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

“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

Godspeed: Mission

For the past seven weeks, we have contemplated the notion of what it means to live “at Godspeed” that is, at a pace of knowing and being known. We found inspiration from the documentary film and study sessions by Matt and Julie Canlis by the same title. The sessions, I think, have all been leading us up to today’s theme: Mission.

I was in a coffee shop last week, crowded with a pretty diverse bunch of people, and I had a humbling thought: “What kind of ‘mission’ would it take for even these 30 people to come to know Jesus, much less the entire world?” The world seems so small anymore, but mission “at Godspeed” probably starts for us as it did for Jesus’ first disciples — one person at a time.

Luke 9:1-6 tells of the first time Jesus entrusted his mission to ordinary people. He told them to do basically what he had just been doing, which Luke records in ch. 8: touring villages, proclaiming the good news, and healing the sick. They were witnessing the “inbreaking Kingdom of God.” Jesus inaugurated this New Creation, and in Him we are called to live and share it.

First, we must live our lives IN CHRIST. That phrase describes the Christian life 165 in the Bible, while the idea of being “saved” occurs 108, and the idea of Jesus being “in me” is used only six. To be in Christ means to steep the ordinary in what is holy, so we begin to experience the holy in our ordinary.

When we live in Christ, we naturally share that holiness we experience. To share it as Jesus did means we have to earn people’s TRUST and offer GRACE. Jesus and his disciples earned trust by being vulnerable, by listening and responding to people’s real lives, and by bringing their proclamation as a free gift, without expectation of reward. Especially in a world that no longer intrinsically trusts the Church, we are called to share requires that we humbly earn people’s trust, one person at a time.

For Reflection:
– Have you ever been on a “mission”? Describe it.
– When you think of a Christian mission, what comes to mind?
– Is it an act of kindness or not, to offer someone something you value? Is there a way to approach Christian mission in this way?
– What kinds of sacrifices might the western Church need to make to earn the secular world’s trust, and open a conversation about Jesus?

Many blessings,
Mike

Godspeed: Rooted

In any culture, we are shaped by forces which we don’t choose but which have enormous influence over our lives, our perceptions of ourselves, our world, and even God. Today, one of those forces appears to be “individualism,” otherwise known as the “self-made person.”

But that’s just not how things work, is it?

Consider the human body, as one basic example. As a metaphor (there are always exceptions if we take this analogy too literally), it reminds us that a single living organism is actually a series of interdependent living things. In fact, when the body isn’t operating interdependently, it is said to be in a state of “dis-ease.” So it is with the Church, which Paul called the “Body of Christ.”

The health of the interdependent Body is largely determined by its stability. If the parts of the Body aren’t stable, then the whole Body becomes less stable. Benedictine monks understand this when they take their vows, one of which is the vow of “stability,” that is, the willingness to live in a particular community for the rest of their lives, through thick and thin, and to renounce the endless (and fruitless) search for greener pastures elsewhere.

The corporate nature of life in Christ is emphasized throughout scripture. In other words, salvation is not just personal. We are saved into something greater. We are baptized into something greater. We eat the Communion meal in the presence of something greater, as we anticipate something greater, that is, the fulfillment of God’s kingdom.

Sometimes our lives are thrown into seasons of instability, when we feel uprooted. Failing health and the death of loved ones; struggling relationships and divorce; corporate lay-offs, or corporations moving employees to new locations; military families moving every three years; these are legitimate and real reasons we can become uprooted. The call to be a rooted people is not meant to indict our real-life situations, but rather, to acknowledge that ultimately we need stability in a community with deep and healthy roots as we seek to know ourselves, our God, and our place in God’s world.

For reflection:
1) Are currently feeling “rooted” or not? What are the factors contributing to your answer?
2) Is there a way to feel “rooted” if forces outside of our control (job, health, etc.) are making us feel unrooted? What ways might there be?
3) Do you know someone whose life has recently been “uprooted?” Pray and ask the Holy Spirit to guide what you might do to bless that person this week.


Godspeed: Pace

God is a great gift-giver, even though we often neglect or refuse his gifts. One of the most famous is this invitation from Jesus: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Right away in the next verses, Jesus shows us one of God’s main gifts — Sabbath.

Sabbath basically means “rest,” and ever since the beginning, it is the way God has set the pace of our lives. It’s even one of the ten commandments! Over the centuries, there have been countless interpretations of what it means to honor the Sabbath, and during Jesus’ earthly life there were two basic approaches, which I’ll call External and Internal.

