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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, January 31

Today’s Readings: Psalm 108; Joshua 3:1-10; John 5:19-29; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Psalm 20

During my mid-twenties, I became totally frustrated with the public face of Christianity. I had lived through the series of televangelist scandals, I had seen a growing emphasis on materialism via the emergence of what some have termed the Gospel of Prosperity, and I watched as many of the mainline denominations switched their emphasis from welcome the marginalized to actually marginalizing folks from the LGBT community. Consequently, I stepped out of the church for the better part of the year. During that time, a friend steered me to read some folks from the Eastern traditions. Right away, I noticed a HUGE difference between approaches toward spirituality from the West and the East. Many Western traditions, for instance, put their emphasis on the fact that we need to extend a great deal of effort trying to “get ready” to be in right relation with God. Eastern traditions, on the other hand, put their emphasis in a different place. Many of their adherents place their emphasis on living in a state of readiness from one moment to the next. While I returned to Christianity by the time I was in my late twenties, I have never forgotten the wisdom of the Eastern traditions. My focus has been on living from moment to moment in the presence of God – rather than trying to get ready to live in that presence. That has made all the difference in the world to me. I was reminded of this piece of my faith journey as I read today’s first psalm. I noticed the language of the psalm didn’t say “get ready”; it said “I’m ready, so ready, from head to toe” (Psalm 108:1 from The Message). My question for you today is this: are you living your life in an attempt to get ready for a later encounter with God, or are you living your life in a space you are already ready for the encounters you have with God from one moment to the next? Til next time…

Friday, January 30

Today’s Readings: Psalm 76; Joshua 2:15-24; John 5:1-18; 1 Corinthians 6:1-8; Psalm 17

Many people hold a misconception about the relationship between a pastor and the members of a local church. They assume that it is primarily the pastor who teaches and/or guides the parishioners. The longer I’m in ministry, however, the more I’m convinced that the relationship is a mutual one: that the parishioners teach/guide the pastor as much as the pastor teaches/guides the parishioners. Case in point – a woman I was in ministry with several years ago whom I’ll call Patricia. You see lots of folks will read today’s passage from 1 Corinthians – a passage that talks about moving beyond a spirit of litigation into a spirit of reconciliation – and experience them purely at the abstract level as if they were simply meant to be platitudes. Patricia didn’t, however. She took those words at face value. And how do I know that? You see several years ago Patricia lost her husband prematurely largely due to the negligence of her husband’s care providers. Many people in our society would have taken the pain they felt at the tragic loss and directed it toward the hospital in the form of a lawsuit. In fact, the administrators at the hospital were so focused on that possibility that their first words to Patricia following her loss were: “Are you going to sue us?” Thankfully, Patricia knew that no form of acting out the pain of her loss would change the circumstances. Or – to use Paul’s words - Patricia sensed that if she initiated a lawsuit all she would have been doing “is providing fuel for more wrong, more injustice” – so she refused to initiate a lawsuit. Patricia’s unfathomable act of grace reminded me that while it’s easy to talk about word like “healing” and “reconciliation” in the abstract; it’s quite another thing to employ those concepts at moments of our most profound losses. Today, as I sit back and ponder Patricia’s powerful witness, I give thanks for all those folks who continue to teach me what it means to be a person of faith – not just when it’s convenient, but those times when it’s most difficult. Til next time…

Thursday, January 29

Today’s Readings: Psalm 38; Joshua 2:1-14; John 4:43-54; 1 Corinthians 5:6-13; Psalm 64

