Getting Up to Speed

Having wrapped up our Advent/Christmas series, “Down to Earth,” this week we kicked off the new year with a new series: “Godspeed.” Our hope for this series is that you would have rekindled hope that it is within reach to live the abundant life Jesus wants you to live: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)

The idea of Godspeed was planted, like a seed in my mind and heart, when I ran across the documentary film, “Godspeed,” which is about learning to live at a pace of fully knowing and being known.

One of my favorite stories in the Bible illustrates this kind of lifestyle. Luke 2:41-52 tells of the time 12-year-old Jesus wandered off from his group traveling home to Nazareth after the Passover festival. Three days of anxious searching later, and Mary and Joseph find Jesus in absolutely no hurry at all, sitting in the temple courts having theological conversation! While they are experiencing the utmost hurry (understandably enough) Jesus seizes the opportunity to ask a powerful rhetorical question: “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?

Of course, this is Jesus’ first proclamation of his divine Sonship. But the story came to mind in this week’s context because of the stark contrast between two ways of living — one dictated by the world’s pace, traditions, and expectations. And the other — Jesus’ pace — dictated by God the Father. Jesus’ “Godspeed” lifestyle would continue, of course, and continue to perplex people for many years to come.

As we enter this series, one of the most important aspects to remember is this — Godspeed is not just about “slowing down,” but more specifically about “being present.” There would be times when Jesus was in solitary prayer, and there would be other times when Jesus was being mobbed by crowds in the city center. In any instance, Jesus remained fully present to the Father and made his choices in perfect alignment with the Father. Busy or bored, all of life can be lived with the habit of being present.

For reflection:
– Do you feel hurried in your daily life? What makes you feel hurried?
– Have you ever had an experience of “Godspeed,” that is, being fully present to God and to the moment in which you were living? Describe it to someone.
Psalm 46:10(a) reads “Be still, and know that I am God.” Does this mean to stop everything you’re doing? If not, what does it mean?

May we all learn to live the abundant life Jesus came to give us.
MM

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Perplexity, Inquiry, Clarity

I was pretty baffled as a kid about twelve days the famous Christmas song referred to. There were 24 days on the Advent calendar, 8 days in Hanukkah, 4 Sundays of Advent in church…which 12 days was it?

The Twelve Days of Christmas refers to the twelve days starting with Christmas and ending the night before Epiphany on January 6, which commemorates the visit of the wise men, or Magi, to the baby Jesus. Along with the rich theological meaning of their visit, this year I got to wondering about their personalities — what kind of people sacrifice so much out of curiosity?

The Magi must have been perplexed by what they saw in the stars, and their willingness to inquire resulted in their clarity — a moment of epiphany that inspired them to rejoice with exceeding greatness (“overjoyed” in the NIV.) Jesus’ life would continue to puzzle people, including his closest followers. As the Magi did at the beginning of Jesus’ life, so Jesus’ disciples would do toward the end of his earthly life. John 16:16-24 records part of a longer dialogue where we can see the disciples moving from perplexity, through inquiry, and eventually to clarity.

When we are perplexed, or even when our worldview feels threatened, there are some unhealthy ways to react. We can react with fear, by fighting new ideas or running away from them. We can react with cynicism, deciding that it’s not worth it to seek knowledge and understanding. But as author Carey Nieuwhof puts it: “An incredibly effective antidote to cynicism is curiosity” (Didn’t See It Coming, 2018, p. 26). That leads to inquiry.

When we inquire about Jesus, God, or other aspects of life and faith, we should remember that asking is part of faith, not antithetical to it. The disciples had no idea what was going on for most of their experience with Jesus recorded in the gospels. And yet they were people of great faith. And if you are someone who gets asked a lot of questions, do what Jesus did: engage. Graciously offer Biblical answers if you have them. Humbly admit when answers elude you. And then reengage the process of inquiry again, even with others who are asking good questions.

Finally, clarity is promised by Jesus, but on the one condition that we make our inquiries and requests “in Jesus’ name.” What does that mean? It means aligning our desires with God’s will, just as Jesus’ will was perfectly aligned with the Father’s. It means, to the best of our ability, asking for what Jesus asks for. Seeking what Jesus seeks. Relinquishing our own agendas for the world and anticipating God to give us the clarity we need, when we need it.

