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.

Saturday, March 21

Today’s Readings: Psalm 56; Jeremiah 26:1-16; Luke 12:57-13:5; Ephesians 1:16-2:3; Psalm 28

Featured Reading:
Jeremiah 26:1-16

Some of us human beings (myself included!) have a knack for hearing only portions of things. Let me give you a couple examples. A parent can tell a child, “If you eat everything on your plate, you can have some ice cream.” And what does the child hear? “You can have some ice cream.” Or an employer can tell an employee, “After you complete your report and turn it in, you can leave early.” And what does the employee hear? “You can leave early.” In both instances, the second party can get cranky when the first party reminds them of the terms of the arrangement. The child will cry, for instance, when ice cream is withheld because the child didn’t finish the vegetables on his/her plate. Similarly, the employee might grouse when he has to stay later than expected until the requested report is turned in. This same dynamic is evidenced in today’s reading from the Jeremiah. In that passage, the prophet tells the people: “If you refuse to listen to me and live by my teaching that I’ve revealed so plainly to you… I’ll make this Temple a pile of ruins.” And what do the people hear? “I’ll make this Temple a pile of ruins.” As a result of their selective hearing process, they completely freaked out and missed the point. All of this reminds me of our tendency to do the same thing in our own spiritual lives: listen selectively and miss the point. Perhaps there is an area in your life with which you are struggling to discern God’s will, or perhaps struggling with the portions you have discerned to date. If so, I would encourage you to spend a little more time in prayer/meditation to see if you have truly opened yourself to experiencing the fullness of God’s spirit – and not just part of it. Til next time…

Friday, March 20

Today’s Readings: Psalm 18:1-19; Jeremiah 25:30-38; Luke 12:32-40; 1 Peter 2:11-17; Psalm 18:20-50

Featured Reading: 1 Peter 2:11-17

Ten years ago this September, I made the most dramatic move I’d made in my entire life. I moved 1,100 miles - from Spokane, WA to Denver, CO - in order to attend seminary. For the first couple of years I lived in Denver, I made a point of holding on to my identity as a native Washingtonian. I would frequently comment on aspects of life in Colorado as if I were a removed social commentator. I would note, for instance, that where I came from driver’s actually slowed down and stopped for yellow lights. In Colorado, however, it seemed extremely rare to find drivers that either slowed down or stopped for yellow lights. Or I would note that in Washington, residents expected their municipal governments to provide free weekly curbside recycling. In most of Colorado, residents did not expect such service. For those first few years of my life in Denver, I found that having a sense of distance between myself and the community in which I lived allowed me to maintain behaviors that were important to me. As the years passed, however, I began to let my guard down. And what do you know? Little by little my behaviors began to change. After nearly getting rear ended several times when I attempted to stop for a yellow light, I found that gradually I too began to hit the gas when the light turned yellow in order to race through the intersection like many of my fellow Coloradans. My behavior around recycling changed as well. Since there was no free weekly curbside recycling program in the area in which I lived, I too stopped recycling. In other words, instead of holding on to the values and practices that I thought were important, I allowed myself to let go of those values so that I could simply fit in. The author of today’s passage from 1 Peter warns us about the dangers of dropping our guard and allowing ourselves to simply fit in when he wrote: “Friends, this world is not your home, so don’t make yourselves cozy” (1 Peter 2:11 from The Message). As you sit with those opening words from 1 Peter, I would encourage you to spend some time contemplating in what position your faith places you. Does your faith and its accompanying values seem at odds with the world around you, or does your faith simply reflect the world around you – thereby making the world a cozy place for you to live? Til next time…

Thursday, March 19

Today’s Readings: Psalm 124; Jeremiah 25:8-17; Luke 12:22-31; 1 Peter 2:4-10; Psalm 8

