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Saturday, September 19

Today’s Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:1-18; Matthew 23:29-39; Psalm 1

When I did my student teaching twenty years ago, I had a wise teacher who served as my mentor and site supervisor. His name was Tom Davidson. Tom had already taught for nearly thirty years by the time I came along. Tom did something with me I’ll never forget: he made time at the end of each day I taught to help me process my experience. One day I had a little run in with one of the teachers who taught next door so I made a special point of processing the encounter with Tom. “Don’t worry too much about Mr. So-and-So,” Tom said. “He’s burned out.” I asked Tom how long he had been teaching, and Tom made an interesting remark. “He’s taught the same year for 35 years now.” That wasn’t the answer I expected so I tried to correct Tom by saying, “Don’t you mean he’s taught for 35 years?” “No,” Tom said. “There’s a big difference. You see someone who has taught for 35 years has invested time and energy in each and every year he or she has spent in the classroom. Mr. So-and-So hasn’t done that. Instead, he developed his curriculum during his first year of teaching and then used that same material year, after year, after year. That’s why I said he’s taught the same year for 35 years now.” I was reminded of that conversation as I read today’s passage from Ecclesiastes – for in that passage the author sounds as if he’s taken an approach to life much like the approach Mr. So-and-So took towards teaching. The author simply went through the motions day, after day, after day. “The sun goes up, and the sun goes down,” the author noted, “then does it again, and again – the same old round.” The author then culminated his musing with the following observation: “There’s nothing new on this earth. Year after year it’s the same old thing” (Ecclesiastes 1:5,9 from The Message). There are certainly a lot of people who take that approach toward life. Instead of living each and every year as if they were a wonderfully new gift, they simply repeat the patterns of the previous year. Over… and over… and over. Sadly, many of our local churches make the same mistake. My question for you today to consider is this: as you look over the course of your lifetime, have you made a habit of living each year – or do you simply repeat the patterns of previous years? If you’ve fallen into the pattern of repeating previous years, use today as a great opportunity to break out of that rut and start living! Til next time…

Friday, September 18

Today’s Readings: Proverbs 30:18-33; Romans 11:25-32; Psalm 1

Lots of my heterosexual friends over the years have asked me what it’s like to have to endure some of the challenges I’ve faced as a gay man. They expect me to say that the hardships have made my life miserable. And for that reason, they would assume that if I had to do it all over again, I would wish to be heterosexual. Nothing could be further from the truth! If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. There are many reasons I say that; one of which has to do with the countless blessings I have received from facing the discrimination. You see if I hadn’t faced discrimination as a gay man, I would have gone through my life from the vantage point of what has been a historically privileged position: as a white, middle-class male. I would not have had any first hand insight into what it was like to live as an outsider. Because of my experience as a gay man, however, I now have more empathy into the experiences of other groups that have been marginalized: groups such as women, people of color, the elderly, and people who are differently abled. I wouldn’t trade that insight for anything. Some might assume that my experience of being marginalized would make me bitter and hateful person. And certainly there were times in my life when that was the case. But over the long haul, my experience of living as a marginalized person had the opposite effect. As a person who has known first-hand the experience of being marginalized, I now do everything in my power to ensure no one else gets marginalized. This sometimes gets me in trouble. I have moved in progressive circles, for instance, that marginalized people who were more conservative that the rest of the group. When I stood up for the person being marginalized, I was subsequently attacked and characterized as being “one of them”. Oh well. My question for you to consider today is this: “Have you lived through an experience of being marginalized or made the outsider?” Chances are you have. For as Paul wrote in today’s passage from the book of Romans: “In one way or another, God makes sure that we all experience what it means to be outside so that God can personally open the door and welcome us back in” (Romans 11:32 from The Message). If you have experienced life as an outsider, how did it affect you? Til next time…

Thursday, September 17

Today’s Readings: Proverbs 30:1-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Psalm 1

Today’s section from Proverbs contains what I feel is one of the most provocative concepts known to humanity. That concept has to do with the word “enough”. In Proverbs 30:8-9, the author pleads: “Give me enough food to live on, neither too much nor too little. If I’m too full,” the author notes, “ I might get independent, saying, ‘God? Who needs God?’ If I’m poor, I might steal and dishonor the name of my God” (from The Message). So what’s so provocative about the word “enough”? Well, for me I have a difficult time determining what enough for me is. Whenever I get a little money in my pocket, for instance, I immediately begin focusing on those things I don’t have but would like to acquire. Whenever I get a little food on the table, I’m immediately drawn to those items that I would like on my table but are not there. Whenever I get a little free time, I begin lamenting the fact that I don’t have more. It is very difficult for me to arrive at the place where I ever feel I have enough. So what about you? Are you able to feel that you have enough in life, or do you find yourself seduced by the notion of wanting more? Til next time…

