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

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: 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: “Like No Other”

We’ve been dwelling in Moses’ life as told through the book of Exodus since springtime, and it has been a very rich journey. And now we arrived at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where Moses will receive from God perhaps what Moses is most famous for: the Ten Commandments.

So, so much has been written about the Ten Commandments, and even more has been presumed. You might see them outside a courthouse, or tattooed on someone’s arm. They are part of the foundation of western civilization, whether we’re aware of them or not. So let’s take a couple of moments to recap what Pastor Jim Mead taught us today.

What the Ten Commandments are NOT:

  • They are not a set of moral principles. Frederick Buechner said that principles are what people have in place of God. The Ten Commandments are the opposite of that — they are the foundation by which respond to God’s love and join into covenant with God.
  • They are not a pathway to God. Take a look at verse 6: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” Do the Commandments begin with expectation? Or do they begin with grace? The relationship always begins with God’s gracious willingness to advocate for people, even to rescue us. And this did not change when Jesus came on the scene. Jesus fulfilled the covenant relationship with the Father, showing us what it means to respond to God’s grace by loving God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength. That love can be expressed through following his “torah,” or instructions.

So what ARE the Ten Commandments?

  • They are instructions to live as we are designed. Human beings, made in God’s image (see Gen. 1:27) are designed to function in particular ways. We aren’t fish. We aren’t elephants. We are human beings. That means we are designed to live in ongoing connection (“relationship”) with the living God, and with each other in mutually loving community. But living as designed is a choice God allows us to make (not true for other creatures, right?) An aspect of God’s image in us is our ability to choose to live contrary to our design. The problem is that just because we choose it doesn’t mean it works. For example, if you drove a 2002 Toyota Tundra (like Jim does) you could operate it as designed, or not. By design, you’d change the oil, rotate the tires, and get occasional tune-ups. Against design, you might ignore those needs, or even try operate it as a boat (which would work, but only for a couple seconds.)
  • They are the foundation for our part of a covenant relationship with God. Like wedding vows, life gets more complicated than the few scenarios we recite on our wedding day. If wedding vows had to list every possible challenge we’d face in our covenants of marriage, the ceremony would last months! Instead, our vows outline the foundations of our covenant, the range of life experience in which we’re committing to partner with each other. After all, we get married because our spouse is “like no other.” Just as God is “jealous” for us, since God is like no other, too. The wedding day is a foundation for the marriage, just as the Ten Commandments are the foundation for the covenant we live with God. Some people resent the idea that God would have expectations of us. But would it be a living, loving relationship if God expected nothing of us?
  • They foreshadow God’s grace as revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus claimed to fulfill God’s Torah (again, “law” or “instructions”) the way the Israelites were supposed to have done, but couldn’t. Jesus doesn’t do away with it or revise it. He fulfills it, on our behalf, in his own life. And the life God designed us to have is fulfilled in Jesus, too. Jesus lived as we can live. His death conquered the sin and death that separates us from God. His resurrection seals God’s promise that we are made for everlasting life. The Ten Commandments are the day-to-day foundational expression of the greatest commandments, as taught by Jesus:
    37 “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

For reflection:
– Have you heard of the Ten Commandments before? What has been your impression of them?
– What do you think about the idea that God has expectations of us?
– Have you learned anything new about the Ten Commandments? What do they reveal about God’s character?

Many blessings,
MM

Moses: Hardened Heart and Passover Lamb

Once Moses confronted Pharaoh, things started to move quickly. Moses warned Pharaoh that God would plague the land if he didn’t let the Hebrews go. He would eventually give Pharaoh not three, not five, but TEN chances to do the right thing. But rather than the plagues softening Pharaoh’s heart, his heart became “hard” and he would not relent. The “hardened” heart is also translated “heavy” (think hard like stone, which is also heavy) which even the Egyptians believed meant that Pharaoh was “unjust.” In fact, their belief system also said that he would be condemned in the afterlife according to the heaviness/hardness of his heart.

The tenth plague is indeed the most disturbing — the death of the firstborn of Egypt. As we read this story, we need to avoid any sort of “Enlightenment arrogance” by which we judge the goodness or badness of the story based on our understanding of right and wrong. Rather, we must defer to the culture of the day, as well as the fact that Pharaoh had been duly warned nine times beforehand, and even warned that this tenth plague would mean the death of the firstborn. And still, he did not relent.

