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Taking a Break

As I sat down yesterday morning to write, I realized just how tired I have become. I have been writing blog entries six days a week and sermons on the seventh day for quite some time. It's now time for me to take a little break from my daily writing.

I want to take some time this Advent season to think about ways I might continue my sharing in some form via the Internet. I'll post something on New Year's Day to let you know where I'm at in my discernment process. In the meantime, I want to thank you for taking the time to check in with my blog. I hope our time together has been helpful.

May you have a blessed Advent season and a very Merry Christmas!



Back Up Plans

What I'm Reading Today: Numbers 35-36

When I was a senior in high school, I thought I had my future all planned. I thought I would graduate from high school, attend Whitworth College (a private Presbyterian college that was just 20 miles from home), get an degree in elementary education, and spend my career teaching near home. After all, no one in my immediate family had ever left the area. I figured I had no reason to leave either.

For several months I relaxed because I knew I had a plan in place for the future.

In March of that year I participated in a piano competition in nearby Spokane. The adjudicator was a music professor from Pacific Lutheran Unviersity, a private Lutheran university across state. He liked my playing and asked if I could make him a tape before he left town in a few days. I did. "I'll see if I can get you a full ride to attend the college where I teach," the professor said. He didn't quite get me a full ride, but he did get me a scholarship that paid for over half of my college expenses.

I was shocked the first few days after all of this unfolded. All of the assumptions I had made about how the world was supposed to work – and what my role in the world would be – were shattered. I ended up moving 6 hours from home, getting a degree first in secondary education and then theology, and eventually moving to far off places like Denver and Los Angeles.

I learned an important lesson about life through all of this: things don't always unfold in the ways you might accept. The quality of one's life is determined by how you adapt to those changes.

In today's reading from Numbers, we are reminded the Israelites had initially been introduced to a set of Laws that included the teaching that if a person killed someone then that person's life would be taken as well. Everything seemed cut and dried.

Over time, however, they realized things were not quite so black and white. There were instances where someone took a life accidentally. It would be inappropriate to treat them like those who had intentionally taken a life: hence the need for asylum-cities where those who had taken a life accidentally could live.

That evolution in the Law was yet another reminder that life doesn't always unfold in the ways we expect. Often, we need back up plans to help us deal with emerging circumstances.

As you step back and look at your life today, I would ask, "How flexible are you? Are you someone who creates a plan for how life is to unfold and then rigidly adheres to that plan; or are you someone who can do what the Israelites did at God's urging – adapt to unfolding circumstances?"

Til next time …


What I'm Reading Today: Numbers 32-34

When I was in seminary, one of my professors was a member of the Lakota nation who had been ordained by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The professor, Dr. George Tinker, was a valuable resource to those of us from middle-class, European American roots because he helped us see things in surprising new ways. This was particularly true in how he helped us read Scripture in new ways.

Take a passage like today's from the book of Numbers. Most of us in seminary had grown up considering just one side of the story as portrayed in the passage. We saw the distribution of land, for instance, as an exciting time to be celebrated. "After all," we thought, "the Israelites had been traveling for years in the desert (and had already been geographically displaced in Egypt for hundreds of years before that!)" - so we simply assumed now it was their time to get their due.

"Now wait a minute," Dr. Tinker would say, "I can understand one group of people celebrating the new land they were about to receive. But what about those indigenous people who were already living on the land? Don't forget that what was perceived of as one people's gain was also a HUGE loss for another group of people."

Dr. Tinker went on to note that one of the challenges Christian communities have in reaching out to many Native America peoples is that many of the Native Americans relate more to the experience of the displaced people rather than they do to the victorious group that moved in.

Ever since he challenged us with that awareness, I have been much more cognizant of remembering there is always more than just one perspective on any topic that comes before us: the challenge for us it to take the time (and have the humility) to remember that.

Perhaps there is a situation in your own life where you have been "reading" the events in one particular way and feeling justified in resting in one particular conclusion. While such a sense of certainty can be comforting to an individual from her or his particular point of reference, perhaps that perspective is leaving another aspect of the human experience out. As you seek to broaden the conclusions in which you rest, take comfort knowing that we are not alone as we broaden our perspectives; such efforts ultimately bring us closer to the One who can see it all.

Til next time …

Giving Back

What I'm Reading Today: Numbers 30-31

One of the few times that many of us are asked to sit down and think about what we give back to God is during the annual stewardship drive that's held in our faith communities each year. At that time, many of us prayerfully spend time considering what portion of our blessings we would like to devote to the various ministries being done in God's name.

Today's reading from Numbers got me thinking about what it would have been like to stop and think about stewardship in the context of our daily lives as well. In the passage from Numbers, for instance, the Israelites were carefully instructed what to give from their "proceeds" after their conflict with the Midians.

That story got me to thinking about what it would mean to be more intentional about giving back to God a portion of the proceeds that appear unexpectedly in the middle of our own lives.

What would it mean, for instance, if work and/or school was unexpectedly cancelled for the day due to bad weather - giving me a "free day off". How might it look to devote a portion of that day to cultivating my relationship with God and God's creatures?

What would it mean, for instance, if I won the lottery or was informed of an unexpected inheritance I received from a departed loved one? Would I keep it all for myself, or would I return a portion of the proceeds to something that strengthens the presence of God in the world?

What would it mean, for instance, if I developed a new skill or talent? Would I keep the mastery only to myself, or would I find a way to use that talent to give something back to others?

All of these questions invite me to think about stewardship in a new way – a way that transforms stewardship from being something we think about once a year to something we think about each and every day of the year!

As you go forth into you day today, keep your eyes open to those resources that come into your life and consider ways that you could return a portion of those blessings to God.

Til next time …


What I'm Reading Today: Numbers 27-29

There are lots of folks out there who – when talking about God – suggest that one of God's most important qualities is that God is unchanging. There is a popular phrase, for instance, that says, "God: the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow."

While there are some references in the sacred readings of our faith that can be interpreted to suggest such a belief, there are certainly other passages that call such a belief into question. Today's passage from Numbers provides a good example of one such passage.

There was a law established among the Israelites that suggested only a man's son (preferably the eldest) could inherit property. The implication behind that Law was that it was established by God's instruction. In today's passage, however, we hear the story of Zelophehad's daughters who come to came to Moses and Eleazar (the priest) and informed them that since their father died without male heirs they wanted to inherit his property.

Such a request would require change and flexibility.

Moses and Eleazar knew that such a change in the Law would require a higher authority – so the story tells us they took the women's appear directly to God.

Guess what happened?

We are told that God said: "Zelphehad's daughers are right. Give them land as an inheritance among their father's relatives. Give them their father's inheritance."

That story provides an important lesson for those who call themselves followers of God (be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or others). If God is flexible and can work with others to affect the best possible outcome, then shouldn't we be as well.

I would encourage you to carry this story with you in your hearts today. If you find yourself in a situation where your first tendency is to appeal to a rigid and/or dogmatic way of being, remember the story and God's flexibility and entertain the possibility that perhaps you could be flexible too.

Til next time …

How We Use Things

What I'm Reading Today: Numbers 24-26

Early in life I learned an important lesson: almost anything in life has the potential to be used for good or bad. It's up to the individual – through his or her set of choice – to decide whether something will be used for "good" or "bad".

The most obvious example of this principle is a knife.

A knife can be used to slice open a loaf of freshly baked bread and spread butter on a piece of bread. That's a good thing. In the hands of another, however, that same knife could be used to maim or kill one of God's creatures. That's a bad thing.

It all depends on how that knife is used.

There's a part of today's reading from Numbers in which this lesson is evident.

In today's passage we hear the story of Phineas. We first hear about Phineas after many of the Israelites have participated in what Eugene Peterson paraphrased as an orgy that was a part of the worship of the god Baal Peor. To make matters worse, once the leaders were confronted about their behavior, one of the Israelites – a man by the name of Zimri – continued to flaunt his behavior in front of the group with a Midianite woman named Cozbi. Phineas was the one in the story who punished Zimri and Cozbi by killing them. Within the context of the story, Phineas was seen as the one who helped call Israel to a sense of faithfulness and fidelity to God.

Fast forward several thousand years to the United States. A white supremacist group that is part of the larger Christian Identity movement (sic!) named itself Phineas Priesthood. Among other things, the group's goal was to put an end to those who participated in interracial relationships through acts of intimidation and violence.

