The Sacrifice of Giving

You are the treasure.

When we think about “treasure” it’s natural to wonder what that treasure is.  Talents?  Money?  Resources?  An actual trunk of gold coins?  Those may be tools that enable our work in various ways.  But they aren’t the treasure.

You are the treasure.

In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus describes the way God begins his work with things that appear to be small but can grow large enough for everyone to call home.

Over the past few years, University Place Presbyterian Church (UPPC) has demonstrated three qualities that are a testimony to the ways God is working in our midst.

  • UPPC is a family.

In 1927, Jesus’ people wanted to teach the gospel to families on the west side of Tacoma.  The startup met at the Narrows Tomato warehouse and affectionately referred to themselves as “The Wayside Chapel.”  One record states that attendance was around 22 people.  Mostly children!

What a reminder that the congregation we gather with weekly isn’t something we deserve.  This community is a gift from God, planted around 90 years ago, which has grown into a large and beautiful tree!

  • UPPC is a place where people find hope in Jesus.

The image of the “wayside” is so important to remember, because it refers to life in dynamic motion, rather than a people who give intellectual assent to a set of doctrines.  Before anyone understood what to believe about Jesus, people were drawn to Jesus himself, that is, they stopped along the wayside.  To eat and drink.  To converse.  To ask questions.  To seek healing and care.  To laugh and live life.

This organic way of living our faith is why we “embrace messiness.”  We like to say, we either are a mess, we were a mess, or we’re one dumb choice away from becoming a mess.  So welcome to the journey!

  • UPPC is a people who give sacrificially.

Here’s the thing — it’s not about money.  As U2’s Bono once famously said, “The God I believe in isn’t short of cash.”  Giving sacrificially is about wanted to live a real testimony of God’s provision.  In fact, it is the only thing about which God invites us to test him — God’s generosity.

Part of sacrificial giving is doggedly maintaining an open and inviting attitude.  It’s all too easy to become comfortable in our community, but the sacrifice of throwing wide the doors means that there’s one more person or family who can experience the love of God as the mustard seed continues to spread its branches across the world.

For reflection:

  1. If you can think of a time someone gave sacrificially for your sake, find a way to share that story with someone.
  2. Have you ever had the chance to give sacrificially, either of money, or time, or talents, or with an attitude of openness to others?
  3. Imagine your community 40 years from now; what part might you be playing now in building a community for that time?

Many blessings,

MM

 

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The Treasure in Giving

Matthew 6:19-24

Matthew 13:44

Have you ever been on a treasure hunt?  It’s a popular theme for stories, right?  Maybe Treasure Island was the most famous for a long time, but currently, Pirates of the Carribean is probably the best-known.  (Are there treasure hunt stories that don’t involve pirates, actually?)

Jesus told a very brief parable about treasure.  Just one verse.  In it, the character is willing to do whatever it takes to acquire a great treasure, i.e., to make short-term sacrifices for long-term joy.

As we move into a season of giving, Pastor Aaron reminded us this morning of the great legacy UPPC has of sharing what God has given us out of a sense of joyful anticipation, and not from compulsion or guilt.  The Bible draws a clear parallel between our spiritual lives and how we manage our wealth, which Randy Alcorn calls the Treasure Principle.

On Nov. 11, we looked at the principle that “You can’t take it with you, but you can pass it on ahead.”  It’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t teach us to renounce wealth, but to relocate it.  To avoid investing our time and treasure into that which fades and rusts, and rather to make choices with eternity in mind.

For reflection:

  1. When you make financial choices, what are your top priorities?
  2. If you could fast-forward to the end of your earthly life, what would you most want to be able to say about your legacy?
  3. If Jesus calls us to “relocate” the focus of our time, talent, and treasure, pray and ask God where you could relocate yours.  Consider keeping a journal of any ideas that come to mind.

Blessings,

MM

 

Requiem for the Living

In one of his most well-known invitations, Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NIV).

