Dear Younger Me: Stop Believing Half-Truths

What if you wrote a letter to your younger self? What age would you write to? And what wisdom would you share? The Bible actually has an entire genre of books called “Wisdom literature.” And much of the time, we know it is better to learn wisdom earlier rather than later. But it’s never too late.

So Pastor Aaron began this Fall teaching series with some foundational wisdom: stop believing half-truths. Half-truths need to be challenged because they are particularly deceptive. And frankly, that makes them more likely to be life-taking rather than life-giving. This was certainly the case with the serpent’s deception in the Garden. The way half-truths can steal life from people is not only something we know about intellectually; we experience the brokenness they create through our own experience and our pastoral relationships as well. So let’s look at THREE half-truths, what’s wrong with them, and the whole truths that answer them.

Half-Truth #1: “Everything that happens is God’s will.”
To get started, we have to get real about the need for biblical interpretation. The truth is that many theological positions can be supported by cherry-picking scriptures out of context (also called “proof texting.”) And to be sure, the sovereignty of God is undeniable in scripture. But so is the brokenness of the world, to which God responds with healing. Psalm 10:14, 17-18 proclaims that God is both King and the encourager of the afflicted. How could the affliction also be thought of as “God’s will”? The whole truth is: Whatever happens, God is sovereign, and able and willing to redeem it.

Half-Truth #2: “God helps those who help themselves.”
Perhaps one of the most destructive half-truths, one Barna survey found that 80% of respondents believed this saying was one of the ten commandments! And yet it never appears in the Bible. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church that those who do not wor do not eat. But that principle alone cannot be taken out of the context that those early Christians had become lackadaisical because of their belief that Jesus was coming so soon that their daily work did not matter. It is not a universal principle for all people in all times. By contrast, Psalm 18:6, 16 reminds us that when we are in distress, we need not “help ourselves,” but can call on the Lord and he will hear us. The whole truth is: God expects us to participate in this life but always gives grace and mercy.

Half-Truth #3: “God won’t give us more than we can handle.”
People usually mean well when they say this trying to encourage a suffering person. But the irony of the logic is that if it’s true, and we are actually finding we cannot “handle it,” it makes us the problem! It adds insult to injury, implying that in addition to our suffering, it’s our own fault if we can’t handle it. The truth is that there are numerous afflictions we cannot handle, which is exactly why God designs us to live in community. Moreover, the phrase “God gives” anything may be erroneous right off the bat, offering the bad theology that any affliction we experience is in fact God’s will, and he will afflict us right up to the point we’re about to break. (See half-truth #1.) The whole truth is: God will help us handle all the adversity we face.

For reflection:
1) These half-truths are usually shared with the best intentions. Have you ever shared them with someone? How does the idea that they are only half true make you react?
2) Have you ever been suffering and had someone share these half-truths with you? How did you react.
3) Understanding the Bible is difficult because it requires education and interpretation. Where can you go to get help interpreting the Bible so you understand it better?

Many blessings,
MM

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Moses: “Delegate or Suffocate”

In 2001, I knew an older gentleman in Beflast, Northern Ireland named George. One day, George approached me after a sermon I gave and said, “That was a good sermon, Mike. There is one thing though…” He leaned in: “You’ve got to get your hands out of your pockets! It makes you look like a lazy man!”

Safe to say I don’t think I put my hands in my pockets up front for a long time after that. George really valued being known as a hard worker, and that “Protestant Work Ethic” is very much part of the American landscape, too. It’s just that, no matter hard hard a person works, they cannot do all the work alone.

In Exodus 18:13-27, Moses had been given a specific task by God — to judge God’s instructions and teach them to the people. But the line waiting for his counsel was dawn-to-dusk and ran round and round the block! He needed help, and his father-in-law Jethro knew it. Taking Jethro’s advice, Moses shared his responsibility with capable, trustworthy, God-fearing people, and together they could accomplish that specific task. God’s will is discerned and lived out in devoted community.

This means a few things:

  1. Living God’s will requires various responsibilities. Like a symphony or sports team, the task is shared (in this case, discerning and living God’s will) but the responsibilities can vary. Moses had the responsibility of oversight and final accountability to God. The other judges had responsibility over varying numbers of people. And don’t forget the people — they had the responsibility of actually obeying the counsel they were given!
  2. Living God’s will requires cooperation. It’s one thing to know your responsilbility. But it’s another to harmonize yours with others’ so that you act as a single unit. There are two key points of view on this:
    – Moses/Leader: Sometimes you’re the one in charge, and cooperating with others’ responsibility means (a) sharing control, and (b) trusting.
    – Judges/Cooperative Team: Sometimes you’re not in charge, but you’ve been asked to take on some responsibility. To honor God in that, the team must (a) say “yes” (not much can happen without that), (b) have a team attitude (a begrudging ‘yes’ can be worse than a ‘no’!) and (c) maintain perspective on the larger goal. This last one is key. The “God-fearing” men that Moses needed to choose would have to maintain the perspective that their job as judges wasn’t actually about them, and it wasn’t about Moses. It was about God and blessing the Israelites with God’s will so they could live the abundant lives God wanted them to live.