Sadly founders of the group took a piece of our sacred writings that was originally used to teach faithfulness and fidelity and used it to justify acts of violence against those they perceived of as different.

I wish I could say this was the only time our sacred writings were used to justify such offensive behaviors. Sadly it's not. There are thousands of examples where our sacred writings have been used to perpetuate VERY bad things.

All of this reminds me of the importance of checking in with ourselves about how we are using resources in our life. Today, I would invite you to consider if there is some piece of your life that started out as a positive thing – a thing meant to motivate or inspire you to live in right relationship with God and others has become twisted and is now being used as a tool to intimidate or devalue others.

Til next time …

Doing the Right Thing

What I'm Reading Today: Numbers 21-23

As I read about the encounter between Balak and Balaam today I couldn't help but chuckle and remember a conversation I had back in high school with a former classmate. I should probably begin by clarifying what story about Balak and Balaam I am referring to. I'm referring to the one where Balak got ticked off at Balaam because he asked Balaam to reveal the message God gave Balaam - and Balak didn't like the message God gave Balaam.

When I was in high school, I had a conversation with a Mormon friend one day about the differences between our faiths. I had been friends with Christopher for quite a while so the conversation was good natured for the most part. After listing some of the more superficial differences, Christopher finally got around to naming one of the more obvious differences. He said something like, "And another thing – you guys pay your preachers so that they'll say what you want them to. We don't pay our leaders so they speak the truth."

I remember being taken aback by Christopher's accusation. That's because I remembered lots of times when my pastor said things that I/we did not want to hear but needed to be said. Over the years, however, I've remembered that conversation many times. And I realize there CAN be a temptation for those of us who are in ministry to do what Christopher said – make our first priority pleasing the people who pay our salaries and not paying attention to God's leading.

"After all," some might cynically observe, "you get paid the same whether you take risks or play it safe. Why NOT play it safe?"

That's a question every spiritual leader must answer for him or herself. There certainly are many out there who would say, "Come to think of it, you're right. Why NOT play it safe?" I can't answer for everyone, but all I can say is this. There is no worse feeling in the world than knowing you've ignored the leading of the Spirit in order to settle for the path of least resistance. Nor is there, conversely, a better feeling in the world knowing that (in spite of the short-term trials one faces) that you are ushering in an area of spiritual health and vitality in the world. The only question is whether or not you'll find the patience, the strength and the courage to get from Point A (the status quo) to Point B (the future to which God is calling us).

Perhaps there is a situation in your life where you are struggling to know what to do: take the path of least resistance, or do the right thing. If that's the case, remember the example of Balaam and draw strength from it. Remember that you may not always be popular with everyone for doing the right thing, but you will have the joy of being in right relationship with the One who matters most.

Til next time …

Understanding the Incomprehensible?

What I'm Reading Today: Numbers 18-20

One of the greatest spiritual challenges I believe we face as human beings is coming to terms with the fact that we are never going to understand why things "work" the way they do.

Rather than face this reality, many folks feel compelled to create reasons for why things happen the way they do. And if they can't arrive at a satisfactory explanation themselves, they often use the standard: "Well, it's a part of God's plan and we can't question it."

Take today's story from Numbers, for example. The author(s) of today's passage were faced with a specific historical circumstance: Moses and Aaron – the individuals who led the Israelites out of Egypt and toward the Promised Land – failed to live long enough to get to the Promised Land themselves. This reality was a little embarrassing to live with. So in communicating their story, they identify the reason why Moses and Aaron failed to make it to the Promised Land. It was because of Moses and Aaron's insolence at Meribah.

For years I wrestled with the fairness of this situation. I couldn't understand why these two faithful men – both of whom had committed FAR larger screw ups before (i.e. Aaron participation in the creation of the Golden Calf and Moses' destruction of the first set of the Ten Commandments) – were being penalized in such a HUGE way for one simply act of indiscretion.

When I was younger I even worried that if God punished these men so harshly for their understandable mistake that I was REALLY in for it given my own propensity toward much bigger glitches (at least they seemed much bigger in my mind since I made them).

Eventually, I came to realize that a huge part of our human experience consists in trying to make sense out of the incomprehensible. We have to create, for instance, a reason why a young neighbor boy was killed in a traffic accident, or why our aunt was stricken with Alzheimer's, or why our spouse can find a job for the life of him/her!

While the creation of such answers can help in the short term, I've found that over longer periods of time those answers can eat away at our soul. They can contribute to a simmering rage that eventually gets aimed in God's direction – the One whom we are often told is "responsible" for all that happens.

As you negotiate the series of challenges before you today, pay attention to the interpretive lens you put on. When you find a part of yourself trying to make sense out of some incomprehensible occurrence, try something new. Instead of asking the question "Why did God allow this to happen?" instead ask yourself, "Where is God in the midst of this?" That shift in perception might take your relationship with God to new places today.

Til next time …

Taking Risks for Others

What I'm Reading Today: Numbers 15-17

Lots of my loved ones who have known me for most of my life tell me I'm unusual because I have the ability to live life without regret. "When you see something you want," more than one loved one has been known to observe, "you go for it!"

I guess I can see what they mean.

When I was in my late twenties and interested in getting a firsthand experience of politics, for instance, I quit my job as an educator and ran as an unknown for the state house of representatives. When I was thirty-one and finally opened myself up for the first time to a call to ministry; I packed my bags, moved 1,700 miles away, and started seminary – without having a clue about how I would pay for it. And when I received a call to uproot my life and family to serve a church 1,200 miles away in Los Angeles; I did that too.

Let's just say I'm not someone who is intimidated by the thought of taking a risk.

In fact, if I were to step back and take an assessment of my life – there is only one thing that I would have LOVED to do in life that I haven't done in life.

That one thing?

Being a parent.

I can't imagine a more enriching experience to go through than being a parent. If I were to die today, that would be the only regret I would have about my life.

When I told one of my friends this, my friend made a wise comment. My friend said, "You may not have had the opportunity to parent in a traditional sense. But look at your parish ministry. You get to encourage, support, and nurture not one child – but a whole group of God's children. So don't feel too bad!"

That comment helped a little. Ever since then, I've started paying more attention to the parallels to the roles of parent and pastor. Today's story from Numbers provided me with another parallel to add to my list. In the culminating chapter of today's reading, we hear a story about how God was angry at a group of Israelites for complaining about their situation. As a result, God unleashed a plague on the group that was intended to wipe them out.

Now anyone in their right mind in a position of leadership would have run 100 miles an hour in the opposite direction of the congregation in order to reach safety. No one would want to put their life at risk defending the people who – by all accounts – had brought this upon themselves!!

Well, perhaps I should say no one in their right mind EXCEPT a parent of someone in the group or someone in a pastoral role to the group. Sure enough Aaron (cast in role of pastor) put his own life at risk when he grabbed the censer and ran into the middle of the congregation in order to stop the plague. Thanks be to God for loving parents and pastors who do such remarkable things in order to look out for the wellbeing of God's children in their care.

You may not have biological children of your own or have the word "Reverend" or "Pastor" in front of your name, but chances are a piece of your call is to do similar things: take a risk in order to defend the safety and wellbeing of others. If you find yourself in such a moment, resist the urge to complain and instead celebrate the situation as an opportunity to be an instrument that helps others discover God's all-consuming love for them.

Til next time …

Breaking the Cycle

What I'm Reading Today: Numbers 12-14

For many years now, I have looked up to Moses as a spiritual guide and mentor. There have been lots of reasons for that. For one reason, I can totally relate to how Moses responded to God's call to speak on God's behalf. Moses responded by resisting that call since he didn't feel up to the task. Another reason I can relate is that Moses was awfully impulsive. His act of violence against the Egyptian because of his mistreatment of the slave was a good example of that. The most important lesson Moses taught me in my ministry was that it doesn't matter how important you (or others) think you are – chances are you'll never get to cross over into the Promised Land. Good leaders all pass the torch to the next individual.

As I read today's passage from Numbers, I realized there was yet another thing that Moses can teach me – if I'm open to the learning. The new lesson is this: often, it is up to the individual who may feel wronged in a situation to break the cycle of blaming and set things right (if and when that is possible).

Today's passage began, for instance, with Miriam and Aaron complaining that Moses was getting preferential treatment from God. This ticked God off and caused God to lash out against Miriam and Aaron. And yet who was it who came to Miriam and Aaron's defense? That's right. Moses.

