. In this Advent season when many of us will stand up during our worship services and sing the old spiritual “Go Tell It On the Mountain”, I would remind you to think about the act of telling it on the mountain in terms of the way Paul taught us. If you do that, you just might surprise yourself by going out and actually doing some of that tellin’! Til next time…

Friday, December 19

Today’s Readings: Psalm 43; Malachi 4:1-5; Matthew 25:1-13; 1 Corinthians 2:1-6; Psalm 44

There is definitely a shift in people’s consciousness when it comes to living out their faith these days. This shift seems to have caught individuals who live their faith lives on each of the extremes a bit off guard. Folks on the far right, for instance, were used to presenting their faith as something contained primarily in their mind – a set of doctrines to believe in and a set of rules to profess. “That’s all you needed in order to live a life of faith,” they would say. Folks on the far left were also use to presenting their faith as something contained primarily in their mind - a willingness to question authority and a willingness to profess the sacred worth of all of God’s creatures. “That’s all you needed in order to live a life of faith,” they would say. Over the course of the twentieth century, folks from each of the extremes started to increase their bickering with each other about whose approach to living out their faith was right. Much of the bickering involving everything from abortion to homosexuality to the role of Scripture was the result of people living out their commitment to what I would call “conceptualized” faith: faith tailor made for one’s head. Folks outside these two camps started longing for a different way of engaging one’s faith: a way of translating one’s faith from thoughts into actions - a way that involved both head and heart. I am one of these folks who developed such a longing. Folks like myself who long for this different way of engaging one’s faith would draw much encouragement from Paul’s words to the Corinthians in today’s reading for here Paul wrote: “You’ll remember, friends, that when I first came to you to let you in on God’s master stroke, I didn’t try to impress you with polished speeches and the latest philosophy. I deliberately kept it plain and simple” (1 Corinthians 2:2 from The Message). My question for your consideration today is this: if folks who knew you were asked to characterize your faith, what words would they use: words like plain and simple or some other words? Til next time…

Thursday, December 18

Today’s Readings: Psalm 56; Malachi 3:13-18; Matthew 24:45-51; Romans 11:33-36; Psalm 73

While I have never had a child of my own, I have had the opportunity to walk with friends, family members, and parishioners as they went through the process. I noticed that many of the days during the pregnancy had a variety of stresses associated with them. Those stressful days were full of things like enduring morning sickness, anxiously waiting for doctor’s appointments to make sure everything was okay, filling out the family medical leave request forms to get time off, buying furniture to fill the baby’s room, etc. There were moments when the soon-to-be-parents wondered if they would survive the pregnancy. All of those doubts fade away, however, the moment things culminate in the delivery room and they can see the baby for the first time. In that single moment, everything finally makes sense in ways that they never did before. The psalmist notes that we people of faith can have a similar moment when everything finally clicks for us as well. In talking about facing the rhythms of life, the psalmist observed, “… when I tried to figure it out, all I got was a splitting headache … until I entered the sanctuary of God. Then I saw the whole picture” (Psalm 73:16 from The Message). In essence, for the psalmist the sanctuary provide moments like those in the delivery room where everything finally came together and made sense. Those moments when one loses oneself in the awe and wonder of God help us make sense of things in ways that our head never will. In these final days before Christmas I would ask you, “When was the last time you lost yourself in moments of awe and wonder of God?” If it’s been awhile, take some of the time and energy you might otherwise be tempted to pour into shopping for material goods for yourself or others and put some of it into pursuing opportunities to experience that sense of awe and wonder. Til next time…

Wednesday, December 17

Today’s Readings: Psalm 103; Malachi 3:6-12; Matthew 24:32-44; James 5:7-10; Psalm 46