The death of the firstborn sets the stage for the first Passover, which is one of the most important annual holidays celebrated by Jews to this day. So it was no coincidence that Jesus, who of course was Jewish, chose the Passover meal to explain the meaning of his own impending death. He took the familiar elements of bread and wine, used in the Passover meal, and transformed their meaning to reflect his own body and blood, as he would stand in as the once-and-for-all sacrificial lamb, whose death would mean freedom not from worldly oppressors only, but from the ultimate oppressors — sin and death. And not only for a particular people, but for the entire world. Now, Christians worldwide still celebrate that last supper and its meaning through the sacrament of Communion, also known as the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.

For reflection:
– Do you celebrate the Eucharist/Communion/Lord’s Supper? If so, describe your tradition.
– It can be hard to imagine the same God who creates life also destroying it. Is it possible to bring our struggle with this aspect of God directly to God in prayer?
– If a “heavy/hard heart” was the symbol for injustice then, what might be a symbol for injustice today?
– What kinds of events/experiences can soften a person’s heart?

In Grace,
MM

“In the Dark till I Met the Light”

Today was special at University Place Presbyterian Church — the children’s choir known as the Alleluia Singers put on their first musical theater production: Nic at Night by Kathie Hill. It was a wonderfully creative way for our community to gather, worship, and hear God’s word in a new way.

Nic at Night creatively tells the story of the pharisee, Nicodemus, covertly meeting with Jesus one night. This densely packed theological passage in the book of John contains one of the Bible’s most memorable proclamations:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

In the story, some local kids take notice of this high-status teacher sneaking around at night trying to meet with Jesus, who though a rabbi is garnering a reputation for going against rabbinical tradition, and even breaking God’s law. Nicodemus meeting with Jesus surely would have been frowned upon by his contemporaries.

In the process, Nicodemus learns as much about himself as he does about Jesus. In a moving solo, he sings the song “In the Dark” and admits:
“I was in the dark till I met the light; my cold, cold heart turned to Jesus Christ. I was in the dark, still my eyes could see, that even in the dark He was loving me.”

If only we all could meet with Jesus face to face! And yet, because of the Holy Spirit, we can meet with the risen Lord and know Jesus in a personal way. There are numerous opportunities for this, and I want to highlight a few:
Alpha will meet in the Wayside Cafe on Sunday evenings 6-8pm starting June 16 through July 28 (with a one-day Saturday retreat on Aug. 10 and a concluding session on Aug. 18).
ConneXions is a mid-size group that explores together what it means to put our knowledge and faith into action and lifestyle. They meet every Sunday at 9:30.
– There are several others through the summer, including women’s group The Well, men’s group True Men, and several weekday Bible studies. Find out more at UPPC.org “Pathways.”

May the beginning of your summer be a blessed season! We’ll continue our series on Moses next week!

In Grace,
MM

Moses – Murderer, Fugitive…Prophet?

“Will all the world’s oceans wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, instead my hands
Will stain the seas scarlet,
Turning the green waters red.”
— Macbeth, Act 2 scene 2

William Shakespeare had a remarkable gift for translating mere concepts into emotional realities.  In the above scene, Macbeth is suffering from the guilt of killing his king in order to take over the throne.  We all understand the intellectual concept of guilt; these words of Macbeth help bring the experience to life. 

Sometimes we forget that before he became a hero and the greatest prophet and priest of ancient Israel, Moses himself personally experienced this kind of guilt (Exodus 2:11-15). He had committed murder.  He had hidden the evidence.  He was on the run from the king.  We can only imagine his thoughts and feelings as he ran from the luxury of his adoptive royal family and off into the desert.  What will he do now?  Will he ever see his friends and family again? What must God think of him — the same God who had rescued him as a baby — now that he is a man?  Moses’ guilt and shame cannot be underestimated.  

In that moment, Moses could have never foreseen what God had in store for him. He knew he was a murderer and fugitive, but he could not have known he would one day be God’s prophet and lead the Hebrews to freedom. He could not have known just how true it is that God reveals redemption through broken people.

One of the fundamental revelations in the Bible about God is that God shows mercy to sinners. God is so often remembered only for the portrayals as wrathful, but anyone familiar with the Bible will remember that God has mercy even on the world’s first murderer, Cain, by offering him protection. God has mercy on Abraham, who is lauded for his faith but still made many mistakes. God will have mercy on Moses, though he cannot see how. And in the 21st century we sometimes take for granted God’s supreme act of mercy, when he destroyed sin and death on Jesus’ cross.

