You Feed Them, There is Enough

I’m not sure when the “holiday season” starts these days. Is it mid-September when I actually saw Christmas items on some store shelves? Or maybe right after Halloween? In any case, it’s probably by the time Starbucks releases their long-awaited holiday-themed merch. When the holiday season does finally begin, two things come to my mind: meals and giving. In both cases, whether we’re hosting a meal or preparing gifts, we naturally ask our selves the question: “Is this enough?

That question has permeated all of human history, including the history told in the Bible. And far too often, the world seems to shout back at us, “No! There’s isn’t enough!” And this is what makes Jesus’ life so baffling. In particular the fateful evening when he fed thousands of people using only enough for a few.

Having just been given the news of his cousin’s brutal and unjust execution, Jesus retreats, no doubt to grieve. But his grief would have to wait as thousands of needy people call on him. Led by compassion, he serves them until nightfall, when his friends state the obvious: they’re hungry, so let them go get dinner. Jesus’ responses are legendary:
“You give them something to eat.”
Surely in some disbelief, they remind him they have only enough for themselves. Then his second response:
“Bring it here to me.”

The rest is, as they say, history. So what was Jesus seeing that the disciples weren’t able to see? In short, that God created a world in which there is enough. The key is learning to experience it, and then give it away.

Jesus’ view of the world apparently resembles the Genesis 1-2 world: a world of overabundant resources, given by a loving Father. But that view was corrupted when the man and woman were deceived by the serpent. Remember, his deceptions were not generic, but rather laser-focused. First, he would plant the seed of mistrust: “Did God really say you could not eat…?” When that fails, he would plant the seed of envy: “That’s just because God didn’t want you to actually be in charge, to actually have the final say in your own life. I thought he put you in charge, but I guess not…” Mistrust and envy make a wicked fruit, and human beings have been eating it ever since.

But Jesus insists on undoing those lies and showing people the greater truth–a truth that will set us free from mistrust and envy, free to give of the overabundance of God’s world … free to give as God gives. Here are six basic principles I’ve gleaned out of today’s story, and the Bible overall:

Our Creator provides what we need. I know it sounds too simple, but this is where it starts.  This is step one in telling the serpent to slither away! But do we really live like we believe it?  Do we live like God will provide despite the circumstances, like he did through Jesus and Moses before him — bread to a hungry people in a remote place?  (If you noticed that coincidence, good job; you’re supposed to notice it!) 

Our Creator provides differently than the world expects. God might give us SOMETHING quite different than what we expected.  How many testimonies include the phrase, “I never expected this to happen, but…” God might give TO SOMEONE who is different than we expected.   Finally, the toughest one: God might give to someone MORE OR LESS than he gives you.  Part of trusting God is refusing to judge what God gives, and to whom he gives it.

Our Creator does not guarantee that we’ll understand his provision. Back to the garden we go!  The sin Adam and Eve commit is grounded in the hubris that comes with insisting that the Creator of the cosmos operate only at a level that we understand, or even more, that we approve of!  But a so-called “god” whom I can fully comprehend is truly just a figment of my imagination.  

Our Creator does guarantee that we will be an instrument for his provision. Yes, there is an intentional similarity between God provided bread in the desert with Moses and bread in this remote place with Jesus.  But there is one crucial difference. In the Sinai desert, the manna appeared each morning on its own.  But in the new covenant, the bread doesn’t just appear. God’s people give their own, and God multiplies it.  Same God, same gift — new method. Why would God choose this method?

Our Creator does not need our money, but insists on our trust. In the words of Bono, “The God I believe in isn’t short of cash, mister.”  Of course he isn’t.  What God desires from us is our heart.  The greatest commandment is not “Love the Lord with all your money.”  It is, “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” But here’s the thing.  The one who created our heart, mind, soul, and strength, knows exactly what guides them. And so Jesus taught… 

Our Creator gave us hearts that go where our treasure is. Note the order.  Most fundraisers will try to appeal to your heart, so that you will then send your treasure that way.  But Jesus teaches the opposite. Your treasure doesn’t go where your heart is — your heart goes wherever you send your treasure.  

You want to invest your heart in things that pass away?  So did Adam and Eve. But if you want to invest in that which will never pass away; if you want to take part in miracles; then listen to Jesus, as he says “Bring what you have to me.”  And watch him multiply it, not only for others, but your transformation as well.

