Help support the vision of Woodland Hills Community Church!

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

Saturday, September 25, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Genesis 18-20

Over the course of the next 37 days, we will live through what I consider to be the most difficult days of the year.

"And what exactly is it that makes these next 37 days so difficult to live through?" you might wonder.

Well, the next 37 days stand between us and the General Election here in the United States. That means that between now and November 2 we will be bombarded with messages that will appeal to two things: (1) our fears, and (2) our self-interest.

Our airwaves and mailboxes will be stuffed with campaign literature that suggests that life as we know it will surely end if such-and-such a candidate wins the election, or if such-and-such political party has the majority of seats in the legislature. We'll also absorb campaign messages predicated upon the belief that the only way a candidate can win your vote is to appeal to your raw self-interest. "Vote for me and I'll lower your taxes!" "Vote for me and I'll help protect your job!" "Vote for me, and I'll protect your freedom from (and you can fill in the blank here with any group you might feel is a threat). The days between now and the General Election will be full of things that degrade our common humanity.

"So what's the alternative?" you might wonder. "Doesn't our system represent the very best of what's available to us?"

Absolutely not! In fact, there is another way that was spelled out in today's reading from Genesis that is far superior to anything we could create. As Abraham was getting ready to say goodbye to his visitors, we are told that God reassured Abraham about his role in the future with these words: "I've settled on [Abraham] as the one to train his children and future family to observe God's way of life…"

And what exactly is meant by the phrase "God's way of life"?

The author(s) of the passage tells us very clearly. God's way of life means we "live kindly and generously and fairly." What amazing words to describe the kind of lives to which God calls us - "kindness", "generosity", and "fairness"!

As we live through the next 37 days of incessant mudslinging and accusations, I would invite you to recommit yourself to living not by a nation's or a political system's way of life – but rather by God's way of life.

Til next time …

Friday, September 24, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Genesis 12-17

Once again this week there was a story that broke of a pastor's misdeeds. It wasn't just any pastor that was involved – the scandal happened to involve the pastor of the largest church in the state of Georgia! It seems that the individual had coerced three young men into sexual relationships.

Individuals have responded to the story in different ways since the story first broke. Some have pointed out the hypocrisy of the pastor since he spent years railing against "homosexuals" – all the while engaging in same-gender behavior himself. I can certainly understand those who are frustrated with the pastor's double-standard in this area. Others have used the situation to rail against Christianity all together - saying it's one more example of the old "say-one-thing, do-another approach" that marks some Christians.

I try to be a little more careful in my response to situations where a pillar of a community is exposed for being something less than what we would consider faithful.

Why is that?

I suppose it's because early in life I picked up on a theme that runs throughout the Scriptures as it pertains to the great leaders of our faith. That theme is that every great leader has moments in her or his life when they fail to live up to the fullness of their call. Take Abram/Abraham from today's reading, for instance. Here is the man that is identified today as the ancestor of not one but three of the world's greatest faith traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the span of just five chapters, we are told this honorable man (1) lied to the Egyptians about the status of his relationship with Sarai to save his own bacon; (2) slept with a woman (Hagar) other than his wife (Sarai) in order to produce off-spring; and then (3) completely ignored an ugly situation when tension arose between Sarai and Hagar. The first two of those situations would get any leader on the front page of most newspapers these days.

In spite of these short comings, Abram/Abraham still went on to participate in remarkable things that redefined the course of human history.

"So what are you suggesting, Craig?" you might wonder. "Are you saying it was okay that the pastor in Georgia did what he did?"

Not at all. If the allegations are true, it was inappropriate for the pastor to use his power and position to coerce minors into inappropriate relationships. He should face the full consequences of his actions. I want to make that part very clear!

What I am saying instead has two parts. First, don't be too quick to gloat about other people's short comings. We all – including the greatest matriarchs and patriarchs of our faith! – have short comings. Second , don't be too quick to write yourself and your contributions to the world off because of your shortcomings. If God can use stubborn, fearful, willful people like Abram/Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, and Hagar to do amazing things – chances are that God can work through someone like me and you as well.

Hold on to those thoughts today as you negotiate your way through a world full of incendiary headlines and hypocrisy.

Til next time …

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Genesis 6-11

As some of you know by now, I was raised in a small town (population of less than 3,000 at the time) in Eastern Washington. There was little diversity in that town. The lack of diversity was true not just in racial/ethnic terms – it was true in almost every facet of life. This meant there was a lack of diversity in spiritual belief and practice. The consequence is that I was raised with the impression that there was only one way of thinking about and celebrating God.

