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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 26

Today’s Readings: Esther 3:1-15; Matthew 5:13-20; Psalm 124

If you are like me, you enjoy sharing the things you love with folks around you that you care about. When I stumbled upon the cool new television show “Glee” this Fall, for instance, I made a point of posting something about how much I liked “Glee” on my Facebook page. When the Houston Texans won a thrilling shoot-out against the Tennessee Titans last Sunday, I was eager to call my brother and email my friends to talk about it. And when I stumbled upon a good local coffee shop named Cables here in Woodland Hills, I made sure to tell Mike (my partner) that we’ll have to check it out when he gets here. Time after time – when something important happens in my life – I go out of my way to talk about it. There’s only one area of my life where that’s not always the case. That area? My spiritual life. Often, when important things happen in this area, I keep it to myself. Why is that? I suppose as a progressive person I’m worried that if I share a spiritual experience, I might inadvertently step on the toes of the person I’m sharing it with – especially if the other person comes from a different faith tradition. There’s also a part of me that’s concerned the person with whom I share might think I’m a religious fanatic and be scared away. Those are just a couple of reasons I sometimes keep my spiritual experiences to myself. In other words, if I’m not careful it’s easy for me to forget about the words attributed to Jesus in today’s reading from Matthew: “God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this…” (Matthew 5:14 from The Message). So how do you handle your spiritual life/spiritual experiences? Are you someone who feels comfortable talking about them with others, or do you go to great lengths to keep those experiences a secret? Til next time…

Friday, September 25

Today’s Readings: Esther 2:1-23; Acts 12:20-25; Psalm 124

For some reason, the UCC’s listing of daily lectionary readings has repeated the same set of readings for today that they listed yesterday. Since I reflected upon the text from Acts yesterday, today I’ll move over to the Psalm…

Today’s reading from the Psalms has special significance for me since I used a taped sermon I preached on the text as a part of my profile when I was candidating for the position to which I was just called. One thing leapt immediately to mind for me as I was working with the text. That thing was how quickly the psalmist was to identify God as the psalmist’s source for help (“God’s strong name is our help, the same God who made heaven and earth” – Psalm 124). It seems many of us these days are reluctant to do that: reluctant to identify God as our source of help. Why is that? I suppose it’s because we’ve grown comfortable pointing toward other things as our source of help (i.e. our financial planner, our doctors, our therapists, etc.). It’s hard for us to be vulnerable and point toward God for fear of sounding like one of “those people” (whatever that phrase means). Today, I would encourage you to sit down and list those things that you consider to be your primary sources for help. See if (and where) God ranks on your list. Til next time…

Thursday, September 24

Today’s Readings: Esther 2:1-23; Acts 12:20-25; Psalm 124

As my faith has evolved from one that was formed by relatively traditional, orthodox beliefs into one that has been shaped by progressive thinkers, I’ve found that there is a challenge I face. You see folks who come from a traditional, orthodox place often speak as if their belief system is the only acceptable belief system. Consequently, some folks who come from this place sound awfully arrogant to others since they are completely dismissive of other beliefs. When I began moving in some progressive circles, I expected this arrogance to disappear entirely since many progressives claim – as one of their core values – that they are completely open to other beliefs. The arrogance didn’t completely disappear, however. Instead, it took on other forms. Sometimes, it would get expressed in dismissive statements like, “Can you believe that person STILL believes in such and such?” Or, “Can you believe a rational person in the 21st Century would still believe in such and such?” Over time I’ve found that these are ways of taking Herod’s approach conveyed in today’s passage from Acts. They’re ways of saying, “The voice of God! The voice of God!” in relation to one’s own perspective. Whether we are someone who comes from a traditional, orthodox place; whether we come from a progressive place; or whether we come from somewhere in between – the challenge remains the same: don't confuse our voice with God's. Til next time…