For reflection:

  • Make a simple, bullet-pointed list of that which God has provided for you. Include material and non-material provision. Does anything surprise you?
  • Of that which God has given you, what can be used to provide for those around you? Again, include material and non-material things.
  • God calls us to be wise stewards of what we’re given. Are you giving to others (church, charity, etc.) in a way that you feel is wise?
  • The feeding of the give thousand also calls us to be ready to give in a way that feels risky, even ridiculous. Do you ever give in a way that feels like this?
  • What is one thing you could do to take a step out of “safe giving” and toward faith-informed “risky giving?”
  • If your heart goes where your treasure is, do you manage your wealth in a way that directs your heart toward God, what God cares about, and God’s promise to take care of you?
  • What is the interplay between providing for yourself, providing for your loved ones, providing for others in need, and relinquishing control of all your providing in the hands of God?

Six Hazards to Avoid on the Discipleship Pathway

I have recently been reminded of an important characteristic of being human — we are designed to practice and learn new skills. My main hobby and fitness regimen is Taekwondo, and for the past two weeks we have been practicing the fundamental steps of what’s known as a 540 spin hook kick. I would demonstrate it for you, but…I’m still practicing. Suffice it to say that I’m having to re-learn how to use my body in an entirely new way!

It has been a good reminder that in addition to practicing new skills, we can also grow mature in those skills (proven by my teacher doing the kick like it’s no big deal). But ironically, sometimes it is our mastery itself that can become an obstacle to growth. Sometimes, to grow we must unlearn what we thought we knew and begin again.

“Dear Younger Me:  You won’t spiritually mature just because you are a Christian.  It takes practice to learn how to walk the pathway of discipleship.  And sometimes, you must forget what you think you know and start learning all over again.”

This series is based on the idea that we can share the wisdom we’ve learned through experience. While wisdom is often associated with a kind of deep knowledge, it also includes the idea of skill. In fact, the Hebrew word translated “wisdom” can also mean “skill.” So, to be wise is to be “skilled at life.” And to build skills, we have to practice.

Paul knew this. In this letter to the Ephesians, he spends the first half reiterating the heart of the Gospel — that by God’s grace we are re-created in Christ, into new lives. Here are the Gospel basics from ch. 2:1-10

  • We were all once dead in our sins;
  • But because of his great love for us, God made us alive with Christ;
  • For it is by grace we have been saved, through faith;
  • It is the gift of God, for we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus 

And so, because by God’s grace we are given new life in Christ, we are called to a new way of living. The second half of Paul’s letter, chapters 4-6, get into those details. And that latter half begins with Paul’s eloquent description of the process of living this new life as we grow toward maturity. That process is like a pathway on which we are called to journey. It is not always smooth, of course. It has hills and valleys, caverns and caves, and there are many hazards to trip us up along the way. So here are six pathway hazards to avoid, and alternatives to do instead, as you walk with Jesus.

1. Reject excuses — Accept your gifts

There’s a difference between excuses and obstacles. Obstacles legitimately stand in the way of something. But an excuse is a false obstacle we create to let ourselves off the hook.   Instead, take an inventory of what God has given us — limited though it may seem at times — and say “with these gifts, I’ll move forward in my walk with Jesus.”

2. Leap over fear — Trust the process

Fear is based on our inability to know the future.  Like on a high ropes course, you may have seen others go before you, but still be wondering, “What if my rope is the first one to break?!”  When it comes to following Jesus, similar fears can trip us up. “What will my friends think? What if I look weird?  What if I don’t understand it? ” But instead of letting fear trip you up, trust the process and the sisters and brothers who have gone before you.

3. Beware of comfort — Find peace in discomfort

Everyone loves a comfy set of flannel PJs or new slippers.  But to learn or grow in anything, actually, requires a degree of discomfort.  Jesus actually did promise that we could have peace.  But comfort?  He actually promised we’d have the opposite.  So if we want to grow, we need to find peace in being (at least a little) uncomfortable. 

4. Sidestep blame — Take responsibility

One of the greatest recent changes in the institutional church is the realization that its primary role is to do what Paul says right here in 4:12: “to equip Christ’s people for works of service.”  When the institutional church is seen as the primary “doer” of ministry, it’s all too easy to blame the church for my own lack of spiritual growth: “The reason I’m not growing is because the Church isn’t doing something for me.”  But when we take responsibility for being functional, contributing members of the Church as Christ’s living Body, then we’ll begin experience spiritual growth.