Then I went off to college across state to attend a private school in Tacoma, Washington. Tacoma was more than 100 times bigger than my hometown, and it had much more diversity represented. This diversity included diversity in thought about – and experience of – God.

I remember my first quarter at college very well. The college was an undergraduate institution affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I learned many things in my classes that first quarter that challenged some of the traditional things I had been taught growing up.

At first I didn't know what to do. I went through a stage of denial – thinking these people didn't know what they were talking about since they were saying things that went against my beliefs. I didn't care what fancy degrees or titles they had in front of their names – they were wrong! Next, I went through a stage of anger – wondering why no one back home had bothered to teach me such important things. Finally, I rushed through the stage of acceptance and landed smack dab in a stage of cynicism. I thought, "Boy, you have to be pretty stupid to hold on to childish beliefs that you were raised with and be willing to ignore the evidence that calls such beliefs into question!"

Over time, I grew to have a HUGE amount of respect for one of my history professors – Dr. Phillip Nodrquist. He was a brilliant man who knew his areas of study backwards and forwards, and he was a tremendous human being who contributed so much to society!

Then one day I learned something shocking about Dr. Nordquist. Not only was he a Christian, but he participated regularly in the life of his local church. I was shocked. As someone who held on to a huge amount of cynicism about Christianity, Dr. Nordquist made me wonder, "Can you be a well educated, thoughtful, caring, compassionate individual AND be Christian?"

To make a long story short, I learned the answer to that question was "Yes!"

At a time in my life when I was ready to walk away from the faith with which I had been raised, it took just one person to encourage me to hold on to that faith and NOT give up. What a difference Dr. Nordquist made for me.

In today's reading, I was reminded of the difference that another individual made in the course of our faith – we heard the story of Noah. And in today's story, it wasn't just a cynical, arrogant eighteen year old that was ready to toss in the towel: it was God who was getting ready to give up on humanity. Along came that one individual, and voila – God's relationship with humanity was restored. At so many junctures in our stories, that's all it takes: one person to come along and help get things back on track.

On some days, I might take a less challenging course and simply ask you to think of the one person who came along and made such a dramatic difference for you in your life. Today I'm feeling a bit more rambunctious. Today, I'm going to ask you to live into the notion that for someone out there on the planet – you are that one person who is preventing someone from giving up on life and/or humanity. Find the time to center yourself in that overwhelming realization and ask for the continued strength to be that presence in another's life.

Til next time …

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Genesis 1-5

As I've developed in my role as worship leader over the years, I've grown in commitment to an emergent value that sometimes gets me in trouble. Before I share what that emergent value is, let me take a moment and explain the traditional approach so it will be a bit more clear why that emergent value can get me in trouble.

For many years in our mainline churches, a high premium was placed on "excellence" in worship. By this, I mean it was expected that each and every element of the service was supposed to be well-rehearsed and go off like clockwork. It didn't matter what element of worship we are talking about – it could be the children's sermon, the choral anthem, or the banners hanging on the wall – everything was supposed to be excellent by purely objective standards.

Over the past 10 years, however, the assumption has been called into question.

"Why would anyone question that?" some might wonder. "Shouldn't we always aspire to give God our best in our worship service/service of celebration?"

The second of those questions get at the heart of the controversy.

You see there is a COLLOSAL difference between establishing a goal of giving God THE best and giving God MY best. If a faith community pursues THE best, this means that lots of people (and their gifts) are left by the wayside because they aren't considered "good enough". Some people aren't asked to speak during worship, for instance, because they sometimes stutter or use fillers when they get nervous. Other people aren't asked to join a song leading team or choir because their voices aren't good enough. Or some aren't asked to help make banners because some of the limitations in their creative abilities might cause visual discordance in the final product.

In other words, lots and lots of folks who are dying to contribute THEIR best to the worship/celebration experience are completely left out because THEIR best doesn't equal THE best. One of my foundational values in approaching worship is to help create a spiritual community that is healthy enough to receive each and every offering that is given.

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

Well, I was reminded of my vision as I read about the story of Abel and Cain in today's passage. Lots of folks assume that Cain got in trouble with God because he didn't offer God THE best. I'm not sure that's the case. Abel, for instance, was praised for giving "choice cuts of meat". In my book, that means he was praised for giving HIS best – the best of what he had available. Cain, on the other hand, got off track not because he didn't give THE best – Cain got off track because he wasn't even willing to give HIS best.

The story of Abel and Cain invites us to think about the way we approach our lives. What is the goal that drives you? Are you driven by the pursuit of excellence in the abstract; or are you driven by the goal of giving YOUR best? Understanding the difference between those approaches can strongly impact the way you lead your life (and the effect you have one others!).

