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

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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: 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

Down to Earth: Flesh Comes Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many blessings this Advent,
MM   

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

Down to Earth: Love Comes Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many blessings this Advent season,
MM

 

…There Your Heart Will Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For reflection:

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

Many blessings,

MM

 

The Sacrifice of Giving

You are the treasure.

When we think about “treasure” it’s natural to wonder what that treasure is.  Talents?  Money?  Resources?  An actual trunk of gold coins?  Those may be tools that enable our work in various ways.  But they aren’t the treasure.

You are the treasure.

In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus describes the way God begins his work with things that appear to be small but can grow large enough for everyone to call home.

Over the past few years, University Place Presbyterian Church (UPPC) has demonstrated three qualities that are a testimony to the ways God is working in our midst.

  • UPPC is a family.

In 1927, Jesus’ people wanted to teach the gospel to families on the west side of Tacoma.  The startup met at the Narrows Tomato warehouse and affectionately referred to themselves as “The Wayside Chapel.”  One record states that attendance was around 22 people.  Mostly children!

What a reminder that the congregation we gather with weekly isn’t something we deserve.  This community is a gift from God, planted around 90 years ago, which has grown into a large and beautiful tree!

  • UPPC is a place where people find hope in Jesus.

The image of the “wayside” is so important to remember, because it refers to life in dynamic motion, rather than a people who give intellectual assent to a set of doctrines.  Before anyone understood what to believe about Jesus, people were drawn to Jesus himself, that is, they stopped along the wayside.  To eat and drink.  To converse.  To ask questions.  To seek healing and care.  To laugh and live life.

This organic way of living our faith is why we “embrace messiness.”  We like to say, we either are a mess, we were a mess, or we’re one dumb choice away from becoming a mess.  So welcome to the journey!

  • UPPC is a people who give sacrificially.

Here’s the thing — it’s not about money.  As U2’s Bono once famously said, “The God I believe in isn’t short of cash.”  Giving sacrificially is about wanted to live a real testimony of God’s provision.  In fact, it is the only thing about which God invites us to test him — God’s generosity.

Part of sacrificial giving is doggedly maintaining an open and inviting attitude.  It’s all too easy to become comfortable in our community, but the sacrifice of throwing wide the doors means that there’s one more person or family who can experience the love of God as the mustard seed continues to spread its branches across the world.

For reflection:

  1. If you can think of a time someone gave sacrificially for your sake, find a way to share that story with someone.
  2. Have you ever had the chance to give sacrificially, either of money, or time, or talents, or with an attitude of openness to others?
  3. Imagine your community 40 years from now; what part might you be playing now in building a community for that time?

Many blessings,

MM

 

From Pseudo to Authentic Friendship

We tend to throw certain words around pretty loosely.  Words like “awesome,” “super,” and “totally.”  We totally use language to communicate our super awesome ideas.

Another such word is “community.”  Like many concepts, there is nuance and variety to this word, including a spectrum of types of community that can range from “pseudo-community” to “authentic community.”  In our heart of hearts, we long for the latter.

When Jesus put together his closest followers, we see the beginning of a community characterized by unprecedented, powerful experiences of God that bonded the twelve of them as friends. They also argued and competed with each other.  But they also learned to be reconciled and trust each other.  Just as Jesus called that community together, and as scripture describes authentic friendship, God is calling us to authentic communities of friends today.

But we know that many friendships are pseudo-friendships, relying on superficial agreement rather than authentic connection.  Pastor Aaron introduced us this week to a concept from the late great Scott Peck, who claimed that in order to move from pseudo-friendships to authentic ones, we have to be willing to enter and endure what he called the “Tunnel of Chaos.”  Sounds fun, right?

This is the process of “getting real” with one’s friends, facing conflict, asking hard questions, and being vulnerable.  Many people enter the tunnel but just as quickly claw their way back to the safety of pseudo-friendships.  But those who can initiate or accept an invitation into the tunnel are willing to take the necessary steps toward authentic friendship — a sister or brother whom one can trust and rely on in a way that only authentic friendship makes possible.  A fulfillment of our deep longing for true community.