And later in the reading, we are told that the Israelites were vehemently complaining against God. This was the same group of people that had just threatened to pick a new leader. And how did Moses respond to the people? He responded by defending them to God.

In each instance, Moses understood that an essential part of being a faithful person is breaking the cycle of animosity – and being an agent of reconciliation in order to set things right. That's an important lesson for me to hear this week.

I wonder today if there might be a situation in your life where you feel wronged in some fashion: a circumstance where you feel totally justified in lashing out against another. If you have some a place in your life, take a deep breath and remember Moses' example. By spiritually grounding yourself in God's love and grace, you can break the cycle of verbal and spiritual violence and help get things back on track by doing nothing other than simply adjusting your attitude.

Til next time …

Asking for Help

What I'm Reading Today: Numbers 9-11

As those of you who have read my blog for some time know, one of my favorite topics is "leadership". It's something in which I've been interested since I was in elementary school.

When I use the word "leadership", I've noticed that some folks treat the topic as if it is just one monolithic bloc. It's not. The concept of leadership actually contains many smaller components within it. One aspect of leadership, for instance, involves a person's ability to inspire others. Another aspect has to do with administering things. Still another dimension involves management. There are so many components involved that it's impossible for a "good leader" to master each aspect.

Like most leaders I have some aspects of leadership that I'm good at and other aspects that I'm not. One of the areas that I consistently struggle with involves my ability to delegate. I still have some old tapes in my head that suggest a "good leader" is someone who does all the work him or herself.

Because of that, I sometimes find myself in the same place that Moses found himself in today's reading: completely overwhelmed. When the Israelites got sick of eating manna every day and started complaining, and God heard those complaints and started to get ticked off – Moses reached the same breaking point that I sometimes have found myself. Moses cried out, "So why dump the responsibility of this people on me?!"

As soon as Moses uttered those words, guess what happened.

God sent help in the form of seventy persons to assist Moses.

In that moment of the story, I am reminded about a basic truth that I keep forgetting in life. When we feel completely overwhelmed and frustrated, all we have to do is ask for help. Such help may not appear instantly. More often than not, however, that help materializes. The hardest part in the entire process is finding the courage to ask for help.

Maybe you are in a place in your life where you feel totally overwhelmed. Perhaps you've been trying to shoulder all of the burdens alone. If that's the case; remember today's story, take a risk, and ask for help. You never know. That much needed help just might appear!

Til next time …


What I'm Reading Today: Numbers 6-8

Today's passage contained a very detailed list of what each leader decided to present in the process of dedicating the Altar. Nahshon, for instance, decided to bring offerings that ranged from a silver plate weighing 3-1/4 pounds to a young bull. The other eleven leaders brought gifts that were very similar.

The passage got me to thinking about what it is that I would bring in order to participate in that process of dedication.

As I thought about this, I realized that my contribution wouldn't be a material good like a silver plate or a young bull (though some have accused me of offering up some bull at times); my offering would be an attitudinal one. Here's the contribution I would make.

As someone who regularly participates in Co-Dependents Anonymous, the very First Step challenges me to hold onto the following awareness: "I am powerless over others" and that "my life has become unmanageable." On some days, that can be a tremendously challenging admission to make – for I feel that I am on top of the world and fully capable of managing things, thank you very much! On other days, I feel tremendously beaten down and am more than happy to surrender my illusions of control to God.

Over the last year, with God's help, I have grown tremendously in my willingness to make that admission each day. That is a good thing – because in this society so many things send us the message that the sign of a "good leader" is "being in control". The longer I live – and the more time I spend in ministry – I realize I have to reject those pressures. There are so many variables beyond my control. To fail to acknowledge this would be unreasonable. While the notion of having things beyond my control used to scare the soup out of me, today – at least at this very moment – I feel like I can let go of some of the outcomes before me and trust in the transformative presence of God to see things through.

So if I were asked to participate in that process of presentation that is what I would bring: the honest admission that I am powerless over others and that my life has become unmanageable. That is my gift.

Today I invite you to think about what it is that you would present to God. Have fun exploring that question!

Til next time …l

Being Direct

What I'm Reading Today: Numbers 3-5

I was raised in a wonderful household who – let's face it – had it quirks (just like every other household). One of the things my father (who was of Norwegian descent) and mother (who was of German descent) taught me very subtly was that if I had an issue with someone I should never be too direct. I should always begin by dropping hints to the other person. I should never tell the other person exactly what's wrong. That was considered rude! Instead, I should be patient and allow time for the other person to pick up on the hint I dropped and then make the necessary changes to right the situation. That's how life was supposed to work.

If I loaned someone some money, for instance, and they forgot to pay me back; the next time I was around the person I could say something like, "Do you want to grab a burger at Red Robin's. Oh, I would love to but money is really tight right now so I guess I'll have to take a rain check."

The other person was expected to make the connection between my statement and the fact that they forgot to repay me. Then the other party would repay me.

While I know my parents' intentions were good, their way of being has gotten me in trouble more times that I can count. It also helped make each of their four kids prone toward passive aggressiveness. This is a problem I'm still working hard to rectify 25 years after leaving their home.

So where do many folks like my parents pick up this approach to problem solving?

One of the sources would be in passages like today's from Numbers. In that passage we are given a long set of instructions that explains how a man (and yes, the passage only addresses situations involving a wronged man!) is supposed to come to terms with his suspicion that his wife has cheated on him.

In a healthy relationship, the individual would ask his or her spouse (or perhaps another party who is involved) what happened. While there is a chance your spouse may lie, at least you have put responsibility for truth telling where it belongs: with the involved parties.

Instead of taking such a direct approach, however, today's passage advocates for a ritual that is expected to reveal the truth for the parties involved.

All of this makes me wonder where you are at with all of this. Are you someone who is able to directly engage issues and deal with the concerns at hand, or are you someone who stands back and hopes to influence outcomes indirectly? Instead answering that question in your mind, watch yourself throughout the course of the day. Let your actions today answer the question for you.

Til next time …


What I'm Reading Today: Numbers 1 & 2

Each faith community I've been part of has its own unique practices. Some of these practices are easily understood; others are not. The challenge for those folks who arrive in these faith communities (both laypeople and clergy) is to decide which of the practices are worth trying to understand and which practices are not.

Let me give you an example of one situation I ran into years ago in one of the faith communities I was a part of. In this particular church there was a tradition of taking two separate counts of folks who were at church on a given Sunday. One count was for the adults, and one count was for the children.

When I first learned of this practice, I thought it was EXTREMELY odd. They didn't separate the money the children put into the offering plates when they counted the offering, I wondered, so why would they separate out the children from the adults in their attendance count?

I sat with my question for several months and tried coming up with my own answer to the question. "Maybe they do that in order to help them complete the end of the year denominational reports that ask for demographic information regarding the composition of the faith community," I thought to myself. "Or perhaps they are trying to build a case for increasing next year's youth budget by tracking the number of youth," I reasoned. When I finally got around to asking the sensitive question, the answer I was given was that it had simply always been done that way. They weren't about to change it.

The whole time I was part of the community that practice made me VERY sad.


Because it sent a message that the youth of the community were not as important as the adults. It played into the notion that if you want to know how many people were REALLY there, you shouldn't include the children – or, at the very least, you should put a hyphen next to the grand total and warn folks that the number included children. Yikes!

I was reminded of this experience when I read today's opening chapters from the Book of Numbers. That's because much of the opening words had to do with tallying the number of Israelites in various tribes/communities. What struck me was how limited the scope of their counting process was. "The sum total of the People of Israel," the passage specified, "twenty years old and over who were able to fight in the army, county by ancestral family, was 603,550. The Levites, however, were not counted by their ancestral family along with the others."

If someone was asked how many Israelites there were, they would have been told 603,550. That count would have sent the message that women, children, the differently abled who were not able to fight, and Levites – among others – were not counted/included. How sad.

Sadly there are lots of ways in which individuals are still not counted today. When most communities count the number of married couples, for instance, they don't include same-gendered couples. And when many communities list their population, they typically overlook many of the homeless individuals in their count of the population. The list of those who don't "count" could go on for quite a while.

Today, I would encourage you to open your eyes to the way you move through the world. Pay close attention to those that you count/see (i.e. those who matter) and those that you don't.

