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.

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 …