For reflection:
– What is something the Christian faith proclaims that you find perplexing? (If you can’t think of anything, what do you think other people might find perplexing?)
– What sorts of things might you ask God for that you believe align with God’s will?
– Have you ever had an “epiphany” about Jesus, God, or yourself? Find someone to tell that story to!

Many blessings in this new year!
MM

The Manger Is the Message

In Philippians 2:6-7, we read about the second person of the divine Trinity, the Son of God, “making himself nothing.” What does Paul mean? The theological term for this is kenosis which essentially means “emptying.” But it doesn’t mean Jesus was no longer divine, but rather that Jesus refused to take advantage of his divinity as he lived out his human life. He fully entered the brokenness of humanity — the brokenness we do and don’t create ourselves.

Jesus was born into an ethnic minority that had experienced the ravages of persecution and genocide throughout the generations. Jesus reveals a God who identifies with refugees, the poor, and the underprivileged. If you’ve ever had a personal experience of a truly impoverished person, you’re not likely to forget it. Pastor Aaron shared a story of meeting a boy named Pedro in Mexico who had only two things to his name: one square of toilet paper a day, and a tattered toy bear. That was it. Something runs deep within each of us that screams “This just isn’t right.” Not because the goal of life is to have more stuff. But because of the injustice of a child living without the essentials of a healthy life. And Jesus himself claimed to be Pedro’s servant by taking Pedro’s form.

In Luke 4:17-21, Jesus himself recalled the words of Isaiah, who described the purpose of the Messiah. And as followers of the Messiah, we the Church have not only a lot of work to do, but a clear manner in which to do it: with humility. Thomas Merton wrote: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire about whether or not they are worthy.”

As we move into 2019, consider the impact of not only bringing the good message of Jesus to the broken world, but embodying that message in the same way Jesus did: with humility.

For Reflection:
– What would it look like for you to take a step toward serving your community with more humility that you did last year?
– What might be holding you back from serving more humbly? Money? Time? Fear? Consider bringing those obstacles honestly to God in prayer.
– If you live in the UPPC community, consider new upcoming opportunities to serve.  Visit UPPC.org > Serve

Rewriting the Tape

We are caught between two stories. One tells us what we are supposed to be. The other tells us what we are. One tells us what is possible if we try. The other tells us what is possible in spite of our failures. One tells us what Christmas can be. The other tells us what Christmas is. Which story will you be a part of?

Theologian Karl Barth was once asked by a student to articulate the most important of all Christian doctrines. He answered in six words: “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Despite so many things we think we might need, especially during the holidays, the most pressing need of the human experience is to understand the meaning of these six words. Why?

Each of us has a sort of “tape recorder” that plays in our minds (okay younger readers, a DVR). It repeats basic messages, usually about who we are. And they’re usually discouraging. It says things like “You’re not good enough.” “You’re too (insert any physical feature here like thin, fat, hairy, etc.)” “You’re just average.” “You’ll never find someone who loves you.” And so on.

The gospel (“good news”) of Jesus also repeats a message about who we are. It’s a simple, down-to-earth message. Its simplicity might actually be why so many people miss it. But it has been on repeat since the first Christmas, but each new generation has to discover its meaning. The message is: In Jesus, you are a child of God.

Understanding our identity as children of God has nothing to do with our efforts or achievements. It has nothing to do with anything that might bolster our self-esteem. Jesus did not come to give us better self-esteem; Jesus came to share with us “God-esteem.” In Pastor Aaron’s words: “Jesus came to empower us with all the rights, blessings, and responsibilities of what it means to be God’s children and to transform us from fear-based life to a confident, love-filled life. This is our new identity.” Never forget the sequence of events. First, God so loved the world. Then God gave his Son.

Rather than reflection questions today, I’d like to offer the four one-line prayers we prayed today, and invite you to pray these prayers throughout the Christmas season:
– Lord, rewind the tape in my mind and rewrite the message I hear.
– Lord, renew my mind that I may believe in your esteem for me.
– Lord, soften my heart that I may feel your embrace and acceptance.
– Lord, ready my hands that they may respond with love to others.

Merry Christmas,
MM

A Baby Changes Everything

Emmanuel — God with us.

In Jesus Christ, God chose to dwell with us in the most ordinary way. What does this mean? At the very least, it means you do not have to earn God’s attention. God is seeking and pursuing you.

