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

The Surprising Gifts that Come from Hard Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s Helping Whom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

To seek holistic healing for others and ourselves, we remember

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

For Reflection:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In it with you,
MM

Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many blessings,
MM

Dear Younger Me: I Need Your Help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many blessings,
MM

Embracing Conflict: 4 Things You’re Missing Without It

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings,
MM

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

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