Til next time …

Remembering When

What I'm Reading Today: Leviticus 26-27

When I was younger, I had a habit of moving quickly from one drama to another without giving much thought to what had happened before. If I had a big test in chemistry coming up, for instance, I would pour all of my energy into preparing for the test. When I finished the chemistry test, I would realize I needed to memorize a piece of music for my next piano lesson - so I would spend lots of time memorizing the piece. When I finished memorizing the piano piece, I would recall that I needed to read a novel for my sophomore literature class so I would disappear from the world for a while until I had completed the novel.

That way of being was fairly constant for me during my early years as I constantly moved from one drama to the next.

Over time, however, I began to develop a new approach toward life: one that had two parts to it that had previously been missing.

First, I eventually became more proactive and began to anticipate things that were coming up and prepare for them so they weren't crises by the time I got around to them. Second, I began to take a little time when I was feeling overwhelmed and totally inadequate to remember those times I had made it through circumstance I thought were beyond me. When I was reading the novel at the last minute, for instance, I would remind myself that I got an A- on the big chemistry test. That memory would increase my confidence and help me remember that I DID have what it takes to make it through.

Today's passage reminded me of that shift in my approach toward life. In today's passage - as the Israelites are being informed about the series of expectations that were laid out for them – there's a moment when we are told God reminds them what they had already made it through as a way of encouraging them. "I am God, your personal God who rescued you from Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians." That statement reminded the Israelites that – no matter how challenging the circumstances before them were – they would be okay.

As you face the myriad of challenges before you, I would encourage you to find time today and remember a challenging time in your life where you particularly felt God's presence and support. Hold on to that memory tightly and use it to give you confidence - knowing that you have what it takes to make it through!

Til next time …


What I'm Reading Today: Leviticus 24-25

I'm usually someone who goes barreling through life at full speed. I rarely take opportunities to stop, look back, and reflect on what's happened between Point A and Point B. In fact, in my entire life I've probably done that just twice: on the occasion of my 10th high school reunion and on the occasion of my 25th high school reunion. Other than that, I've pretty much kept my nose to the grindstone and focused on either what's currently happening or what lies ahead.

Today's passage from Leviticus presents quite a challenge for people like me because it suggests that both the individual and community organize their lives in recognizable periods of seven years. That's especially true when it comes to major things like purchasing land and acquiring help. And not only is the individual supposed to keep track of seven year periods, the individual is also supposed to keep track of how many seven year periods have gone by – for on the passage of the seventh collection of seven-year periods the community is supposed to declare a year of Jubilee! The Jubilee represents a time of renewal and return for individuals throughout the community.

I can certainly see the wisdom in organizing one's life around identifiable blocks of time and taking the time to evaluate one's life in relation to such periods of time. It's just hard for me to slow down and actually do it.

As I think ahead to significant events that will be happening in the next couple of months, I realize there are some wonderful mileposts ahead. On Wednesday, for instance, our oldest dog Biggie will turn 7; on the 29th of this month, I will mark the 9th anniversary of when Mike and I met; and on January 25, I will observe the seventh anniversary of my ordination. These events are wonderful opportunities for me to slow down, pay attention to what has happened, and use this time to spark a period of thanksgiving and renewal in my soul.

Of course it's not just the Israelites and people like me who can benefit from taking the time to acknowledge such mileposts – you can certainly benefit from recognizing such mileposts as well. Today I would invite you to make time to review your life and see if there are any significant markers ahead that could be used to invite you into a period of reflection and renewal.

Til next time ….


What I'm Reading Today: Leviticus 21-23

If I were to tell you that I was born with a sense of being different, a lot of my regular readers would assume that I was referring to the fact that I was gay. That is not exactly what I mean. You see I was born with a more obvious sense of difference that was apparent from day one: I was born with club feet.

In case you aren't familiar with that term, it meant that I was born with "deformed" feet. In my case, my feet were turned backwards. I underwent a couple of procedures at the local Shriners' Hospital in Spokane during the first year of my life to get the problem fixed. First, they spliced both of my heel cords in order to bring my downwardly turned feet up a bit. Then they broke my ankles so they could turn my feet forward. I ended up wearing casts and corrective braces for a good deal of my first year or so.

By the time I reached the end of my second year, I felt as normal as any other child. Few of my classmates in school even knew about my "problem" from kindergarten on. That's because by third grade I was wrestling, by fifth grade I was playing tennis, and by sixth grade I started playing football. I excelled in each of these sports. It wasn't until I reached my sophomore year of high school - when I had to go through another series of corrective surgeries - that many of my classmates learned about my secret.

During those formative years of my life between the ages of two and fifteen I learned an important lesson about life. I learned I didn't have to be defined by what some might have called my disability (or what others might term the fact that I was differently abled). I gave everything I had and accomplished as much as I could.

You can imagine my surprise when during my sophomore year of high school – about the time when I had my last set of corrective surgeries on my foot – I embarked on a program to read the Bible in a year for the first time. It wasn't long into that reading program when I stumbled upon today's passage which goes to great lengths to talk about the limitations that should be placed upon those who are "defective". "Tell Aaron," God is quoted as saying, that "none of your descendants, in any generation to come, who has a defect of any kind may present as an offering the food of his God."

Reading that passage was a deeply traumatic experience for me since I had spent 15 years trying to prove to others (and myself!) that I was just a good as everyone else. Then along comes a passage of Scripture that would seem to suggest that I wasn't!

So how did I resolve that inner turmoil that came from such a passage?

Well, over time I realized that the intent of the passage was to suggest that God's desire was to call forward our very best. In communicating that intention, the human vessels who conveyed that message assumed that "the best" meant simply one's physical condition. I came to believe that "the best" had more to do with one's heart and desires than simply one's physical appearance. While I may not be considered perfect by the standards of orthopedic surgeons, in my spiritual journey I could aspire to be authentic and whole – and in that way I could offer my best, club feet and all! That gave me a great deal of comfort.

You may not have been born with club feet, but chances are there is perhaps a way in which you have been made to feel "defective". That defect might have an external manifestation, or it might just be internal. Regardless of how that "defect" manifests itself, today I would encourage you to work on coming to terms with that. Know that whatever condition you find yourself in, all you need to do is be willing to offer the fullness of yourself (exactly as you are). You can then rest assured knowing that that offering (and the one who presents it) is just fine.

Til next time…


What I'm Reading Today: Leviticus 18-20

Today's reading contains some of the most familiar (and most misused!) words in all of the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament. In the debate regarding the rights of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual (LGB) individuals, for instance, some individuals have used Leviticus 18 over and over as their primary reason it's okay to deny LGB individuals their basic human rights. Leviticus 18:22 reads: "Don't have sex with a man as one does with a woman. That is abhorrent" (The Message). That is perhaps the most familiar passage in today's reading.

Many of the same individuals who quote Leviticus 18:22 in the debate over LGB people COMPLETELY ignore Leviticus 19:33 in the debate over the rights of "illegal aliens". Leviticus 19:33 reads: "When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born" (NIV).

So what are we to make of the 630 laws contained in the holiness codes? Are the edicts simply words intended for us to pick and choose to meet our personal agendas?

No. I don't think that's it at all.

"If not, then what's the purpose of those words?" you might wonder.

Well, I think the answer to that question lies in Leviticus 20:7. That verse reads: "Set yourselves apart for a holy life. Live a holy life, because I am God, your God."

To use a concept I talked about earlier this week, I tend to think of holiness more in light of righteousness (i.e. right relationship) more than I do in light of purity (i.e. right behavior). To use the passages I quoted above, does abstaining from same sex behavior automatically mean a person is in right relationship with God and others. No. Does treating a foreigner well automatically mean that you are exhibiting healthy relationship with God and others? No. You could simply be profiting from the foreigner by using the foreigner as a source of cheap labor. In other words, I believe living into a sense of holiness is much more complicated that most folks on talk radio who toss around passages from Leviticus would like us to believe.

Today, I would invite you to think about the issue of holiness? Do you define it primarily in relationship to behavior, or do you view it more in light of one's relationship with God and others?

Til next time?


What I'm Reading Today: Leviticus 16-17

Contained within today's chapters from Leviticus lies the origins of the concept we know today as scapegoat. "When Aaron finishes making atonement for the Holy of Holies, the Tent of Meeting, and the Altar," the passage explains, "he will bring up the live goat, lay both hands on the live goat's head, and confess all the iniquities of the People of Israel, all their acts of rebellion, all their sins. He will put all the sins on the goat's head and send it off into the wilderness, led out by a man standing by and ready. The goat will carry all their iniquities to an empty wasteland; the man will let him loose out there in the wilderness."

