A Biblical Roadmap when Everyone Else is Lost

Gotta love those prophets. Prophets in the Bible were those people whom God chose to communicate God’s messages to people. Sounds like an honor, right? But God’s word to the people was often difficult to hear. The message through Malachi was no exception, but the tough truth from God is essential to our understanding of the deep and transformative purpose of tithing. A “tithe” denotes the first 10% of one’s income, dedicated to God’s work, and entrusted to the organization of leaders to be used in ministry to the community. (By the way, about trusting leaders — corruption among religious leaders has been around from the earliest times, and ancient people had even more reason to be skeptical of religious leaders misusing their tithes. But rather than letting this skepticism hamstring your giving, note the intense scrutiny of God over priests in Mal. 2:1-2).

But having been returned from exile in Babylon, God’s covenant people returned to their unjust ways, especially regarding their wealth. They gave to God only what was left over, rather than the first and best tenth of what God had given them. Now, don’t let this command to give cloud your theology. God didn’t need their money: “Why should I want your blue-ribbon bull, or more and more goats from your herds? Every creature in the forest is mine…” (Ps. 50:9-10 MSG). But God designed his people to be a blessing to the nations, and part of that meant collecting, storing, and distributing the shared wealth of the community so everyone would flourish. But that wasn’t happening, because the people’s gifts were paltry, and because the leadership lacked integrity.

The people’s attitude toward God became so arrogant that they even claimed it was “futile to serve God.” What was their evidence? That sometimes things seem unfair. Do you see how people place themselves on the throne of judgment, as the gatekeepers of what God should and should not be doing? When we try to be the lords and masters of our gifts to God, they are no longer gifts to God, but rather an indirect means for feeding our hidden greed.

But God’s people are called to first honor God’s name. This is not some kind of “ancient” idea. We honor people’s names all the time. Pastor Aaron told a story of one of his kids wanting a Seahawks jersey, but specifically one with the #3 on it and the name “Wilson” on the back. This is a way of honoring someone’s name! We honor other names, too, from celebrities to internet personalities, to corporate names like Apple and Costco. We honor these names with our wealth. And while God may not need us to share our wealth, our communities do. And when we entrust our tithe to God’s storehouse, and when the “priests” (in the Reformed tradition, the pastors and elected church leaders) then God is honored.

Dear Younger Me: Don’t believe the myth that you are the final authority over your belongings. Experience the freedom that comes in letting go of your first 10% and entrusting it into God’s hands. Here are two principles to guide you along the way:

  1. Take seriously God’s lordship over your income. This has nothing to do with financial management; it’s a relational step you must take in your relationship with God if you are to experience freedom in your giving.
  2. Feel free to test God’s faithfulness by stretching your giving beyond your own comfort and experiencing how God comes through and provides for you.

For reflection:
– What seems like a reasonable percentage of your income to entrust to the ministry of the Church? Does 10% seem high, low, or just right?
– Consider what percentage of your income you entrust to the ministry of the Church. In what ways is it challenging to do that? In what ways has it been freeing?
– Consider what percentage of your income would be an emotional or financial challenge for you to give. What amount would require you to trust?
– God welcomes us to test him in this particular area. How could you plan to stretch your giving in a way that helps you be on the lookout for God’s activity in your life?
– How much an individual or household can give is relative to your particular circumstances, rather than on a formula. That said, can you avoid using that relativity as an excuse and instead be honest about your spending and consider whether or not you’re giving to God’s ministry what God is worthy of?

Blessings,
MM

You Feed Them, There is Enough

I’m not sure when the “holiday season” starts these days. Is it mid-September when I actually saw Christmas items on some store shelves? Or maybe right after Halloween? In any case, it’s probably by the time Starbucks releases their long-awaited holiday-themed merch. When the holiday season does finally begin, two things come to my mind: meals and giving. In both cases, whether we’re hosting a meal or preparing gifts, we naturally ask our selves the question: “Is this enough?

That question has permeated all of human history, including the history told in the Bible. And far too often, the world seems to shout back at us, “No! There’s isn’t enough!” And this is what makes Jesus’ life so baffling. In particular the fateful evening when he fed thousands of people using only enough for a few.

Having just been given the news of his cousin’s brutal and unjust execution, Jesus retreats, no doubt to grieve. But his grief would have to wait as thousands of needy people call on him. Led by compassion, he serves them until nightfall, when his friends state the obvious: they’re hungry, so let them go get dinner. Jesus’ responses are legendary:
“You give them something to eat.”
Surely in some disbelief, they remind him they have only enough for themselves. Then his second response:
“Bring it here to me.”

The rest is, as they say, history. So what was Jesus seeing that the disciples weren’t able to see? In short, that God created a world in which there is enough. The key is learning to experience it, and then give it away.

Jesus’ view of the world apparently resembles the Genesis 1-2 world: a world of overabundant resources, given by a loving Father. But that view was corrupted when the man and woman were deceived by the serpent. Remember, his deceptions were not generic, but rather laser-focused. First, he would plant the seed of mistrust: “Did God really say you could not eat…?” When that fails, he would plant the seed of envy: “That’s just because God didn’t want you to actually be in charge, to actually have the final say in your own life. I thought he put you in charge, but I guess not…” Mistrust and envy make a wicked fruit, and human beings have been eating it ever since.

