Life lessons from the bike

After debating for months, I signed up for, and rode in a four day, 310 mile charity bike ride last week.  It was an unforgettable experience, and along the way I learned some valuable life lessons.

Here are some of my key takeaways from Ride Allegheny 2019:

Community is critical.

I was enthusiastically welcomed into a new “fraternity” or community.  Veteran riders offered encouragement and advice.  Fellow rookie riders shared our concerns, questions, and growing knowledge about the ride.  Rest stops and evenings provided a chance to share life together over food and drink (drinking seemed to be very important for quite a few riders).  And the ability to ride with others provided encouragement and motivation during the long hours in the saddle each day.

Community is a fundamental human need.  We’re created for community, and when we experience it, we’re closer to a flourishing life.  Without it, we’re going to shrivel on the ride called life.

Preparation isn’t everything.

It’s good to be prepared, and the ride organizers provided plenty of instructions ahead of time.  But you can’t prepare for everything.  You can’t eliminate every unknown or risk.  We had a few riders crash out.  Some taken away by ambulance.  There were bikes that broke down along the way.  Some riders had to abandon.  I had problems with muscle cramping despite training and more.  It’s good to prepare.  And it’s also good to know how to improvise.  That’s where some of our best learning and stories come from!

Most of us like to be prepared for life.  But there will be unknowns and surprises.  That’s when we’re forced to lean harder into God, the only truly predictable part of this life.  We improvise with one hand while holding tightly to God with the other.

You can only control yourself.

With 130 plus riders on a narrow trail, there are times when you have to navigate traffic.  I tried to hang out with riders who were reliable and predictable, but ultimately the only rider I can control is myself.  This is why I almost crashed out in the last 25 feet of the ride as a fellow rider slowed and swerved right across my path.

Control is a major life issue for many of us. We want to control the situation and people around us.  But no one around you wants to be controlled.  And they will push back if you try.  Instead, focus on controlling yourself, including your thoughts, your emotions, your tongue, and your reactions.  It may not be easy, but at least it’s possible.

Focus makes a difference.

By the third day I was sore and my legs were not interested in pedaling for another 90 miles.  For the first few hours of that day I rode mostly in silence, as I was focused on what wasn’t working well.  I thought about how sore I was, and how far I had to go.  It was only after lunch that I finally decided to put on a high-energy playlist on my headphones and let the music crank.  I was immediately able to ride better, stronger, and longer!  Suddenly my focus was OFF my own misery, and onto something better!

I’m reminded of the old hymn, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.”  There’s a line in that song that goes, “And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”  When my focus is on God and what he’s doing, then the stuff of this world fades somewhat.  I’m not suggesting we pretend we live in a different world, only that we learn to focus beyond just this world, and learn to see God, and see what he sees around us.  Focus on something better.

Community, preparation, control, and focus.  Some life lessons from the saddle of a bicycle on a ride from Pittsburgh to DC.  What about you?  What life lessons are you learning as you take on the next challenge?

-Pastor Mark


30 years of pastoring have taught me this

In 1989 I graduated seminary and took a position as Associate Pastor at a church plant.  30 years later I can say I’ve learned a few things.  They include:

  1. Following Jesus is a lifelong lesson in humility.
  2. It’s good to let Scripture and the Holy Spirit review and revise my most deeply held beliefs.
  3. Listening to people who disagree with you is the only way to grow.
  4. Following Jesus is the best way to avoid getting lost.
  5. God never fails to show up on time. Not my time, but his time.
  6. Ministry is messy, because it involves people, and we’ve all got messed up lives. Some of us are better at hiding the mess, but it’s there.
  7. Everybody avoids conflict. If they don’t, there’s something seriously wrong with them.  Conflict is hard, painful, and seldom produces the results you hope for.
  8. Jesus is better than you imagined. (Thank you Jonathan Merritt)
  9. Being right is not the most important thing in life.
  10. Everyone has a story that involves pain; until they share it you don’t really know them.
  11. We often expect superhuman qualities from our leaders, then wonder why they fail.
  12. It’s easy to overestimate our abilities, but impossible to overestimate God’s.
  13. Everybody wants to be fruitful, but nobody wants to be pruned.
  14. Jesus is the most misunderstood person in our culture.
  15. We believe many things about ourselves and our world that simply aren’t true.

There are multiple stories behind each of these.  I’ve shared some over the years. Others are still too raw.  This is not a final list. Stay tuned for more, and write your comments below.

-Pastor Mark

Was Jesus spiritual but not religious?