Til next time …

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Revelation 20-22

Last August 30, Mike and I picked up our dogs after I finished leading the Sunday worship service; put few bags in our car; locked the front door of our townhome in Aurora, CO; and drove 1,045 miles to our new home in Woodland Hills, CA. In the 387 days that have followed, much has changed.

Mike has made a career change – moving from the field of human services to commercial real estate. I made the decision to address my long-ignored issues of codependence by getting involved in a Co-Dependents Anonymous group. Mike has acquired a new car, and Mike and I have abandoned some routines in our relationship (AKA "ruts") that no longer worked for us.

So why did we suddenly take on so many new things in our life? Was there something magical in the water in Woodland Hills, CA that empowered us to make these dramatic changes that was lacking in the water in Aurora, CO?

The answer is, "No!" We didn't make these series of substantial changes because of something superficial like the water – we made those changes because the dramatic shift in the circumstances of our lives seemed to give us permission to make changes. There was no way, for instance, that we could pretend that we were continuing with business as usual after the move. Everything was different. This sense of difference gave us the opportunity to stop in the middle of our activities and ask ourselves, "So how would I like to accomplish this task in this new environment. Do I want to continue long-held patterns, or do I want to try something different?"

In a surprising number of cases, our answer was, "We want to try something different."

It's too bad that it took something as dramatic as a move 1,045 miles to get us to try something new. Technically, we could have certainly tried some of the new things in our former environment. There's something about us human beings, however, that makes it difficult for us to make dramatic changes when we are in the midst of the status quo.

As I finished reading the Book of Revelation today, I must say that I saw that same dynamic at work in the vision constructed by its author. The book was written in the context of a status quo that meant there were certain givens in their daily life: the Roman Empire was in place and controlled many facets of their lives; the Christian faith was a movement of outsiders that was extremely vulnerable; and those who made a commitment to follow Jesus often paid the price with some form of persecution. They couldn't imagine a world that was different unless the foundations of the world were shaken and a New Jerusalem descended from the heavens (see Revelation 21).

My experience over the last year and my reading of Revelation makes me wonder: "Is the only way that real change happens - through dramatic and unsettling changes around a person that forces him/her into a new reality (a new Jerusalem, if you will); or is it possible for an individual to grow into significant change without such upheaval?"

I suppose the answer to that question varies from person to person. How is it for you? Are you comfortable initiating and living into dramatic change that grows out of the status quo; or do you need the world as you know it to end first?

Til next time …

Monday, September 20, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Revelation 18-19

I had an "Ah ha!" moment today as I was reading some of the final chapters of the Book of Revelation. That "Ah ha!" moment had to do with why I've never connected much with the book. Let me give you a little background to set up that "Ah ha!" moment.

Some of my blog readers might remember from earlier entries that the way I arrive at my daily reading schedule is that I'm using Eugene Peterson's The Message/Remix: Pause. That edition of The Message has a daily reading schedule that includes a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and a reading from the Greek Scriptures (New Testament). I've spent this year focusing on the Greek Scriptures, and in two days I'll transition into focusing on the Hebrews Scriptures.

At the end of each reading, Peterson raises a few questions to help the reader process the information that was just read. At the of Revelation 18, Peterson wrote: "How does the reassurance that God will pay back everyone who has caused his people to suffer change the way you see injustice around you now?"

As I finished reading the question, I immediately thought to myself: "It doesn't change the way I see injustice around me one iota."

Why is that, you might wonder? Why doesn't Revelation's imagery of terror and destruction scare the heebee jeebees out of me and make me want to promise never to do anything bad again?

I suppose that's because my relationship with/connection to God isn't predicated on a reward and punishment system. When I engage in an act of service, for instance, I don't think, "Boy, I'm doing something really good. This will get me into heaven for sure." Nor when I'm doing something that causes me to "miss the mark" (i.e. sin), I don't think: "Uh oh, I better stop this right now or I'll burn in hell."

Instead, I orient my life and my decisions around whether or not my thoughts and actions are bringing closer in relationship/connection with God. The closeness I feel in relation/connection to God when I make healthy decision is – at least for me – "reward" enough. The distance I feel in relation/connection from God when I make unhealthy decision is "punishment" enough. That – I suppose – is why I don't relate to much of the traditional reward/punishment imagery used in Revelation.

So how about you? What are the motivations that drive your decision making processes in life? Are you motivated to do "good" things by the promise of lavish rewards and avoid "bad" things by the fear of torturous consequences; or are their other things that motivate you to lead the life you do?

Til next time …