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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.

Saturday, September 13

Today’s Readings: Psalm 19; Exodus 20:1-20; Luke 17:11-19; Romans 15:14-17; Psalm 119:153-176

Back in 2001 I underwent a significant transition in my life: I switched the denomination to which I belonged. I realize for many Protestants this doesn’t sound like a big deal since many of us don’t spend much time thinking about the various ways the denomination to which we belong shapes our spiritual life. We figure it’s only our local church that does this. Well for me that switch was momentous for a couple of reasons. First, not only had I belonged to my previous denomination for my entire life; but I was the fourth generation of my family to belong to that denomination. Second, because of this long association I never had to think a great deal about church related things since everything from church structure to theology was already put together for me. When I changed my membership, however, I couldn’t take any of those things for granted. I had to deeply explore my own values and vision of the church and see where I best fit. This soul-searching was very painful. In fact there were times when I wondered if I would ever find a place where I would fit. Thankfully, I did. When I arrived at my new denominational home I had a tremendous zeal and a passion for my new faith tradition. That passion was so strong that I couldn’t understand why others who shared my faith tradition didn’t seem to have that same zeal. Having lived in my new “home” for 7 years, I can understand why. It seems there is a natural part of us that gets acclimated and comfortable to our new “home” and starts taking things for granted. I’ve certainly been prone to this dynamic myself. This aspect of our nature spoke to me in today’s reading from Luke. In that passage we were introduced to ten lepers who were looking for healing. Nine of the lepers had a connection of some sort to the religious traditions of the area while one did not. Once Jesus affected their healing, guess what happened? The nine lepers who had a connection with the religious traditions of the area went on largely as if nothing happened. They couldn’t even find a moment to stop and give thanks for their healing! It was only the one individual who was new to all who bothered to stop and give thanks. The story reminds me how easy it is to reach that point in our faith journey where we come to feel entitled to certain spiritual experiences or insights – so much so that you stop realizing what a blessing those things are and even stop giving thanks for them all together. So where are you on this continuum? Are you at a point in your journey where you are like the 9 lepers and often forget to stop and count your blessings; or are you at a point where you are like the 1 leper and are still bowled over by the abundance of blessings you experience? May God help each of us hold on to the wonders that we first felt when our faith was so new and so real so that we never stop giving thanks for all that we have been given. Til next time…

Friday, September 12

Today’s Readings: Psalm 119:97-152; Exodus 19:16-25; Luke 17:1-10; Romans 15:7-13

As someone who was born and raised in a small town with a population of less than 3,000; I can tell you there are many positive things a person picks up in such a setting. For instance, growing up in a small town teaches you that everyone has to jump in and contribute in order for the community to succeed. Small town life also teaches you the importance of learning a wide variety of skills since you don’t have many experts in small towns to take care of things for you. While these first two lessons are helpful, there’s another thing you learn growing up in a small town that has proven invaluable in my life and ministry. That lesson? Never burn a bridge. Let me unpack that saying for you. You see in big cities, it’s easy to get mad at someone and tell them off since – chances are – you won’t see that person again unless you want to. In small towns, however, that’s not the case. If some ticks you off, chances are your paths will continue to cross for many years to come. The person who abruptly pulls in ahead of you and takes that prime parking spot very well could be your child’s soccer coach. Or the person that pushes in and takes the last gallon of milk in the cooler at the grocery store might be your boss. And the person who accidentally backs into your mailbox and knocks it over probably sings with you in the choir at church. Consequently, you can never let an emotion completely take over and put important your relationships in jeopardy. On those rare occasions when you did lose control, there was one - and only one - thing that could bail you out and maintain your relationship: forgiveness. I was reminded of this piece of my small town wisdom when I read Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading (“If you see your friend going wrong, correct him. If he responds, forgive him. Even if it’s personal against you and repeated seven times throughout the day, and seven times he says, ‘I’m sorry, I won’t do it again,’ forgive him” – Luke 17:3-4 from The Message). Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading point us toward the pivotal role forgiveness plays in our lives. It can keep us in right relationship with our sisters and brothers; it can keep us in right relationship with God! So the question I’ll leave you with today is this: what role does forgiveness play in your daily life? Is it something you regularly sacrifice in order for you to have the personal satisfaction of lashing out at others; or is forgiveness for you a spiritual discipline that helps you maintain bridges that help connect you – to other people and to God? Til next time…