Here’s the great news (thank Jethro!) When we live God’s will as a devoted community, “everyone will go home satisfied.” That includes the people receiving the counsel and the ones giving it. It’s not God’s will that some people get served while the servants go home exhausted, burned out and cynical. Burnout isn’t righteous; it just gives us a chance to feed our egos. Rather, God’s will is that we share in the responsibility of governing the world in such a way that there is balance, health, and satisfaction.

For reflection:
1) In what ways do you play Moses’ role, as the one in charge? At home? Work? Church? Elsewhere? What challenges do you face as one in charge?
2) In what ways do you play the ‘judges” role, as the one being entrusted with responsibility? At home? Work? Church? Elsewhere? What challenges do you face as the one being given responsibility, but not ultimately in charge?
3) Jesus also entrusted people with responsibility — what can we learn about the character of God by today’s passage, or in the many other ways God expects people to share the responsibility of living out God’s will?

Many blessings,
MM

Moses: Fear of the Hyksos

Heroes sometimes come from unlikely places. Spider-Man is an otherwise ordinary teenager. Bilbo Baggins is a simple hobbit from the shire. In the non-fiction world, Malala Yousafzai was just a girl who wanted to learn, and now she is a Nobel laureate. Terry Fox was a kid from British Columbia whose legacy still inspires millions every year.

Moses was an orphan and then a prince; a murderer and then a fugitive; a shepherd and then a prophet. Eventually, the book of Deuteronomy would remind us that Moses was even one who saw God face to face.

The reason Moses’ infant life was endangered in the first place was because he was hyksos, that is, a foreigner in the land of Egypt. And when the Hebrews multiplied in number, though they had done nothing wrong, the Egyptian pharaoh feared that the hyksos would try to rebel and claim power over the region (Exodus 1:5-14). Pharaoh ordered systematic infanticide to control the Hebrew population. Had it not been for the courage of several women, we may never have known about Moses or even about the Jewish people at all. Pharaoh’s decree was one of the earliest attempts at ethnic cleansing in what would become a repeated phenomenon in history.

Xenophobia literally means “stranger fear.” A phobia is an irrational fear, which of course leads to irrational behavior. So when this kind of fear dominates one’s mind, as it dominated pharaoh’s mind, great destruction can be the result.

So, centuries later when Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph, word of his birth made its way to the Judean king, Herod. Herod let his fear dominate his mind in the same way pharaoh had, which led him to the same decision: a eerily similar decree to murder the firstborn boys of the region in order to maintain his power.

Can you imagine the kind of destruction that can occur when it’s not a single monarch who succumbs to such powerful fear? When it’s a group, or even the majority of a population? Unfortunately, history has recorded plenty of those examples, too. So as we move into the second week of our deep dive into this study of Moses, let’s reflect on our own “stranger fears,” and ask God to challenge us and empower us not to give in to fear of the hyksos and instead reflect Jesus’ gracious love: “I was a stranger and you invited me in.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

For reflection:
– In what ways do you struggle with fear of those who are different from you? (It’s okay, we all do in one way or another.)
– Can you identify the source or foundation of your fears?
– Which of your fears are probably irrational?
– How have you let fear lead you to act contrary to how Jesus calls us to act?
– What is one step you can take this week to overcome your fear and by led by love instead?

Blessings,
MM

Godspeed: Names

The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep — He calls his own sheep by name

Pastor Aaron revealed this morning that when he was a young child he decided to run away from home. His first stop? 7-11. After gorging himself on candy, he remembered seeing his mother coming down the street.
“Aaron David Stewart!” she called. His mother was justifiably angry (and probably scared), and to this day, even though he was only four years old, Pastor Aaron recalls the importance of hear his mother call out his name. In what was undoubtedly unpleasant in the moment, it would become an unforgettable moment of grace and mercy.

Consider also the amount of time and energy we put into naming our children. We know it matters! In our day of increased disconnection and loneliness, the presence of God to us, represented by God the Son Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit, is so often represented by our connection with each other. Especially when we practice that connection by name. Isn’t this part of the reason why visiting a new church can be so daunting — because no one yet knows your name? And isn’t it the reason that belonging to a community of faith is so joyful and liberating?

In today’s passage, John 10:1-6, Jesus uses the metaphor of sheep and shepherd to illustrate this intimate relationship. In the middle east, the shepherd will walk into the middle of sheepfold and call them by name. And they come to him! He knows them each individually: their coloring, their tendencies. But those sheep will not respond to the voice of someone else, who is not their true shepherd. People were wondering, “Is Jesus the Messiah or what?” To give them assurance, Jesus likens himself to the ideal image of a benevolent king — the shepherd.

In our most honest moments, what do we really want? No matter how much theological prowess we may have, no matter how much money in the bank, no matter how many people we influence or how much attention we warrant…In our heart of hearts, we want our Good Shepherd to call us — to know us — by name.