God’s pursuit of humanity came in the form of a baby, and as the song says, “A Baby Changes Everything.” Anyone who has ever had a baby knows that is true in so many ways. But in the case of this baby, the Christ-child, everything that matters most to us and to the world is changed.

Or…it isn’t. But it can’t be both. The fact is that we get to make our own decision about whether or not Jesus changed everything. If God did not choose to become flesh, if the baby Jesus doesn’t change everything, then the world and the universe in which it resides is a cold and empty place. The task defining life’s meaning falls to us. The burden of judging and forgiving sin falls to us. The burden of saving the world falls to us. Are we up to the task?

But if God does dwell with us, first in the Christ-child, then by the Holy Spirit, the everything that matters most is changed. It’s changed forever. It’s changed for good, and for the good, and for everyone.

For reflection:
1) Did the baby Jesus change “everything?” What part of “everything” do you see that Jesus changed, and what part of “everything” do you feel has remained the same as always?
2) Does it change how you might relate to God to realize that God is first pursuing you, rather than the other way around?

A blessed Christmas,
MM

Down to Earth: Flesh Comes Down

I’ve noticed a disconnect in our midst.  Pretty much everything I’ve read and everyone I’ve talked to bemoans the divisiveness in our culture these days.  No one seems to be celebrating it.  But on the other hand, most people seem to also agree that the divisions are increasing, not decreasing.  So, why the disconnect? 

One possible reason is because of all of the talking.  Beyond interpersonal dialogue, the internet has become a free-for-all of anyone’s ideas about anything.  So much talk that can lead us to create our identities around ideas, rather than actual issues.  And these “identity-based ideologies” are “by the far the more potent predictor of social distance.”*

In his brief letter to the Philippians, Paul is writing  to a church struggling with divisiveness, and he offers one of the most theologically and poetically rich passages about Jesus in all of scripture, and maybe in all Christian literature.  In only 3 verses, Paul describes the lengths to which God went to surpass mere talk of love and instead show his love to us in the flesh.

In Jesus, God is present in the flesh. 
Jesus’ birth in the manger is much more than just the arrival of a great prophet or teacher.  And Paul describes God’s presence in Jesus in two distinct ways.

1) In Jesus, God is present in the flesh as God.  
Jesus “very nature” is God, and he shares “equality” with God.  Paul begins this way because if we miss Jesus’ divinity, we miss the miracle of Jesus’ birth in the flesh.  It is precisely because Jesus’ very nature is divine that his birth fulfills the promise of Isaiah, that God would dwell with us.  Jesus’ birth as God among us fulfills the deepest human longing to be near the Creator.

2) In Jesus, God is present in the flesh as human.
God’s choice to be human does not empty him of his divinity.  The phrase in the NIV “made himself nothing” can be misleading.  The Greek verb kenoō denotes an emptying but is used figuratively to connote a neutralization of effect, or an emptying of significance.  So Jesus did not relinquish his equality with God, but rather chose to lay his divine power aside in his life in the flesh.  N.T. Wright puts it this way: “The decision to become human, and to go all the way along the road of obedience — this decision was not a decision to stop being divine. It was a decision about what it really meant to be divine,” which is to offer self-sacrificial love.**

Jesus’ human life reveals what it means to be divine, and also what it means to be human.  It is to be God’s image-bearers, capable of loving our communities as God loves — in the flesh.  

Faith in Action: 
1) What is one practical step you could take this Christmas season to embody God’s loving kindness in person?  Who needs to hear in your voice or see in your face God’s down-to-earth love?
2) Maybe even more challenging — from whom are you longing to experience that in-person kindness?  Is there someone who should know that you need to reconnect, even reconcile with them? 

Many blessings this Advent,
MM   

*”Why Has America Become So Divided?” Psychology Today, 9/5/18.
**N.T. Wright, NT for Everyone, Philippians 2:6-8.

Down to Earth: Love Comes Down

The season known as “Advent” is a time of “spiritual pregnancy,” as we wait for the arrival of our long-anticipated savior.  At the same time, we are Christmas people, and the baby of the manger is already alive and amongst us by the presence of God’s Holy Spirit.  So the season of Advent is a time of waiting, a time of remembering, and a time of celebrating.

