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Help support the vision of Woodland Hills Community Church!
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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…