But Jesus insists on undoing those lies and showing people the greater truth–a truth that will set us free from mistrust and envy, free to give of the overabundance of God’s world … free to give as God gives. Here are six basic principles I’ve gleaned out of today’s story, and the Bible overall:

Our Creator provides what we need. I know it sounds too simple, but this is where it starts.  This is step one in telling the serpent to slither away! But do we really live like we believe it?  Do we live like God will provide despite the circumstances, like he did through Jesus and Moses before him — bread to a hungry people in a remote place?  (If you noticed that coincidence, good job; you’re supposed to notice it!) 

Our Creator provides differently than the world expects. God might give us SOMETHING quite different than what we expected.  How many testimonies include the phrase, “I never expected this to happen, but…” God might give TO SOMEONE who is different than we expected.   Finally, the toughest one: God might give to someone MORE OR LESS than he gives you.  Part of trusting God is refusing to judge what God gives, and to whom he gives it.

Our Creator does not guarantee that we’ll understand his provision. Back to the garden we go!  The sin Adam and Eve commit is grounded in the hubris that comes with insisting that the Creator of the cosmos operate only at a level that we understand, or even more, that we approve of!  But a so-called “god” whom I can fully comprehend is truly just a figment of my imagination.  

Our Creator does guarantee that we will be an instrument for his provision. Yes, there is an intentional similarity between God provided bread in the desert with Moses and bread in this remote place with Jesus.  But there is one crucial difference. In the Sinai desert, the manna appeared each morning on its own.  But in the new covenant, the bread doesn’t just appear. God’s people give their own, and God multiplies it.  Same God, same gift — new method. Why would God choose this method?

Our Creator does not need our money, but insists on our trust. In the words of Bono, “The God I believe in isn’t short of cash, mister.”  Of course he isn’t.  What God desires from us is our heart.  The greatest commandment is not “Love the Lord with all your money.”  It is, “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” But here’s the thing.  The one who created our heart, mind, soul, and strength, knows exactly what guides them. And so Jesus taught… 

Our Creator gave us hearts that go where our treasure is. Note the order.  Most fundraisers will try to appeal to your heart, so that you will then send your treasure that way.  But Jesus teaches the opposite. Your treasure doesn’t go where your heart is — your heart goes wherever you send your treasure.  

You want to invest your heart in things that pass away?  So did Adam and Eve. But if you want to invest in that which will never pass away; if you want to take part in miracles; then listen to Jesus, as he says “Bring what you have to me.”  And watch him multiply it, not only for others, but your transformation as well.

For reflection:

  • Make a simple, bullet-pointed list of that which God has provided for you. Include material and non-material provision. Does anything surprise you?
  • Of that which God has given you, what can be used to provide for those around you? Again, include material and non-material things.
  • God calls us to be wise stewards of what we’re given. Are you giving to others (church, charity, etc.) in a way that you feel is wise?
  • The feeding of the give thousand also calls us to be ready to give in a way that feels risky, even ridiculous. Do you ever give in a way that feels like this?
  • What is one thing you could do to take a step out of “safe giving” and toward faith-informed “risky giving?”
  • If your heart goes where your treasure is, do you manage your wealth in a way that directs your heart toward God, what God cares about, and God’s promise to take care of you?
  • What is the interplay between providing for yourself, providing for your loved ones, providing for others in need, and relinquishing control of all your providing in the hands of God?

The Surprising Gifts that Come from Hard Times

November 1 is known in the Church calendar as All Saints Day. It’s a day to remember and honor those godly people who have gone before us in faith and life, and whom we’ve lost in death even while we celebrate their eternal life. At UPPC, for the past two years we have seen this day as an opportunity to contemplate the interplay between loss and redemption. This week, we were blessed by Brahms’ Requiem, which he composed as he processed his own grief and hope in Christ.

This interplay is very much at the heart of the Bible’s wisdom literature, including the book of Ecclesiastes, from which comes this famous passage on the inevitability of seasons in our lives. When we read it, we’re reminded of the truth that there is a time for all things. That said, we tend to strive for only some of the items on that list — the seasons we would call “good,” of course. But the reality is that all of those items are inevitable for all people in some form or another. The reality is that if we are alive, we will endure times of loss and the need for restoration.

The Japanese art of kintsugi entails the repair of broken pottery through bonding with gold. It is a beautiful proclamation that not only can we survive the experience of being broken and imperfect, but we can become more beautiful and valuable in the healing process. In kintsugi, the cracks in each pot are unique, and rather than being hidden are highlighted in beauty.