Some folks might listen to this verbiage and say, "What a strange and unusual concept for a primitive people to practice!"

I don't think the concept itself is all that strange and unusual. And I definitely don't think the practice is all that primitive. I say that because here in the United States we have a similar practice in which we engage. The only difference between the way we and the early Israelites engage in the practice is that we don't use a goat – we use our elected officials to serve as our scapegoats.

Every so often, we gather in voting booths; assign blame; and then send the designated scapegoats off into the wilderness in hopes that the act will absolve us collectively of our responsibility for the problems we are facing. We hope the next batch of elected officials will meet our expectations. When they don't, we simply repeat the cycle all over again just 2 years later.

Lost in the process of sending out the goat/elected officials into the wilderness is important soul searching about the ways in which we have contributed to the problems we face.

Today, I would invite us all to examine the circumstances of our lives (and the condition of our world) and ask ourselves, "Are there situations in which I have preferred to identify a single scapegoat on which to heep the blame in order to absolve myself of all responsibility?" If you find such a situation, use that awareness as an opportunity to step in and break the cycle of blaming. See what you can do yourself to restore health and vitality to the systems in which you participate.

Til next time …

Individual & Community

What I'm Reading Today: Leviticus 13-15

Every Election Day I grow a little nostalgic because it takes me back to the year 1998 when I ran for the Washington State House of Representatives (the equivalent of California's State Assembly). I had been a political junkie since I was 12 – so the experience of running for office was quite an adventure!

There were so many lessons I learned from that experience. One of them had to do with the important of balancing the needs of an individual with the needs of a larger group/community. Let me tell you a story about how I learned that lesson.

Very early in my campaign, a woman got involved with my campaign. For the sake of anonymity I'll call the woman Susan. I knew early on that Susan had very strong feelings for me. She knew I was gay, but on some level it never seemed to register with her. As a result, she sought out every opportunity possible for us to be together.

I have never in my life seen someone as devoted to an effort as Susan was. She poured hundreds of hours into the campaign. While I always tried to be careful and certainly do nothing to lead her on, I also never directly confronted Susan about the situation.

As time passed, I was confused why the campaign wasn't generating more volunteers. I occasionally talked about it with Susan (who by now was the campaign's volunteer coordinator), and she said she couldn't figure it out either.

While we had a great run and a respectable showing, my biggest regret from the experience was that we never were able to get the number of volunteers I had hoped for.

After the election, I learned why that was.

Susan would tell many potential volunteers that their help wasn't needed; we had the work covered. "If we ever had a need for your help," she would say, "I'll get back to you."

She didn't.

Throughout the months of the campaign, she used the lack of volunteers as an excuse to create time for us to be together.

What I learned from this experience is that by not dealing with one person's issues (and accompanying behavior), I was not only being irresponsible. That's because one person's issues can be so deep that they affect the life of many others. A good leader knows that and deals with that. I wasn't a good leader - as I chose the path of least resistance and tried to look the other way.

In this day and age that emphasizes the supreme importance of the individual; it's so easy to forget the basic truth that one life often affects the wellbeing of others. That's why it can be so important to deal with individual circumstances. If you don't, the situation can get out of hand and impact the lives of others.

That message comes through loud and clear in today's reading where we read a long list of ways to deal with situations where one individual becomes ritually unclean. As you read about the various situations, it eventually becomes clear that the author(s)' goal isn't simply to isolate one person during their time he or she is unclean; rather, the goal is to ensure the individual's issues don't spill over and infect the condition of others.

I would invite you to carry that learning with you today. When you encounter situations with individuals that are challenging, be aware that the situation has implications that will touch the lives of others. Use that awareness to inform your response to the situation.

Til next time …

Purity & Righteousness

What I'm Reading Today: Leviticus 11 & 12

When I was in seminary, I learned an important lesson about two different streams that were contained in aspects of the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament.

The first stream had to do with the pursuit of purity. The emphasis of such passages had to do with preventing individuals from coming into contact with those things that would defile the individual's body or mind. If you did (or in some cases, did not) do certain things, you were considered pure; if you did not (or in some cases - did) other things, you were considered impure. Once lines were crossed, very specific rituals had to be performed in order to restore an individual to a condition of purity.

One of the primary characteristics of such passages is that they are incredibly directive since everything was black and white. If you touched an object, you were impure: so DON'T touch it. If you did not wash your hands after encountering an object, you were impure: so WASH YOUR HANDS. That's the way passages dealing with issues of purity were handled.

The second stream of Scripture had to do with the pursuit of righteousness. This stream has a very different feel to it. Instead of being linked to a physical condition like purity, passages focusing on righteousness had to do with a state of being – or perhaps I could say - a quality of the heart.

You might, for instance, not touch a forbidden object (meaning you were pure) – but in your heart you are consumed with lust or desire for the object (meaning you aren't exactly righteous).

Issues of righteousness are much more complex for an individual because they involve one's inner life. Those issues prevent complexities for the community since it is difficult for one person to make judgments about issues involving righteousness involving another since they can't fully know the heart of the other person.

Lots of Jesus teaching tended to emphasize the latter stream of Scripture – the emphasis upon righteousness. One of the best examples would be Jesus' teaching about adultery. There Jesus suggested a person might not actually physically commit and adulterous act (meaning the individual is still technically "pure") – but if the person looks at another with lust, the person is in dangerous territory. Same with Jesus' teaching on killing. You might not actually have taken someone's life, but if you have hatred in your heart toward another, you are on shaky ground.

If we are not careful, we can lose ourselves in the academic aspect of the discussion/debate between purity and righteousness and forget what really matters: both streams of Scripture were intended to draw us into a healthier relationship with God. They simply represent different approaches to getting there.

Today, I would ask you which stream you find yourself identifying with/gravitating toward. Are you someone who focuses on right relationship with God as established through the principles of purity, or do you seek right relationship more through the principles of righteousness?

Til next time …

Claiming YOUR Ministry

What I'm Reading Today: Leviticus 8-10

Most folks might be unaware of this, but tomorrow (October 31) is the day officially designated as Reformation Day. That means it's a day when we celebrate the contributions of those pioneering folks like Martin Luther who helped make the Reformation possible.

In progressive communities we also use the occasion to remind folks that the Reformation wasn't just a one-time event that we remember; rather, the Reformation is something that each generation is called to participate in for themselves as they continue to claim their faith in ways that are relevant today.

With all of this in mind, I've thought quite a bit this week about what it might mean to re-form our communities – both in historical and contemporary terms. There was one aspect of the historical Reformation that I think creates a wonderful bridge for us to use as we cross over into modern times and think about how those principles of reformation can guide us today. That principle is the priesthood of all believers.

You see when it came to the issue of religious/spiritual leadership, for centuries faith communities clung to examples like the one lifted up for us in today's reading from Leviticus. They thought of religious/spiritual leaders as ones who were clearly set apart from ordinary folks in a variety of ways – including the sort of intricate rituals spelled out in Leviticus 8. This sense of being set apart was originally created in order to establish a sense of order in the community and create a healthy degree of respect for those leaders.

Over time, however, something unfortunate happened as a result of this. People began to see ministry as something done "for them" by "others". It helped cultivate a culture of apathy (i.e. "I won't worry about that, I'll have the religious/spiritual leader take care of it for me"). It also contributed to the notion that there were places where religious duties were expected to be performed (i.e. at church) and places where religious duties were not to be performed (places like the "real world").

It's no wonder that by the 16th Century some folks were feeling a little restless about the spiritual direction of their faith communities. They longed for new ways of being that would recognize two things: (1) the active role that ALL people should take in the development of their faith, and (2) the expectation that the expression of our faith would spill over into ALL areas of our lives.

With that in mind, today I have a challenge for you in holding true to the principles of the "priesthood of all believers."

Today I want you to spend time thinking about what YOUR ministry is. You may not be an ordained, licensed, or commissioned minister – but there is no doubt in my mind that you are engaged in some expression of ministry.

Get creative in identify that form of ministry. It doesn't have to be a ministry tied into an institutional expression of "the church" (i.e. serving on a committee or holding a position). Rather, your ministry might be fully immersed in the real world (i.e. being the one at work that people come to with their problems, or the passion with which you parent).

Whatever place and whatever form your ministry takes, find the opportunity this Reformation Sunday to give thanks for the ways God has worked through YOU to touch and change the world!!!

