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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, October 3

Today’s Readings: Job 7:1-21; Luke 16:14-18; Psalm 26

I’m someone who generally has an extremely high level of energy. I rarely slow down in life for very long. There’s about only one thing that can slow me down – and that is getting sick. Well, this week I was running around at break-neck speed – trying to get ready for Mike’s arrival last Thursday night – when guess what happened? I got sick. Tuesday I could feel the sore throat move in and by Thursday afternoon the congestion was there. By the time I picked Mike up at the airport on Thursday night at 11:00 PM I felt like a bus had hit me. Needless to say, I’ve been a little crabby as I’ve had to deal with being sick on the one weekend in a two-month span that I get to spend with Mike. On more than one occasion this weekend I’ve found myself uttering sentiments much like Job’s in today’s passage: “I’m not keeping one bit of this quiet, I’m laying it all out there on the table; my complaining to high heaven is bitter, but honest” (Job 7:11 from The Message). I know that some people of faith would be bothered by such a reaction to life’s injustices – that they would expect a person of faith to smile and simply endure the challenges without a peep. Before you give up on me, however, I would note that often – when I find myself in that place of crabbiness with my Creator – I also take a moment to reflect on how glad I am to be in relation with One who embraces all facets of my being (my crabbiness included). Til next time…

Friday, October 2

Today’s Readings: Job 4:1-21; Romans 8:1-11; Psalm 26

There are a lot of issues that cause modern Christians a great deal of confusion as they theologically wrestle with them. Some of these include issues like theodicy (why do bad things happen to good people?), the nature of Scripture (is its meaning primarily allegorical or literal), Christology (to what degree was Jesus human and Divine), and the like.

One of the more challenge issues has to do with the notion of a personal God – a God whom an individual can both relate to and feel care for by. The notion that God was a personal God was the prevailing notion for many centuries. In the days since the Enlightenment, however, this view has grown out of favor with many.

While many would find such a shift intellectually satisfying, I have watched many people - especially those in the midst of a personal crisis like the death of a loved one or a life-threatening illness - wrestle to resolve their intellectual commitment with their personal feelings.

I was reminded of this tension when I read today’s passage from Romans that said: “God went for the jugular when God sent God’s own Son. God didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In God’s Son, Jesus, God personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all” (Romans 8:3 from The Message).

So how do you balance the tension between the competing concepts of God that on one hand would describe God as remote and on the other hand describe God as personal? Do you gravitate toward one end of the theological spectrum, or do you land somewhere in between? Til next time…

Thursday, October 1

Today’s Readings: Job 2:11-3:26; Galatians 3:23-29; Psalm 26

I have a personality trait that often gets me into trouble. BIG trouble! That trait is that I LOVE to solve problems.

Now on the surface, that may sound like a very good thing – as problems are generally things most people like to see go away. There is one area, however, where being a problem solver can get you into lots of trouble. That area is personal relationships.

I’ve learned repeatedly over the years that when loved ones come to me and wants to talk about a problem– the last thing they want is for me to propose a solution. What do they want instead? Someone to simply listen to them as they blow off steam. The more I remember this (and fight my natural inclination to problem solve) the better I get along with my loved ones.

I was reminded of this important lesson in today’s reading from Job – for in that passage Job’s associates do something truly remarkable: they keep their mouth shut and simply listen to their friend who is in complete misery. What a concept! Of course later in the book, Job’s friends mess things up by opening their mouths – but I’ll leave that for another day. In today’s passage, they know enough to keep their mouths shut.

Perhaps there is a situation in your life where you are tempted to do what I often do: problem solve. If that’s the case, you might try following the example of Job’s friends and do the most important thing a person can do with a loved one: listen. Til next time…

Wednesday, September 30

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

If you were to ask me what the greatest challenge I face as a pastor is, you might be surprised with my answer. "My greatest challenge," I would say, "is having to face the feelings of inadequacy."

You see no matter what we do, it seems as if we are always in the position of either letting someone down or offending someone. If we support one social justice issue, for instance, folks question why we chose to focus on that issue instead of another. If we spend time making lots of pastoral visits during the week, there is always someone who feels left out because we didn’t get to them. And if we chose a particular hymn for the worship service, someone will undoubtedly have issues with our choice because of the hymn’s language or theology. At times it can feel as if nothing we ever do is good enough. Oy!

Maybe you have felt that way at some point in your life.

So how do we pastors do it? How do we get out of bed each day in light of these feelings of inadequacy?

Well, on our good days we live in right relationship with God and get a taste of the boldness that Peter and John exhibited in today’s passage from Acts. The more we live in right relationship with God, the more likely we are able to give voice to the sentiment contained in Peter and John’s words: “we can’t keep quiet about what we’ve seen and heard” (Acts 4:20 from The Message)!