So the wisdom we might share with our younger selves this week is: “Pain is a catalyst for spiritual growth.” When we do more to become involved in the world and our communities, we set ourselves up for more hurt. It’s an essential ingredient to the love by which we live into the world. A teacher of Pastor Aaron’s once remarked, “One day, you will lose everything.” At first glance, this seems painfully dark and pessimistic. But insofar as “everything” entails the measurable phenomena of our lives (family, friends, health, wealth, etc.) it happens to be true. The “Teacher” who wrote Ecclesiastes is wrestling with this very inevitability and seeking to articulate the motivation behind living in a life so characterized by loss.

As followers of Jesus, we know that the material losses we endure, as rightfully painful as those losses can be, do not have the final say about our lives. And no, it’s not because we just close our eyes and brace ourselves for life’s pain as we await the “afterlife.” Rather, it’s because Jesus “brings gold into our losses.” We must never forget that Jesus is intimately acquainted with pain, loss, and of course death. And while we may be perplexed by God’s unwillingness to spare us of these things, we are also strengthened by the way God redeems pain to make us stronger, so that the world may also experience God’s love through us.

Consider Jesus’ disciple, Peter. In one night, eager Peter boldly claimed he would never deny his Master, and promptly did that very thing. Imagine how broken he must have felt when Jesus was crucified, and for the excruciating day that followed. Imagine also Peter’s tearful humility as he looked his risen Master in the eye on the seashore, only to be forgiven, restored, and put back to work for the sake of Jesus’ new kingdom. Here was a man, strengthened through the experience of being broken and restored.

For reflection:
– Consider your personal life. What aspect(s) of your life appear to be whole, but are actually broken?
– Kintsugi does hide cracks, but highlights and beautifies them. Are there broken parts of your life that you’re hiding, but which can be made beautiful?
– Consider your community. What people, places, or other aspects of your surrounding community are broken and in need of restoration?
– Consider the national and global communities. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your mind toward the broken people and places for which to pray.
– How could it change your view of contentment to remember that God is not only unafraid of brokenness, but willing to enter it, feel the world’s pain, and still offer healing and wholeness?
– The Hebrew word shalom roughly translates as “peace.” But its meaning is broader, more like “wholeness” or “complete contentment.” Take a few moments to describe what one day of shalom would look and feel like for you.

Six Hazards to Avoid on the Discipleship Pathway

I have recently been reminded of an important characteristic of being human — we are designed to practice and learn new skills. My main hobby and fitness regimen is Taekwondo, and for the past two weeks we have been practicing the fundamental steps of what’s known as a 540 spin hook kick. I would demonstrate it for you, but…I’m still practicing. Suffice it to say that I’m having to re-learn how to use my body in an entirely new way!

It has been a good reminder that in addition to practicing new skills, we can also grow mature in those skills (proven by my teacher doing the kick like it’s no big deal). But ironically, sometimes it is our mastery itself that can become an obstacle to growth. Sometimes, to grow we must unlearn what we thought we knew and begin again.

“Dear Younger Me:  You won’t spiritually mature just because you are a Christian.  It takes practice to learn how to walk the pathway of discipleship.  And sometimes, you must forget what you think you know and start learning all over again.”

This series is based on the idea that we can share the wisdom we’ve learned through experience. While wisdom is often associated with a kind of deep knowledge, it also includes the idea of skill. In fact, the Hebrew word translated “wisdom” can also mean “skill.” So, to be wise is to be “skilled at life.” And to build skills, we have to practice.

Paul knew this. In this letter to the Ephesians, he spends the first half reiterating the heart of the Gospel — that by God’s grace we are re-created in Christ, into new lives. Here are the Gospel basics from ch. 2:1-10

  • We were all once dead in our sins;
  • But because of his great love for us, God made us alive with Christ;
  • For it is by grace we have been saved, through faith;
  • It is the gift of God, for we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus 

And so, because by God’s grace we are given new life in Christ, we are called to a new way of living. The second half of Paul’s letter, chapters 4-6, get into those details. And that latter half begins with Paul’s eloquent description of the process of living this new life as we grow toward maturity. That process is like a pathway on which we are called to journey. It is not always smooth, of course. It has hills and valleys, caverns and caves, and there are many hazards to trip us up along the way. So here are six pathway hazards to avoid, and alternatives to do instead, as you walk with Jesus.

1. Reject excuses — Accept your gifts

There’s a difference between excuses and obstacles. Obstacles legitimately stand in the way of something. But an excuse is a false obstacle we create to let ourselves off the hook.   Instead, take an inventory of what God has given us — limited though it may seem at times — and say “with these gifts, I’ll move forward in my walk with Jesus.”

2. Leap over fear — Trust the process

Fear is based on our inability to know the future.  Like on a high ropes course, you may have seen others go before you, but still be wondering, “What if my rope is the first one to break?!”  When it comes to following Jesus, similar fears can trip us up. “What will my friends think? What if I look weird?  What if I don’t understand it? ” But instead of letting fear trip you up, trust the process and the sisters and brothers who have gone before you.

3. Beware of comfort — Find peace in discomfort

Everyone loves a comfy set of flannel PJs or new slippers.  But to learn or grow in anything, actually, requires a degree of discomfort.  Jesus actually did promise that we could have peace.  But comfort?  He actually promised we’d have the opposite.  So if we want to grow, we need to find peace in being (at least a little) uncomfortable. 