Featured Reading: Luke 12:22-31

When I was young, I was an extremely anxious child. It seemed as if I worried about everything. I worried about how others perceived me; I worried about living up to other people’s expectations; and I worried about what lay ahead of me in the future. You name it, and I worried about it. Because of my childhood angst, it wasn’t unusual for me to take an hour or two from the time I went to bed until the time I could finally fall asleep. In fact, that two hour time block at bedtime was pretty much the norm. Given my propensity to worry about any and everything, it was no wonder that I found myself on high blood pressure medicine by the time I was just 23! It was about that time that I started examining my life and asking myself, “How’s that worry thing working out for you?” The answer was, “Not so well.” It took me another couple of years, but eventually I was finally able to start worrying less. The key to my decision to let go of my worrying had to do with an emerging sense of perspective I gained on life. I began to ask myself questions like the one Jesus raised in today’s passage from Luke – “Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch?” (Luke 12:25 from The Message). The obvious answer was no. Once I realized that, it became easier and easier for me to quit worrying (or - to be honest - cut significantly back on it). Perhaps you've been in a place like I was - regularly consumed with worry about things totally beyond your control. If so, I would invite you to revisit Jesus' words from today's Gospel reading so that you too can "relax, and [not] be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God's giving" (Luke 12 :29 from The Message). Til next time...

Wednesday, March 18

Today’s Readings: Psalm 1: Jeremiah 24:1-10; Luke 12:11-21; Colossians 3:1-17; Psalm 37

Featured Reading:
Colossians 3:1-17

If you were to talk to someone visiting our country for the first time, it wouldn’t take long for the individual to notice that we are a country in which people relate to one another primarily based upon what labels we attach to ourselves and others. When it comes to politics, for instance, most folks are quick to call themselves either a Democrat or a Republican – and they often surround themselves with folks who wear the same label. Or if an individual identifies as a Christian – that’s not good enough. They feel compelled to follow that up by noting whether they are Methodist, Lutheran, or Baptist. And when it comes to the amount of resources an individual possesses, people tend to get labeled using one of three labels: (1) rich; (2) poor; or (3) middle class. In each of these areas, labels play a huge role in how we understand ourselves and other human beings. Of course, we modern folks aren’t the only ones who were fond of labels. Folks who lived around Jesus’ times loved them as well. How do I know? I know because of the way the author of today’s passage from Colossians talked. In Colossians 3:10, for instance, the author challenged his peers’ affinity for lables by writing: ‘Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing.” And why are such descriptors useless? Because “from now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone included in Christ” (Colossians 3:11 from The Message). So where are you at with the issues of labels? Do you depend on labels to learn all you need to know about other people; or are labels simply annoying diversions that cause us to lose sight of our areas of commonality? Til next time…

Tuesday, March 17

Today’s Readings: Psalm 81; Jeremiah 23:25-32; Luke 12:1-10; Romans 8:31-39; Psalm 82

Featured Reading:
Romans 8:31-39

I realize that I have a character trait that can get on people’s nerves. Actually, I have more than one I’m sure – but for the sake of time I’ll limit myself to just one. That character trait is my ability to be incessantly upbeat or perky. Folks have been telling me since I was in my early teens that one day I’d grow up, take a few lessons from the school of hard knocks, and become bitter and cynical. Thirty years later I’m still waiting for that to happen. So what’s my secret? Well, for me the answer lies in my favorite piece of Scripture – a piece that just so happens to be contained in today’s reading from Romans. In Romans 8:38-39, Paul wrote of a truth that has become for me the very foundation of my faith. “I’m absolutely convinced,” Paul wrote, “that nothing – nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable – absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us” (Romans 8:38-39 from The Message). Those are the words that transformed me into a human version of the energizer bunny. What has been most important for me to realize in terms of living into those words is that Paul didn’t promise we wouldn’t experience difficult events. No, in fact he acknowledged that we people of faith would encounter the same challenges all human beings face: the dead … the demonic … the low… the unthinkable. The power of Paul’s words is that they encourage us to not let those hardships be the final defining moment in our relationship with God. Paul exhorts us to look beyond those challenges and toward what can become the foundational truth in our spiritual lives: that God’s love for us is a constant. May those simple words of promise help get you through all the challenges you face – whether they be in the present or future. Til next time…