Til next time …

Setting Things Right

What I'm Reading Today: Leviticus 4-7

When I went through my coming out process, I found the first two months represented the hardest time for me. I felt extremely vulnerable and exposed. Because of that, I was quick to lash out at others.

One of the individuals who received the brunt of my angst was my mother. She was very slow to come around in terms of extending her acceptance. No matter what I said – no matter what resources I made available – she resisted my every effort. Occasionally in the midst of our arguments my frustrations would boil over and I would say something that I didn't fully mean.

Over a period of time, I realized the accumulated effect of my behavior on her, and I wanted to do something to make it up to her.

I spent several days looking for the perfect object that would express my sorrow. One day I found it. In order to understand my purchase, you need to know that my mother loves Teddy Bears. They are a symbol of warmth and love to her. Besides that, she says, they're cute. That day I stumbled upon a stained glass circle. Inside the circle was a picture of a Teddy Bear. It had a cap on its head, and the bear was playing with a ball. I bought it immediately. The bear represented the warmth and love I wanted to reclaim in our relationship while the cap and ball represented my desire for things to return to normal.

My gift worked wonders. It helped show my mother that I put my relationship with her before my desire to be right. To show her appreciation, she hung that bear in the kitchen window – just above the sink – where she sees it every time she washes dishes. I also get to see it every time I visit their home as well. Each time I see that silly bear I smile for it reminds me of the importance of taking the time to say I'm sorry.

Today's passage from Leviticus contains lots of instructions for how people were supposed to express their sorrow for the ways they damaged their relationships – with God and with others. Of course none of those ways were as warm and fuzzy as a Teddy Bear. Nevertheless they were important because they stopped people in their tracks and invited them to think about ways they could repair broken relationships.

All of this makes me wonder about you. What things do you do in your life to express your regret or sorrow when you break relationship with God or another? Those rituals or symbols can be very important instruments that help you get back on track.

Til next time …

Making Sacrifices

What I'm Reading Today: Leviticus 1-3

As I embark on my reading of Leviticus, I realized today that I'm coming into some of the most culturally-bound material of the Scriptures that is perhaps least accessible to modern readers.

Why do I say that?

Well, you don't have to read much further than today's passage before you start tuning some of the material out. The portions of the passage that detail how priests are to slaughter animals and spread their blood around the altar, for instance, are especially offensive to our modern sensibilities and are extremely likely to cause us to tuned out the material.

So what – if anything - do passages such as today's have to offer us on our spiritual walks?

The answer to that question would vary somewhat depending upon one's theological approach. There are many traditionalists, for instance, who would suggest that all of this talk about sacrifice (and how those sacrifices atone for our sins) establishes a context for what Jesus did for us when he surrendered his life on our behalf. As someone who thinks outside the box, however, this is not the route I travel.

I tend to read the material and think of it as a challenge for us to make sacrifices of our own that say, "My relationship with/connection to God IS important – and I'm willing to devote a serious amount of time and resources to nurture that relationship!"

When I talk about making sacrifices, I don't use that phrase within the context of atonement theory (i.e. "we're giving these things to God in order to make up for our shortcomings"). No, when I talk about making sacrifices, I mean that we are going out of our way to make choices that suggest our relationship with God is so important to our lives that it impacts (dare I say, even detracts from!) other aspects of our lives.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Five years ago – when I needed a new car – I had a lot of options about what I could buy. I made a conscious decision that the car payment I took on would be smaller than the amount I pledge to my church. This decision helped ground me in what is more important in my life. The result of this is I had to do some extra shopping around to find something that fit this parameter. It also meant that I passed up some of the bells and whistles that I could have included in my purchase. I have never regretted that decision, however, as it has helped keep me spiritually grounded.

It's easy for us these days to think to ourselves, "God is loving and grace-filled – so I'll start by devoting my time and resources to things that I want/enjoy and devote to God whatever happens to be left over. God will understand." That can happen in the way we spend our time. That can happen in the way we spend our money. Today's reading invites me to challenge that laissez-faire attitude and perhaps push myself to express my gratitude by putting God first.

Today, I would invite you to think a bit about those sacrifices you make that express the depths of your gratitude and your desire to help meet the needs of God's creation. Do you find yourself devoting to God things that accurately express the depths of those feelings, or do you simply return to God what happens to be left over after you've tended to the other areas of your life?

Til next time …


What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 38-40

Last Saturday, I attended a meeting for representatives from local churches in the Northern Association of the Southern California-Nevada Conference of the United Church of Christ that was held in Atascadero (boy, what a mouthful!). One of the topics we spent considerable time on was discussing a shift in the way the United Church of Christ is thinking about the way it goes about authorizing people for ministry.

For the past several years, individuals who participated in the process were called Students In Care. The name implied we assumed those on the path toward authorized ministry were students in seminary who were preparing to serve local churches at the end of their process of authorization. Now, the denomination has acknowledged that not all individuals who want to be authorized are seeking placement in a local church. In addition, we are also acknowledging that not everyone who feels a call has attended/or will attend seminary. Thus we are exploring ways of acknowledging other ways people prepare themselves for the practice of ministry. Each of those changes is important.

There is one more layer of the discussion that I found even more intriguing.

In the old model, it was assumed that everyone who began the process of authorization for ministry was expected to see it through. Now, the denomination is stressing that the process should be a time for deep spiritual discernment. Therefore those who begin the process should be open to the possibility that at the end of their time the individuals may decide they do not want to be authorized for ministry. Therefore, they have renamed what we refer individuals involved in the process. Rather than call them "Students In Care" they will be called "Members in Discernment".

We were even told that this emphasis on discernment is something that shouldn't be stressed just for those individuals interested in the possibility of being authorized for ministry: that emphasis should extend to everyone in our local churches since – as Protestants who believe in the old Reformation adage of "a priesthood of all believer" – everyone in our local church has some sort of call. Our job is to help them discern it.

That might sound good in theory, but the question remains: what is discernment?

I usually describe discernment as the process whereby we discover our call (or God's leading in our life).

So how does one go about discerning one's call?

There are a variety of ways to do that. None of them are easy by today's standards. In fact, I wish I could have an experience like the Israelites in today's reading where - when God wanted them to travel, a cloud would lift from over their Dwelling; and when God wanted them to sit still, the cloud would remain over The Dwelling. If only it were that easy to discern things in our lives!

My question for you today is this: what process(es) do you use to discern God's leading in your life? For those of you at Woodland Hills Community Church, look for opportunities to explore the issue of discernment together in coming weeks/months.

Til next time …

Spiritual Gifts

What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 35-37

Over the last several years I've learned that lots of folks make one particular assumption about the price of living together in community. "If you want to participate in the life of a community," they say, " then you are going to have to end up doing all sorts of things that the group needs but that you hate doing!"

I am unusual because I totally reject that line of thinking. In fact, it is that very assumption that has done more to undermine the life of our local churches than anything else. I make the radical assumption that communities thrive when people are asked to contribute the things they LOVE to do!

Each time I bring that way of being into a community, I find there are lots of folks who are initially suspicious of that approach. "It sounds good in theory," some say, "but it's not practical. After all, if we organize ourselves around people doing what they are passionate about – who on earth would ever take out the garbage, crunch numbers to create a budget, or care for the screaming babies?!"

I never argue when I hear that response – I just try to let a little time pass and allow people to grow into my way of being. I do that because I trust that eventually a shift will start to take place in the community. Slowly people will realize, for instance, that there are people with the spiritual gift for servanthood who love caring for the community through acts of service – acts like taking out the garbage and vacuuming. There are folks with the gift of administration who love transforming numbers on the page of a budget into a vision for the community's future. There are folks who have the spiritual gift of helping who love to comfort a screaming baby until it calms down.

The problem is that those of us who live in community aren't patient enough to let the process work organically. We get in a hurry and plug people into open slots without a second thought about whether their gifts match the community's need. Consequently we end up putting people into positions they don't enjoy and then later wonder why they suddenly stopped participating in the life of the community.

Given my assumption that spiritual community should be a place where people explore and develop their passions, it's no wonder I was fond of today's passage – for in that passage we hear a little bit about Bezalel and his role in the community. "Moses told the Israelites, 'See, God has selected Bezalel son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. [God] has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skills, ability, and know-how for making all sorts of things…" In other words, the community was called to honor Bezalel's gifts and put him in a position where he could use those gifts to build things for the community. What a concept!