Wednesday, September 16

Today’s Readings: Proverbs 29:1-27; John 7:25-36; Psalm 73:21-28

I spent a good deal of the 1980’s – that would be the time between the ages of 13 and 23 - as an angry cynic. Wherever I looked, it seemed, I found hypocrisy. I looked at the world of religion and saw a succession of scandals involving televangelists ranging from Oral Roberts to Jim and Tammy Bakker to Jimmy Swaggart. I looked at the world of politics and saw things like the Iran-Contra deal and the United State’s decision to ignore the World Court decision regarding the mining of the waters of Nicaragua; and I looked to the realm of entertainment and saw the industry putting out movies like Wall Street that proclaimed messages like “Greed is good”. I used all of these things to justify my anger and to allow me to wallow in my cynicism. Gradually things began to shift for me over the course of the 1990’s. My anger dissipated and my cynicism actually began to give way to optimism. So what changed? Did all of the hypocrisy with which I had been confronted go away? Absolutely not! I suppose what changed within me was where I began to put my focus. Instead of focusing on televangelists who abused their wealth and power, I began to notice dedicated pastors of local churches who lovingly served their flocks. Instead of focusing on politicians who betrayed the values they professed during campaigns, I began to meet courageous elected officials who took seriously the public’s trust. Instead of looking at examples of movies that reinforced the narcissistic qualities of the day, I began to find films that showed the triumph of the human will (i.e. Rudy). I wish I could say that that shift was brought about exclusively because of the strength of my will. I can’t, however. That shift was brought about by a series of occurrences that were much larger than myself. I was reminded of what really lay behind that shift as I read today’s psalm in which the psalmist said: “When I was beleaguered and bitter, totally consumed by envy, I was totally ignorant, a dumb ox in your very presence. I’m still in your presence,” the psalmist noted, “but you’ve taken me by my hand. You wisely and tenderly lead me, and then you blessed me” (Psalm 73:21-24 from The Message). Given the challenges we face these days ranging from environmental challenges to economic challenges to political challenges, it would be easy to allow ourselves to become like the psalmist: totally beleaguered and bitter. There are certainly thousands of reasons for being that way. Today, I would invite you to ignore those reasons and allow God to take you by your hand and lead you to another place – to another way of seeing things. If you open yourself to that experience, you might be shocked at how the world around you might seem to change overnight. Of course it won’t be the world that will have changed. It will be the lens through which you look. Til next time…

Tuesday, September 15

Today’s Readings: Proverbs 25:1-28; Colossians 3:1-11; Psalm 73:21-28

Over the last twenty years, I have been involved in some of the most controversial issues of our day. By this I mean I have spent years and years in conversations addressing issues such as homosexuality and abortion. When I first started participating in these dialogues, I would have thought that some of the fervor would have diminished over the past twenty years. Let me tell you one thing: it has not. Every time I’m around those who are so passionate about these issues, a part of me wonders: “If they are so concerned about upholding what they perceive to be ‘biblical standards’, then why aren’t they out protesting other forms of behavior that the Bible addresses?” Why aren’t they out demonstrating against things like people who are bad tempered, irritable, mean, profane, and swear? After all, passages like today’s passage from Colossians take very specific stands against such behaviors. I’m not quite sure why that is. The cynical part of me says people have a hard time demonstrating against behaviors in which they actively engage. How many protesters at medical clinics that perform abortions, for instance, violate scriptural standards and get bad tempered or irritable during their protests? How many anti-gay activists participate in public debates where they are down-right mean and resort to inappropriate language to make their point? Quite a few. All of this reminds me of the old saying: “When you point a finger at someone else, you have four fingers pointing right back at you.” Today, I would invite you to take a little time and search your own heart. Can you find instances where you get so caught up judging others that you violate the principles espoused in today’s passage from Colossians? Til next time…

Monday, September 14

Today’s Readings Proverbs 22:1-21; Romans 3:9-20; Psalm 73:21-28

The past three months have been some of the richest moments of my spiritual life – for I’ve had to completely let go of my control issues and open myself in powerful new ways to the experience of being lead by the spirit. If you would have told me four months ago that I would leave a congregation I loved more than I thought humanly possible, sell the first home I had ever owned, move 1,000 across the country, and move into one of the more expensive areas of the country to live in; I probably would have laughed aloud. I wouldn’t have thought I had it in me to make so many changes. As I let go of my need to control, however, things in my life started to fall into place. I began to realize my love for my previous congregation was so deep that I was at a place where I could let go and encourage them to move on to the next stage of their development without me. Then a talented realtor came into our lives that helped us do the unthinkable – sell our townhome within a month in this wretched economy. The dreaded 1,000 mile move itself was transformed into a wonderful “vacation” that brought much needed rest and renewal into Mike and my life. And finally we found a kind-hearted landlord who worked with us to make our first months renting a home in our new community affordable. One by one, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. As I watched each piece fall into place, a part of me lifted up the sentiments contained in today’s psalm: “I’m still in your presence, but you’ve taken my hand. You wisely and tenderly lead me, and then you bless me” (Psalm 73:23-24 from The Message). What an amazing experience this has been! I’m sure that you have had similar moments in your life – moments when you let go of your need to control and had the sensation of being led by your hand. Today, I invite you to spend time remembering that sacred experience. If you do so, those loving memories that come flooding back will make it easier for you to let go the next time you face a difficult period in your life. Til next time…