The external approach is like the “letter of the law.” You consciously choose to do what it says, regardless of circumstances. The internal approach is like the “spirit of the law,” when the focus is on whether or not the law’s goal is being met, and then adjusting your practice accordingly. These two basic approaches are the crux of many arguments about how to honor the Sabbath: either an objective or subjective approach. But an either-or misses the mark.

Jesus’ approach to Sabbath was both-and: we both make intentional, measurable choices to shape our lives around the Sabbath (external), and we remember the purpose of Sabbath and make occasional adjustments so the purpose is being met (internal).

When Jesus’ followers picked grain on Sabbath, they weren’t abandoning God’s law. They were hungry. And Jesus used the occasion to show us that in every situation we can shape our lives around God’s pace — we can intentionally set aside time and adjust when we need to.

One of the most helpful ways to understand Sabbath comes from the Jewish theology of the temple. In the Godspeed documentary series, N.T. Wright highlights that “The Jews will tell you that the Sabbath is to time what the temple is to space…the temple is the place where heaven and earth meet, and the Sabbath is when our time and God’s time intersect.”

Are we accepting God’s invitation to experience this intersection of the divine and earthly? To fully know that God is both transcendent and imminent; both beyond us and intimately near? This is the gift of Sabbath, and we’re being invited back to set our pace by it and live at Godspeed.

For reflection:
– Take a look at this week’s schedule. Consider canceling one appointment or somehow opening up just one hour to create Sabbath-space.
– Consider what you might do in your Sabbath-space that lifts your spirit heavenward (plain old idle time rarely does the trick); make a list and fill your Sabbath-time with those activities.
– As you make a habit of creating small Sabbath-spaces in your schedule, challenge yourself to gradually increase that space with the goal of having a full day each week that is an experience of God’s presence.

Godspeed: Place

“There’s no place on this earth without the potential for unearthing holiness.” –Eugene Peterson

This Godspeed concept challenges us to live at “Godspeed” – a way of life that puts us in the place to be face to face with God and with each other. And ever since our human parents were infected with sin, we as a human race have been hiding from God and yet, in the depths of our hearts, desiring to know where we can find God.

This tension is found in John 4:19-26. Jesus is in the middle of an exchange with a woman who had been running, hiding through a maze of relationships, an outcast who was seeking water from a well in the middle of the day. Jesus has just had a very direct conversation about her personal life. Jesus in essence is saying, “where are you in your life right now?”

Ironically, the woman shifts the awkward personal conversation to the hot topic of the day– which location is the place where God is to be found? I think the original hearers would see the humor in this. She’s staring the God son in the face… proposing where he can is found.

And of course Jesus gets right to the point: God is not in Rome or Mecca. Not in the places where you think you must go to find God, Jesus said. “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (4:24).

I’ll never forget a moment 5 years ago when in the middle of the week, a couple came into our sanctuary and was right here on the stairs weeping, full bodied grief and they were desperate. They were pleading with God to take care of their baby girl, just months old, who passed away in her sleep the night before. They were stricken with overwhelming grief and even though they weren’t people of faith, they sought the only place they could think of to find God. This place. And they met God here through the people of this church.

But was more profound was that the concept of where God was found (here in sanctuary) was changed when I shared that I was actually standing outside their home the night before. As it so happened, I was helping my brother move and his home was down the street. I had heard the wailing and went over, praying in their front yard. I had unknowingly been part of God’s bringing many people to them over that awful time. God was present, God was moving toward them. Not only in a sanctuary but their home. You see Jesus is revealing the way of Holy Spirit as fundamental about this sanctuary as it is everywhere else:

Jesus redeems the idea of Place not by making it insignificant but by making all places significant because of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is here. Spirt is here. In fact, part of the point of Jesus’ mission, to bring the life of heaven to birth on earth, was that from now on holy mountains wouldn’t matter that much. The Holy places wouldn’t have a monopoly on the encounter with God.

For Reflection:
– Do you have any “sacred” places in your life? What makes them so special?
– Can you envision the place you are right now as a sacred place? What would have to change to make it seem sacred?
– This week in prayer, each day make yourself fully available to God, like Isaiah did, and pray: “Here I am, Lord.” Journal about your experience.

This week’s post comes straight from UPPC senior pastor, Aaron Stewart.

The concept of “Godspeed” is inspired and informed by the work of Matt and Julie Canlis in their documentary film and study sessions. Learn more at http://www.livegodspeed.org

…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

 

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