I began taking piano lessons when I was 10 years old from a wonderful piano teacher back in my home town of Deer Park, WA. She taught me many things including how to read music, how to develop the technical skills necessary to play the piano, and some basic music theory that helped me broaden my ability to create music. There was one aspect of music, however, that she could not teach me. That aspect was how to incorporate my life experiences into my music. For instance, she would often say things like, “Technically, your interpretation is good - but when it comes to the rests, you probably won’t understand long to hold those rests until you turn 40.” I hated it when she said things like that, for I wanted to think that I could master each and every aspect of playing the piano immediately - at the tender age of 10. I couldn’t bear the thought of having to wait 30 more years to get something right! Now that I’m 41, however, I understand what she meant by her statement. Over the course of one’s lifetime, you acquire insights into life that instinctively help you know just how long to hold a rest in order for the music to really come alive. There was no way I could have acquired that knowledge when I was 10. Today’s passage from James makes a similar point when it comes to leading our spiritual lives. The author wrote: “Meanwhile, friends, wait patiently for the Master’s Arrival. You see farmers do this all the time, waiting for their valuable crops to mature, patiently letting the rain do its slow but sure work. Be patient like that. Stay steady and strong” (James 5:7-8 from The Message). I had to learn this lesson to be patient over and over in the early days of my ministry. So often I expected to issues to resolve themselves immediately. When I was counseling those in broken relationships, for instance, I expected them to reconcile immediately. When I was investigating opportunities for mission, I wanted to implement the options immediately. And when I was pursuing new visions of what worship could be, I wanted to implement those visions immediately. Over time, however, I learned that I couldn’t force things. Things worked best when I let “the rain do its slow but sure work”. Perhaps there are areas in your life where you have been tempted to try to force things. If so, I would urge you to ground yourself in the awareness of today’s words from James so that you can pull back and let things unfold: not in your time, but in God’s. Til next time…

Tuesday, December 16

Today’s Readings: Psalm 99; Malachi 3:1-5; Matthew 24:15-31; Jude 1:17-25; Psalm 112

As a child in the late 1970’s, I remember being fascinated by the work of Hal Lindsey. I was fascinated with his work because the leaders of our youth group at the time were obsessed with him. As I look back on that phase of my childhood, I’ve realized that I wasn’t so much fascinated with Lindsey’s work as I was freaked out by it. In case you aren’t familiar with Lindsey’s work, he was an individual that was totally preoccupied with predicting the end times. He took isolated pieces of Scripture and pieced them together in an attempt to do so. No one ever bothered to explained to me why someone who would consider him/herself a biblical literalist would ever waste his or her time trying to predict the exact date of the end times and Jesus' return when Jesus himself was quoted in the Gospels as saying, “But of that day and hour no one knows” (Matthew 24:36 from the New American Standard Bible). I wish now that my youth leaders would have put their energies in a different direction. Instead of putting their energies into trying to scare us into being ready for the Son of Man's unannounced return as spelled out in today’s reading from Matthew, I wish they would have invested their energies into encouraging us to regularly live in ways that would be pleasing to God so we would be ready whenever the Son of Man reappeared. The difference between the two approaches might sound subtle to some people; but to someone like me, that difference would have helped tremendously. As I think about that difference in approaches, I realize we could take the same principle and apply it in to the way we approach Christmas. We could ask ourselves this Advent season, "Am I living my life by trying to frantically prepare for the arrival of the Christ-child on a specific date (i.e. December 25), or am I living my life in such a manner that I would be ready to receive the Christ-child each and every day of the year? Til next time…

Monday, December 15

Today’s Readings: Psalm 37; Hosea 14:1-9; Matthew 23:1-14; Jude 1-16; Psalm 91

If I were to ask you, “Which invention of the 20th Century has proven most invaluable to you”; I wonder how would you answer? I’ve got an answer that would pop to mind pretty quickly – and it’s probably one you wouldn’t expect. My answer would be Mapquest. You see as a pastor, I spend a whole lot of time in a car traveling from one place to another. In any given day I might go from our church to a denominational meeting to a home visit to a hospital to another home visit to a care center. In order for me to stay on schedule, it’s absolutely essential that I know where I’m going. Mapquest usually gets me there. Over the years, however, I’ve learned about Mapquest is not perfect all the time. I nearly missed a church service once because Mapquest told me to take a right after taking a highway exit when I really should have taken a left. Nevertheless, in this day and age it’s vital to have something that can get you where you need to go. The psalmist knew the important of this truth as well. That’s why he culminated today’s first psalm – Psalm 37 – with these words: “If you want to live well, make sure you understand all of this. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll learn this inside and out. God’s paths get you where you want to go. Right-living people walk them easily; wrong-living people are always tripping and stumbling” (Psalm 37:9 from The Message). The power and simplicity of the psalmist’s statement is that it reminds us God isn’t just another version of Mapquest – for unlike Mapquest, the ways in which God points us are always on the mark. And this season, that’s particularly true as God points us toward that manger in Bethlehem. Today, I give thanks for the One who provides the paths which help us get to where we need to go. I also pray that each of us might have the wisdom and strength to get on those paths. Til next time…