It’s a common distinction heard these days.  “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”  What about you?  For that matter, what about Jesus?

At a basic level, we’re ALL spiritual, since we’re created by a God who is spirit, and we’re made in his image.  But what about the religion thing?  Is religion a good thing?  A necessary thing?

Last Sunday at Seneca Creek we were introduced to the idea that Jesus came to “shut down religion.”  (That’s borrowed from Canadian pastor/author Bruxy Cavey.)

Does that phrase sound right to you?  Does it make you uncomfortable?  I sorta agree with Bruxy, and here’s why.  He points out that religion is generally understood to be the methods/means that mediate our connection with God.  Those methods could be a special person/priest, a special creed, a special set of rules to follow, special sacrifices you need to make, a special set of rituals or practices, or even a special place or facility.

Think about it like this.  Jesus lived and taught in a culture that was thick with religion.  There were the priests, who literally stood between the people and God.  There were the animal (and other) sacrifices, meant to atone for sin, to appease God, etc.  There were traditions and rituals, such as the Sabbath, and the festivals.  There were rules to follow, beginning with the Ten Commandments, and then further expanded into the 613 commandments.  There was a special place, the Temple, where the high priest would meet with God and represent the people.

Yet as Cavey points out, Jesus systematically dismantled all these aspects of religion.

For all practical purposes, it would appear that Jesus did, in fact, “shut down religion.”  He became the only thing needed to mediate us to God.  Or as the apostle Paul put it,

There is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 2:5

Does that mean there’s no reason to worship, to gather together, to encourage one another with God’s truth, to share our story of God’s faithfulness, or to serve one another as a living organism, the “Body of Christ”?  Of course it doesn’t mean that.  None of those are ways to “mediate us to God.”  They’re actually ways to respond to God’s calling on our life, or more specifically, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.  But if Jesus did shut down religion, what does it mean?

  • It does mean that you don’t need a member of the clergy to connect you with God.
  • It does mean that you can worship and walk with God any time, any place, not simply for an hour on Sunday.
  • It does mean that you can focus on “loving God and loving your neighbor” instead of all the other rules you may be worried about. (Although you’ll be shocked at how much everything changes when you simply do those two).
  • It does mean that you can be a functioning part of God’s purpose in your classroom, your cubicle, your boardroom, or your bedroom.
  • It does mean that your life can be a “living sacrifice” which pleases God, as Paul talks about.

If Jesus was spiritual but not religious, then he has more in common with many of us that perhaps we’ve been led to believe.

Let me know your thoughts below.

-Pastor Mark


How does reading change your life?

Christianity is a book-based faith.  Historically, Christians have been “people of the Book.”  But is that changing?

The widespread availability of digital Bibles is changing the reading habits of Christians.  But is that a change for the better?

I had a conversation this summer with another pastor.  We discussed our reading habits, and both agreed that there seems to be something qualitatively different between ink and paper reading, vs. pixel and screen reading.  But is it just our imagination?  Our beloved traditions? Do younger generations always adopt the latest methods?  Do older people cling to old traditions just because they’re familiar?

Reading has the capacity to change what we know, how we think, and ultimately, how we live.  Written words can have an enormous influence in our life!  How is that affected by the way we choose to read?  I thought it might be helpful to survey the readers of this blog.  If you regularly read the Bible, what format do you primarily use, paper, or digital?  And why do you use that format?  Is it convenience?  Tradition?  Retention?  Or something else?

So if you have two minutes to fill in the following survey, I would be grateful.  Please choose one “frequency” option, one “method” option, and one “reason” option.  The results could help us all as we find the best ways to read the words of life contained in the Bible.  Thanks in advance!

-Pastor Mark

P.S. If you’d like to explore this conversation further, here are some resources:

Screens Are Changing The Way We Read Scripture, by Karen Swallow Prior

Your paper brain and your Kindle brain aren’t the same thing, (including audio link)

Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World,  by Maryanne Wolf

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr

How to raise a welcomer (a guest post)

In our increasingly global and mobile world, how do we learn to welcome others, especially those not like us?

The following article is from a group called The Immigration Alliance, a partnership of faith based organizations attempting to live out the biblical instructions on how to treat the stranger, the alien, the foreigner, the immigrant. At it’s core it’s living out the instruction to love our neighbor.

And if you’re a parent, this could be particularly helpful.

The article begins like this:

A new school year has begun and with that greater opportunity to connect with our immigrant neighbors, new Americans. I am reminded of a book I read with my daughter over the summer, The Hundred Dresses by Elenor Estes. Although this book was published several years ago, in 1944 to be exact, the story is timeless and surely appropriate today.