4. Sidestep blame — Take responsibility

One of the greatest recent changes in the institutional church is the realization that its primary role is to do what Paul says right here in 4:12: “to equip Christ’s people for works of service.”  When the institutional church is seen as the primary “doer” of ministry, it’s all too easy to blame the church for my own lack of spiritual growth: “The reason I’m not growing is because the Church isn’t doing something for me.”  But when we take responsibility for being functional, contributing members of the Church as Christ’s living Body, then we’ll begin experience spiritual growth.

5. Refuse passivity — Lean into the “hill” 

Passivity can actually lead to blame, because it’s characterized by having something done to me or for me — rather than an active pursuit.  If discipleship is like a pathway, then when that pathway goes up a steep hill, passivity will stop me or even make me fall backward.  It happens. We call it “backsliding.”  The alternative is to lean into the hill, and actively pursue spiritual maturity.

6. Resist riding others’ coattails — Walk your own walk.

This is a common experience in a community.  For example, it’s common in a marriage for one spouse to be spiritually maturing, while the other spouse basically tags along.  And what about kids?  As kids grow up, it’s easy for them to ride the momentum of mom’s or dad’s faith without growing into their own faith.  But as a professor of mine once said, “God has no grandchildren.”  You can’t inherit your parents’ faith.  And for that matter, God also has no in-laws; you can’t marry into the Body of Christ either.  So rather than trying to ride someone else’s coattails — vicariously applying their spiritual growth to ourselves — take one step at a time and walk your own walk with Jesus.

A couple parting thoughts:
1) Don’t try to think your way into spiritual maturity any more than you think your way into playing the piano, cooking a 4-course meal, or doing a 540 spin hook kick. You’ll only know what you need to practice when you start to practice.
2) It’s okay to try something in discipleship and realize it’s not helping you grow. It’s not a test, it’s a learning process. Let that thing go and pursue another avenue of growth with Jesus.
3) Visit UPPC.org > Pathways to see what discipleship opportunities there are for you in our local body. It’s updated every quarter. In the meantime, engage with the teachings on Sundays, online, or by listening to our weekly podcast Bible Jazz.

For reflection:
– When you think about someone being “spiritually mature” what kind of person do you envision?
– Do you have a way of measuring your own growth in spiritual maturity? Or does the goal seem too foggy to move toward?
– We teach that there are four discipleship fundamentals: Scripture Fluency, Active Prayer, Intentional Community, and Acts of Service. Do you have room to grow more mature in any of those?
– If you’re ready to get active in your own growth as Jesus’ disciple, do you know what your next steps are? Do you know where to find guidance?

In peace,
MM

Who’s Helping Whom?

If you asked 100 people the question, “What is the Church?” you might get 100 different answers, or at least dozens of variations. From the very beginning of the Church, as recorded in Luke’s history known as the Acts of the Apostles, one of the Church’s most fundamental characteristics was caring for the vulnerable (see Acts 2:42-27, 6:3-7) And rightly so, as caring for the vulnerable is expressed over 2000 times in the Bible!

In one of the Bible’s most memorable and powerful depictions of the vulnerable, Jesus Christ even identifies himself as part of that number (see Matthew 25:31-46). So there is little debate about the role of the Church as a helper to the needy. What is less easy to conclude, however, is what that help ought to look like. And the troubling reality is that sometimes when we think we are helping someone in need, we might be actually perpetuating not only their deeper poverty, but our own as well.

When we consider what it means to help someone, in particular someone suffering from poverty, we must keep our focus on the larger goal: to seek holistic healing for others and ourselves.

For many of us, helping the vulnerable begins with helping to supply material needs. And note — this is a good thing! If you haven’t clicked the scripture above, go back and take a look. Jesus refers to food, clothes, and acts of healing. And yet, his examples also move from material needs to relational needs: visiting the sick, visiting the prisoner. As we mature in our helping endeavors, we begin to understand the underlying relational pain that both contributes and results from material lack.

But there is another level of maturity we must reach in our endeavors to help. We must recognize when our help has implicitly (and usually unintentionally) made us feel superior to those whom we’re trying to help. Until we recognize that natural tendency, even our help is liable to perpetuate the relational poverty from which — take note here — not only the “poor” suffer, but from which we all suffer.

Understanding that we are all impoverished, despite what is in our bank accounts, is perhaps the most fundamental step toward holistic healing. So here are five principles to consider when we want to help others as an expression of God’s love:

To seek holistic healing for others and ourselves, we remember

  1. We need healing as much as those whom we’re trying to help.
    One of the roles of the spiritual disciplines in our lives is to help us maintain awareness that God is God, and we are not. Through our reading of scripture, our prayer life, and our time in Jesus’ community, we’re reminded that not one of us is without the need for the Great Physician. But remember, this is not a binary truth — we are both in need of healing, and able to offer healing. So to the next point:
  2. We are multi-faceted beings.
    What a disservice we do to ourselves and humanity in general when we oversimplify what we are! Even the psalmist is overwhelmed by human beings: “What are human beings that you should care for them?…and crown them with glory and honor?” (Psalm 8:4-5). The beautiful complexity that we are as human beings is part of the very gift we offer someone vulnerable when we enter their story and commit to be present with them in their struggle.
  3. We all have talents and strengths we can use to empower others to discover and use their own talents and strengths.
    This morning, we were blessed to meet a family whom we know through our Safe Haven Ministry. What struck me right away was how much they clearly have to offer. Yes, moving to the US from the Ukraine is an enormous endeavor (the word “crisis” comes to mind) and creates great need that we can help meet. But these two parents and their three lovely children have so much to offer. The mother is in college classes. The father is commuting to his job as an electrician assistant. And the kids? Well, the kids just bless us by being there, don’t they?
  4. There are no shortcuts to lasting change.
    But of course, it has been only six months since they moved here, and while they are doing well the truth is that only one minute at a time will pass by. Their role in this city and relationship with this congregation will grow and mature at the same rate as anything else would. We dare not make the mistake of believing that an apartment and job are “all it takes” for them to be content. We choose to humbly commit to the long road of relationship and holistic health and prosperity under God’s grace. Because:
  5. Jesus is the ultimate creator, sustainer, and redeemer of the world.
    Here is perhaps the most important characteristic of our “help” as the Church. We recognize that every breath, and every morning, and everything we can give to someone else is grounded in a gift that was first given to us by our Creator. And moreover, that even having been given life, our life is also saved, rescued, preserved, and redeemed by the One who lived the life all human beings were designed to life. Jesus Christ, whose life was and is the perfect expression of being made in God’s image, resonating with God’s will, and expressing that will in the form of wholeness and healing for his neighbor, and ultimately for the world.

For Reflection:

  • Take an inventory: what experiences have you had of helping vulnerable people?
  • Looking at those experiences, do you find that you’re understanding the kind of superiority that “helping” can inadvertently lead us to feel?
  • Take an inventory: what experiences have you had of BEING helped when you were vulnerable?
  • Looking at those experiences, what was it like to be vulnerable and in need of help? Did you feel like you also had something to give, even in your time of vulnerability?
  • Consider: what kinds of “poverty” might there be in your neighborhood, which may or may not be a poverty of material needs?
  • Pray: ask the Holy Spirit to guide your mind toward how and where you are equipped to enter a process of holistic healing in your neighborhood, for others and for yourself.

“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” and Other Lies I’ve Loved

This series, “Dear Younger Me…” is based on the wisdom we’ve learned through experience that we wish we could have known earlier. Half-truths definitely fall into this category, and Pastor Aaron started the series by addressing several. This week, we’ll look at two more.

  1. God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” When I Googled this phrase, not only did I not have to completely type it out because Google auto-completed it for me, but I also got 6.8 million hits. Turns out it’s so ubiquitous, there’s a whole retail industry jumping on the bandwagon of this sentiment. You can even make your point while your make your dinner!

    The primary problem with this sentiment is how it oversimplifies scripture.

    Deut. 23:12-14 is rarely preached about these days, but 140 years ago it was highly relevant as churches debated the pros and cons of installing indoor plumbing in their church buildings. Besides being sort of funny to think about, it points to the need to always interpret scripture. And to interpret scripture means to incorporate some details into our lives while laying others aside, depending on what is relevant, helpful, meaningful, etc.

    It’s so tempting to believe that we can easily see “what God said” that gives our arguments a final KO punch, but scripture simply does not function that way. Even when we believe that scripture is divinely authored, we also acknowledge that it was penned by people (inspired though they may have been) in a literary and historic milieu which clearly influenced them. When we oversimplify scripture as though it were written in a vacuum, and especially when we pay attention only to passages that support our beliefs, we take the risk of (1) becoming lazy in our engagement with scripture, (2) weaponizing it to harm others, (3) assuming that we are the final authority on what scripture means and how to apply it to all people, at all times.

    It would be more helpful if the apron, coffee mug, or bumper sticker read: “God said it, I read it, then thought about it, wrestled with it, did some research, learned several points of view, prayed about it, and now I have an idea of how it ight matter in the world today, but I’m still learning.” But it might not sell many coffee mugs…
  2. Love the sinner, hate the sin.” This one sounds so right, doesn’t it? What’s interesting is that Jesus never said it. We know that Christ came to save sinners. And we know God so loved the world… But Jesus didn’t say to “love the sinner.” He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He said “Love one another.” He even said, “Love your enemies.” Why would he not add that we should also “hate the sin?”

    Probably because Jesus knew human nature even better than we do. The moment we believe we are able to love the sinner while hating the sin, we begin to put ourselves right back on that judgment seat, noticing the speck in our neighbor’s eye while ignoring the 2×4 sticking out of our own faces. That is to say, we give ourselves permission to pass judgment on what other people do, and even more destructively, who people are.

    Now, to be sure, the Bible is clear about sin we must denounce: injustice, greed, idolatry, covetousness, etc. The point we’re making here is to not let ourselves fall into the habit of examining others’ sin while ignoring ours. So before we consider what it means to “love the sinner and hate the sin,” let’s start with this saying: “Love your neighbor no matter what — despite the fact that you are a sinner.”