So what about you? How do you live your life? Do you come from a place of inadequacy, a place of boldness, or perhaps a place somewhere between those two extremes? Whatever the case, find time to celebrate those moments in your life (frequent or fleeting) where you connect with the Spirit and find yourself feeling as if you cannot keep quiet about what you’ve seen and heard! Til next time…

Tuesday, September 29

Today’s Readings: Esther 5:1-14; 1 John 2:18-25; Psalm 140

I have a set of skills that – at first glance – are contradictory with one another. One set of my skills lies in the area of politics. By this I mean I am drawn to observing human behavior in groups and watching how issues of power and control play out. The other set of skills I have involves my ability to facilitate healing.

So why do I consider these skills contradictory?

Well, the field of politics is usually about how to use people and systems to get what you want. The thoughts and feelings of individuals are given little (if any) consideration. My ability to facilitate healing, on the other hand, is all about connecting with an individual's thoughts and feelings in order to help them move beyond their pain. It can be a challenge to try to integrate these different skills into my being.

So how do I act when I know an individual or individuals are slipping into a political mode and getting ready to engage in power plays designed to control and/or manipulate others? Do I assume a political posture and fight back in order to try and beat the other person at his/her own game? No. Do I simply roll over and say, “While their behavior is inappropriate, the person is acting out of a place of personal pain and so therefore I’ll look the other way?" No. I have increasingly turned to another way of being predicated upon my faith.

I hear the wisdom embedded in the story of Esther, for instance, that suggests those engaged in unhealthy power plays will ultimately end up lying in the bed (or in Haman’s case the gallows) they have tried to make for others. I also realize the wisdom in the cry of the psalmist who noted: “These troublemakers all around me – let them drown in their own verbal poison." Instead of stopping there, however, the healer in me invites me to continue to walk with the individual after they’ve faced the consequences of their own actions/poison – and support them as they begin to open themselves to new (and less destructive) ways of being.

My question for you today is this: how does your faith inform your response to the “troublemakers” in your life? Til next time…

Monday, September 28

Today’s Readings: Esther 4:1-17; 1 Peter 1:3-9; Psalm 140

One of the darkest periods of my life began on April 10, 2001. At the time, I was half way through my Master of Divinity degree at seminary – anticipating a career as a United Methodist pastor – when I received word that my home church had voted to discontinue my candidacy for ordination because of my sexual orientation. I was devastated. I had no clue what lie ahead for me. My relationship was severed with the only faith tradition I had known. I was half way through seminary, and I had no clue what I was going to do following graduation. I was paralyzed by fear. I spent the next six months desperately trying to regain my footing. If someone would have come along during this time and said: “God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The Day is coming when you’ll have it all – life healed and whole” – I would have laughed out loud (1 Peter 1:5 from The Message). As I look back, however, I now realize that while I may not have believed those words had been spoken to me – it still would have been helpful to hear them as they would have invited me to think about the possibility that my future could be brighter than my present. Perhaps there is someone in your life who is going through a rough spot – someone who could benefit from hearing the sentiments expressed in that simple promise. If so, I invite you to find that person and find a way of articulating that sentiment in ways the other person could hear. Who knows? Your heart-felt expression just might bring back the spark of hope to someone in need. Til next time…

Sunday, September 27

Today's Reading: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10 & 9:20-22

When most folks encounter the story of Esther, they think of it as a wonderful story of liberation. And they tend to think of those liberating acts as having occurred one direction: they like to think of how one person saved her entire community from destruction. There is certainly that aspect in this morning’s story – for the Jewish people literally lived to see another day because of the selfless and courageous actions of Esther.

But if you ask me, such an understanding would only be capturing one half of the story. For I believe there is another way you could look at it in which the community aided in the liberation of Esther as well.

Let me take a few moments and tell you why I say that.

Following the dismissal of Esther’s predecessor - Queen Vashti –the King embarked on a long and arduous process to find a replacement. Beautiful women from each of the provinces throughout the empire were gathered and put through a grueling twelve-month process. In fact, by the time the selection process was completed – it had taken 4 years to find Vashti’s replacement.

Given the amount of time and attention devoted to the selection process, you’d probably assume they would have thrown in the equivalent of a background check to make sure the successful candidate came from the right stock. Surprisingly, they didn’t.

Esther had won the beauty-portion of the contest hands-down. She bowled them over with her intelligence. In fact, she was so impressive that the king and his minions never bothered to take time to find out from where she had come.

Of course Esther never volunteered that information either. She was content to remain silent about her Jewish identity.

And you know what?

There is no indication that Esther would have ever volunteered that information under normal circumstances. She might have gone through her entire life never sharing the fullness of who she really was.