To read the rest of the article, click here.


Embarrassed by other Christians?

Have you ever been sitting in traffic and seen a Christian bumper sticker on the car in front of you? And then the person violates a traffic law, drives aggressively, or flips someone the bird. In that moment, what do you think?

Maybe you think,

  • They’re a new Christian and a diamond in the rough.
  • They must have just borrowed/bought the car from someone and don’t know that sticker is on the bumper.
  • I’m embarrassed to be a Christian right now.
  • They’re acting like me except I don’t want to admit it.

I often think, “They’re making my job as a pastor more challenging.” And then I think, “It’s probably a good thing I don’t have a sticker on my car!” Because I’m not sure I want someone observing my driving while thinking I’m a follower of Jesus. 😊

What if we shifted the scene from cars to homes? Does your home have a “bumper sticker” that proclaims that you’re a follower of Jesus? (Answer: Yes it does.) When your neighbors sit in their homes and see your sticker, what do they think?

I’m not writing this to make anyone writhe in guilt, but to help us realize that day in and day out, our lives are on display. We’re displaying the work of God in our lives, or at least, we COULD be. This is not a call for perfection, but reflection.

Where is God at work in your life? And where does that show up in your home or neighborhood? To quote Jesus, “You will be my witnesses or You are the light of the world.” Where does God want to bring change into your life if you’ll let him? Because a transformed life is pretty much the opposite of an embarrassing Christian.

-Pastor Mark

3 ways to make your vacation memorable

Are you still looking forward to getting away for a week, or a weekend?  Most of us enjoy the break in our routines, and the chance to relax.  Here are three ways you may not have thought about that can make your vacation memorable (even if it’s a staycation).

  1. Use your free time to connect with God. Maybe you already have a regular habit of reading the Bible and/or prayer.  If so, you know the benefits.  But so many of us find that these habits gets pushed to the side because of all the other demands for our time.  Why not take 15 minutes each day on your vacation and connect with God. It could provide some remarkable insights.
  2. Look for conversations that God may put in front of you. It doesn’t mean you have to become an extrovert, but simply be aware that even on vacation, God is at work in the people around you…and may actually have positioned you in that stretch of the beach, or that cabin, or that coffee shop to listen to someone else’s story.  One simple question like, “what’s been the most challenging part of your year” could be the beginning of an incredible conversation.
  3. Check out a different church service. I’ve noticed that many people use vacation to sleep in on Sunday.  But there’s nothing wrong with getting up and visiting a local church.  In fact, there are a few upsides to it.  First, you could be a huge encouragement to them.  Second, you might learn to appreciate another expression of the church.  And third, you just might pick up some great idea that could be implemented once you return to Seneca Creek.  We’re always looking to learn and grow!

I believe that if you do one or all of these, you’ll take a big leap forward in making your vacation more memorable than it otherwise would have been.

And when you do, I’d love to hear about your experience.  You can share it here, or drop me an email.  And in the meantime, enjoy your summer holidays!

-Pastor Mark

The war on hunger in the land o’ plenty

Do you know how many different items your local grocery store keeps in stock?  Typically it’s about 42,000 different items.  But that pales in comparison to a local store that my wife and I frequently visit.

The local grocery store near me stocks around 70,000 different items!  That’s a staggering variety, and an enormous example of the super-abundance of food in this country.  (It’s also why some people avoid that particular store because it’s almost TOO big!)

So how is it that in a country with so much abundance we still have hunger problems?  How is it that we have so many families and individuals living with food-insecurity?

The answers to those questions are complex and clouded.  But here’s one thing that’s clear.  We have an opportunity to do something about it.  You and I may not be able to fix the problem, but we can help alleviate food-insecurity for those right here in our own community.

There are thousands of people in our area who rely on the public schools to help feed their kids when the budget gets stretched too thin.  However, during the summer months, those kids aren’t in school, and so the family budgets get strained even more.  Often those families reach out to the local food banks during the summer.  And donations to these food banks typically drop off during the summer as people travel, etc.

So every June, Seneca Creek partners with local food banks and hosts a food drive.  Our goal this year is 400 bags of groceries, and as of earlier this week we’re already at 250 bags.  If you’d like to help us hit 400 by the end of June, be sure to drop off your groceries by this Sunday at our office at 13 Firstfield Rd., Gaithersburg, MD.

Together we can help make a difference in the war on hunger right here in the land o’ plenty that we call home.