As someone who spent the bulk of his early vocational life working outside the church, I realize that I often have a very different perspective on how an institutional body should act. When it comes to dealing with those currently outside the church, for instance, many church folk think of them in one of two ways. Either they think of them as recipients of their mission work, or they think of them as potential new members of their church. So what other ways are there to view those outside one’s faith community? Well, today’s reading from Joshua gives us a glimpse of another possibility. In that passage, we hear the story of two spies whom Joshua sent to Jericho to scout the land. Who did they encounter when they first got to Jericho? Rahab. A “harlot”. And how did they deal with Rahab when the encountered her - did they try to turn her into a mission project, or get her to follow them back and become a part of their faith community? No. They simply took her at face value. So what became of Rahab as a result of the spies’ approach? Well, we know from the genealogy put forth in the first chapter of Matthew that Rahab became an ancestor of Jesus’. So what should we make of this – should we assume this was a tacit endorsement of Rahab’s vocation? I don’t think so. The lesson I draw from it is that amazing things happen when we engage someone for who they are rather than for whom we would like them to become. Such an act of radical hospitality allows room for God’s transformative grace to enter into the other’s life and accomplish things that we would otherwise think impossible. Today, I would ask you to watch yourself in one of your interacts with someone who you have very specific plans for (i.e. a loved one who you want to quit smoking, start attending church, lose weight, etc). See if you can move beyond your narrow agenda and simply connect with that individual for whom they are – and let God take care of the rest. Til next time…

Wednesday, January 28

Today’s Readings: Psalm 26; Joshua 1:10-18; John 4:27-42; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; Psalm 141

I spent the first six years following my graduation from college teaching in a juvenile detention center. When I took the position, many of my loved ones were concerned for they knew I would be working with many violent offenders. I never had a problem dealing with behaviors from the students, however. That’s probably because I learned an important lesson early in life: “If you treat people with respect, they’ll usually return the favor”. The most difficult aspect of teaching in the detention center involved something else. You see the average stay of students was around 2 weeks. The shortest stay was one day and the longest was 9 months. This meant we had a constant turnover in the student population. In the six years I worked there, I must have taught over 7,500 students! The greatest challenge I had was in giving the students all I had and never knowing if my efforts made a difference in their lives. To use the language from the parable that Jesus quoted in today’s reading from John – I never knew if I was a “sower” or “harvester”. While it was hard to teach from this place of uncertainty at first, over time I got use to not knowing the outcomes of my encounters with students. Finally - by my sixth year - I learned not to worry about the outcome at all. The joy I found each day simply from the act of teaching and being with the students was enough. So where are you at with these issues in your own life? Are you okay with the idea of being a sower that plants the seeds that God ultimately brings to fruition, or do you have a need to try to take ownership for the outcomes yourself? Til next time…

Tuesday, January 27

Today’s Readings: Psalm 1; Joshua 1:1-9; John 4:16-26; 1 Corinthians 4:14-21; Psalm 84

There are lots of things that have the potential to shape our attitudes. One of the most influential of these is television. I say that because television has a way of establishing norms for our lives that few other mediums have. Let me give you an example of what I mean. For years, television sent very clear messages about how a normal American family should look and act. Shows like “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” set standards to which many Americans aspired (i.e. always be pleasant and look nice, never raise your voice, always resolve your problems within 30 minutes). There was just one problem? Those television shows were idyllic portrayals that no one could ever live up to! Thankfully, a television show came along on January 12, 1971, that did something no other television show had done before: it provided an honest portrayal of how many American families really looked and acted. That show – All in the Family – helped Americans realize that you don’t have to be perfect in order to be loved - you only have to be yourself. In many ways this is the same message raised in this morning’s Gospel passage. In that passage we hear Jesus tell the woman at the well: “It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth… Those who worship [God] must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration” (John 4:23-24 from The Message). Sadly, many Christians have adopted a “Leave It to Beaver” approach toward living out their faith. They step into what I call their June Cleaver mode (June was the mother on "Leave It to Beaver") and spend much of their time projecting an image to the world that suggests they have their act together. The truth, however, is that there is something to be said for an Archie Bunker approach toward our spiritual lives. For while it may not always be easy to be in the presence of a work-in-progress like an Archie, at least the Archies of the world have something that the June Cleavers will never have: the experience of being loved for who they truly are. And it is through that experience that you can let loose and begin to worship God with your whole being. That, my friend, is what I wish for you this day. Til next time…