For reflection:
– What are your initial thoughts about these two sayings? Do you agree or disagree that they are “half truths?” What is your reasoning?
– Why do you think it is so tempting to simplify what scripture says, or to read selectively? What challenges does scripture present that most people would rather not face?
– How do you go about showing love to a person whom you believe is making sinful choices, but in a way that does not outwardly condemn that person?
– How do you strike a balance between striving to be Godly, teaching Godliness to your community, while at the same time not passing judgment on people?

In it with you,
MM

Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart

We will all encounter someone who is suffering from grief. And if we live very long, we will also experience our own grief. The irony is that while grief is ubiquitous and ultimately universal, many of us are utterly unprepared to respond well. So, sometimes what we say (usually with good intentions but not a lot of forethought) ends up doing more harm than good. And sometimes, if our words betray the heart of God as revealed in scripture, what we say can deeply harm someone’s understanding of God. Our ultimate goal, when we seek to comfort someone in grief, is to comfort them (not ourselves) and also to do so in a way that accurately reflects the grace, empathy, and compassion of the One who loves them most of all. In short, we want our words to bring healing, not pierce like swords.

So here are SEVEN things to avoid saying to someone in grief:

  1. God needed another angel.” Sorry, this one is just out. It’s poor theology. People are human, not angels. We do not change into angels at death. Also, God does not “need” anything, per se, and if God did want another angel God would create one. Finally, God does not have needs that supersede our needs. There is nothing God needs that would necessitate removing a child from its parents, or any other painful loss. So yeah, this one is just out of the game, okay?
  2. It’s for the best.” Question #1 should be, “best for whom, exactly?” A response like this one really displays one’s discomfort with the pain itself, and an attempt to brush the pain aside.
  3. She/he is in a better place.” Surely well intentioned, this one also arises from poor theology that shares roots in the ancient Gnostic worldview that the material world is “bad” and the spiritual world is “good.” But this is not the Biblical view. Rather, God will redeem and restore creation. God created us to be here, in this place. This is the better place we should be (and will be one day in the resurrection).
  4. This is God’s will.” A good policy is to avoid saying anything about God about which you cannot be certain, at least in terms of how God is revealed in scripture. And unfortunately, God does not entirely reveal God’s will to us (Mt. 24:36; Isa. 55:8-9).
  5. With time, you’ll move on.” In reality, one will never move on from loss, especially with the loss of someone particularly close, and especially if that loss was sudden or tragic. Losing someone close to you is like losing a limb. You might adjust. You might learn new habits. But time will never help you “move on” as though the loss never happened. We might say instead, “With time, your grief will change,” or “With time, you will learn to live with this loss.”
  6. God won’t give you more than you can handle.” We visited this one a few weeks ago, too. We don’t know what God “gives” any more than we know God’s will. Moreover, if we were expected to “handle” our greatest losses and grief, we would not need the community into which God places us.
  7. I know exactly how you feel.” Again, well intentioned, but this is ultimately impossible. You can never know exactly how one feels, even if you have experienced a similar category of loss. A chaplain once taught me that true empathy is not understanding someone’s pain, but rather seeking to understand it.

With that last point, here are FOUR alternatives (or something like these in your own words) you can rely on when responding to someone in grief:

  1. I love you/You are loved.” Grief can make us wonder if anyone cares about it, and especially if the all-powerful God does. When we’re able to assure someone they are loved by us or by their community, we don’t dishonor the reality of their pain by trying to “move past” it, but at the same time we answer one of the deepest pains of grief. Similarly we can also give this reassurance…
  2. You are not alone.” Grief naturally isolates us. If the bereaved person is also an introvert or does not have a natural community (like an immediate family nearby) that isolation is exacerbated. So to reassure someone that you’re not going anywhere can be an enormous source of comfort, allowing them to grieve without guilt, shame, or worry that their grief will cost them their friends.
  3. I’m so sorry.” The truth is that if we’re trying to respond to someone’s grief at all, it’s because we have a degree of empathy and/or compassion. So we can just speak for ourselves by letting them know that we are simply so sorry they are having to endure this loss. Again, this lets them know they’re not alone while not negating their pain.
  4. Say nothing at all. The power of presence cannot be underestimated. But it requires the courage to dwell in the discomfort of someone else’s grief. I try not to overestimate the nobility of animals, but this one makes me think of good dogs. If you’ve ever had a bad day and been comforted by your dog, it’s not because of something they say. It’ s because they sit by you, and frankly because they say nothing! The ministry of presence can also take the form of action without expectation. Pastor Aaron shared an experience of being comforted by someone leaving a tray of brownies at their home when they were suffering from grief. No words, only action without expectation. And it afforded them great comfort.

For Reflection:
– This was a longer entry, but one that we should all put in our back pockets for quick reference. Which of the first seven stood out to you the most?
– Which of the last four things to say stood out to you the most?
– Do you know someone grieving a loss? What can you say or do now that you’re confident will be wise like the proverb describes, bringing healing and not piercing?