Thursday, September 11

Today’s Readings: Psalm 41; Exodus 19:1-16; Luke 16:19-31; Romans 15:1-6; Psalm 119:73-96

Today’s reading from Luke is one that makes many of us VERY uncomfortable. I suppose that’s because it seems so unlike the God whom we know to be full of unconditional love and grace. The more I sit with the passage, however, the more I realize that perhaps the teaching was meant to say more about our nature than it does about God’s. Let me tell you what I mean by that. One of the biggest challenges spiritual leaders face these days is the extremely low priority people give to God in their lives: that is until something serious happens. As soon as people face a difficult circumstance (a circumstance such as a divorce, an illness, a death) suddenly God jumps to the top of the list. Nothing wrong with that! For awhile, in fact, God remains at the top of their list. Then time passes and the pain heals. Guess what happens to God? Once again God drops toward the bottom of their list. This reality suggests that faith born primarily out of a situation or circumstance is often very shallow. Maybe that’s why - when the deceased rich man asked if he could go back and warn his brothers - his request was refused. The sad reality is that in the long run it probably wouldn’t have mattered much in the lives of the deceased rich man’s brothers. So where are you at with your faith? Are you on a roller coaster of sorts where you turn to God in the midst of crises and form an intimate bond, only to ignore God when things get better; or do you stay connected with God on a regular basis – through both bad AND good? Hopefully we can use this disturbing and challenging teaching from Jesus to move us toward a more sustained relationship with God. Til next time…

Wednesday, September 10

Today’s Readings: Psalm 34; Exodus 18:13-27; Luke 16:10-18; Romans 14:19-23; Psalm 119:49-72

There are a whole lot of things that many people consider to be mysteries of our faith that I’ve come to terms with a long time ago: things like the nature of Jesus, the question of theodicy (“Why do bad things happen to good people?”), and what the notion of the Trinity means. Maybe resolution to these things comes easier to me since I’m not smart enough to complicate them. Whatever the case, I know that many people wrestle to come to an understanding of what’s most important in our spiritual lives: faith or works. Those who are advocates of faith being most important point toward Ephesians 2:8-9 which says, “For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves…”; those who argue for works is most important would point to scripture like James 2:20 that says, “Faith without works is dead…” This whole “faith vs. works” debate has been raging for centuries. For me the answer is clear: it’s both. If you have genuine faith, works flow naturally from that faith – works aren’t things you do in order to get faith. If you think about it, it’s kind of like falling in love with someone. When you truly fall in love with someone, you naturally do things for the other person like buy them flowers, take them to dinner, and spend time with them. You don’t buy them flowers, take them to dinner, and spend time with them in order to fall in love with them. Today’s passage from Romans addresses the issue of how our faith informs our behavior from a slightly different angle. I especially love Eugene’s Peterson’s paraphrasing of the passage because it makes Paul’s point so clear. “You’re fortunate if your behavior and your belief are coherent. But if you’re not sure, if you notice that you are acting in ways inconsistent with what you believe… then you know that you’re out of line. If the way you live isn’t consistent with what you believe, then it’s wrong” (Romans 14:22-23 from The Message). Paul’s words provide us a wonderful opportunity to stop and examine ourselves. In light of this, I have a provocative exercise for you to do today. Instead of starting by asking yourself, “What do I believe?” and then examining your behaviors in relation to your stated beliefs; I would invite you to start by examining your behaviors (how you use your time, where you spend your money, with whom you spend your time) and then see what those behaviors suggest about your faith/beliefs? You might be surprised at the results of the exercise. Til next time…

Tuesday, September 9

Today’s Readings: Psalm 114; Exodus 17:1-16; Luke 14:11-32; Romans 14:10-13; Psalm 81