Monday, January 26

Today’s Readings: Psalm 136; Jonah 3:10-4:11; John 4:1-15; 1 Corinthians 4:6-13; Psalm 124

One of my friends taught me a saying that has stayed with me for many years. It’s a saying that lends good insight into human nature. The saying is this: “The only change people like is the change in their pockets.” While this is certainly true of human beings when it comes to our interactions with one another and with institutions, it seems doubly true when it comes to the way many people think of God. That’s because many people have come to see God as the epitome of stability. That’s why they’ve created catchy sayings like: “God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” But is that true? Is the only way to think about God – in terms of stability? The answer is no. There is a whole field of theology called Process Theology that approaches God with the assumption God is an evolving entity as well. So where do ideas for this kind of God come from? From places like today’s reading from Jonah where we are told: “God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. [God] did change [God’s] mind about them. What [God] said [God] would do to them [God] didn’t” (Jonah 3:10 from The Message). Some folks who would read the passage would find the notion of a God that can change God’s mind scary and unsettling since it would undermine their belief that God is the one rock-solid thing in their life. Other folks would see a God who is open to change as being exciting since such a notion would be a natural extension of the vital, dynamic energy found in the world God created. My question for you to consider today is this: how do you view God – as the pillar of stability or as an entity open to change? Even more important than my original question would be a follow up question: why do you view God that way? Til next time…

Sunday, January 25

Today's Reading: Mark 1:14-20

Here's today's reflection/sermon...

On the surface, the morning of March 20, 2004 seemed like any other morning. Mike and I had been living in our townhome for ten months at that point, and we decided to spend a little time together that Saturday morning looking for things to furnish our new home so we headed to the Town Center of Aurora.

A couple hours into our shopping expedition we were coming out of Sears when we started to pass a business called Pet City. Now Mike and I had talked in very broad terms about the possibility of some day owning a dog. But it seemed unlikely that it would ever happen because we were worlds apart in our tastes. Mike was hoping for a Chocolate Lab or a Weimaraner, and I was hoping for a Miniature Pincher; so the odds of finding anything we could agree on seemed slim. That’s why I said, “Why don’t we stop at Pet City for a minute.”

We did. As we walked slowly through the store I realized my instincts were correct. “We are never going to agree on a dog,” I thought to myself. It was about that time, however, that we spotted a beautiful dog - an Italian Greyhound - tucked away in one of the back holding cells. It was a primarily grey dog that had the coloring of a Weimaraner, and it was a dog not much bigger than a Miniature Pincher. His beautiful grey eyes called out to us, and before we knew it Mike was sitting with him in the adoption pen as I signed the papers.

When we left home that morning, we had visions of returning home with nothing more than perhaps a few throw pillows and a lampshade. But in the span of a few hours, we had been transformed into dog owners.

“Well, it may cost a little more than the throw pillows and lampshade,” I tried to console myself, “but what’s the big deal? How much of a difference can an eight pound puppy really make in a person’s life?”

As I look back now – nearly five years later – I laugh when I think about that question for I realize what a huge difference that eight pound puppy made.

Before we owned the dog, for instance, I could pretty much come and go as I pleased. Being the workaholic that I am, that meant I was free to leave home at 7:30 in the morning and stay out until I finished my last meeting of the day at 9:00 PM. Once we got that puppy, I had to strategically divide my day into four hour blocks of time so I could ensure he got his walks, his bathroom breaks, and the attention he craved.

Before we owned the dog, I use to have something called disposable income. This meant I had the flexibility to spontaneously spend a portion of my income on things like dinners, movies, and sporting events. Once we got the dog, however, I’ve learned that after we covered his food, his health insurance, his grooming, and his occasional boarding fees I literally couldn’t afford to be quite as spontaneous as I once was.

