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.

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,

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,

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

Weaving the Church Together

Colossians 4:7-17

“Final Greetings.” It’s a phrase that sort of suggests Paul’s pretty much done writing the important stuff, huh? But the words at the end of Paul’s letter also contain helpful truth about the nature of Christ’s Church.

First, it points to the importance of visiting people in person.  In the days before email or the postal service, Paul sent his letter with a messenger, Tychicus.  But it wasn’t only to relay information.  Tychicus’s personal presence with the people of Colossae was also meant to “encourage your hearts.” (Col. 4:8)

Second, all the names and implied circumstances signify the variety of stories God is writing throughout the world, and also the unity of all of them as part of one subversive movement.  There Jews and Gentiles, prisoners and free people.  There are the churches at Laodicea and Hierapolis, as well as the particular ministries of Nympha and Archippus.  Each of them holds a piece of the puzzle, and none but God sees the whole picture.

Paul’s letter was intended for a variety of church communities with a unified purpose, thus also encouraging us: “You are not alone.”  All of Jesus’ people, across town and across the globe, are being woven into God’s much larger story.

For reflection:

1. The Gospel is about people, not just abstract ideas.  Who in your sphere of influence needs to hear the good news that the grace of God conquers the demands of the world?  Can you graciously show that to someone this week?

2. In Jesus, the Word of God became flesh.  The mode is crucial to the message.  Sure, emails are okay.  But there’s no substitute for personal contact.  Whom is God urging you to be in direct contact with this week?

Many blessings,


Three things, in the right order

Jesus in solitude, community, and ministry.

This passage in the gospel of Luke shows the pattern by which Jesus ultimately practiced what we think of as “ministry.”  Jesus practicing these disciplines in a particular order that would empower his life and ministry: Solitude, Community, then Ministry.

Jesus founded his life and ministry in solitude with the heavenly Father.  Why?  Because it is in that place, one-on-one with our Creator, that we intentionally make room for him to express his divine love for us.

Then can we be equipped to live in community in a healthy, life-giving way.  All too often we get these in reverse, expecting our human community to make us feel beloved.  But we can’t expect people to love us unconditionally or perfectly, any more than we can expect ourselves to love others that way.  When our community is basically “loneliness grabbing onto loneliness” we are set up for dysfunction and disappointment.  But if we build our community upon the strength of our solitude with God — “beloved grabbing onto beloved”* — then we have the chance to experience community that freely and burdenlessly shares God’s love.

This is the power by which God’s ministry — the third step — flows through people.  Ministry at this point becomes the living and sharing of God’s love to the world out of the unquenchable experience of our own belovedness, first in solitude, then in community.

For reflection:

  1. When is the last time you intentionally made ample space to listen for God’s Holy Spirit in your life?
  2. What are you expecting from your community (church, family, friends)?
  3.  Have you ever experienced frustration, disappointment, or powerlessness in your work?
  4. How difficult would it be to begin your day in solitude with God?
  5. If you already have a habit of beginning your day in solitude with God, has it affected your interactions in community, or your work?

Many blessings,


*Henri Nouwen

Fall Afresh!

The Holy Spirit is given to the Church (Acts 2:1-13)

Feel free to watch the sermon video embedded here, but this will be a brief entry with simply a few questions for your reflection.  A blessed Pentecost to you, and a happy “birthday” to the Church!

  1. How have you experienced God’s Holy Spirit, that is, God’s real presence, in your life?
  2.  How would you say you began your journey with God?
  3. “We don’t get to say ‘Well, we did it!’  It’s always God’s Spirit knocking at our door.” (Pastor Harlan)  Can you describe anything from your life that you know were God-in-action more than yourself?
  4. The Holy Spirit can be unsettling, because God challenges us to find our “blind spots.”  In what ways do you sometimes feel challenged by God’s presence?
  5. “God doesn’t call the qualified, but qualifies the called.”  Is God calling you do something, or become someone, that you don’t feel qualified for?  How does this truth apply to you?

Many blessings!



A Remembering Community

Paul’s instruction about taking the Lord’s Supper

“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you…”

With these words, Paul is explaining to the early Christians in Corinth something of primary importance for life and faith: the Lord’s supper.

The Hebrew context here is crucial.  Jesus didn’t choose his elements at random.  He ordained this sacramental meal for the Church from that time until today in the context of Covenant.

Through the history of God’s people recorded across the entire biblical narrative, a pattern emerges.  God makes promises.  And people fail to remember (see Hosea 11:1-2 for how God perceives our forgetfulness).

It is no wonder then that when Jesus introduced the bread and the cup as the new covenant in his body and blood, he commanded that we “Remember.”

Of course, remembering that for which Jesus died — the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God — also (ironically) means we can forget.  We can forget the sins that so easily ensnare, and celebrate the liberation Christ won for us!  After all, God in his omniscience is described as effectively “forgetting” that which has led us astray and embracing us, whom he loves so dearly (see the story of the lost son for a powerful image of this).

We come together as the Christ-community and express his love in many ways:  worship, song, prayer, learning, serving, laughing, crying.  When we gather as the Christ-community, we enact that for which the Lord’s Supper stands.  We are doing this in remembrance of Him.

For reflection:

  1. Have you ever experienced the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Communion or the Eucharist)?  What was your experience like?
  2. Have you ever forgotten something that you knew you should have remembered?
  3. When someone in our close community forgets something important (like a birthday) what is that experience like?  Why?
  4. Some people think ceremony or tradition is superficial or unnecessary in a  community.  But Jesus clearly knew that ceremony was essential.  What do you think?
  5. What intentional steps can you take this week to “Remember” Jesus’ good news each day?