Sunday, December 14

Today’s Readings: Psalm 126; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

A few years ago here in Denver, we had quite a bit of controversy over an event called The Parade of Lights. According to the early tradition of the event, floats were not allowed in the parade that had religious themes. This was done in an attempt to make the parade a safe place for people of all faiths to come. A few years ago, however, a Christian group decided that they were no longer willing to abide by the tradition. They demanded that they be able to include their own religiously-themed float in the parade. The controversy stirred up folks on all sides of the issue. As I listened to folks process the controversy, I was fascinated by those Christians who were so adamant about the inclusion of the float. These folks honestly couldn’t understand why anyone would be opposed to their float! If these individuals would have paid closer attention to the larger community around them, they might have understood why some were so opposed to their participation. You see there are lots of folks who have been severely hurt by things done in Jesus’ name. As a result, they want nothing to do with anything that could be construed as a celebration of this Christ-child. A huge piece of our call as progressive Christians is to help some of these wounded individuals realize that the essence of Christ has nothing to do with the hurtful behavior of some of Jesus’ so-called followers. In other words, we need to present them with a picture of the Jesus we know –the one who was sent to preach good news to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to announce freedom to the captives, and to pardon all prisoners. During this Advent season, I would encourage you to hold on tightly to Isaiah’s wonderful description of the coming savior. Those words paint a vivid picture of the one’s whose arrival is truly good news for us all! Til next time…

Saturday, December 13

Today’s Readings: Psalm 52; Hosea 13:4-9; Matthew 23:29-39; 1 Thessalonians 5:8-15; Psalm 10

Several years ago my parents joined the local chapter of a weight-loss group called TOPS. The acronym stands for: Take Off Pounds Sensibly. Right away they fell in love with the group and started getting immediate results. One day I was visiting with my Mom and she was raving about the group. “I’ve never been in a group that’s friendlier and more genuinely supportive of one another,” she said. “You really feel like every one is rooting for you!” “Really,” I paused before adding, “not even in church?” There was a moment of quiet. You see my Mom is one of the most devoted people I’ve ever met in my life when it comes to her participation in her local church. In fact she’s belonged to the same one for each and every one of her 73 years! “Nope, not even church.” As someone who is deeply committed to the life of our local churches, I asked, “Why not? Why don’t our local churches provide the kind of support that this weight-loss group can provide?” And my question started a long discussion on the current state of our local churches. The highlights of that conversation sounded a lot like the words that Paul wrote in today’s passage from 1 Thessalonians – for that passage spells out the things my mom valued in her weight-loss group – things that were missing from her local church. The members of the weight-loss group honor the lay leaders in their community - unlike many of our local churches who constantly criticize their lay leadership. They overwhelm their lay leaders in their community with appreciation and love - unlike many of our local churches that shower their leaders with angry phone calls and rigid demands. The weight-loss group also encouraged stragglers and reached out for those who were exhausted rather than expecting the new people or visitors fit in and simply pretend to be “our kind of people”. And finally, the members of the weight-loss group regularly looked for the best in each other and not the worst. As I listened to Mom’s words, I told her, “It sounds like you have found a real church. One that meets on Thursdays rather than Sundays: one that meets in a gymnasium rather than a sanctuary.” She smiled. “Now, I have a homework assignment for you,” I added. “What’s that?” “Take those values and those ways of being from your TOPS group and bring them back into the life of your local church.” Today, I would give you a similar assignment. If you are involved in a local church or faith community that isn’t living up to the words Paul gave us today in the passage from 1 Thessalonians, embody those words yourselves and take them to church with you. Whatever you do DO NOT sit back and wait for others to do that first - or you might find yourself waiting a long time for Paul’s values to show up in your faith community! You might be surprised when the entire dynamics of your faith community begin to shift simply because of your new way of being. It won’t take long before your local church ceases to settle for simply being an institution and allows itself to be transformed into something much better: the body of Christ. Til next time…