Today at UPPC, we experienced Dan Forrest’s Requiem for the Living.  The ironic title suggests that the deepest longing in the human heart for rest — assurance, peace, safety, and love — is not something reserved only for those whose earthly lives have ended, as a requiem traditionally would be.  Rather, the piece acknowledges the onerous burden life can become and invites all listeners to accept Christ’s invitation to rest.  Dr. Forrest remarks of the piece: “Let the music speak for itself, and hopefully it will compel all to simply listen for and hear the still, small voice of God.”

In the deepest recesses of our hearts lay the desire to hear this voice.  Like a homesick child after the lights have gone out, there is a wave of dread that washes over us when we realize that neither mom nor dad are in the room next door.  A similar dread emerges when the broken world in which we live casts the future into doubt, and the lights seem to go out on hope.  But this is when it is all the more important to remember the vision that John received while in his own quiet place, in exile on a remote island.  The vision began not with an explanation of the past, nor a foretelling of the future.  Rather, God’s revelation to John began with an image of the present — the eternal present — on which all other divine revelation must rely:

“Immediately I was in the Spirit. And look!
A throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne”
(Revelation 4:2).

In that place of eternal light, we see the One who understands our weariness and invites us into life with himself, and we are invited to join in with the rapturous response of the living beings surrounding the throne:

“Holy, holy, holy,
Lord God Almighty,
Who was and is and is to come!”
(Revelation 4:8)

For reflection:

  1. An invitation is one half of a conversation, the other being response.  How might you respond to Christ’s invitation to come to him and experience rest?
  2. Experiencing rest is not always easy.  What external obstacles keep you from rest?
  3. What internal obstacles keep you from rest?
  4. If you have experienced divine rest in Jesus, perhaps someone you know needs to know that it is possible.  With whom could you share your experience?

Prayerfully,

MM

 

From Pseudo to Authentic Friendship

We tend to throw certain words around pretty loosely.  Words like “awesome,” “super,” and “totally.”  We totally use language to communicate our super awesome ideas.

Another such word is “community.”  Like many concepts, there is nuance and variety to this word, including a spectrum of types of community that can range from “pseudo-community” to “authentic community.”  In our heart of hearts, we long for the latter.

When Jesus put together his closest followers, we see the beginning of a community characterized by unprecedented, powerful experiences of God that bonded the twelve of them as friends. They also argued and competed with each other.  But they also learned to be reconciled and trust each other.  Just as Jesus called that community together, and as scripture describes authentic friendship, God is calling us to authentic communities of friends today.

But we know that many friendships are pseudo-friendships, relying on superficial agreement rather than authentic connection.  Pastor Aaron introduced us this week to a concept from the late great Scott Peck, who claimed that in order to move from pseudo-friendships to authentic ones, we have to be willing to enter and endure what he called the “Tunnel of Chaos.”  Sounds fun, right?

This is the process of “getting real” with one’s friends, facing conflict, asking hard questions, and being vulnerable.  Many people enter the tunnel but just as quickly claw their way back to the safety of pseudo-friendships.  But those who can initiate or accept an invitation into the tunnel are willing to take the necessary steps toward authentic friendship — a sister or brother whom one can trust and rely on in a way that only authentic friendship makes possible.  A fulfillment of our deep longing for true community.

For reflection:

  1. Is there someone in your life with whom you’d like to initiate more authentic connection?  What simple act could you take to invite that person into the tunnel with you?
  2. Have you ever been invited into more authentic friendship?  Did you accept, and what was your experience?  Did you decline, and what has that been like for you?
  3. God is always ready to empower us — Consider praying this week specifically for God to guide you and empower you to risk entering into a more authentic friendship.

In Grace,

MM

Seeking to Understand

(Today’s post is by UPPC minister of youth, Rob Clark!)

This Sunday we addressed the topic of “seeking to understand” in our befriend series at UPPC.  Our primary scripture came from Job 2:11-13, because it’s a picture of friendship that many of us desire.

We began by giving a brief theology of the church: the church is described in Scripture as a family with God as Father, and us as adopted siblings.  We used Ephesians 1:4-5 as a baseline: Ephesians 1:4-5 says, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.  In love, he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”  This gave us the framework for the message.