Perhaps over a period of time, you have allowed those communities that you participate in to plug you into a slot based upon the group's need and not your own spiritual gifts. As a result, you might be feeling a little bit disconnected. If that's the case, spend some time today contemplating your gifts – those areas in life where you come alive with joy and passion. Once you find such areas, consider pursuing opportunities to put those gifts into action!

Til next time …

Being Lead

What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 32-34

From the time I was in middle school, I have been a leader of some sort. In 5th grade, I was elected to my first public office: secretary of my class. Ever since then I've held a leadership position of some sort.

When I first started leading groups, I had a very narrow definition of what a good leader was. I thought a good leader was someone who laid out his or her agenda for the people, got the people on board, and then enacted that agenda. All of the emphasis was placed upon me to be clever and take folks where I thought they should be lead. In other words, leading was all about ME.

That model of leadership worked for a while. By the time I reached my early thirties, however, I realized that such a model of leadership would no longer work for me. As my faith grew and my life experiences accumulated, I realized that while I often thought I knew what was best for myself and the group – the reality was that I didn't. There had been so many times in my life when I was more concerned about stubbornly holding on to MY agenda than I was about meeting the needs of others.

My control issues were so great that I mistakenly assumed "letting go" – or being flexible– meant that I was abdicating my responsibility as a leader. So I held on tighter to my agenda.

It wasn't until I entered parish ministry in my mid-thirties that I began to realize that there was only one way I felt called to lead. That way was predicated on being flexible and allowing myself – and the community's I serve – the ability to follow God's leading and not just my own.

On my good days those things are relatively compatible. On other days, however, my leading is more reflective of my ego and agenda than it is God's. The goal that I have established for myself, however, is to continue to grow in my ability to get out of the way as much as possible and let God lead in and through me.

Because of my lifetime struggle to understand what it means to lead, I can relate to Moses' frustration with the challenges of God leading. In today's reading, for instance, Moses cried out: "Look, you tell me, 'Lead this people,' but you don't let me know whom you're going to send with me. You tell me, 'I know you well and you are special to me.' If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans!"

So many times in my life and ministry over these past eleven years, I found myself crying out the same thing. "Let me know what's going on!" In retrospect, I am often God didn't. For the places where God has led me and the community's I served have been beautiful places that I would have probably never chosen to go on my own – since the journey initially would have looked too scary and too difficult.

So how about you? How do you do with this notion of responding to God's call even though you have no idea exactly where that call will take you?

Til next time …


What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 28-31

As Mike and I approach the start of our second decade together next month (we met November 29, 2001 – but who's counting?), I have thought a lot about those things that make me a good partner and those things where I have room to grow.

I am pretty good, for instance, about giving Mike space when he needs it. I am also very good about communicating what's going on with me (maybe too good, he might say). My sense is that he appreciates those things on most days.

I do have areas where I definitely need to improve. While I'm good about communicating what's going on with me, for instance, I often forget to include time for Mike to share what's going on for him. And my biggest deficit is that I don't make enough time for us to be together. As someone who's prone to being a workaholic, I have trouble setting boundaries and making sure that we get our time together on a semi-regular basis.

Why is time together so important?

It's because that time together helps you stay in rhythm with each another. That time together doesn't have to be an official "date", or a big event. It can simply be intentionally going to the store together or taking the dogs for a walk together. Over our years together I've found it's not important what you do; it's most important that you make time to do it together as you try to keep your relationship connected and alive.

In many ways, that is the same point God was trying to communicate to Moses and the Israelites in today's passage when the issue of the Sabbath came up. Lots of folks think about the importance of Sabbath being of its benefits on the individual entity (i.e. it's a time of rest for a person, or it's something you observe as a gift to God). I don't to think of it that way. I see the Sabbath as a time that benefits the relationship (or connection) between God and an individual. If you don't intentionally spend time together on a regular basis, you WILL begin to drift apart.

As we head into the weekend – a weekend that contains their Sabbath time for many people – I would encourage you to think about your Sabbath in relational ways. How will you approach your Sabbath this week in order to help you grow in your understanding and experience of God?

PS. I'm making the long drive to Atascadero for a UCC Association meeting tomorrow so I won't be able to write. I'll hope to see you back here on Monday morning.

Til next time …

Removing the Distance

What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 24-27

When I first discovered the emerging/emergent ways of being within the Christian movement, there was a huge rush for me initially. I felt that rush because the emerging/emergent Christian communities expressed many of the visions I had held for years that went against much the traditional church was teaching – particularly when it came to ways of being community.

You see for centuries, most institutional Christian churches acted as if there were levels – or layers – in the community that stood between individuals and God. Most Protestants would say that it's only Roman Catholics that have such levels or layers. That is completely untrue. The truth is we Protestants have just as many levels. Instead of calling our levels "popes" and "bishops" we call ours things like "councils" and "committees". Each of these entities function for the same purpose; they were created in order to control or manage things.

Now don't get me wrong. I understand there is a certain degree of control or management that needs to exist in order for a group of people to function as a community. Light bills, for instance, have to be paid – so we need finance committee to empower someone to write a check. Sadly, however, in many faith communities these practical needs have been used to justify the creation of other mechanism so that other areas of the life of the community are being controlled to unhealthy degrees. This has had an unfortunate consequence. It has made many of the lay people in our faith communities feel completely disempowered. Eventually, they get tired of putting up with other people's efforts to control them, and they walk away. Then we wonder why our churches are declining?!

I was frustrated with today's reading because it seemed to feed into this process of disempowerment. We were told, for instance, that God said to Moses: "Climb the mountain to God, you and Aaron, Nadab, Abihus, and seventy of the elders of Israel. They will worship from a distance; only Moses will approach God. The rest are not to come close. And the people are not to climb on the mountain at all."

Talk about disempowerment!

I suppose some would say this was one of those practical moments where it was most effective for Moses to commune with God in a way where there were as few distractions as possible. That's why the leaders and people were told to stand off at a distance.

Even if that's the case, I think as people of faith we are called to be honest with such assumptions and challenge them when people tell us to remove ourselves. For the last thing I believe we want these days are faith communities whose purpose is to put a distance between God and the people. Faith communities should be all about drawing people in to a direct experience of God – a TRANSFORMATIVE experience of God.

Today I would encourage to examine your life for areas where you have been content to allow distance to exist between yourself and God – areas when you've allowed others to mediate or negotiate the presence of the Divine for you. If you find such areas, challenge yourself to be open to taking a different approach. Take the risk of encountering God in new places and in new ways!

Til next time …

Digging Below the Surface

What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 21-23

Over the last several years lots of folks ask me why they should bother reading the rules contained in the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament. "After all," they suggest, "they are culturally bound pronouncements that don't make any sense within the context of our time and our culture."

On one level, there is some truth to that assessment. On another level, however, such an approach misses an important point.

Let me use an example from my teaching days to help spell out why I think reading such passages has value.

As some of you know, I taught English and Social Studies in a juvenile detention center for six years. Because it was an extremely dangerous environment, we had to be very strict (and explicit) in spelling out our expectations of the students. One of the most basic rules was that a student couldn't get out of his or her chair without permission. On the surface, this may sound excessive– but the rule was necessary because the students could have easily acted out against each other if they were able to move around freely in the classroom. In other words, the purpose of the rule was to ensure the students' safety.

One day we had the fire alarm go off. Most students instinctively figured out that they needed to stand up and get in line in order to make it to a place of safety. There was one student, however, that didn't get in line. When I asked him why, he said: "The rules say 'Don't get up without permission'. You didn't give me permission to stand up so I'm staying seated!"

It was a great example of someone learning the rules, but entirely missing the point of those same rules. It was a reminder for me to spend some time with the students helping them understand some of the reasoning behind the rules.

There are lots of religious fundamentalists who make that same mistake when they read the scriptures. They become so obsessed with the literal expression of a rule back in the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament that they entirely forget to ask why that rule was communicated in that particular time and place. If we dig below the surface and ask ourselves that question, we begin to move away from a rigid and moralistic approach to our faith – toward a living and breathing application of the principles of our faith that can guide us no matter in what age we live.

Today I would invite you to examine those rules that you've decided to live your life by. Are there some of them where you've become so focused on the rule itself, that you've lost sight of the underlying principles and perhaps become somewhat rigid and inflexible?