5. Refuse passivity — Lean into the “hill” 

Passivity can actually lead to blame, because it’s characterized by having something done to me or for me — rather than an active pursuit.  If discipleship is like a pathway, then when that pathway goes up a steep hill, passivity will stop me or even make me fall backward.  It happens. We call it “backsliding.”  The alternative is to lean into the hill, and actively pursue spiritual maturity.

6. Resist riding others’ coattails — Walk your own walk.

This is a common experience in a community.  For example, it’s common in a marriage for one spouse to be spiritually maturing, while the other spouse basically tags along.  And what about kids?  As kids grow up, it’s easy for them to ride the momentum of mom’s or dad’s faith without growing into their own faith.  But as a professor of mine once said, “God has no grandchildren.”  You can’t inherit your parents’ faith.  And for that matter, God also has no in-laws; you can’t marry into the Body of Christ either.  So rather than trying to ride someone else’s coattails — vicariously applying their spiritual growth to ourselves — take one step at a time and walk your own walk with Jesus.

A couple parting thoughts:
1) Don’t try to think your way into spiritual maturity any more than you think your way into playing the piano, cooking a 4-course meal, or doing a 540 spin hook kick. You’ll only know what you need to practice when you start to practice.
2) It’s okay to try something in discipleship and realize it’s not helping you grow. It’s not a test, it’s a learning process. Let that thing go and pursue another avenue of growth with Jesus.
3) Visit UPPC.org > Pathways to see what discipleship opportunities there are for you in our local body. It’s updated every quarter. In the meantime, engage with the teachings on Sundays, online, or by listening to our weekly podcast Bible Jazz.

For reflection:
– When you think about someone being “spiritually mature” what kind of person do you envision?
– Do you have a way of measuring your own growth in spiritual maturity? Or does the goal seem too foggy to move toward?
– We teach that there are four discipleship fundamentals: Scripture Fluency, Active Prayer, Intentional Community, and Acts of Service. Do you have room to grow more mature in any of those?
– If you’re ready to get active in your own growth as Jesus’ disciple, do you know what your next steps are? Do you know where to find guidance?

In peace,
MM

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.

“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

Moses: By Faith

Our Lent series on repentance led us to Easter, where Jesus’ resurrection promises the forgiveness of sins, but also the believer’s entry into an entirely new world. So it’s fitting now to begin a new teaching series on Moses, who is perhaps most famous for his role in leading the Hebrews to a new land.

The New Testament book called “Hebrews” helps Christians understand our faith in the much, much broader context of the stories of “the ancients” — our predecessors in faith. In particular, Hebrews 11:23-29 recounts some of the most memorable moments of Moses’ life of faith. But many of us have not taken much time to consider what the ancients have to teach us. Rather, the modern mindset is often reversed, beholden to the assumption that what is younger and newer has more to offer than what is older and time-tested. This reversal of logic is fed by the ubiquitous consumerism in which we live, which preaches that it’s our right to have our unique needs met, and it’s our right to have whatever is new and updated.

Still, we know what it means to recognize the impact of those who have gone before us — those who had to live by faith in a future they would never see. Consider the experience of looking through an old family photo album. These aren’t just people in weird clothes or with odd hairstyles. You’re looking into the eyes of our mothers and fathers, our recent ancestors who were then experiencing as much uncertainty (or more) as we are now. Reading stories of the ancients is like looking at the family photo album of our faith. And Moses is in a lot of the photos.

Moses’ faith was so influential that he is one of only two people who lived during the Old Testament period and then also appear in the New Testament, when Jesus meets with him and Elijah on the mount of transfiguration. Moses’ faith was so influential that Jewish people to this day retell the story of the exodus from Egypt, which Moses led under God, during Passover. Moses’ faith was so influential that it helped him persevere being hotly pursued by the most powerful army in the world. Moses’ faith was so influential that thousands were saved from bondage, thousands would come to know themselves as God’s people, and eventually through Christ countless billions through the centuries would become adopted daughters and sons of the most high God and be set free from the bondage of sin and death.

And ironically, Moses didn’t even physically make it to the land God promised his people.

