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For those of you who would like to support the vision & ministry of Woodland Hills Community Church (the faith community I serve that continues to encourage me to minister outside the box), please click on the link just above.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Matthew 21:23-22:46

I’ve never been a fan of talk radio. I suppose I dislike it because of its generally bombastic nature. Most of the hosts seem more focused on creating ratings for their shows rather than educating /helping their listeners. Those are a couple reasons why I don’t listen to talk radio.

Because of my decision to avoid talk radio, I missed a big controversy that arose out of one such show last Tuesday. The host of the program – Dr. Laura – took a call from a woman named Jade who wanted advice on how to deal with racist comments made by her husband’s family and friends. Jade was African-American and Jade’s husband was European-American.

In the process of responding to Jade’s question, Dr. Laura went off on a tangent. She got fixated on what she perceived to be a double standard. She couldn’t understand why it is okay for those within the African-American community to use the n-word with one another while it is unacceptable for folks from outside the African-American community to use the word. In the process of trying to make her point, Dr. Laura used the n-word 11 times.

I know that in coming days there will be those who will lose sight of the inappropriateness of Dr. Laura’s language and become fixated on having another conversation: whether or not a double standard exists between racial/ethnic groups. That’s too bad. And a portion of today’s passage helps me understand why such a secondary conversation is totally missing the point.

You see, in today’s passage Jesus lays out one of the foundational principles of his ministry: the Great Commandments. Jesus said: “’Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs: everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”

Here’s where that principle comes in.

When you interact with others, the Great Commands suggest you don’t just put yourself first. You put love of God and others first. Therefore, when you say or do something – you don’t first consider whether or not you have a right to say it. You consider the impact of what you might say. If it causes unnecessary pain to others, don’t say it. It’s that simple. End of controversy.

While you and I can’t control whether or not radio talk show hosts can embrace the spirit of the Great Commands and act/speak accordingly, we can control whether or not we embrace those commands. I would encourage you to carry those two commands with you today (and every day!) and use them to guide your words and deeds.

Til next time …

PS - For those of you who live in/near Woodland Hills, you are invited to join me for a 3:00 PM showing of “Eat, Pray, Love” at the AMC Promenade 16 today. Afterwards, those of us gathered will go out for coffee and discuss the film.

Friday, August 13, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Matthew 21:1-22

Today’s passage contains one of my very favorite stores about Jesus. Hearing that, you might try to predict what that favorite story is. In doing so, you’d probably try to stick with the stories that get a lot of press.

For instance, you might say, “One of Craig’s favorite stories about Jesus must be the story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.”

You’d be wrong.

“Okay, how about the story of Jesus kicking the moneychangers out of the Temple? That’s a good one. That’s got to be it, right?”

Wrong again.

“So what’s left?”

The story of Jesus cursing the fig tree.

I realize it’s a rather odd story to identify as one of my favorite for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a story that rarely gets talked about. Second, it seems to be a teaching story where the moral to the story outshines the incident itself.

I can certainly understand why folks would have a hard time with my selection. The reason I love it, however, is because it reveals a very personal, VERY human side of Jesus that we don’t often get to see.

Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the story begins by saying: “Early the next morning Jesus was returning to the city. He was hungry. Seeing a lone fig tree alongside the road, he approached it anticipating a breakfast of fig tree.”
I’m so there. I’ve been in that situation a thousand times (though usually not with fig trees). Let’s continue with Jesus’ story.

“When he got to the tree, there was nothing but fig leaves. [Jesus] said, ‘No more figs from this tree – ever!’ The fig tree withered on the spot, a dry stick.”

Once again I can totally relate! Jesus went into a situation expecting a certain outcome, the outcome didn’t happen, so he expressed his frustration by impulsively lashing out at the source of the frustration. That’s me!! That scenario plays out often in my life. One of the most frequent parallels is when my touch screen Blackberry Storm freezes and won’t respond to my attempts to answer a phone call – but I digress.

Now lots of folks lose that very human moment in Jesus’ life because of the way the author(s) of Matthew immediately use that situation to set up a teaching moment that uses the story to emphasize the power of Jesus. NO MENTION whatsoever is given to the fact that Jesus – like each of us – had a moment where he acted impulsively.

So – since the author(s) of Matthew chose to ignore Jesus’ impulsive nature – is there a lesson we can learn from that?

For me, the lesson lies in what we do with those impulsive moments in our life when we perhaps aren’t at our best. Jesus could have taken that impulsive gesture and simply stormed off. He also could have used his display of power to threaten the disciples (i.e. “Stay in line or you’ll be next”). He didn’t. He transformed that moment and used it as a teaching moment.