But God’s mercy does not spare us the hard lessons, as God shapes us through our failures. Surely Moses had been shaped by God’s mercy toward him when he asks God to extend the same mercy to the impatient Hebrews. And of course we don’t always enjoy that shaping. Jesus referred to it with the metaphor of a plant being pruned so that we will bear more fruit. Ouch. But we know that failure is one of life’s best teachers, so it stands to reason that God would utilize our failures to help us mature.

In those painful moments, it’s crucial to remember that God’s plans for us are far greater than we can imagine. Sitting by that well in Midian, looking down at his guilty, murderous hands, being chosen by God to lead the Hebrews to freedom was probably as far from Moses’ mind as the east is from the west. But this is also the distance from which God is willing to remove our sins from us (Ps. 103:12). So putting our faith into action as we work through our guilt and shame can sometimes be as simple (though not easy) as gritting our teeth and remembering what God has done for us in the past, including the distant past through people like Moses.

For reflection:
1) Can you recall a time when guilt was weighing you down? Did you work through it? How?
2) Guilt for wrong actions can often transform into a sense of shame, which says, “There is something wrong with me.” Are you wrestling with self-messages of shame? Are any of those messages undeserved?
3) God never appears in today’s passage, just as God doesn’t appear in 2:1-10. Does it encourage you to know that sometimes God may not be obviously present, and nevertheless working behind the scenes?
4) We often feel paralyzed by our own guilt — has it ever occurred to you that God’s will is in no way disabled by our guilt?
5) Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christians believe that sin itself has been put to death (2 Cor. 5:21). While we still live repentant lives, how does this once-for-all act of Jesus change how we think about guilt?

Many blessings,
MM

Re:Lent – Rebuke

“What is your name?” From the very beginning of creation, we have been given the ability to name things, including ourselves. Conversely, we have the opportunity to be known by name as well. Jesus was known by name. Known even by the demons.

In a memorable story from the book of Luke, Jesus traveled to a region called the Garasenes, a place where no respectable rabbi would ever go. And once there, he was accosted by a man Luke describes as demon-possessed. The man was naked and had lived outside for a long time, among the dead. Imagine that scene for a moment. What kinds of reactions or feelings would this scene arouse in you, were you in Jesus’ place?

Add one more element — this man knew Jesus by name. “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” Before Jesus answers, he insists on an admission of true identity.
“What is your name?”
And the demon’s response: “Legion.” (That always gives me the heebie-jeebies.)

How we define our identities matters much more than perhaps we think it does, and if we define ourselves based on untruths, we are bound to suffer. But when we are tempted to believe those lies, we can respond as Jesus did. And this kind of repentance is called “rebuke.” In contemporary culture, we rarely use that word (“Yeah, the boss totally rebuked me today.”) But it is the word that describes what Jesus does to Legion here. It is how Jesus responds to the lie that Legion was living out — and forcing one of God’s beloved people to live out too.

A few weeks ago we talked about the first miracle that Jesus did in the area of repentance — he called people to drop their nets. Nets for these fishermen were a symbol of identity. And long before they knew anything or had any reason to trust Jesus, they had to drop what and who they thought they were and let Jesus begin to re–create their identity based on the Truth.

One lie that makes it hard to “drop our nets” is that God is untrustworthy. Another lie is that God will make you do something awful, or make you sacrifice everything you love. And finally, another is that God cannot actually save you, so it’s a waste of time to give Christ your life. These are, of course, the same kinds of lies Jesus is tempted by in the wilderness.

And just as Jesus rebuked Satan in the wilderness, and just as Jesus rebuked Legion in the Garasenes, we too can rebuke the lies of God’s enemy. When we don’t, those lies can grow around us, slowly and invasively, like ivy climbing the trunk of an otherwise strong tree and sapping it of its life.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can rebuke the enemy and all his lies, and experience freedom to be the adopted daughters and sons of God through Jesus Christ that God calls us to be. We can live the truth that God redeems us to live.

For reflection:
1) Who are you? How do you define your identity? Whose influence over your identity do you allow into your life?
2) Legion tries to negotiate the terms of the exorcism — in what ways do we, even when rebuked in our own lies, still try to grasp at control?
3) Describe the man after the demon is gone. How would you describe his identity? How would you describe his experience in terms of “repentance” and “salvation”?

Many blessings,
Mike

Godspeed: Names

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many blessings,
MM

Godspeed: Rooted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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