We live in a culture of deep divisions.  Social ideologies compete with each other for a place at the table, partisan politics (which so many people seem to dislike) still makes top headline (which so many people seem to watch).  When the apostle (which means “one who is sent”) Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he was unable to visit them in person because he was stuck in prison.  But his concern over some divisive issues went ahead of him in the form of his letter, the inspired wisdom of which we still benefit from today. 

In Philippians 2:1-4, Paul begins with an indirect question: “Has your faith in Jesus made any difference?”  Because if it has, that difference should be noticeable in people’s lives.  In particular, in the way Jesus’ people treat each other.  Advent and Christmas introduce an entirely new way of living that imitates the character of the one born in the manger, the one called the Prince of Peace.

But even many of Jesus’ followers today are trading in the peacemaking narrative of Christmas for an unfulfillable promise of material comfort that places us on the busy hamster wheel — all our efforts amounting to so little by the time January rolls around.  What did you get for Christmas last year, after all?

So let’s be counter-cultural and consider a couple of things on this first week of Advent.
1) We do not always have to agree because there is a love we can agree on.
– Speaking of hamster wheels, if we think agreement on “issues” is the path to peace, we’ll be spinning that wheel until our last days.  That kind of agreement has never been a prerequisite for peace.  But the new way of living that Christmas calls us to is an agreement that the one love of God in which we share transcends and unites us all, in all.
2) We do not have to win in order to win.     
– Putting others’ interests before our own is truly counter-intuitive.  But consider the freedom within it.  And consider the harm we do in the name of “winning.”  The incarnation of God in the humble feed-trough is a revolutionary reminder that winning based on God’s criteria looks very different than winning based on the world’s.

For reflection: 
1) Think of someone with whom you have a fundamental disagreement.  What would have to happen for you and that person to find agreement in God’s love, so that you’re not divided by your disagreement?  Make a move to make it happen this week.
2) What would it take for you to “come in second place”?  In your next argument?  In the parking lot at the mall?  In the dangerous game of “who gave the best gift?” 
3) What kind of reward might you get from being “second place”? 

Many blessings this Advent season,
MM

 

…There Your Heart Will Be

Over the last three weeks, we have been dwelling in what Randy Alcorn calls “The Treasure Principle.”  Pastor Aaron has meditated on scripture and experience that points to the simple fact that “God owns cattle on a thousand hills” and invites us to participate in God’s redeeming work in the world. The three basic principles have been:

  1. You can’t take it with you, but you can pass it on ahead.
  2. Learn from the legacy you inherited to create a legacy for the future.
  3. The only way to be free of materialism is by giving.

The challenge of applying the Treasure Principle is that we often forget those thousand hills that God owns and instead cling to “our” possessions, even though we know they can never give us abundant life and ultimately belong to God anyway.

In the story of the wealthy person wanting to inherit eternal life Jesus is stopped by a young man who “wants it all,” including eternal life.  It’s a good thing to want, but Jesus sees through his question to the deeper one:  “How can I squeeze in everything I want and still get heaven too?!”  So Jesus challenges the final obstacle keeping this young man from having a heart truly set free of the tarnishing treasures of this world.  He challenges him to let go of his worldly possessions.

It’s absolutely crucial that we revisit this story over and over again.  At least once a year as we revisit how we manage our resources.  Here’s the never-forget-nugget:  Jesus does not need his cash, but God wants his heart.  And Jesus makes it pretty clear: where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

What’s more astonishing still about this passage is the reward Jesus points us to.

People need to know WHY they do things.  It’s natural to found our actions on good reasons that transcend our own lives.  Jesus endured the cross “for the joy set before him.”  And the same Jesus teaches that we can give generously, with cheerful hearts, because of what we know our relatively minuscule dollars and cents will accomplish in the hands of the Creator, by whose grace we live and move and have our being.

For reflection:

  1. Not all of our worldly possessions are “money.”  Can you think of anything that you would really struggle to let go of?  Why would you struggle?
  2. Here’s an even more abstract version: can you think of anything immaterial (like family traditions, personal beliefs or values, etc.) that a person might struggle to let go of?  Can immaterial “possessions” like these still be obstacles to an abundant life in Christ?
  3.  Do you think Jesus wants everyone to “sell everything you own” and give it to the poor?  Why or why not?  If not, then what is the deeper meaning of this saying for every single one of us to apply to our lives?

Many blessings,

MM

 

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

 

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