Each of us has the same opportunity in those moments of reactivity when we say or do something out of character. We can either try to cover it up and move on; or we can do something radical – like use that impulsive moment to accomplish a greater good (i.e. perhaps humble ourselves and apologize or use it as an excuse to address an underlying frustration that helped set you off).

Carry that awareness with you today and see if you can use it to inform the way you conduct yourself today.

Til next time …

Thursday, August 12, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Matthew 19-20

I know some of you wondered what happened yesterday that got me so freaked out that I wasn’t able to blog. Since you were so patient with me yesterday, I thought the least I could do is provide a few words of explanation.

I had an amazing turn of events over the last couple of days. Each of the things that happened to me was relatively small (in and off themselves), but it was the combination of things that pushed me to my breaking point.

Things started for me on Saturday evening when I was blessed to have the opportunity to be a part of a friend’s baptismal experience that happened on the beach in Santa Monica. When I waded out into the water to be a part of the event, I forgot to leave my Blackberry behind. Consequently, my phone got wet and died. Not only did I lose my telephone service – I lost a good portion of my Internet access, my calendar, and my GPS service.

This pushed me into my second area of frustration.

I had been without a reliable computer in my office for months and had grown completely dependent on my personal lap top. Wouldn’t you know it - the lap top died a couple of weeks ago. This forced me to run out and get a new lap top.

The new lap top has all kinds of wonderful bells and whistles, but none of them were speaking to each other. I was forced, for instance, to create 3 separate calendars and lists of contacts. In a moment of frustration, I decided it was time to invest in software that would allow me to get all of the programs speaking to each other. After a sizeable investment of time and money over the weekend, as of yesterday morning, the programs were still not speaking to each other.

That was okay because my replacement cell phone (and it’s accompanying calendar & contact list) was supposed to arrive yesterday afternoon, right?

Well, the phone arrived all right – but it didn’t activate correctly so several necessary features were inoperable. I couldn't access email, I couldn't use the GPS feature, and I had no browser.

Then, as I was driving to a pastoral visit that evening, the “check engine” light went on in the car. I took it to the dealer first thing yesterday morning, and they said the electrical problem could be several hundred dollars. I wondered how I was going to get through the week with an individual in serious condition at a hospital and two memorial services to pull together for this weekend.

Needless to say, I was in melt down mode.

Thankfully over the course of the day, several of these situations resolved themselves. First, the dealer called back and let me know that the car’s electrical repairs were covered by the extended warranty I had purchased when I first bought the car. Then, after spending two hours on the phone speaking to technician, I finally got the missing features installed on my cell phone. Finally, I stumbled upon software online that I could download and get all of my calendars and contacts synchronized for the first time in my 8-1/2 years of ministry. No fooling!

I can totally understand now the depth of Dicken’s famous words from A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Tuesday was certainly that for me.

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

Well, I couldn’t help but smile as I read the section where “the mother of the Zebedee brothers” asked if her sons could receive the seats of honor in Jesus’ presence. Jesus’ response to the mother’s request was simple: “Are you capable of drinking the cup that I’m about to drink?”

The implication – of course – was that someone who desires to be close to Jesus ought to be willing to pay the ultimate price. The irony I’ve found is that sometimes the biggest prices we pay in following Jesus aren’t moments when our lives are literally on the line. Often the moments lie in those quite moments of accumulated frustration when we struggle to reconcile our desire to show up and be the presence of Christ - with all of the obstacles that present themselves along the way: sometimes even as the result of our own practice of ministry. Oy!!

Today, I would ask you, “What do you consider some of the more challenging things that cause you to wonder if you have what it takes to drink from the cup?”

Til next time …

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Today, my stress levels are off the chart as I'm balancing computer problems, cell phone problems, and car problems among some other major stressors. I'm having a hard time concentrating and forming coherent thoughts so I'll have to pass on today's entry. Thanks for any prayers/positive thoughts you might send my way!

Til next time...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Matthew 18

Each of us has learned ways of coping with difficult people given the limitations of our personality. Some folks, for instance, deal with difficult people by completely avoiding them. Others deal with them by trying to beat them to the punch and become more agressive/abrasive than they are as a means of intimidating the difficult person or keeping him/her in check.

At different stages of my life, I have employed at least two different strategies – neither of which is all that healthy. And wouldn’t you know it, both of my coping strategies were taken on in today’s passage from Matthew.
The first strategy I have used is to talk with others about the nature of the conflict. I told myself that by doing so I would get fresh perspectives on (and perhaps even new ideas for solving!) the conflict and have the added benefit of getting support and encouragement from others. Such an approach made sense to me at the time. The only problem was that such an approach never encouraged me to do the most important part: sit down with the difficult person and actually work things through.