Wednesday, September 23

Today’s Readings: Esther 1:1-21; Acts 4:13-31; Psalm 124

There are some pieces of scripture that challenge me. There are others that simply offend me. Today’s reading from Esther is one of those. It offends me because of the blatant sexism that permeates the telling of the story. We are told at the beginning of the story, for example, that Queen Vashti’s “offense” was her refusal to show up at a social function when her drunken husband demanded it. Then things go from bad to worse. The king’s advisor wants to punish Queen Vashti and make an example of her because “it’s not only the king Queen Vashti has insulted. It’s all of us” – the fear being that Vashti’s action would create “a country of angry women who don’t know their place”. Is this for real?! And if that wasn’t bad enough, the author tells us that by making an example of Vashti it will pressure women to show proper respect to their husbands. Male chauvinists of the word probably quote this passage incessantly to support their view that women are simply objects. Ick! So what – if anything – can a progressive person of faith do with such a passage besides berate it for being offensive? Well, I certainly can’t speak for all progressives, but I can speak for myself. As I read this passage, I think that it’s encouraging that some good can come out of even the most offensive situations. While Queen Vashti was removed from her position for what I would consider bogus reasons, it cleared a path for Esther to ascend to the position of queen. As a result of her ascendency to the position, Esther then was able to save the lives of her people when they were threatened later in the story. Holding on to that “silver lining in the cloud” is about the only way I can get through the telling of the story. This gets me to thinking about your life story. Have you experienced things you felt to be incredibly unfair and unjust? Things that you viewed as inexcusable at the time that eventually opened the door for new possibilities in your life or in the life of another? While those unfair/unjust moments can be excruciatingly difficult to live through, the hope that the injustice isn’t the end of the story might be enough to help pull you through. Til next time…

Tuesday, September 22

Today’s Readings: Ecclesiastes 5:1-20; John 8:21-38; Psalm 128

One of the acronyms that informs the way I approach my life is KISS. As some of you might remember, that stands for Keep It Simple Stupid. In my case it’s especially appropriate the saying ends with stupid as I frequently forget to follow the advice contained in the first three letters. I have a gift for making things way more complicated than they need to be. Of course, there are many other sources that I look to for principles to guide my life – and one of those sources is the books of wisdom contained in the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament. Today’s passage from Ecclesiastes has many bits of wisdom that could positively shape one’s life. My favorite verse out of all of the verses is verse two – for it gives me three foundational principles that help keep my life on track. First, verse two tells me, be real with God (or, as the author states, “Don’t be too quick to tell God what you think God wants to hear”). Second, be humble (“God’s in charge, not you!”). Third, be quite (“the less you speak, the better”). I’ve found those to be wonderful words to live by. Today, I would invite you to experiment with the three be’s as I call them (“be real, be humble, be quite”) and see if your attempt to live by those words helps shape your day in a positive manner. Til next time…

Monday, September 21

Today’s Readings: Proverbs 27:1-27; James 4:8-17; Psalm 128

There are many aspects of life that the experience of being a pastor magnifies greatly. One of those aspects is involves the realization of how little control we have over our lives. Most folks, for instance, go through a good portion of their life maintaining the belief that they have complete control over every aspect of their life. Occasionally something happens to challenge that belief. A person might get terminated from their job, or get an unexpected illness or disease. Those events are relatively rare in the life of any one person, however, so it’s easy for the individual to forget about the unforeseen challenge and slide right back into the “I’m in control here” mode. As a pastor, however, we are drawn into the lives of several individuals – many of whom are forced to face situations beyond their control. In just one day’s time, for instance, we might spend the morning supporting a person who just got laid off from their job, make a hospital visit with someone who just had a stroke in the afternoon, and then spend our evening counseling someone whose relationship ended unexpectedly. As a result of the constant barrage of such startling occurrences, most clergy grow increasingly comfortable with the notion that we cannot control many aspects of our life. While this can be a challenging reality to accept, there is at least one huge benefit to this realization. It helps us live in the present and not the future. Today’s reading from James reinforced the importance of this lesson. “You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow,” the author wrote. “You’re nothing but a wisp of fog, catching a brief bit of sun before disappearing” (James 4:14 from The Message). This provocative statement provides a wonderful opportunity to check in with you today. How would you characterize your approach toward life? Do you spend much of your time thinking about - and planning for - the future, or do you spend a good deal of your time with your head solidly planted in the present? Til next time…

Sunday, September 20

Today's Reading: Mark 9:30-37

Over the past twelve days I’ve had the pleasure of making several congregational care visits and talking with over a dozen friends and members of the church one-on-one. These conversations have taken place in any number of settings ranging from coffee shops to places of business to a rehabilitation center.

While the faces and locations have varied a great deal, there have been two themes that have been raised consistently in nearly every conversation. The first theme is a rather warm, fuzzy one. That theme has to do with how much folks in this church love – and I repeat LOVE – the sense of community they’ve found here at Woodland Hills Community Church.

The second theme isn’t quite so warm and fuzzy. It has to do with what some might call a desperate situation in which we find ourselves.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist,” one member said, “to see that there’s an awful lot of us white-haired folks here. If we are going to survive as a church, we’re gonna have to figure out a way to add people with other colors in their hair.”

The person who said that probably didn’t realize they were opening a can of worms – for talking about the need to attract young people is a topic that brings up a wide range of emotions for people.