Friday, December 12

Today’s Readings: Psalm 50; Hosea 12:2-9; Matthew 23:23-28; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-7; Psalm 49

Lots of times words or phrases are used in the Bible that are very abstract – so abstract, in fact, that they are difficult to wrap your mind around. That’s why I try to take advantage of every opportunity to take those abstract concepts and flesh them out in very concrete ways by tying them to real-life circumstances. Take the phrase that Paul uses in today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians – “sons and daughters of the Light”. What do those words really mean? Well, Paul tried to flesh the phrase out a bit when he describes sons and daughters of the Light as those who “live under wide open skies and know where [they] stand” (1 Thessalonians 5:4 from The Message). That still doesn’t bring total clarity to my mind, however. What did bring some clarity to my mind regarding this concept was the recent experience I had journeying with a family whose husband/father spent the last two weeks in Hospice. The individual passed away last night just before midnight. During that sacred journey, the family taught me what it meant to live under wide open skies and to know where they stood. That’s because the family had developed deep and loving relationships with one another that left literally nothing unsaid. In the critical moments before their husband/father’s transition, the family stood beside one another with a complete sense of integrity as they loved one another not for who they wanted the other to be, but for who the other really was. Talk about living uder open skies and knowing where you stand! That concrete, tangible experience helped me experience the sacred words from today’s text on a much deeper level. The next time you run across words or phrases in Scripture whose ambiguity causes you some confusion, take those words and put them into the context of your life and see if their application to a everyday life circumstance might help bring further clarity into your mind and spirit. Til next time…

Thursday, December 11

Today’s Readings: Psalm 100; Hosea 11:8-12; Matthew 23:13-22; Philippians 4:4-7; Psalm 86

When I was younger and in my full-blown activist stage, I use to joke that my definition of hell was being in the same place as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell for eternity and my definition of heaven was NOT being in the same place as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell for eternity. That “joke” was a sad attempt by myself to mask the pain and frustration the public ministries of these two individuals had caused me. As I have gotten older and matured (at least I hope I’ve matured), I no longer repeat that joke. In many ways that joke took our human standards and values (i.e. when dealing with opinions that are polar opposites, one has to be right and one has to be wrong) and projected them onto God. That’s a tragic mistake to make. As I have grown in my understanding of my faith, I’m able to better connect with the wisdom contained in today’s passage from Philippians that points us toward a much different reality. As we continue to live into the realm of God, the author notes: “Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life” (Philippians 4:7 from The Message). I can now lay down my “worries” about who is theologically right and who is theologically wrong from a human perspective (Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell or myself) and look forward to a time when Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell can sit down WITH myself in God’s absolute truth and grace and celebrate the One (and only One) who was right all along: God. What a sense of peace and wholeness that vision of God’s reign brings! Til next time…

Wednesday, December 10

Today’s Readings: Psalm 78; Hosea 11:1-7; Matthew 23:1-12; Acts 13:16-25

Lots of folks have issues with aspects of the Scripture. Some, for instance, will rebel against some of the positions it takes on social issues (i.e. its treatment of women and its position on same-gender sexual activity). Others will rail against its endorsement of violence against those viewed as God’s enemies in the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament. I have a different issue with some pieces of Scripture. I wrestle with the way some present God in an anthropomorphic way that makes God look and act no different than you or I would (i.e. if we like God and treat God well, then God will like us and treat us well; if we don’t like God and don’t treat God well, then God won’t like us and treat us well). It’s nearly impossible for me to connect with a God whose capacity for love and mercy is no greater than our own. I love those pieces of Scripture, then, that point us toward a God whose capacities are far greater than our own – pieces like today’s reading from Hosea. As today’s passage from Hosea culminates, the prophet tells us that God says: “I can’t bear to even think such thoughts. My insides churn in protest. And so I’m not going to act on my anger. I’m not going to destroy Ephraim. And why? Because I’m God and not a human. I’m The Holy One and I’m here – in your very midst” (Hosea 11:7 from The Message). So how do you see God? Do you see God as a being whose capacity for love and mercy is similar to our capacities, or do you see God as a being whose capacity for love and mercy is far greater than ours? Til next time…