Many blessings,


Community that Opens Doors

Paul and Silas are Freed from Prison

How many doors do you think you go through every day?  Front, back, side, garage, gates, swinging, revolving, automatic, elevator…prison?

The apostle Paul got himself in a number of tangles as an itinerant evangelist in the first century, and the story linked above is one of the most memorable.  Having liberated a female slave from her spiritual bondage, her owners threw Paul and Silas in prison for jeopardizing their revenue source!  Never worry — God isn’t scared by prisons.

One of the more fascinating characters in this story is the jailer himself.  Frederick Buechner notes that in a sense we’re all the “Jailer.”  We wall ourselves behind the stone and steel of repression, denial, and concealment in an effort to stay safe.  The irony is that we are in bondage.  The good news is that God liberates the oppressed!

When Paul’s prison doors are flung wide open, the jailer knows that he’d be better off committing suicide than facing the punishment for his failure as a prison guard.  But Paul knows better.  Shouting “Don’t harm yourself!  We’re all here!” Paul embodies this poignant truth:

Alone, death seems inevitable. 

But together, God opens doors to new life.

Paul knew that his freedom would be no freedom at all if it came at the expense of his jailer.  His freedom was given by God SO THAT he could be a liberating agent for the jailer.

This story does have a happy ending — the sparing of the jailer’s life and the baptism of him and his family.  But it came at a cost to Paul and Silas — flogging, humiliation and prison.  The reality is that the Christ-community has battles to fight and must at times persevere great challenges.  But the end is worth the means — salvation and feasting as God’s Community.

For reflection:

  1. Imagine you’re Paul or Silas.  What would your first reaction be when your prison doors swung open?
  2.  Have you ever experienced the oppression of loneliness, as the jailer did in his moment of desperation?
  3. Have you ever experienced the joy and freedom of community?
  4. What can you do in the spheres of community in which you live to live out Paul’s message to the jailer: “We’re all here!”  To whom might that matter most in your world?

Many blessings,



The Prophet’s Dream

Acts 2:14-21

Jesus’ community has always been fundamentally counter-cultural. Where else do people of all generations and walks of life gather for a common purpose? And not to consume goods or experiences either, but really the opposite. To give. To create.  Not even for their own sake, but for the sake of the Master.  This radical, purposeful community defined by God’s presence and work in the world — this was the dream of the prophets.

The counter-cultural purpose of Jesus’ community reflects its counter-intuitive nature: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (v.21).  It cannot be earned with moral behavior.  It cannot be acquired through transcendental enlightenment.  This is the grace and mercy Jesus showed Peter around that fateful campfire, when he forgave him his denials and restored his belonging and purpose in Christ’s community.  This is the same Peter who preached in Acts 2 on the prophetic dream of Christ’s community.

The problem is that one dream can be co-opted by secular, cultural “dreams” of community and contentment.  But if dreams are by nature creative and unique, like the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, then we must be open and responsive to God the Holy Spirit. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be swept into the habit of dreaming the same materialistic and self-aggrandizing dream as the bulk of our population. “When the whole population dreams the same dream, empire is triumphant.”*

We are called to be animated by a different narrative, and our experience of Jesus’ community will be only be what we make it.  God’s grace is unconditional.  Our choice to respond in gracious and merciful community?  Well that’s up to us.

For reflection:

  1. Describe the prophet Joel’s “dream” in your own words.
  2. Do you see his dream anywhere in the world today?
  3. Many people would respond positively to Joel’s vision — what makes the Christian response unique?
  4. If our community is “up to us,” what is one thing you can do this week to move one step closer to experiencing the community that Joel describes?
  5. Do you see any opportunities at UPPC to either find this community or to create it?

***JOIN US to explore Group Life together! 

Sundays in May  |  9:15-10:15  |  Gym.





*Walsh, Brian J., Sylvia C. Keesmaat.  Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire.  (IVP, 2004).

Stumbling Blocks to Community

1 Corinthians 8

We’re following the overall Biblical narrative of God’s covenant community, beginning last week with the establishment of the covenant.  But almost immediately, God’s community began to replace God in their hearts with idols (see Exodus 32:1-14).  And of course there was a pantheon of “deities” in the 1st century Roman culture of Jesus and the apostles.

In this chapter, Paul begins a long discourse on an issue that was threatening to divide the young Christian community in Corinth.  Some of them understood the “gods” weren’t real, while others were still struggling with that concept.

But the problem wasn’t really idol worship itself.  It was the way that people “in the know” about it didn’t act with love toward those still trying to figure it out.  They were basing their behavior on their knowledge, rather than the more important ethic of love.  So Paul reminds them: “Knowledge puffs up, while love builds up” (8:1).

When Christ’s community comes to enjoy being “in the know” about something, it’s easy to grow complacent and to forget that there are plenty of others who would like to be part of the community but feel like outsiders–like middle schoolers trying to find a seat in the lunchroom.  If someone wants to experience the Christ-community but is given the cold shoulder, that very community can become a stumbling block to them.  But in the Christ-community, it should never be difficult to find a seat at the table.

In our congregation, there are many types of smaller communities, or “group life.”  Ministry teams, music groups, youth groups, small groups, groups of friends, parent support groups, etc.  And those groups are a blessing from God to support and encourage us in life and faith.  So rather than becoming so accustomed to our groups that they become like closed clubs, how can we leverage the blessing that they are to “build others up” who may be longing for community?

For reflection:

  1. What kind of “Group Life” do experience in your church community?
  2. When is the last time you invited an outsider to consider being part of your group?
  3. Why can it be challenging to invite people in our group life?
  4. What are the potential repercussions of group life that tends to be insular or “closed”?
  5. Is it possible to experience both the intimacy of healthy group life, while also being intentional in helping people find or create community?