As siblings, we are called to seek to understand one another—even those who are on the outside of our sphere of friendship.  We looked at the story of the bleeding woman from Mark 5:21-43 and noticed two things: 1. Jesus was in a hurry to heal Jairus’ daughter, but still took the time to stop and listen to the story of the bleeding woman.  2. Jesus gave her a new title—from unclean to “daughter”.  The title is significant because he identifies her as a fellow sibling whose story has value.

But the key is to notice how Jesus interacted with this woman’s story. He listened to her.  He didn’t constantly interrupt her story with his own experience and advice—although he was obviously qualified to give it.  He didn’t throw a bible verse at her in hopes that would alleviate her pain.  He listened.  Which is one of the main keys in seeking to understand. Listening is the first key to understanding.  The second is to ask good questions.  We identified three good questions to ask those that we desire deep friendships with:

  1. To take a note from Jesus, the question, “What do you want me to do for you?”
    1. In other words, dig into how you can be more supportive. What areas in our friends life where we can be a better friend?
  2. How are you doing, really? –look for specific things in the persons life to ask about.
  3. From Gotman—who you heard a lot about during the marriage series. He often encourages us to ask open-ended questions starting with, “how have you…”
    1. How have you changed in the last year?
    2. How have you changed since you’ve had a kid?
    3. How have you been supportive lately to your spouse?
    4. How have you been coping with your loss?

 

However, when it really comes down to it, asking good questions only works to deepen the relationships once we are in a place with our people that allows for us to ask these kinds of questions.  The reality is that good questions are just words.  If we want to have depth and intimacy in our relationships, we have to convince someone that we can hold their pain.  That we won’t just give an easy answer or throw a bible verse at them.

You can’t expect people to undress in front you unless you undress in front of them.  Once we are vulnerable with someone, it creates space for them to be vulnerable with us.  It comes down to having a hospitality of the heart—which essentially means we have a space where we create it to be welcoming and inviting for someone to share.  And this hospitality comes from doing our own work– to be on our face before the Lord recognizing our own brokenness and willing to be groomed by him.

If we want the kinds of friendships demonstrated in Job, we must first seek to understand ourselves, and then seek to understand the other by earning the right to ask good questions, by cultivating a safe place–being vulnerable with the ones that we want to be to be vulnerable with us.  But, to do that, it requires us to be able to connect with our own brokenness.  I love Henri Nouwen says when talking about hospitality in his book, Wounded Healer, “What does hospitality as a healing power require?  It requires first of all that hosts feel at home in their own house, and second that they create a free and fearless place for the unexpected visitor.”[1]

 

It starts with feeling at home in our own house.  Being connected to the brokenness within us.  And out of that, we can then connect with the brokenness of the other by creating a free and fearless place for them to enter in to.

 

Ultimately, this is what we need to do:

  1. Create a hospitality of the heart—a place that is safe for pain and brokenness to be held.
  2. Show that we are willing to go there ourselves.
  3. In that place, ask good questions. And as those questions are being answered, remember how Jesus interacted with the bleeding woman.  With posture of being quick to listen and slow to speak.

 

[1] P. 95-97

Overcoming Fear & Prejudice

“God, I thank you that I am not like sinners.”

This paraphrase of the words of “prayer” from the Pharisee character in Jesus’ parable, found in Luke 18:9-14, can be called a lot of things.  Pompous.  Arrogant.  Proud.

Prejudiced.

This word, which denotes passing premature judgment on someone, is a buzz word in our culture.  In the case of this Pharisee, his prejudice is obviously about other people—he doesn’t know those sinners, right?  But he is also acting as his own judge, ironically letting God know, “Hey, you can take the day off!  It turns out I’m innocent!”   For him, apparently it’s easier to put on the armor of prejudice than it is to face the reality of his own brokenness.

Turns out we can be prejudiced about others, and even ourselves, just like this Pharisee character.  But judgment about others and ourselves is reserved for only Jesus Christ: “The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22).  Paul offers an ingenious explanation of this in his letter to the Corinthians:

“I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” (from 1 Cor. 4:1-5)

The good news is that this means we are free to befriend the whole world.  Think of it — when we meet people who are different than ourselves, even if those differences contradict our values and beliefs, we can still be free of passing judgment on them.  Moreover, we can be free of any judgment others may pass on us.  Finally, we can even be free of judging ourselves, which we ultimately lack the wisdom and objectivity to do, just as we lack those qualifications for judging others.