Along comes today’s passage that encourages me to set my passive-aggressive tendencies aside once and for all. “If a fellow believer hurts you,” Jesus said, “work it out between the two of you.” Jesus goes on from there to draw out a backup plan in case the one-on-one conversation doesn’t work. Each step of his plan, however, is predicated on the thing I spent years avoiding: open and honest communication.

And if losing my preferred way for dealing with difficult people wasn’t bad enough, Jesus went on to discredit my second favorite method. My partner Mike says I’m a master at playing the “If the shoe fits, wear it!” game. What he means by that is that when I’m in the presence of someone who has wronged me I prefer to speak in generalities about the offending behavior without specifically mentioning names. This feeds my passive-aggressive tendencies and still allows me to feel as if I’ve address the problem.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. If someone borrowed money from me, promised to repay it at a certain time, and broken that promise; I’ve been known to say (either to an individual or a group in which the individual is in), “Don’t you think it’s important that people a person honors his/her word by following through with his/her commitment.”

There are lots of problems with such a passive aggressive approach. In addition to the fact that the whole approach is predicated on avoiding the issue at hand, such an approach is often tremendously ineffective because some of the people who engage in inappropriate behaviors are the ones least able to see that behavior in themself. They will complain loudly if someone else does something to them. If they do the same thing to another, however, they will be completely oblivious to consequences of their own behavior.

That’s exactly what happened in today’s story about forgiveness. A king forgave the huge debt of one of his servants who couldn’t afford to repay the debt. And how did the servant respond to that act of grace? He immediately went out and attacked an underling of his who owed him a much smaller debt. The servant was completely oblivious to the hypocrisy of his actions! Eventually the king had to step in and directly expose the servant’s hypocrisy. The servant probably would have never made the connection on his own.

Once again, the lesson in dealing with our fellow human beings is this: “be direct”.

Chances are that you have at least one difficult person in your life. If you don’t, give me a holler and I might be able to help you find one – but I digress. One you’ve found that difficult person, look for opportunities to practice the sort of approach that Jesus encouraged. Be direct and name your concerns in a spirit of love and grace. Your new approach just might chance the whole dynamic of the relationship.

Til next time …

Monday, August 9, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Matthew 16-17

One of the things I love about the sacred writings of our tradition is their amazing complexity. That complexity is evident in so many places – one of which is how we go about thinking of who Jesus is/was.

In the 16th chapter of Matthew, for instance, we are told the story of Jesus’ question to the disciples: “Who do you say I am?” Peter’s eventual answer – “You’re the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God” – uses language that suggests Jesus is special, or unique.

Just one chapter later, however, we hear a story in which a man requests healing for his son that is battling what we today might describe as epilepsy. As he made his request, the man noted he tried getting help from Jesus’ disciples but they couldn’t help him out. After Jesus healed the man’s son, the disciples asked Jesus why they couldn’t do what he did. Jesus replied: “Because you’re not yet taking God seriously.” His answer suggests that Jesus didn’t think of himself as being all that special/different than the disciples. Jesus felt others should be able to do what he did.

So which way is it? Is Jesus special/different than us, or not?

That is a question that theologians have been wrestling with for centuries. The complexities is why we have a range of answers to that question ranging from “Jesus is totally special and unlike any of us” (what some call “high Christology”) to “Jesus is no different than you or I” (what some call “low Christology”). Of course, there are answers to the question that lie between these two extremes.

The challenge for people of faith who identify as Christian – then – is two-fold. First, what answer do I come to regarding that question; and second, in what ways do I hold on to my answer.

Over the last couple of centuries we have paid a whole lot of attention to the first challenge – the part where we formulate an answer to the question of how special Jesus is.

During this same period of time, however, we have paid very little attention to the second challenge – the part that has to do with the ways in which we hold on to our answer to the question. As a result, there is sometimes a HUGE amount of arrogance to the ways in which people hold on to their answer to the question.

Some of those with a high Christology say, “Of course Jesus is completely unique. Anyone weirdo who doesn’t think so is not – I repeat, NOT - a Christian.” Some of those with a low Christology say, “Objective historical/sociological studies tells us that Jesus had to be just like you and I. Anyone who thinks differently is a superstitious moron who probably believes in the Easter Bunny too.” It’s no wonder we struggle to build unity amongst the body of Christ!!

In recognition of the complexity of the questions before us – and in a call to lead a life that truly reflects the values of Jesus – I would encourage you to re-visit the question of who Jesus was today. As you arrive at your answer, immediately ask yourself: “How does the answer I’m resting in affect the way I see others (both other Christians and others in general).”

I believe the answer to THAT question will reveal even more about what each of us truly believes about Jesus.

Til next time …