Tuesday, December 9

Today’s Readings: Psalm 80; Hosea 10:1-12; Matthew 17:9-13; Acts 19:1-17; Psalm 36

It’s certainly understandable that many of us find ourselves in situations where we want to take shortcuts in life. When it comes to Christmas, for instance, it’s easy for us to think that we can capture the Christmas spirit if we simply watch a favorite Christmas movie on television, bake holiday goodies to share with loved ones, or attend a social gathering with family, friends, or co-workers. On the surface, these are all activities that people engulfed in the Christmas spirit might partake in. Here’s the difference, however. Folks who have the Christmas spirit do these things because they already have the Christmas spirit within them; they don’t do these things in order to get the Christmas spirit. In today’s reading from Acts, we are introduced to another group of people who got things a bit mixed up as well. In that passage we met a group of itinerant exorcists who were enthralled with the miraculous things that Paul could accomplish. Instead of taking the time to build a relationship with the One who could empower them to do those miraculous things, they tried to take a short cut and do those things without first building the relationship with God. Needless to say, things didn’t turn out so well for them. While it’s easy to sit back and criticize the exorcists for their approach, it’s not uncommon to run into modern day versions of these folks. These folks want to bypass - or completely ignore – God in their day-to-day life; then life throws them a curveball (i.e. they face a sudden illness or a period of unemployment); and they expect a magical fix to solve their problems at hand. During this season of Advent when we are blessed with the opportunity to slow down and contemplate the conditions of our heart in anticipation of the coming of the Christ child, my prayer is that we will use this time to continue to build a healthy, vital relationship with the God of Jesus – not a “relationship” dependent on what rabbit God can pull out of the hat for us. Til next time…

Monday, December 8

Today’s Readings: Psalm 40; Hosea 8:11-14; Matthew 20:20-28; 1 Peter 1:13-25; Psalm 32

I was recently talking to an individual preparing for ministry. We were talking about some of the sacrifices a person makes when she/he responds to her/his call to ordained ministry. Now some of those sacrifices individuals make are pretty obvious to most folks. Other of the sacrifices, however, are not. One of the less obvious sacrifices a person called to ministry makes is the way the one’s call affects one’s experience of the holidays. This is particularly true of Christmas. You see growing up, most of us got lost in the experience of the joy and wonder of the Christmas season and could lose ourselves in a variety of experiences ranging from long coffees with friends to spontaneous shopping trips with family members to attending a variety of worship services and special events. Once you step across the threshold into ordained ministry, however, your life change dramatically. Instead of having these special moments for ourselves, our lives become focused on helping other people have those experiences of joy and wonder. Many of us clergy are lucky if we can even find time to get our Christmas cards out by the middle of January. So what got me thinking along these lines? It was Jesus’ comments to the mother of James and Zebedee when she asked if her boys could receive places of honor next to Jesus. Jesus responded to the “boys” themselves in the form of a question: “Are you capable of drinking the cup that I’m about to drink” (Matthew 20:22 from The Message). Of course, most of us focus on the radical implications of discipleship when we read those words (i.e. the willingness to give up our life). And that certainly is a part of what Jesus was getting at. But I don’t think that’s all Jesus was getting at. The implications of REALLY putting God first in your life fan out in a thousand different directions. And sometimes the things those implications ask us to give up are far more personal and far more difficult than we ever imagined! Today, I would invite you to sit with Jesus’ question to James and Zebedee: “Are you capable of drinking the cup that I’m about to drink?” Think about the implications of that question – the various aspects of your life that Jesus’ question would reach. Til next time…

Sunday, December 7

Today’s Readings: Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8; 2 Peter 3:8-15a