Of course we are still told to be wise and discerning: “Judge correctly” (John 7:24).  But it is possible to exercise unprejudiced discernment, which takes everything into account without presuming to pass final judgment on anyone.  And it opens the door to worldwide friendships.

For reflection:

  1. Have you ever been constrained by prejudice?  Either prejudice you hold about others, or vice versa?
  2. Have you ever had a prejudice about people that you later were able to overcome?
  3. In what ways does fear lead to prejudice?
  4. Character takes practice — what can you, or someone you know, do to practice living without fear or prejudice?

Many blessings,

MM

 

Pitfalls and Antidotes

“A friend loves at all times,
    and a brother is born for a time of adversity.”  (Proverbs 17:17)

This morning Pastor Aaron shared an article from the Boston Globe on a new threat to middle-aged men: loneliness.  And if people who are middle-aged struggle with loneliness, it appears the challenge increases the older we get.  According to one study, about 1/3 of all adults in the US over 60 are living alone.  Over 80?  There’s a 50/50 chance you’re living alone.

It’s tragic that in seasons that bring some of life’s greatest adversity, so many people are going it alone.  There are several pitfalls to real friendship.  But the good news is that there are also answers.

  • Pitfall: Fair-weather friendship.  If, as the proverb says, a brother or sister is born for adversity, then why do so many feel alone at those very times?
    • Antidote: Exchange convenience for commitment.  We all need to have friends who do this, but we all have the ability to be those friends, too.
  • Pitfall: Busyness.  “Haste leads to poverty,” says Proverbs 21:5.  Overscheduling is a huge cause for nominal friendships because it friendship requires the time to walk life’s journey together.
    • Antidote: Set it and forget it.  Hey, if we’re going to live highly scheduled lives, why not schedule time for friends, too?  Don’t wait for that time to just appear — make it a priority.  Set it in the calendar, and when the time comes, enjoy it!
  • Pitfall: Lack of initiation.  When you were a kid, did you ever try to play on the teeter-totter with someone who didn’t do their part?  You just ended up sitting there…not teetering or tottering.  One-sided friendships can be like that.
    • Antidote: Recognize and respond to ‘bids.’  Bids are the little ways people indirectly ask for attention and validation.  Kids say “Mom, watch!”  Friends might say, “Dude, check this out.”  Giving our attention is a great way to take friendship initiative.
  • Pitfall: Conflict avoidance.  Proverbs 27:6, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted.”  No one like conflict, but they happen.  And a friendship that can’t address them is likely to stay superficial.
    • Antidote: Ask for feedback and insight.  Even when we’re not in a time of conflict, we can open the door to constructive input from our friends.  If they are in fact the ones who know us best, their insights should be valuable to us, even if it hurts a little bit to hear it.

For reflection:

  1. Which of the four pitfalls are familiar to you?
  2. Do any of the antidotes seem challenging?
  3. What do you think are some causes and solutions to the problem of loneliness?

Many blessings,

MM

Befriend the God Who Befriends You

There are lots of ways to create friendships.  But there are lots that don’t work very well, too.  Last week we looked at digital, transactional, and one-dimensional friendships that tend to fall short of the kind of real experience of knowing and being known.

But really, all friendships will fall short unless they are built on the only foundation that lasts.

When we read scripture, we enter into a dynamic interplay between our pursuit of God, and God’s pursuit of us.  But really, God’s pursuit of us is where everything begins:

  • “Where are you?” (God to the man and women in Genesis 3:9)
  • “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me” (Psalm 139:1)

When we realize that God is reaching out to befriend us long before we’re able to reciprocate, it changes not only how we relate to God, but how we build even our own identities.  “Our true identity is found not in what we do for Christ, [but] in our belonging to Jesus as a beloved daughter or son” (Pastor Aaron, Sunday 9/23).

The danger in not realizing this profound truth is that if we don’t receive the friendship that God freely offers, we will try to find it in others.  Other who, frankly, can’t give us what we truly need.  How many dysfunctional friendships exist because of the impossible demand of a love that only God can give?