For the next 17 weeks, we’re going to journey with Moses. We’re going to see what his story can tell us about our own stories, how his faith sets the stage for our faith, and how his life became the archetype for Jesus, who is the “pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

For reflection:
– Can you think of something an ancestor of yours did that you still benefit from? (Example: a great-grandparent that immigrated to the U.S.)
– Can you think of something you are doing now that is setting the stage for a future you may never see?
– When you think of Moses, what are the first things that come to mind?
– When you think of Moses, does anything distasteful or unpleasant come to mind?
– What does it mean to you, to “live by faith?”

Many blessings,
MM

Re:Lent – Recreate

Sometimes, we need to be reminded that there is truth about the world that we simply cannot yet see.

This week, Pastor Aaron recounted a (hilarious) story of a rigorous backpacking trip with his family and some friends. The 9-mile hike to the lake was grueling and Aaron honestly told us that several miles in, he was ready to quit! Of course, the group persevered and discovered, when the tree line parted in front of them, the grand beauty of the mountain lake. And they were able to enjoy a couple of days of heaven-on-earth.

“The worst thing is not the last thing.” –Frederick Buechner
Jesus’ disciples had just endured the worst thing they could have imagined — not an uphill mountain hike, but an uphill death march to Jesus’ crucifixion. For centuries, Christ’s followers have tried to imagine what it would have felt like to see the one they called Teacher, Master, and Friend betrayed, shamed, and executed. No wonder, then, that they all had to process Jesus’ resurrection in their own way. The gospel of John spends ample time on a disciple named Thomas, and the way he responded to the news: “So the other disciples told [Thomas], ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe'” (John 20:25).

The question is: what did Thomas really need? Was he doubting the news the way we typically think of doubt? Or was Thomas a pragmatist, unable to simply take his friends at their word (and a seemingly outrageous word at that!), and instead wanting to experience this news first-hand? In any case, Thomas’s realistic view of his world is one that most moderns like ourselves can certainly empathize with. We live in a post-Enlightenment, “scientific” age that claims everything we can know and need to know is attainable by way of empirical evidence and sensory experience. Many of us are like Thomas. So we can learn, as he had to learn, that there are truths (even facts, gasp!) about the world we inhabit that we have not nor cannot apprehend without God’s gracious revelation.

This is why Thomas utters such a profoundly repentant statement when Jesus does give him the gift of first-hand experience. Having touched Jesus’ wounds with his own hand, Thomas said: “My Lord and my God!” Is there any more profound way of turning away from trying to occupy a place of omniscience and turning toward the freedom of faith?

This Easter, and really every day of the year, God invites us to new experience of the resurrection life Jesus began, and therefore to a much larger vision of the paths that each of us are walking along. Jesus even gave a blessing to you and me, and countless people that would follow him in the years to come: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). What is that blessing? It is to have our vision widened from the small and temporary kingdoms of this world, to the large, eternal, and life-giving reign of God as we await the completion of the new creation begun in Jesus’ resurrection.

For reflection:
– In what ways are you like Thomas today, facing obstacles to your belief in Jesus’ resurrection?
– Beyond intellectual “faith,” what obstacles might be standing in your way of letting go of your vision for your life and beginning to learn about God’s vision for your life?
– Is there a relationship in your life that needs to be reconciled?
– Is there a disappointment in your life that you need to confront God about?
– Is there a wrongdoing you’ve committed that you need to confess and be free of?

May you know new life this Easter!
Pastor Mike

Re:Lent – Resist

I was thinking this week about the early-2000s TV show, “Supernanny.” Jo Frost visited parents struggling with extremely resistant children, even kids who got violent and screamed “I hate you!” Psychologist Dr. Deborah MacNamara writes that childhood resistance “stems from a human instinct called counterwill…when [we feel] coerced or controlled by others…Kids are only supposed to follow and obey the people they are attached to.  The only thing that trumps the counterwill is that of the attachment instinct.”

Mark 14:1-9 records a story about those who resisted Jesus and one woman who was truly attached to him. As this week brings us toward the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we’re going to look back to its very beginning, when he was subjected to three temptations in the wilderness, to see that Jesus resisted and overcame, because of the strength of his attachment to his heavenly Father.   

Jesus’ first temptation was for instant gratification. In today’s passage, the disciples were tempted to try and make Jesus their expectations of a messiah. The disciples needed to learn that as satisfying as it would have been to have Jesus gallop in on a stallion and retake Jerusalem by force, it would be a short-term reward, challenged sooner or later by whichever worldly king was next in line with bigger horses and  sharper swords. Immediate gratification is alluring.  But Jesus faced another temptation, too: the temptation of worldly success.