One of my favorite holiday activities is to participate in a white elephant gift exchange. I know that some of you may not be familiar with that activity (or might know it by another name) so let me take a moment and explain what the activity is. Individuals in a group are asked to bring a wrapped gift to the party. Usually the gift is in a certain price range. Some individuals will bring serious gifts and others, gag gifts. The wrapped gifts are then placed under a tree. Each individual then draws a number. The individual who drew number one goes first. He/she then selects a gift from underneath the tree and then unwraps it. The person who drew number two goes next. He/she has a choice: he/she can either chose an unwrapped gift from under the tree and unwrap it him/herself; or – if he/she likes the present person number one just opened - then he/she could take person number one’s gift. If person number one loses their gift, they get to chose an unwrapped gift from under the tree to replace their “lost” gift. Then you move on to person number three. The game continues in that fashion until all the gifts are dispersed. The fun of the game is that it reveals the personality of the individuals who are participating. You can see those who are willing to take a risk for what might be in the unknown box, and those who would rather play it safe and take something that has already been fully revealed. In today’s Gospel reading from Mark, one can see that individuals in Jesus’ day were confronted with a similar choice. They could either go on with the version of life as they already knew it (that would be choosing the equivalent of an already unwrapped gift), or they could risk everything and follow John the Baptist’s call to a baptism of “life-change” – one where the individual would be asked to turn “your old life in for a kingdom life” (Mark 1:7 from The Message). That would be the equivalent of taking a risk and choosing the unwrapped gift. The only difference between the two scenarios is that the people of Jesus’ day didn’t have to risk choosing a gag gift – the present they opened in choosing a baptism of life-change revealed the fullness and the goodness of all that God had to offer. This Advent season, I would invite you to examine your approach to your spiritual life. Do you continue to play it safe and simply settle for life as you have known it, or do you make the most of the opportunities you have to take a risk and reach for that “kingdom life”? Til next time…

Saturday, December 6

Today’s Readings: Psalm 60; Hosea 8:1-10; Matthew 11:11-19; Acts 17:24-31; Psalm 79

These are challenging days to be in ministry. Many folks would hear that and I assume I’m making that statement for reasons other than the one I would give for that statement. They might assume, for instance, that I’m saying these are challenging days to be in ministry because of the economic difficulties of the day. Or they might think the days are challenging due to the political polarization that reigned supreme during the recent election cycle. They might even think I’m saying that because of the challenges of living in a post-Christian age where people’s faith went from being their top priority to being just another one of the many, many things in their life. True, each of those things makes doing ministry a challenge; but none of them account for the primarily reason for why I feel ministry these days is so challenging. Let me explain my primary reason to you. You see for several decades, people have built our churches using one principle: give people what they want and they’ll come back/keep coming. Now that statement – on its surface – sounds harmless enough, right? Well, think of the dangerous places that statement will take you if you follow it through to its logical conclusion. It starts out simple enough with the “I love the pastor’s sermons” or “My kids have fun in the youth program” or “I like songs we sing”. If you dig below the surface of those statements, however, what’s at the base: personal preference. Over time, the quality and depth of our spiritual lives become increasingly driven by one thing: those personal preferences. As a result, we start creating and worshiping a God who fits the narrow parameters of our likes and dislikes. Then we attack those who have personal preferences different than ours. This dynamic makes living together in spiritual community nearly impossible. Jesus points out the fickle nature of such a “give them what they want” approach when he said, “How can I account for this generation? The people have been like spoiled children whining to their parents, ‘We want to skip rope, and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk, but you were always to busy.’” He concluded, “Opinion polls don’t count for much, do they?” (Matthew 16-19 from The Message). So how can we 21st Century pioneers move past spiritual communities based primarily upon personal preferences? Well, I don’t have all the answers to that question, but I do have one. We start getting rid of the question “What do you like?” when speaking with one another in spiritual community and replace it with the question “What spiritually feeds you?” For some, the difference in wording between the questions might seem minimal; for me, the difference is monumental. You see when you pursue only those things that you like, you develop a spirituality that is comfortable. Consequently, your growth is stunted because you never encounter a God that pushes or challenges you. If the spiritual community is driven by what spiritually feeds its members, things begin to change dramatically. Today, I would ask you: “What approach do you take toward your spiritual life?” Do you participate only/primarily in those things that you enjoy or like; or do you participate in those things that spiritually feed you? Til next time…

Friday, December 5

Today’s Readings: Psalm 146; Hosea 6:11-7:7; Matthew 11:2-10; Revelation 2:2-7; Psalm 145