If God loves us and pursues us, how can we receive it?  A primary way is to meditate on those scriptures that remind us.

  • We are the “apple of His eye” (Psalm 17:8)
  • We are “Abba’s children” (Romans 8:14-16)
  • We are a “crown of His splendor” (1 Peter 2:4, 5)
  • We are the “temple of God” (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19-20)
  • We are His “friends” (John 14:21; 15:15)

For reflection:

  1. Can you carve out 10-15 minutes of time in each day this week to dwell in the fact that God loves you?
  2. How do you think coming to an experience of God’s befriending love for you could improve your current relationships?  Be as specific as you can in your reflection.

 

Many blessings,

MM

The Quest for Real Friendship

The most popular college course at Yale (and maybe the whole country) at the moment is Laurie Santos’ aptly nicknamed “Happiness Class.”  Considering happiness leads us to the natural question: What’s one thing that would make you happier?

The possible answers are innumerable, of course, but surely there are trends.  Many people would look to circumstances like increased money or health to increase their happiness, but statistics show that our external circumstances account for only about 10% of our happiness!  Besides our natural inclinations (genetics) for happiness, the largest contributing factor is — the quality of our relationships!

The Bible has been bearing witness to this truth for millenia.  Man and woman were created for relationship (Gen. 2:18.)  And when sin enters the picture in the garden, it is  expressed as a damaged relationship (blame): She gave me the fruit! (Gen. 3:12).

In Romans 7:7-12, Paul gets vulnerable about another phenomenon that divides real friendships — covetousness.  Each of us struggles with it at some level, if we’re honest.

So sometimes we make due with lesser types of friendships: digital friendships, transactional friendships, and one-dimensional (superficial) friendships.  Consider the irony that across the globe we are more “connected” than ever, and yet more lonely than ever, too.  There has perhaps never been a greater need for us to seek out real friendships.

For reflection:

  1. When we were five years old, we could just walk up to someone and say, “Do you want to be friends?”  How would it change our interactions with people if we could see them as their 5-year-old selves?
  2. Who is God calling me to befriend this week?  With whom am I being led into a more real friendship?
  3. Consider: what is it like for others to have you as a friend?

 

Many blessings,

MM

 

 

Vision Refill

There’s a saying: “Vision leaks.”

Our ability to stay focused on long-term goals relies on our vision of those goals, and every one in a while, our vision has leaked to the point that we need a refill.

As disciples of Jesus, our ultimate goal is clear, of course: to be faithful to God’s will for the world.  That faithfulness includes being good stewards of the calling God has given us as a church in our community.  So to stay focused on our vision, today we looked at six value statements for University Place Presbyterian Church.

  1. We are a church on mission.  We don’t just gather to sing songs and wait for heaven.  We’re committed to being the love of Jesus to our 5-mile and radius and beyond.
  2. We get messy, as we do our best to be agents of change for what is broken in our city.  For example, we’re still so pleased that one of the strongest ministries is our partner, Families Unlimited Network, and their ministry among other things to 3,000 food insecure people in our community.
  3. We stand with refugees.  Jesus was clear about welcoming the stranger and doing everything we can to provide for those in need and stand up against oppressive systems.
  4. We are intent on building a culture of discipleship.  95% devotion to God is 5% short.  Following Jesus means intentionally engaging in ways we can grow and mature in Christ’s likeness.
  5. We are looking ahead toward future pastoral leadership.  We’ve been listening to the congregation as we prayerfully discern the needs that a more comprehensive pastoral team could serve.
  6. We are stewarding generously, wisely, and sacrificially.  A person can never get very close to Jesus if they aren’t willing to let Jesus near their wallet.  In fact, generosity is integral to spiritual formation.  We believe God rewards and resupplies those who are faithful with what God has given.

For reflection:

  • Which of these value statements resonates well with you, and why?
  • Which of these value statements challenges you, and why?
  • God calls us in ways that can make us uncomfortable, but also purposeful.  In what ways might God be calling you to new purpose in the upcoming year?

Many blessings,

MM