But then the fateful edict was issued that threatened the very existence of community from which she had come – the community that had helped shape and define both her perception of the world and her place within it. Her people needed her to not only use her new-found power to advocate on their behalf; they needed her to find her voice and reclaim a piece of her story. It was through that need that Esther was finally able to do the unthinkable: accept herself. Not for whom others thought she was – but for whom she really was. That, my friends, is how I believe the community was able to help liberate Esther.

This notion of how an individual and a community can help liberate one another was brought home to me in a very powerful way last Tuesday when I opened my email and found one from the Southern California-Nevada Conference (UCC).

The email was one of the “Quick News from Jane” editions that are sent out regularly by our Interim Conference Minister – Jane Fisler Hoffman. It was titled “Ministry, Mental Illness & My ‘Coming Out’” – a rather provocative titled, so I started reading.

“‘You are always so upbeat!’” the email began. “Over the years, I have heard that on many Sunday mornings, and it is true. I am a positive, happy person who loves my work, loves the church, and both loves and feels loved by God and many others.”

“Nothing earth shattering so far,” I thought as I read. “I’ll hang in there for another paragraph. If it doesn’t pick up, I’ll delete it,” I thought.

“Thus the first time I fell into the shadowed hole of clinical depression in around 1992, it was a profound shock to me. In fact, I did not recognize it for what it was for some time—yet I knew that it was ‘not me’ to think about driving into that bridge pillar or to weep in despair day after day.”

I felt the earth below me begin to shift a little, so I read on.

“[I] went to a doctor, [and] when an antidepressant was suggested, I reacted with disdain. All those jokes about ‘Prozac’ on nighttime television were about weak people who just couldn’t get their own act together, weren’t they?’ And, hey, I’m a Christian and a pastor, shouldn’t God and I be able to take care of this? And if it was happening, wasn’t it because my spiritual life just wasn’t good enough? Because I just wasn’t good enough?’

The rest of Jane’s email went on to talk about how she came to terms with her diagnosis and found her way through depression.

So why did Jane bother to take the time to air what some might consider her dirty laundry?

“Dear friends,” Jane wrote, “we church folk are, I believe, too long in denial about the presence of depression and other mental health [issues] in our own lives, families and churches – and the body of Christ is suffering because of that denial… mental illness needs to ‘come out’ of the closet in the church… It is killing our youth and adults who take their lives and in many less visible but still destructive ways it destroys families and even whole congregations.”

As I finished her email, I realized that in that moment I had had an experience much like the one those around Esther must have had in this morning’s passage. An experience where an individual who could have gone to her grave with a secret chose not to. An experience where a courageous individual stepped forward, took a risk, and – through her utter vulnerability – helped saved a group of people from calamity.

And this brings me to my point this morning.

Each of us here this morning are individuals associated with a church who – like Esther and like Rev. Jane –made itself vulnerable. Members of this church knew they lived in a day and age where it has become chic for local churches to declare some outside the bounds of God’s love and mercy. You could have tried to pass yourselves off as just any other congregation. But you didn’t. You dug down deep, found the courage of community, and said: “We, the congregation of Woodland Hills Community Church, declare ourselves to be Open and Affirming…”

And when you cast that vote last June, you probably thought the hard work was over? Am I right?

Well, if Esther and Rev. Jane’s stories teach us anything, it’s that the hardest work is now before you. By proclaiming this church to be a place where all people and all stories are of sacred worth – you now have the challenge of stepping forward and sharing those faith stories with one another. Faith stories that - in many other churches - would have to be edited (or perhaps even fabricated) before they were shared aloud. Not here!

For as Esther and Rev. Jane showed us, it is in the sharing of the fullness of our stories that freedom – true freedom - is achieved.

So how will the sharing of our stories take place?

In a variety of forums – many of which have existed long before I arrived. The Monday and Thursday covenant groups have – for a number of years – been that place. So too have the moments just before and after the Wednesday evening choir rehearsals, and the days leading up to the Youth Musical Theater production each year. Those are just a few examples.

We’ll also be adding a few outlets for sharing our stories as well. We’ve added the Tuesday evening Sacred Grounds gatherings at The Coffee Bean on Ventura Boulevard (between Canoga and Topanga) as one weekly opportunity to share our stories against the backdrop of Scripture. The Young Adult Confirmation Class that we’re pulling together for folks between the ages of 16 and 21 will be another venue. And starting in the month of November – on the first Sunday of Advent – I’ll devote the sermon time on the fifth Sundays to giving someone from the congregation the chance to share their story.

And so in the days ahead - as we embrace our own stories and the stories of others - may we do so knowing that these stories contain the three most crucial ingredients to our individual and collective liberation: a willingness to acknowledge brokenness, a openness to healing, and – most important of all - hope.