As I read today’s Gospel passage from Matthew, I was reminded that one of my role models in life is John the Baptist. There are two reasons why I say this. First, John had an amazingly clear sense of call. The clarity of his call made it impossible for him to veer off track in life. This leads directly to the second thing I admire about him: he had an absolute sense of humility that kept him grounded. He was never seduced by the public’s enthusiastic response to his ministry in the desert and started to think more of himself than he should. No, he always knew Someone greater was coming along behind him and that his call was to prepare the way for that Someone. The more I think about these two characteristics of John – a clear sense of call and a strong sense of humility – the more I realize how closely related they are. Folks who have a healthy sense of self-esteem know who they are and are comfortable living into that sense of self; they have no need to try to pass themselves off as something they are not. A profound sense of humility goes hand in hand with that sense of self. Using John the Baptist as a yardstick, I would ask you where you are at with you call and your sense of self. Have you prayerfully embraced your call and developed a healthy sense of self as you have live out that call; are you still struggling on your own to establish an identity that may (or may not) be the person God is calling you to be; or are you somewhere between those two places? As someone who is locate somewhere between the poles myself, my prayer for today is that God would continue to work with us as we grow into a stronger sense of both call and of self. Til next time…

Thursday, December 4

Today’s Readings: Psalm 39; Hosea 5:15-6:10; Matthew 3:11-17; 2 Peter 3:11-18; Psalm 19

One of the many reasons I love the season of Advent is because the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament take a more prominent role in the life of our faith communities than they do at any other time of the year (except, perhaps, during the season of Lent leading up to Easter). I can never get enough of the words from the prophets, for they provide us with such a clear sense of what is really important. In today’s reading from Hosea, for instance, we are told that God says: “I’m after love that lasts, not more religion. I want you to know God, not go to more prayer meetings” (Hosea 6:6 from The Message). During this Advent season – when it is so easy to get so caught up in the practices and rituals of our faith that we forget why we do them in the first place – take time to ground yourself in the love and first-hand knowledge of God. And when you do find yourself in worship services where religious rituals are practiced during this Advent season (i.e. lighting of the Advent candles, Communion, singing of Advent hymns, etc.) stop and ask yourself, “Why are we doing this?” That simple question will help move you beyond the practice of empty religious ritual into the realm of transformative spiritual experience. Til next time…

Wednesday, December 3

Today’s Readings: Psalm 93; Hosea 5:1-14; Matthew 3:1-10; 2 Peter 3:1-10; Psalm 39

As someone who is an ENTJ on the Myers-Briggs personality indicator, I would have to say that patience is definitely not one of my strengths. I’m someone who likes to make things happen. And when I say that, the hidden implication is that I often make things happen on MY time schedule. Needless to say, today’s reading from 2 Peter is a huge challenge for me on at least two levels. First, the author’s words in verses 8-9 (“...with God, one day is as good as a thousand years, a thousand years as a day. God isn’t late with God’s promise as some measure lateness”) remind me that my preferred time frame isn’t necessarily God’s preferred time frame. Second, the author challenges my need for control when he wrote in verse 10: “But when the Day of God’s Judgment does come, it will be unannounced, like a thief”. While these words are a challenge to hear at any time during the year, they are especially difficult to hear during the Advent. That’s because many of us are overwhelmed with duties and obligations during the Christmas season. As a result, many of us have things planned down to the very last second (i.e. pick up my nephew's present at Toys R Us at 9:15 AM; meet my friend Kathy for coffee at 10:00 AM; get to the holiday luncheon at 11:45 AM...). If anything goes awry in our daily schedule, some of us can barely handle it. If that’s where you are this holiday season, remember today’s words from 2 Peter and start to let go of your stress and anxiety. For while you may prefer to operate under the illusion that you are in complete control of things, the truth is you aren’t. That humbling sense of awareness might be the best Christmas present you receive this season. Til next time…

Tuesday, December 2

Today’s Readings: Psalm 2; Hosea 4:11-16; Luke 21:29-36; 2 Peter 1:12-21; Psalm 14