Jesus’ second temptation was for success. For Jesus, it was the temptation to prove his legitimacy as the Son of God by offering a mighty show of power.  For the disciples, it was the temptation to prove their legitimacy, by offering a mighty show of their own goodness. They had good intentions to feed the poor, I’m sure. Nevertheless, while the woman is devoted to Jesus himself, the disciples show that they are putting their work before their Lord.

Finally, Jesus was tempted with honor. Satan offered to let him be Lord of “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” Now, I don’t think the disciples faced quite that same kind of temptation!  But if Jesus was who they thought he was — the king who would liberate them from Rome — then they would have seen honor coming in the near future.  James and John even made this audacious request of Jesus: ““Teacher…Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”  They wanted to be honored right alongside Jesus.  

In all three of the temptations we’ve looked at here, there is a stark contrast between the ways of God and the ways of the world.  These temptations may seem familiar, as we all face them at some point, in some form.  That’s why Jesus gives us the opportunity to have repentant hearts, and live repentant lives.  To resist the temptation to settle for anything less than the abundant life God wants us to experience.

For reflection:
1) When you think of “resisting temptation” was typically comes to mind?
2) Some things that tempt us are petty, while others are more important. Can you think of examples in each category?
3) Paul writes that our struggle is not against things of this world — what do you think we are we struggling against spiritually?

Many blessings,
MM

Re:Lent — Rethink

There is a sentiment in our culture that I find pretty fascinating, and it’s wrapped up in a brief little expression: “You do you.” (Or maybe, “Just do you.”) On one hand, I get it. We want to give people the space they need to live the way they need to live. And that personal freedom is a hallmark of American life. But “You do you” seems too general, too all-inclusive. It doesn’t leave room for wise discernment. And the irony is that most people who advocate for a “You do you” society can actually have some pretty strong opinions about just what “you do.”
Take a look at this recent Diet Coke ad for an example of “Just do you.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEpuN7tRFRU

I’m not the only person who thinks that there needs to be room for wise discernment. This parody of the Diet Coke ad suggests that there probably should be limits on our personal freedoms:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LI8AcL_LKME

Both the ad and its parody are trying to navigate the question of when we should or shouldn’t care about or comment on other people’s lives. In Matthew 7:1-5, Jesus addresses this balance with one of his best metaphors: the ol’ plank-in-the-eye. People love to quote the first three words of this passage: “Do not judge.” And they’re right to quote it. There are times when it is simply wrong to pass judgment on someone. And it is probably always wrong to presume to pass ultimate judgment on someone. But did Jesus mean “Just do you, whatever that is”?

Whenever I’ve heard people cite Jesus’ command, “Do not judge,” I have never heard them follow up with his command at the end of the passage, in verse 5: “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s [or sister’s] eye.” The truth is that while we are forbidden to do what only God can do and “judge” someone, we are also forbidden to notice a speck in someone’s eye and ignore it like it doesn’t matter. To be hyper-aware of others’ sins or to ignore them are both off track. Jesus is calling us to repent of these easy paths and instead exercise “sound judgment” (Prov. 3:21). There are times when it is more loving to address the smudge on someone’s face. But the point is in how we should do it.

If we want to do good for someone, to “remove their speck,” we will be more Christ-like when we begin with the grateful attitude of a recipient of mercy. That is, when we remember that the source of our goodness is God. And because of God’s goodness in Christ, we are given mercy, sinners though we are. To identify ourselves this way is not “negative” or “shaming.” It’s just true. Acknowledging it can enable us to humbly “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) and earn a hearing with our sisters or brothers, because they know that while they may have a speck, we have had a plank in ours. So there’s no “judgment.” But there is help. And hope.

For reflection:
– Can you think of ways a “just do you” sentiment could be bad for a person, or even for a community?
– Can you think of any examples from world news in which someone is casting judgment without dealing with the plank in their eye? What is the “speck” they seem to be noticing? What is the “plank” they’re ignoring?
– Why do you think Jesus uses the comparison of “speck” and “plank?”
– Take a look at all of Matthew chapters 5 through 7 — in what other practices does Jesus accuse people of hypocrisy?
– Do you have a plank in your eye that you have been ignoring? What can you do to address it?

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