Many blessings,
MM

Dear Younger Me: I Need Your Help

Jesus tells the disciples something that is at once comforting and endearing, and at the same time fundamentally challenging: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This week, our series took a different turn as youth ministry Rob Clark realized that in his letter to his younger self, he actually needed to ask for advice. Something like, “Dear younger me: will you teach me again how to wonder? How to notice the little but beautiful details of life? How to have faith?”

Have you ever taken a walk with a 2-year-old? It doesn’t go quickly. The little one is far too busy enjoying the world God has made and placed them in to be bothered getting to an actual destination! Every rock along the pathway has a story to tell!

The prophet Elijah, in a biblically famous moment of real anxiety, needed this reminder of youthful faith. He needed to hear from God, and God knew exactly how Elijah needed to hear from him — in the quiet. Ironically, this was on Mount Horeb, the very place Moses had heard from God, but not in the silence. Rather, Moses had heard God’s voice in the mysterious burning bush. It seems that God will be present with people in the way God knows we need him to the most. It doesn’t matter how many books we read, sermons or podcasts we listen to, or conferences we attend. If we are trying to force God to talk to us in a certain way, God might not. But if we relinquish that control — if we become like little children — then scripture’s testimony is that God very much will be noticeably present to us.

In today’s restless culture, one has to wonder what we’re losing when we lose our time in the quiet with God. When we lose our time walking with no destination. When we lost our time lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling, just to…well, just to stare at the ceiling. In these moments, we remember that as little children, there was not much we really needed our parents to DO for us. But there was a deeply primal need simply to just BE with them. We’re no different now. We have a deeply primal need simply to BE with our heavenly Father.

We cannot really have a serious conversation about creating space for quiet in our lives without confronting our use of mobile technology. The ways we engage with the internet on our devices are not all “wrong” (though some are, let’s be honest.) But the way we use those devices has the potential to steal our childlike presence with God away from us. So here are a few tips to challenge yourself with this week:

  1. Go for a walk … and don’t count your steps. In fact, don’t take your phone at all (if you dare.) Don’t even take a watch. You’ll know when you’re done. And the world will continue to turn while you’re out there.
  2. Read a book printed on paper. It doesn’t update every five seconds, and it’s not as convenient as a Kindle. But you’re more likely to remember what you’ve read because of the multi-sensory experience of the feel of the cover, the smell of the pages.
  3. Create space to have your own thoughts, not just thoughts in reaction to others’. this is where social media and news have really taken their toll on us. What comes to your mind on its own?
  4. Have a “phone bucket” in your house where everyone puts their devices during important times like dinner, conversation, reading time, prayer, board games, etc.
  5. Give the members of your family (especially your significant other) complete access to your device. There is enormous freedom and trust in complete transparency. If there’s something you’re hiding, you’re not free.
  6. Give yourself permission to not respond immediately to texts and emails. And give grace to others when there’s a delay in their response.

For reflection:
– Which of these six guidelines will challenge you the most? Which the least?
– What are some of your favorite memories of childhood?
– How would you feel about spending an entire 12-hour day in total silence, including no reading or writing?
– If you could ask your younger self for advice, what advice would you ask for?

Many blessings,
MM

Embracing Conflict: 4 Things You’re Missing Without It

This morning Pastor Aaron recalled a hard conversation he had with a former church member who remarked, “If this were a biblical church, we wouldn’t be having this conflict.” Another time, Aaron was at the retirement celebration for another pastor, and one of the attendees said of the retiree (intending it as a compliment), “You were the perfect pastor–you never rocked the boat.”

The problem with these two scenarios is that conflict is a natural, and definitely biblical, part of life. And certainly life in community. Jesus didn’t avoid rocking the boat, and he even famously said “Blessed are the peacemakers.” That’s a lot different than the peace-keepers. And to be a peacemaker, we must embrace conflict.

If we could write a letter to our younger selves, we might share that conflict, while uncomfortable, is a necessary ingredient to personal and relational growth. Embracing minor, healthy moments of conflict is kind of like getting a vaccine — it actually helps us avoid letting those minor conflicts accumulate into much larger, unhealthy ones. So here are four reasons to embrace conflict.