Til next time …

My Worst Habit

What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 18-20

Like most folks, I have quite a collection of bad habits. I have a tendency, for instance, to waste too much time surfing the web when I should be reading more constructive materials. I am constitutionally unable to say no to most forms of junk food. And I won't even mention my affinity for consuming too much caffeine. We would be here for days if I went down that path.

Most of those bad habits don't get me in too much trouble. There is one bad habit I have, however, that is incredibly dangerous.

I have an inability to say "No!" to people when they come to me with requests. It doesn't matter what the request is – it might be a request for help putting together a flier for an event; assisting with a transportation need; or a request to buy cookies from a girl scout – you name the request, and I'm likely to meet it.

This habit gets me in trouble more than all of my other bad habits combined. That's because my inability to say "No!" often makes me feel completely overwhelmed and as if I'm in "it" (whatever the particular "it" happens to be at any given moment) alone.

My awareness of this challenge is one reason I so appreciated today's reading from Exodus. In that passage, we get a piece of a conversation Moses had with his father-in-law Jethro. In that conversation Moses reveals to Jethro that "the people come to me with questions about God. When something comes up," Moses then concluded, "they come to me!"

Lot of folks would think such an admission is praiseworthy.

Not Jethro.

That's because Jethro has a healthy sense of perspective. "This is no way to go about it," Jethro observed in response to Moses' crazy life. "You'll burn out, and the people right along with you. This is way too much for you – you can't do this alone."

What wise words for Jethro to pass along to Moses – and to you and I as well. We CAN'T do everything alone. That simple truth is a great principle to guide us through our days.

I would encourage you to find opportunities throughout your day today to watch yourself as you engage the world. Are you always saying "Yes" to requests - acting as if you can meet everyone's needs on your own; or are you able to break that bad habit and say "No" – or at least, "In order to meet your request, I'm going to need YOUR help."

Til next time …

Systems Thinking

What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 15-17

I was talking with a friend the other day about my blog entry from last Thursday. My friend was curious why I spent time talking about addictions (i.e. alcoholism) and family dynamics so much – especially in the context of a blog about spirituality.

"Do you do it because you had a family member who was alcoholic?" the person finally asked.

The answer to that question was no. His question did provide me with a wonderful opportunity to explain why I did that.

Toward the very end of my time in seminary I accidentally stumbled upon a way of thinking called family systems theory. It was a way of thinking that tries to move groups beyond the traditional ways of thinking into exciting new ways of thinking. Let me unpack that statement for you.

In traditional ways of thinking, leaders in a community thinking mechanistically. If you were to think of an organization such as a church like a car, for instance, when one part of the car starts acting up – all you need to do is replace the individual part and the problem goes away. Now that thinking might be fine for a car, but it can be dangerous to carry that principle over into the life of a community.

Let's say, for instance, that a person in a community begins to act up. Traditional thinking is that you only address the individual involved in order to get him or her to change his behavior. You pretend no one else is involved in/affected by the situation.

In family systems theory, you don't think mechanistically – you think organically. Instead of seeing each individual as an isolated part of the machine, you see each individual as a connected piece of the whole. As such, you assume that each individual's behavior has the ability to affect the overall functioning of the group. This means when one part of the system starts acting up, you don't just look at the individual involved – you look at others in the community as well to see how they are contributing. That's why in last Thursday's entry, for example, I didn't just talk about the behavior of the alcoholic father; I also addressed the behavior of the spouse and siblings since their behaviors were contributing to the situation since they were enabling the father's decision to continue to drink.

At this point you might see why I would be interested in family systems theory, but still be a little confused about how the issue of addiction ties into all of this.

Well, a few years ago I stumbled upon a book called "Kicking Habits". It was a book about systems thinking within a church context. In making its point, the book suggested that one reason change is so hard in local churches is because individuals get just as addicted to the status quo as other individuals get addicted to substances like alcohol or food. That's why it is so incredibly difficult to make changes in churches. You aren't just fighting something as superficial as personal preferences – you are actually facing an addiction.

So that explains my interest in addictions and systems thinking. But why talk about all this stuff right now?

Well, yesterday in our church we had difficult news to share. Last year it was discovered that a former employee of the church had inappropriately diverted rent that was paid to the church by a user group from the church's bank account into the individual's own bank account. A legal process was initiated in order to recover a portion of those funds from our insurance policy. That process is now culminating with an arraignment that is scheduled for early November – meaning it was finally at a point in the process where we could make the information known.

When I was first informed about the tragic situation, I was curious to see how the faith community would approach the issue. Would they resort to traditional thinking and focus all their energy on blaming either the employee or a few lay leaders; or would they think more expansively and look at the system as a whole so they could determine what changes the community needed to make in order to prevent such occurrences in the future?

Through this year-long process, I learned the community chose to respond in the more expansive way. In addition to appropriately holding the individual accountable for the individual's choices, the faith community saw the problem as a systemic breakdown. It has already begun the hard work of fixing a system that was broken. This made me VERY happy!!!

So what's all of this have to do with today's reading?

As I read the culminating words of today's chapters, I smiled when I got to the part about the battle the Israelites got into with Amalek at Rephidim. In the culminating words of that chapter, we learn that the determining factor for their success (or at least so they thought) was whether or not Moses was able to raise his arms. When he raised his arms, the Israelites had success; when he tired and lowered them, the Israelites started to struggle.

Some would read that and assume this supported the traditional, mechanistic way of thinking about community – that the community's success or failure was entirely dependent on just one person (Moses). The story didn't end there, however. For when the community figured out what was happening, others got involved to help out the community. Aaron and Hur, for instance, decided to hold up Moses arms so that his arms could remain in the air and benefit the people. In other words, they thought organically/systemically and used their individual roles to benefit the whole.

Today, I would ask you to think about one area in your life where there might be a problem. When you find that area, look at how you are approaching its resolution. Are you treating it as an isolated issue that you can handle on your own, or are you willing to explore the communal dimension of the issue and invite others into the process?

Til next time …

Away for Friday & Saturday

Hi there. This Friday and Saturday I will be away attending a training for members of the Southern California-Nevada Conference's Committees on Ministry at Pilgrim Pines. I'll be back with you on Monday. Folks from WHCC, I'll see you on Sunday. Hope you all have a great weekend!

Living into New Ways of Being

What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 12-14

Over the years I've worked with lots of folks whose lives were affected by a family member's alcoholism. In almost every instance, I have heard a variation of the same story.

Folks will tell me that at first it was hell. Over time, however, each member of the family/system figured out a role to play so his or her family could make it through the ordeal. The son, for instance, learned that his role when his father came home drunk was to carry his dad to bed and let him sleep it off. This helped keep the problem out of sight. The daughter learned that when her dad came home drunk and argumentative, her role was to prevent other family members from arguing with her father. This kept the peace. The mother learned that her job was to call her husband's employer and make up an excuse why her husband wouldn't be coming in to work that day.

Usually in these scenarios there is one member of the family that is forced to take responsibility for the overall functioning of the family/system. As long as that individual agrees to play that role, the family/system worked just fine (or so they thought). Eventually, however, that person in the leading role reaches his or her breaking point. He or she becomes consumed with anger or resentment that he or she has to assume all the responsibility for the family's well-being.

The truth is that the individual is not trapped. He or she could make a different choice at any time and let go of carrying the responsibility for others.

You would think it would be an easy decision for the person who plays the leading role in the family's/system's drama to make the decision to let go of their role and invite others in to the process. In truth, it is a hard decision. For there is a tremendous amount of pressure placed on the individual to quit rocking the boat and revert back to the previous way of living.

This temptation to slide back into unhealthy ways of being is something that jumped right out at me in today's story from Exodus. For in today's story, we hear are told how the Israelites were able to break free from the bonds of slavery in Egypt and obtain a new sense of freedom as the journeyed into the desert.

You would think they would be thrilled by this development, right?


Almost as soon as they hit the desert, they started complaining about their new life. They even started longing for the good old days in slavery – when life was familiar and comfortable. They wanted Moses (the primary actor in their drama) to take them back to slavery in Egypt. How sick was that?

All of this reminds me that the process of change is a painful – and long-term process. At each juncture, it is easy to want to give in and resort to one's old ways. If you find yourself in the midst of living into a new way of being in your own life, be aware of this tendency to revert to old ways of being and catch yourself. Remember that just because a way of being was easy doesn't mean that it was healthy.

Til next time …