And before we owned the dog, I had the silly notion that pets existed to meet my needs for things like companionship and affection. Once we got the dog, however, I learned that I had it backwards: we exist to meet their needs.

Looking back on that fateful day five years ago, I realize I was na├»ve to think that opening our hearts to that little puppy wouldn’t affect our lives that much. For through that simple act of opening our hearts – everything changed.

Of course Mike and I weren’t the only ones who found ourselves in an encounter with one whose impact we underestimated. In this morning’s passage from Mark, we heard the story of the call received by two sets of brothers: Simon and Andrew and James and John. All of these were men who – like Mike and I – were engaged in their usual routines when they heard their call. And like us, everything changed.

As the Sacred Grounds conversation group sat with the call story last Tuesday evening, one of the first things that was commented on was the frustrating lack of detail. “It would be so much easier to understand the story,” someone noted, “if we knew better the context of those decisions.”

As I heard the comment, I thought to myself: “I’m actually glad the story lacks detail. For you see the lack of detail makes it possible for us to step into that story with our own set of experiences and imagine for ourselves what it must have been like to answer that call.”

I could just imagine, for instance, Simon thinking something along the lines of what I thought as I stood beside Mike at the cash register with our new puppy. “Sure, I think I’ll go along with this. After all, how disruptive could this call be to my daily life?”

I could imagine James thinking to himself: “I haven’t taken a day off in months, and I’ve got plenty of vacation days accrued. I’m up for a little adventure in my life!”

I could practically hear John thinking: “You know, I’ve been working my tail off for my father Zebedee and gotten nothing to show for it. Maybe I’ll hang out with this guy for a while and see what’s in it for me!”

In other words, I can hear the story and realize that many of us from all ages experience our call and do the same thing: we try to minimize the call by convincing ourselves that things won’t really have to change. If that’s how you’ve treated your call, I want you to stop and consider the nature of a call once again.

For if there’s anything that I’ve learned about the nature of a call during my lifetime, it’s these three things. First, I’ve learned that call will disrupt your daily routine. Second, I’ve learned that call does not afford us the luxury of picking and choosing where it will lead. Third, I’ve learned that the nature of the call is not about meeting our wants and our needs. It’s much bigger than that.

And how do I know these things?

I know them from one decision this community made six years ago this month. Six years ago, this community voted to declare itself just the second Welcoming mainline church in the entire city of Aurora! And over the course of the last six years, I realized what a transformative experience it was for us to answer that call.

Six years ago, for instance, our weekly routines moved along pretty smoothly because we didn’t have many differences to accommodate. We all spoke the same language, we all had pretty much the same level of physical and mental abilities, and we all came from similar economic backgrounds. When we heard that call, however, we began to intentionally welcome those from different social locations – and suddenly, our collective life here at Mountain View became a little more complex.

Six years ago, we had the luxury of enjoying a community where we could assume most of us thought alike. And then we heard the call to welcome not some – but all of God’s children - and we began to attract folks who saw things differently than ourselves. That call took us into relationships that we might otherwise never had.

Six years ago, we had the luxury of being able to practice our faith in places that felt comfortable to us. And then we heard the call to minister to all – and suddenly we began to leave those comfortable places behind. We started embodying our faith in a variety of places ranging from public coffee shops to subsidized food warehouses to tables where we sat across from the homeless.

In other words, while we may have initially thought our call to become a Welcoming Community was much like that cute little puppy I held in my arms – safe and comfortable – it has proven to be anything but those things. Instead, that call has proven to be challenging and expansive for we have allowed ourselves to become a community of individuals shaped not in our own image – but in God’s.

And so, friends, as we go forth from this place of worship and continue the life-long process of growing into our calls, my prayer is this. I pray that we will have the wisdom and courage to see our calls not for what we would like them to be – but for what they really are.