For reflection:

  1. Is there someone in your life with whom you’d like to initiate more authentic connection?  What simple act could you take to invite that person into the tunnel with you?
  2. Have you ever been invited into more authentic friendship?  Did you accept, and what was your experience?  Did you decline, and what has that been like for you?
  3. God is always ready to empower us — Consider praying this week specifically for God to guide you and empower you to risk entering into a more authentic friendship.

In Grace,

MM

Seeking to Understand

(Today’s post is by UPPC minister of youth, Rob Clark!)

This Sunday we addressed the topic of “seeking to understand” in our befriend series at UPPC.  Our primary scripture came from Job 2:11-13, because it’s a picture of friendship that many of us desire.

We began by giving a brief theology of the church: the church is described in Scripture as a family with God as Father, and us as adopted siblings.  We used Ephesians 1:4-5 as a baseline: Ephesians 1:4-5 says, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.  In love, he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”  This gave us the framework for the message.

As siblings, we are called to seek to understand one another—even those who are on the outside of our sphere of friendship.  We looked at the story of the bleeding woman from Mark 5:21-43 and noticed two things: 1. Jesus was in a hurry to heal Jairus’ daughter, but still took the time to stop and listen to the story of the bleeding woman.  2. Jesus gave her a new title—from unclean to “daughter”.  The title is significant because he identifies her as a fellow sibling whose story has value.

But the key is to notice how Jesus interacted with this woman’s story. He listened to her.  He didn’t constantly interrupt her story with his own experience and advice—although he was obviously qualified to give it.  He didn’t throw a bible verse at her in hopes that would alleviate her pain.  He listened.  Which is one of the main keys in seeking to understand. Listening is the first key to understanding.  The second is to ask good questions.  We identified three good questions to ask those that we desire deep friendships with:

  1. To take a note from Jesus, the question, “What do you want me to do for you?”
    1. In other words, dig into how you can be more supportive. What areas in our friends life where we can be a better friend?
  2. How are you doing, really? –look for specific things in the persons life to ask about.
  3. From Gotman—who you heard a lot about during the marriage series. He often encourages us to ask open-ended questions starting with, “how have you…”
    1. How have you changed in the last year?
    2. How have you changed since you’ve had a kid?
    3. How have you been supportive lately to your spouse?
    4. How have you been coping with your loss?

 

However, when it really comes down to it, asking good questions only works to deepen the relationships once we are in a place with our people that allows for us to ask these kinds of questions.  The reality is that good questions are just words.  If we want to have depth and intimacy in our relationships, we have to convince someone that we can hold their pain.  That we won’t just give an easy answer or throw a bible verse at them.

You can’t expect people to undress in front you unless you undress in front of them.  Once we are vulnerable with someone, it creates space for them to be vulnerable with us.  It comes down to having a hospitality of the heart—which essentially means we have a space where we create it to be welcoming and inviting for someone to share.  And this hospitality comes from doing our own work– to be on our face before the Lord recognizing our own brokenness and willing to be groomed by him.

If we want the kinds of friendships demonstrated in Job, we must first seek to understand ourselves, and then seek to understand the other by earning the right to ask good questions, by cultivating a safe place–being vulnerable with the ones that we want to be to be vulnerable with us.  But, to do that, it requires us to be able to connect with our own brokenness.  I love Henri Nouwen says when talking about hospitality in his book, Wounded Healer, “What does hospitality as a healing power require?  It requires first of all that hosts feel at home in their own house, and second that they create a free and fearless place for the unexpected visitor.”[1]

 

It starts with feeling at home in our own house.  Being connected to the brokenness within us.  And out of that, we can then connect with the brokenness of the other by creating a free and fearless place for them to enter in to.

 

Ultimately, this is what we need to do:

  1. Create a hospitality of the heart—a place that is safe for pain and brokenness to be held.
  2. Show that we are willing to go there ourselves.
  3. In that place, ask good questions. And as those questions are being answered, remember how Jesus interacted with the bleeding woman.  With posture of being quick to listen and slow to speak.

 

[1] P. 95-97