Several years ago when I was an undergraduate I took a sociology class titled Deviance. In the class we studied aspects of the human experience that fell outside of society’s norms. This was the 1980’s, mind you, so folk’s awarenesses and sensitivities were different than they are today. Each class member had to do a project that involved interviewing someone who was deviant. One group of people that fell under the classification back then were individuals involved in abusive relationships. I was just 20 at the time and had come from a small town. I was sure I had never known a person in an abusive relationship so I decided to do my project in this area. One day I was having lunch with a friend and we were talking about the project when I said, “I have no clue how I’ll ever find someone who has been involved in an abusive relationship. Where would I even start?” “Well, you could start with me,” she said. She proceeded to tell me the story of a long-term abusive relationship she had been in in high school. She explained how she got into the relationship. A male friend she knew at the time had sexually assaulted her and her religious parents had told her growing up that no respectable boy would ever want a girl who was not pure so she decided to "date" the boy that had assaulted her. “Okay,” I said. “I can understand how you might have gotten into the relationship. But why did you stay?” “Well,” she said, “when you don’t know anything different it’s easier to stay and endure the abuse rather than risk being alone.” I thought of that conversation when I read the story of the Israelites in today’s passage from Exodus. In that passage, we are told the story of how the Israelites finally broke out of their bondage in Egypt and escaped to freedom. The Israelites, however, responded to their new circumstance in the most unusual way. They complained! It seems that - like my friend - they were more comfortable enduring the pain they were familiar with rather than taking a chance and finding freedom. What is it about us that often makes us willing to stay in places of pain rather than leave those places behind? I suppose it’s fear – fear of the unknown. So what’s the best antidote for that paralyzing fear? Faith. Faith in a brighter future. Faith in the God who makes such a future possible. Today I wonder if there’s an area of your life steeped with pain where you are choosing to remain out of fear. If so, I would encourage you to remember the story of the Israelites - particularly how God sustained and nourished them when they ventured out into the unknown. That memory might give you the strength you need in order to leave the pain behind and move toward new life. Til next time…

Monday, September 8

Today’s Readings: Psalm 114; Exodus 17:1-16; Luke 14:11-32; Romans 14:10-13; Psalm 81

When I was in high school, I picked up a phrase that has stayed with me ever since. It’s a phrase that has repeatedly guided the direction of my life. The phrase is this: “You are either part of the problem or part of the solution.” The saying resonated with me because it both encouraged and empowered me to jump in and get involved in those things that I am passionate about and think need changing. One of places that phrase helped lead me was into ordained parish ministry. I say that because I spent much of my twenties as a critic of organized religion. If you were ever looking for someone to criticize the hypocrisy of organized religion, I was one of the first persons you would have found. In other words, I was part of the problem. Then I realized it was time to follow my favorite phrase and see if I could become part of the solution. So I did. I started slowly at first (at least slowly for me) by becoming the choir director and pianist for my small church. Then I branched out into missions and the Staff Parish Relations Committee. And just a few years later, I was sitting in a classroom at seminary. I certainly haven’t solved all of the problems within organized religion over the past 12 years, but I have had powerful experiences of transformation. Funny thing is that some of the biggest and most meaningful transformations that have occurred haven’t been in organized religion – they’ve been within me. This leads me to the wisdom in today’s Scripture from Romans. Paul started by pointing out the futility of a “part of the problem” approach to life when he wrote: “So where does that leave you when you criticize a brother? And where does that leave you when you condescend to a sister? I’d say it leaves you looking pretty silly – or worse” (Romans 14:10 from The Message). Paul goes on to suggest that we not only be a part of the solution – he actually tells us how to do that. “Here’s what you need to be concerned about: that you don’t get in the way of someone else, making life more difficult than it already is. I’m convinced – Jesus convinced me! – that everything as it is in itself is holy. We, of course, by the way we treat it or talk about it, can contaminate it” (Romans 14:13-14 from The Message). Where are you in terms of being “part of the problem” or “part of the solution”? Do you find it easier to sit back, gossip, and criticize others for not doing things “the right way” (a phrase that I’ve learned over the years that really means “my way”); or have you taken a risk and actually gotten involved – treating everyone with whom you serve as an expression of the holy? Remember this: if you don’t like your current approach toward life, it’s never too late to change it! Til next time…