On one hand, that conversation brings back a wonderful parade of memories of things like past Christmas pageants here at WHCC, images of Sunday school classrooms filled to the brim with kids, and memories of youth group mission trips that changed the life of some of your very own kids.

Those truly were the good old days, weren’t they?

That same conversation also brings up at least two other emotions as well. First, it raises a sense of sadness as you wonder, “What happened to my kids and my grandkids? Why aren’t they involved in church any more?”

As hard as it might be to feel that emotion, it’s still relatively easy to process – since it feels safe to talk about with others.

The second emotion the conversation raises is a lot more difficult to talk about: the emotion being fear. It’s hard to talk about because of what lies behind that fear.

You see a fair number of church folk have bought into a line of thinking that says what’s keeping your kids and grandkids out of church these days is something called a generation gap. They’ve been told there’s only one way to overcome that gap: make wholesale changes to our church and THEN the kids will come pouring back.

Here’s where the fear kicks in. It kicks in when people say things like:
“Toss out the beloved hymns of the faith like ‘Blessed Assurance and ‘Sweet Hour of Prayer’ and give ‘em something new – something with a beat. That’s what you need to do!”

Or, “Out with vestments like the preacher’s robe and the robes of the choir members and in with denim jeans and flannel shirts. That’ll pack them in!”

Or, “Get rid of contemplative elements of worship and printed bulletins. That’ll do the trick.”

Heard any of those things?

What we’ve done is put our parents and grandparents in a terrible bind. We’ve told them you can either worship in a thoughtful, familiar manner with theological integrity and go to church WITHOUT any young people OR you can get rid of every you’ve known and loved for your entire life and have the satisfaction of sitting in a worship service beside your children and grandchildren.

That’s a horrible choice to ask anyone to make, isn’t it?! No wonder fear kicks in.
Well, I have some good news for you this morning. I’m here today to tell you the choice that has been presented to you for the last twenty years is a false choice – for it overlooks another approach that can allow you to have both things: integrity in your worship AND people below the age of 40 in the service.

You want to know my source for this radical proposal?

This morning’s passage from the Gospel of Mark!

It might surprise you at first to hear that the passage has anything to do with that topic, so let me take a minute and share with you what I think the passage has to say about all of this.

When most folks hear the culminating words of Jesus in the passage, they take Jesus answer literally. When he said, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do, embraces me…” they assume Jesus’ meant that the key lie solely in welcoming those little people who are chronologically impaired.

And obviously, that’s a huge piece of what Jesus was getting at.

But I believe there was more to Jesus’ answer than that. When Jesus talked about embracing the children, I don’t think he only meant the little beings that run around Harter Hall after worship and take more cookies than you’d like off the platters during fellowship hour. He was pointing at something else as well.

In order to make my point, I’m going to need a little help from you this morning. And to get that help, I’m going to ask you to take a risk and do the unthinkable. Speak up and answer a question I raise. Here’s that question: when you hear the word “child” mentioned, of what qualities or characteristics come to mind?

[Brainstorm a list of qualities associated with children]

Thank you – that’s a wonderful list.

Now here’s what I want to propose to you this morning. When Jesus was calling us to embrace the children, I believe he was calling us to embrace those child-like qualities within ourselves as well: qualities that go against the grain of how we adults are trained to think and act.

Think about the implications of that for a moment. Think about what it would mean, for instance, to embrace a child-like quality of being spontaneous. Most of us are taught from our earliest days to equate church with things like structure and rigidity. What would happen if church began to relax a bit and be spontaneous? How might that change things?

And what about a phrase like fun-loving that many of us associate with children? Most of us have had it beat into our heads over the years that church is a place to be endured and not enjoyed. What would happen if we got rid of that notion, and rooted our pursuit of the Divine in joyful expressions of things like dance, visual art and all sorts of creative outlets? What would that do to our concept of church?

And how about my favorite word of all to associate with children - innocence?

Over the years, some of us in church have grown a bit jaded. Our first response to new ideas and new ways of being can become catch-phrases like “We tried that 15 years ago and it didn’t work” or “It’ll never work.” What would it be like if we banished such phrases from our vocabulary around here and once again embraced a sense of innocence about the possibilities that lie before us.

Well, friends, all I can say is that I hope we find out: together.

As we journey forward here at Woodland Hills, my prayer is that we’ll develop quite the reputation here. A reputation in this community not for being first in status or prestige. Nor do I envision us developing a reputation for being first in programming or trendiness. No. Instead, I hope we establish a reputation for being first in caring: first for our children, and secondly, for the child-like qualities within us.