But if I want the sound of that voice to be comforting, I must be willing to “go out” with him. I must be willing to leave the comfort of my pen and go where he leads. Psalm 23 reminds us that he leads us in paths of righteousness. He leads us beside still waters. He also leads us to the cross, to lose ourselves for his sake, only to have him restore to us our complete and full identity in him.

Here’s an oxymoron — “Impersonal Church.” Such a thing should not exist! Because if the Church is to embody the hands and feet of Jesus, the voice and tenor of Jesus, the love and healing touch of Jesus, then it must be a place where we are known — and know others — by name.

For reflection:
– In what communities are you known by name?
– Are you known by name in a community of Jesus’ people? If not, what risks could you take to be known?
– Do you want to be part of a community who knows you by name? Why or why not?
– If you are well-known by name in your community, how could you challenge yourself this week to know others by name?

Many blessings,
MM

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: Identity

When God created the world, he called it “good.” But when he was finished with his final piece of creation — human beings — he exclaimed “Look! Good!”* Why?

“Identity” is a buzz word in our culture these days. But among the many ways people describe their identities, few people are discussing how they arrived at their description. Are we the authors of our own identity? If not, where do we find it? In the Bible, it starts…well, at the beginning. When God created human beings, he made them (male and female) in the imago Dei — the image of God. The gleeful exclamation in Gen. 1:31 is just a glimpse at how God rejoices over people, whom he creates to reflect his glory more than any other part of creation. God rejoices over you. Therein lies the core of our identity — we are the beloved of God.

But what happens when we forget, or choose to forget, or have not yet heard this great news? We become driven by a need to prove ourselves. Driven by fear of failure or inadequacy, rather than by the joy of being God’s beloved, we scrape and fight our way through the world, trying to make a name for ourselves, trying to secure a place for ourselves.

But as bearers of God’s divine image, we have a name. We have a place. This simple concept is part of the reason why the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 is one of the best in all the gospels. Here was a woman who had been given many labels. Surely she had given herself a few, and doubtless others had many names for her. Shunned from normal society, she was compelled to fetch water at midday when no one in their right mind would be out in the hot sun. It was there, in the illogical place, that Jesus met her. He broke rule #1: don’t travel through Samaria. Then he broke rule #2: don’t speak with Samaritans. And finally, rule #3: don’t share a cup with a Samaritan!

But he didn’t care. Jesus knew who all that this woman had done. He knew who this woman was. She was God’s beloved. And he wanted to tell her. As this powerful spoken word poem reminds us, “to be loved is to be known.” And so for the first time in John’s story, Jesus revealed his true title to her: Messiah (in Greek, “Christ.”) And she ran off to tell everyone she knew about him.

For reflection:
1) To know our identity as God’s beloved, we must listen for God’s loving voice — when this week could you find an extended time to set everything aside and just listen? It might take longer than you think to silence the noise in your mind.
2) To know our identity as God’s beloved, we must be reminded. Find a place to put these words somewhere you’ll see them every day: “You are my beloved child, whom I love.”
3) To know our identity as God’s beloved, we must also help others know their identity as the same. Who is a “Samaritan woman” in your life who may need to hear that she or he is loved by God? Do you have the courage to share that good news with them?

Many blessings,
MM


*Gen. 1:31, Septuagint. Most translations read “very good.”

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: Presence

If you heard there was a disease that was rampant throughout your community, would you want to know more about it? Given the emergency status of the measles outbreak in Washington state alone, my guess is you would.

There is a problem that is robbing people of a sense of ease in their daily lives: a “dis-ease” called busyness. Busyness may even be more harmful than most physical diseases because unlike those, busyness often feels good while we experience it. Being busy can make us feel important or productive. And most of us do little or nothing to become less busy.

Spiritually, one problem with busyness is that it also robs us of our ability to know God’s presence. Last week, we looked at the notion of “Place” and remembered that while we often ask “Where is God?” God is asking the same — “Where are you?” In a culture that is increasingly competitive and socially networked, our answer might all too often be “Where am I? Well I’m busy, of course.”

The story of Ruth is well-known among students of the Bible, but you rarely see it on wall posters or verse-a-day calendars. And yet it is one of the most powerful stories of commitment to presence in scripture. Ruth herself is a widow with a chance to start over. She has every reason to think of her own best interest. But instead she sets that aside and chooses to live fully present with her mother-in-law Naomi, for the rest of her life: “Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” (Ruth 1:17)

To be sure, there are many demands on our daily lives that we cannot run from. Life happens. Nevertheless, we are invited, and even commanded, to keep an account of the lifestyle we can choose and decide whether or not we will choose to be open to experience the presence of God.

For reflection:
– Make a list of the things in your life keeping you the most busy; which do you have the power to change (don’t forget to include how you spend your spare time).
– What is standing in the way of being fully present to God? Being fully present to the people in your life?
– What are some simple choices you could make to become more fully present, even just for the next week? Journal about your experience.

Many blessings,
MM

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

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