Monday, March 16

Today’s Readings: Psalm 129; Jeremiah 23:16-24; Mark 12:38-44; Romans 8:18-25; Psalm 139

Featured Reading:
Mark 12:38-44

When it comes to living in spiritual community, one of my passions is for creating an environment where everyone is welcome to participate fully in the life and ministry of the church. I was somewhat na├»ve a few years ago when I started articulating that vision - for I immediately expected everyone would respond excitedly, jump right in, and start participating. I had forgotten to factor in an aspect of church culture that has existed for years. You see over the last several years, parish ministry has grown increasingly professionalized. This means local faith communities have gotten use to hiring professionals to lead (and sometimes do) ministry for them. When we need someone to work with the youth group – what’s our first instinct? Hire someone to lead/take over the youth group. When we need someone to develop our Christian Education/Spiritual Formation programs, what’s our first thought? Hire someone. When we need someone to develop a congregational care program, what do we do? Hire someone. Now don't get me wrong. There is a place for input from experts who have specialized training in a particular field. My only concern, however, is that that place shouldn't come at the expense of the people. For you see without realizing it, many of our faith communities have sent a message to the people that if we want to get things done, we’ll have to hire an expert do it for us. As a result, folks in our congregations have pulled back further and further as they let experts run our churches. Here’s where today’s story from the Gospel of Mark comes in for me. The second half of today’s Gospel reading tells the story of the poor widow who did an amazing thing: she gave everything she had. She did so not at the direction of experts, but out of her deep and abiding relationship with God. And how did Jesus react? Did he tell her she ought to call in professional fundraising experts to take her two cents, invest them, and turn them into a respectable amount before she put the money in the offering plate? No. He said, “The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together” (Mark 12:43 from The Message). Perhaps there’s an area of your life where you feel called to contribute; it could be a contribution at home, at work, at church – wherever. Maybe you’ve been holding back your offering because you’ve thought that what you have to offer might not be up to other’s standards. If that’s the case, I would encourage you to break through that mindset and freely offer your gift(s) knowing that through that simply act you’ll be meeting the standards of the only One that truly matters: God. You can then rest easier knowing that you too gave your all. Til next time…

Sunday, March 15

Featured Reading: Psalm 19

While we pastors may not have an abundance of many things in life, there is one thing that we are NEVER lacking: invitations to attend things. We get invitations to attend open houses, invitations to attend workshops, invitations to attend meetings, and – if we’re really lucky –invitations to share a meal with someone. You name it, and we get invited to it.

Now it doesn’t take new pastors long to figure out that if you are going to survive in this thing called ministry, you have to develop a system to sort through all those invitations. So we do. My system goes something like this. Invitations that come from within the congregation go into a stack I call Pile Number One. Invitations that come from one of the denominational bodies we are affiliated with go in Pile Number Two. Invitations that come to us from the community at large find their way into Pile Number Three.

In a good week, a pastor will be lucky enough to accept invitations from all three piles. During Lent, however, there is no such thing as a good week – since our schedules are stretched to the max. Consequently, I’m lucky if I’m able to even think about dipping into Pile Two at all.

Ten days ago, however, I received an invitation to attend a Pile Three event that caught my eye. The invitation was to a lecture titled “Wage Theft in America”. Since I deeply respected the individual who invited me and had heard great things about the presenter, I decided to throw caution to the wind and attend the Pile Three event.

I walked into the lecture hall last Wednesday expecting to spend the hour listening to statistics about all of the economic injustices that were being perpetuated upon workers in the land, so I found myself a little crabby at the outset. And while there were a few key statistics that got bandied about early in the presentation, the speaker got my attention by throwing about something I wasn’t expecting – stories. Of all the stories she shared, one stood out more than any other. It was the story of a group of twenty-one developmentally disabled men who – at the start of our story - lived near Abilene, Texas.