-Pastor Mark

P.S. If you didn’t get a chance to pick up a bag with the attached list, here are the items we’re trying to gather:

Canned fruit • Canned soup • Canned tuna • Canned vegetables • Cereal • Dry, plain pasta • Jelly • Macaroni and cheese boxes • Peanut butter • Rice • Spaghetti sauce

P.P.S. If you’re reading this and are not local to Montgomery County Maryland, or Seneca Creek, please check for a food bank in your community and ask how you can help them.


Call-screening the big one

True confession: I kinda like technology–sorta a lot. There’s a really cool feature on my phone. When an unknown number calls, I can choose one of three buttons on the screen. Two of them are typical: Answer or Ignore. But the third button is unique.

The third option is a button that says Screen Call. If I select that, then a very human sounding voice answers my phone, and asks the caller to give their name and the nature of their call. As this computer driven conversation is taking place, it’s all transcribed in real time on my screen. I can literally see what the caller is saying, and then choose to answer, or to ask for more details, or to send a brief message.

I’ve had any number of callers get a little freaked out by this feature. People who spent their professional lives calling people remark, “I’ve never heard anything like that…I wasn’t sure how to respond…where can I get that feature” and so on.

Here’s my point. We like to call screen in life, too. Especially when God calls. Maybe we don’t hit the “ignore” button, but we don’t answer, either. We want more details. We want to see it spelled out in front of us, “God, what in particular is the nature of your call…what’s your agenda?”

What’s remarkable is how accommodating God is to this approach. He will often give us detail after detail after detail. (There’s a whole collection of his details in a unique collection of 66 books.) Or he’ll keep calling and saying, “This is your heavenly Father calling. Please pick up the phone.” We often suspect God has an agenda and a mission that we may or may not want to hear about. I believe that for the most part God is calling simply because he wants to connect with us. With you. He’s your heavenly Father. And you’re his son or daughter. No other reason. Usually. But if there is, it’s worth hearing him out.

So if God’s number shows up on the screen of your life this week, how will you respond? Will you hit the “Ignore” button? Will you “Answer”? Or will you choose the “Screen Call” button? If so, I would suggest that God’s responses can be read in real time on the screen of your life.

-Pastor Mark

P.S. If you want more info on how to recognize God’s calling, be sure to check out our latest series, “Answering God’s Call.”

What about the little people?

It’s often the little people who don’t have a voice.  You know, the ones who are “seen but not heard.”  There’s a real danger when this happens.

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “children should be seen and not heard.”  Which, if you’ve ever spent a day with a toddler who is learning the word “why,” you can certainly understand.  However, when someone or anyone is “not heard” they can soon become “not noticed.”  And that can be a very dangerous situation.  (Think about what went thru your mind that last time you realized that you were completely unnoticed.)

The church is often seen as the domain of the older generation.  Our programs, our conversations and our decisions are often made BY and FOR grown-ups.  At the same time, untold books and articles lament the loss of young adults in today’s church community.  Could that be because their voice has not been heard?  Or that their concerns have not been addressed?  Or that their ideas have not been considered?

At Seneca Creek we’re committed to standing with and for those who are not yet adults (as well as those taking their first steps into adulthood).  Our staffing and ministry decisions are guided by the belief that today’s children and students are not “the church of tomorrow” as much as they are the church of today.  PowerHouse, Ignition, and Quest are part of how we put these commitments into action.  And to all the staff and volunteers who give of themselves in these areas, I want to say, “Thank you!”

  • Thank you for choosing to be strategic in spending your time.
  • Thank you for being patient with kids, students, volunteers and staff.
  • Thank you for making Seneca Creek a place where age-appropriate content meets the real world questions and concerns of today’s kids and students.
  • Thank you for the untold hours you invest, and the uncounted prayers you pray for the “little people.”
  • Thank you for helping us make sure that they have a voice, a place to grow, a community to connect with, and adults who demonstrate what the church is designed to be.

Over the years we’ve had the privilege of watching kids and students grow into amazing adults who take their faith and their gifts and their experience at Seneca Creek and make a difference for the kingdom of God.  Maybe you know some of them.  They are a living testimony to what happens when the “little people” have a voice.

If you’d like to help us continue this tradition of building God’s kingdom starting with kids and students, check out some of the ways you can help here, here, here, or here.

And regardless of where or how you serve, thank you for making a difference.

-Pastor Mark

P.S. Don’t miss this Sunday, June 16, as we highlight our current students and unveil some exciting news for the students and young adults!