Sunday, September 13

Today's Scripture: Mark 8:27-38

Today's sermon/reflection at Woodland Hills Community Church...

This morning’s passage from the Gospel of Mark is one of those that make many progressive Christians uncomfortable.

“Why is that?” you might ask.

It’s because of the way some of our sisters and brothers from the Religious Right have used it. You see many of them would have us believe that the central question in the passage – the famous “Who do you say I am?” – exists for one, and only one reason: to establish a litmus test to decide who gets in and who doesn’t. Who’s a Christian, and who’s not.

I would have to respectfully disagree with those who would take such an approach. For you see I don’t believe for a minute that was the primary purpose of Jesus’ question.

“If that’s not the primary purpose, then what is?” you might wonder.

Let me take a few moments and suggest one possibility.

You see as Jesus spoke those words to the disciples, he had a pretty clear idea of what lay ahead – not only for himself, but for those who professed to follow him. Things like suffering, trial, and death.

None of those things would come easy.

Jesus knew his followers would never be up for those challenges unless they made a shift in the way they approached their faith.

They would have to move from a faith predicated on what others – their parents, what their Sunday school teachers, their pastors - told them to believe, into a faith that was all their own.

Jesus also knew his early followers would have to drag their perceptions of him out of the past – out of frameworks built around historical figures like John and Elijah and structures predicated on things like baptizers and prophets – and bring those perceptions into the present.

In other words, by asking that pointed question, Jesus was trying to ensure that Peter and the others were up for what lie ahead. That’s what I believe motivated Jesus’ question.

It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if such pointed encounters between Jesus’ and his followers existed only in the past?

But I don’t believe they do. I believe the presence of the living Christ still finds ways of confronting those of us who would call ourselves followers of Jesus today.


Closely, if you will…

See if you can hear that question echo through the sanctuary this morning?

“And you – Lyn, George, Susan, Joe – who do YOU say I am?”

I know the thought of answering that question might terrify you. For perhaps there’s still that piece of you who might hear that question and revert back to the way you heard it when you were that eight year old child in the Sunday school room. The child who so desperately wanted to please the teacher before you. The child terrified you might get the answer wrong!

If that’s where you are this morning, I want you to take a deep breath and relax. For I want to highlight an element of the passage that often gets overlooked. That element has to do with how Jesus responded to Peter’s profession of whom he knew Jesus to be.

Think about it for a moment. How DID Jesus respond?

Did he say, “Good job, Peter. You got it right. Step to the head of the line!” Did he say, “Phew! I was worried about you there for a second, Peter. I thought I was going to have to toss you out on your ear!”

No. Jesus said neither of those things.

If you listened really closely you noticed that the text told us Jesus gave no direct response to Peter’s answer. Instead, he simply instructed Peter to remain silent. Knowing that Peter had found the answer for himself was enough. For now Peter was ready to face whatever challenges lie ahead.

As we celebrate this first Sunday of my pastorate, I want to use this week’s text as a backdrop to warn you about something. In the time I spend with you as your spiritual leader here at Woodland Hills, I’m going to take Jesus’ example in the passage seriously and try to follow it.

That means I’m not going to let you off the hook by forging spiritual community predicated on you reciting platitudes you might have learned when you were young. Nor am I interested in exploring a faith that rooted exclusively in the past.

In keeping with Jesus’ example, I’m going to push you and ask you those uncomfortable questions that might make you squirm. And more than that, once I’ve asked you those questions, I’ll pause and wait for an answer.

I’ll wait not for a list of possible answers. Nor will I wait for a list of other people’s answers. Instead, I’ll wait for yours. Know that I am aware that the answer you give me will change and expand over the years as your experience of God changes and expands. But I will wait for your answer, nevertheless. For I believe it is in that space where uncomfortable questions are first asked and then answered where the most growth occurs.

Now before I scare you off, I want to close by offering you these pastoral words of assurance. While the work Jesus calls us to do in answering the question may not be easy, know that it is that very work that will help you lay a rock-solid foundation for your spiritual life that will see you through – make that, see US through – whatever challenges may lie before us.