  1. Avoiding conflict is really avoiding truth. James wrote that the quarrels among us come from the “desires that battle within us.” That internal battle leads to external battle, and in the confusion we need someone to tell us the truth! Have you ever had a huge argument only to realize…(horror!)…the other person made some good points? The greater good is to learn truth about ourselves and our relationships. Avoiding conflict is like living with our heads in the clouds.
  2. Conflict grows us. How’s this for an axiom: “People don’t grow until the pain associated with not growing is greater than the pain required to grow.” Let that settle in for a minute… This is true of physical pain (we won’t do physical therapy because it hurts, until NOT doing it hurts worse!) And it’s true of emotional and spiritual pain, too. If we want our relationships to grow and mature and become closer, we must embrace conflict. Otherwise, we’re liable to end up in pseudo-community with superficial friends.
  3. Conflict reveals what we truly value. Our values are like unrefined gemstones — raw, but with great potential. Conflict is like the process of digging, cutting, and grinding those stones to reveal the full potential of their radiance. So when you’re in the midst of a conflict, ask yourself: “What is this showing us? What values am I learning about the other person, and about myself?”
  4. Conflict, handled with maturity & care, creates trust. Sure, there are manifold ways to mishandle conflict immaturely and carelessly. Conflict handled in that way can hurt trust. But the opposite can result if we handle conflict well. Two key ways to do that are:
    – To speak well of the other person when they’re not around. Do you say things about that person you aren’t willing to tell them directly? If you have to vent about someone, consider venting to God in prayer or on a piece of paper you can promptly tear up and recycle.
    – To speak directly to people rather than about them. Sometimes a conflict begins before that initial conversation — it begins in your heart and mind. Handing the conflict well means talking directly to the other person, rather than creating triangles with other people about it.

For reflection:
– Is there a conflict in your life/relationships right now? How can you grow from it?
– What values are being revealed in the midst of your conflict?
– What can you do to create trust while you’re engaged in this conflict?
– Are you willing to believe that conflict is, in fact, necessary and good for strengthening your relationships?

Blessings,
MM

Breaking Sabbath: The Sin that Keeps on Taking

Look, according to scripture, everyone sins. Paul said “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That means that there are ways of being and doing that go against God’s will, which is for us to have an abundant, fruitful life. We get it. And if you grew up going to church, you really get it. And for the most part, people are in agreement about obeying the commandments. I mean, we know it’s bad to steal, kill, and cheat on spouses, right?

But there is perhaps one commandment that is the most shamelessly ignored above all the others: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy…” Sabbath is more than just “not working.” To keep Sabbath is to reorient our entire selves around a God-given rhythm that balances being and doing. It is, in essence, living according to how we are made.

We all struggle in one way or another with self-worth. And the world sends us a clear (but deceptive) message that our self-worth is tied up in our productivity. But we know better, in our heart of hearts. The psalmist put it this way: “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” He makes me. Why? Because he loves me. And he knows I need to be recreated after a week of toil.

So as we explore the wisdom we with we could tell our younger selves, consider this: “Dear Younger Me: don’t fall victim to the sin of busy-ness that keeps on taking. Instead let God bless you with Sabbath rest.”

Here are three things to doggedly exclude and replace if you want to experience God’s joy on Sabbath:
1) Exclude: Work. Oh boy, this concept has created centuries of debate. But let’s put it this way: “work” echoes God’s description of Adam’s experience of “toil.” So let’s define work as “toilsome deeds which wear us down.” Activities we do on Sabbath, then, are the opposite. Avoiding work doesn’t mean sitting still and doing nothing. It does mean avoiding activities that weary us.
Replace with: Physically Restful Activities. Be honest with yourself about activities that restore you, and limit your Sabbath activities to those things. It might be knitting, hiking, listening to music, or napping. (But it’s probably not watching TV, by the way.) Don’t know what restores your body? Ask around, do some reading, try things. Not anything can be holistically refreshing, but many things can be.

2) Exclude: Buying & Selling. This one will feel like paddling against a tidal wave. The whole world of goods and services are at our fingertips every day, and usually 24 hours a day. It seems crazy to avoid getting gas or groceries, or meeting that friend out for coffee, just because it’s Sabbath. But we are more than consumers. We are spiritual beings who ultimately subsist on every word that comes from the mouth of God. That means we can wait to place that Amazon order until tomorrow.
Replace with: Spiritual Replenishment. Have you ever asked yourself the question: “What gives me the most joy?” It’s not the same question as “What do I do for fun?” Activities that bring us joy replenish and refuel our spirits. And much of the time, they’re free! Spending time with loved ones, reading, walking, and so forth.

3) Exclude: Worry. We might think we’re not working when we glance at that work email. But mental and emotional work can be just as taxing (and sneak up on us!) Depending on what you do for a living or lifestyle, consider how susceptible you are to having worry sneak up on you; and consider your ability to say “no” for a day a week to that worry.
Replace with: Soul Restoration. It can be challenging to think of “activities” that would qualify as “soul restoring,” and we’ve probably already listed a few ideas. But this morning Pastor Aaron put it best when he said, “Dream with God! Make time to celebrate!” I love the image of the child and baby in the cover art because it’s a reminder of how freely we are made to imagine, dream, and feel the free joy of simply being alive.

Here’s the good news this week, folks: You are a creature. You are not the Creator. You aren’t made to go without sleep, to solve the world’s problems, or to constantly produce. God offers — no, commands — the gift of rest because God loves us and wants us to experience life in all its abundance.

For reflection:
1) What is the biggest obstacle you face that makes it hard to keep the Sabbath?
2) Have you ever had a negative experience of keeping Sabbath? What made it negative?
3) Have you ever had a positive experience of keeping Sabbath? What made it positive?
4) Do you believe the world would survive (and thrive) if, in theory, everyone on earth had 24 hours a week of whole-self rest?

Blessings,
MM