As a member of the United Church of Christ, there is something that sets our congregational system apart from other congregational systems. That something has to do with the way we ordain our clergy. There are some congregational systems, for instance, that ask just two things of their candidates for ordained ministry: (1) they ask that the candidate articulate a sense of their call; and (2) they ask that the candidate receive proper training. That’s all that’s required in order for a person to be ordained. In the United Church of Christ, however, candidates for ordination are required to get something else beside those two things – they are required to find a faith community that will call them to serve before the individual can be ordained. Without a call to serve (translation: a job), a candidate cannot be ordained. And why do we ask that of our candidates? We ask that because our tradition tells us that the call we receive isn’t just a two-way street between God and the individual; our call should also be recognized by God’s other children as well. This notion of God’s work involving more than just two parties was picked up in today’s reading from 2 Peter where – in speaking of one of God’s ways of communicating with us – the author wrote: “The main thing to keep in mind here is that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of private opinion. And why? Because it’s not something concocted in the human heart” (2 Peter 1:20 from The Message). Those words remind us that the essential elements of our faith are nearly always bigger than just ourselves. They involve others in the process. During this holiday season - when we might be tempted to keep our celebration to ourselves, I would invite you to look for opportunities to invite others in your experience. You might be surprised at how that invitation deepens your understanding of your own faith. Til next time…

Monday, December 1

Today’s Readings: Psalm 12; Hosea 4:1-10; Luke 21:20-28; 2 Peter 1:1-11; Psalm 53

One of my all-time favorite bumper stickers reads: “Stop Acting Like God – Start Acting Like Jesus”. That bumper sticker really nails our tendency to try to control things we have no control over. I was reminded of that bumper sticker by today’s second reading from Psalms. Psalm 53 begins by talking of God’s fervent attempt to find a decent person. Unfortunately, God is unable to locate one. In speaking of the people whom God bumps into during God’s quest, the psalmist describes them as “sheep, taking turns pretending to be Shepherd”. That simple phrase calls to mind one of the greatest challenges we human beings face: the challenge to own up to our limitations. Whether we are trying to fix the world by electing the perfect candidate, finding the perfect financial advisor to give us complete security, or partnering with the perfect spouse to give us absolute personal fulfillment – we constantly face the temptation to try to play the role of Shepherd rather than sheep. Today, find some time to examine your approach toward life and look for areas where you have control issues. When you find an area of your life where you’re trying to maintain the fa├žade of complete control, turn it over to the One who really can shepherd you through all things. Til next time…

Sunday, November 30

Today’s Readings: Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

As we head into this Christmas season, many Americans have been seduced by the notion that if only they get that perfect Christmas gift, all of their problems will be solved. “If I can get that trip to Hawaii…”, “If only I can get that flat screen television set…”, “If only I can get the latest Blackberry...” The lists go on and on. The long Christmas wish list that many of us carry with us only reinforces the notion that it is absolutely impossible to feel content with what we currently have. Just as we are about to succumb to this notion, along comes Paul’s words to us today from his first letter to the Corinthians that blow that sense of longing right out of the water. In the letter, Paul writes: “… you don’t need a thing, you’ve got it all! All God’s gifts are right in front of you as you wait expectantly for our Master Jesus to arrive on the scene for the Finale” (1 Corinthians 1:7 from The Message). What a great message for us to hear on this first Sunday of Advent! Today, as you officially start your journey toward Christmas, take time to be thankful – not for what you hope to receive in 26 days, but for what you’ve got today! Til next time…

Saturday, November 29

Today’s Readings: Psalm 123; Micah 7:11-20; Luke 21:5-19; Romans 8:18-25; Psalm 132

Today’s words from Romans hit particularly close to home for two reasons. The first reason might be obvious for some - for during this season of Advent leading up to Christmas, we Christians are particularly tuned in to the notion of waiting for something better. That part is pretty straightforward. The second reason the readings from Romans hit home is probably much less obvious. You see someone who I’ve been in ministry with for over the past year entered into hospice care last Monday evening. Consequently, I’ve been at the hospice nearly every day this week. As I sit with his loving family during this time of transition, I couldn’t help but think of today’s words from Romans: “All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs,” Paul wrote. “But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting” (Romans 8:22-24 from The Message). During this season of Advent, Paul’s words remind me that things aren’t always the way they appear at first glance. Things that we label as hardships or losses are often agents of transformation and new life. We tend to forget just how fraught the Christmas story was with hardships at every turn (i.e. Mary & Joseph’s displacement due to the census, the arduous journey to Bethlehem, the inability to find safe and sanitary lodging, and the birth in a stable). If you are experiencing difficulties this holiday season, remember Paul’s words to us from Romans that invite us to think about the pain as birth pangs. Take some measure of peace in knowing those birth pangs may ultimately “enlarge” you in ways you never imagined if you let them. Til next time…