A food processing plant whose headquarters were located nearby heard about the facility and decided they had an opportunity that could supposedly benefit both their company and the developmentally disabled men. So the plant reached an agreement with the facility housing the men to ship them up to a small town in Iowa – Atalissa, Iowa to be exact - where they could spend their days working productively.

In order to house the men, the plant rented a 108-year old school house from the city for just $600 a month. Now you might wonder why renting the school house was so cheap. Well, it was because the school house was in total disrepair. The boiler, for instance, had given out back in 2002. No problem. The plant managers simply boarded the windows with plywood and bought space heaters to warm the men who were housed there.

Of course on most days the men weren’t on the premises long enough to get too cold. Each morning around 2:30 AM, the disabled men would be roused from their sleep so they could get on a bus and be transported to their jobs in the city where they started work by 4:30 AM. Most days they didn’t return “home” until after dark.

To make matters worse, the managers decided since the company housed, transported, and then fed the men that it was only right to take a little out of their paychecks to cover the expenses. $500 a month was taken out of each man’s check to pay for housing; another $600 was taken for what managers ironically called kind care. Even the Social Security Checks written to the disabled men found their way into the company’s pockets. So you know how much was left in each disabled man’s paycheck after a grueling month’s work? Roughly $65.

The situation would have continued had it not been for one thing: the law. And of all things that could have brought down the operation, it just so happened that it was Iowa State’s Department of Public Safety that put an end to things due to the condition of the school house.

As the group of clergy and community leaders processed the story, we were thankful that laws were in place that allowed such a racket to be shut down. The presenter immediately reminded us of the limitations of the law. She noted, for instance, that due to lack of funding for investigators – for every violation that is found there are dozens that go undiscovered. She also noted that by time the case works its way through the legal system, it will be years before any restitution might be paid to those victimized by the plant.

As I walked away from the lecture, there was a part of me that wondered, “Just what good is the law anyway if it continues to allow such things to happen?”

Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly thrilled when I got home that afternoon and sat down to begin work on this week’s service. For the theme of this week’s service was what? That’s right. The law. And if the subject itself wasn’t bad enough, this week’s theme had to go one step further and talk about the beautiful law!

Yeah, right!

As I began to dig into the Psalm, however, I began to notice a shift in how the Scripture invited me to think about this thing called law – or Torah. Let me see if I can help you understand that shift.

You see as I looked back on the story I heard earlier that morning, I realized that laws created by human beings are about accomplishing one thing: controlling our behavior. They either tell us what we can - or what we can’t - do. That’s about it.

God’s law, on the other hand, moves far beyond simple do’s and don’ts.

In explaining the central message of this morning’s psalm, J Clinton McCann, Jr. began by noting there is one – and only one – thing that makes life as we know it possible.

That thing?

Our relatedness to God.

And that relatedness comes to us – among other things - through the law – for it “enables [us] to live in harmony with God and with the whole of creation” (New Interpreter’s Bible 752).

As I sat McCann’s words, I realized my attitude toward the law had begun to shift. I began to let go of my sense that the law was either a tool designed to get me to do what other people wanted me to do, or an instrument used to punish me when I failed to do what others wanted me to do. From God’s perspective, the law was about something else: it was about helping me live in right relationship with God and with my neighbor.

“According to the psalmist,” McCann wrote, “the God whose sovereignty is proclaimed by cosmic voices is the God who has addressed a personal word to humankind – God’s Torah. Furthermore,” McCann concluded, “this God is experienced ultimately by humankind not as a cosmic [code] enforcer but as a forgiving next of kin! God is love, and love is the force that drives the cosmos” (New Interpreter’s Bible 753).

Friends, as we live into these culminating days of Lent – days that will move our focus from the Torah to the cross, the empty tomb, and beyond – I ask you to remember those simple words from Mr. McCann that spell out our foundational truth as Christians: “God is love, and love is the force that drives the cosmos.” For those are words that can not only direct your behaviors – they are words that can put hope back into our hearts.

May each of us here this morning go forth with a renewed sense of commitment to live as law-abiding residents of God’s kin-dom.

Amen