It’s here.  Did you miss it?

Spring has arrived. But some of us are still stuck in winter.

There’s a condition of the soul that can best be described as winter. It’s dark, cold, and bleak. It causes us to avoid public places, focus on our problems, and dream of better days.

We know that the actual winter will eventually give way to spring. But sometimes it can seem like the winter of our soul is permanent. Almost like conditions in Narnia, “Always winter but never Christmas.”

When the days get longer, when the sun gets closer and warmer, then spring emerges. It’s a bit like that for the winter of our soul as well. When the light and warmth of God gets closer and warmer, our soul-winter begins to thaw, and hope springs again.

So how do we facilitate that kind of transition? I would suggest that one thing we can do when caught in the winter of our soul, is to seek out the light and warmth of God as revealed in his written word, the Bible. As I wrote a few weeks ago, Lent is a wonderful chance to adopt a new habit. The temptation is to avoid God’s word. It doesn’t “feel good.” But just like those late days of winter, we don’t always see immediate results of more light and warmth.

You may want to begin with Jesus. Start in one of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John). Just read. Set aside an hour one evening and read the entire gospel. Let the person and message of Jesus begin to seep into the dark, cold places of your soul. Then read it again later. If you persist in this, you will eventually notice that the winter of your soul is being punctuated by signs of life. A blade of grass here, a flower popping up there. And before you know it, spring will have arrived.

Know that you’re in good company. No less than the famous artist Chance the Rapper recently stepped away from his normal routines for an extended sabbatical of getting to know God’s word.

[Here’s a related article with some great suggestions on how to implement this in your own life.]

You can’t control the seasons. And you can’t even control the arrival of soul-winter. But you can do something to accelerate the arrival of spring. Start packing your scarves and gloves in a box. Start watching for signs of life. Don’t miss it.

-Pastor Mark

Spend it while you can

Have you ever signed up for one of those “flex spending” accounts? They’re designed to reduce your overall costs for things like childcare and healthcare.  But there’s a catch.

You’ve got to spend the money within a limited amount of time.  If you don’t spend it before the deadline, you lose it.

Which is kinda like life itself.  We have a limited time in which to spend the gifts God has entrusted to us.  If we don’t spend them before time is up, then the opportunity is lost.  The benefit is squandered.

Did you realize that God has entrusted you with gifts like time, relationships, talents, insights, and even spiritual gifts?  Have you ever thought about the urgency of “spending” those while you have the opportunity?

Something to ponder as we move into the glorious season of springtime here in Maryland.  What is that opportunity that’s calling you?

  • It might be a new initiative
  • It might be a new relationship
  • It might be a difficult conversation
  • It might be a change in your habits (big or small)
  • It might be a turn in the direction of your life
  • It might be a need in someone else’s life that you’re uniquely positioned to help meet

Why not use the resources and assets at your disposal and spend them now while you can?

-Pastor Mark

The trouble with the land of milk and honey

Last weekend I had the privilege of spending time with Eliudi Issangya, a friend and colleague from Tanzania.  After seeing vending machines for automobiles and experiencing next-day delivery from you-know-who, he made the following observation:

“America is the land of milk and honey.”

It’s a phrase from the pages of the Bible, often used to describe the “promised land” that God would provide for the nation of Israel.  But Eliudi observed that it’s easy for people who grow up in a place like the US (a land of abundance) to assume this is how everyone lives.

They don’t.

I mean, we know that, but we forget that.  Living with so much abundance and opportunity can lull us into a slumber that closes our eyes to the harsh realities of much of the world that struggles with injustice, poverty, and scarce resources.  (And yes, I realize that there are those in this country who struggle with the same things.)

That’s what led him to comment that it would be good for more of us to travel internationally, to see some of the rest of the world.  It changes a person when they travel.  It sharpens our focus.  It awakes us from slumber.  If you’ve never had the opportunity to visit the
“majority world” (a.k.a. the “two-thirds” world), I would encourage you to put it on your bucket list.

Something else happens in this land of milk and honey.  We grow complacent.  We think this is it.  As C.S. Lewis put it, “we’re too easily pleased.”  We think the good life is found here.  We believe that a big paycheck, a big house, a big family, and a big nest-egg are the pinnacle of life.

They’re not.

There is a land “flowing with milk and honey,” though.  It’s called the kingdom of God (or sometimes the kingdom of heaven).  And the amenities and comforts that we look for here pale in comparison.  Not because they’re not good, but because they don’t really satisfy.  What we long for is what God offers.  He offers it in part now, as we experience a relationship with God through Jesus.  And he offers it in full when Jesus returns.  At that time we will experience God face to face.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.  (1 Corinthians 13:12)

So as we enter the season of Lent, it might be helpful to set aside a bit of milk and honey in order to see more clearly.  Not just to see the world around us, but to see the world that God is ultimately calling us to.

-Pastor Mark

P.S. Thank you to all of you who contributed to our efforts to provide funds for the shipping containers destined for Tanzania.  If you’d like more info on the ministry there, check out this website.

Breaking thru the winter of your soul

Chances are you’ll read this on a day when it’s once again snowy here in Maryland.  The forecast is for a few more inches of winter.  But there are also signs that spring is breaking thru.

There’s also a chance that you’ll read this on a day when there’s a bit of winter in your soul.  No one is immune from the bleak, gray and cold seasons of the soul.  Your prayers seem to be anemic at best.  Your passion for seeking God is a dim memory.  Your soul feels heavy and dead.  And you wonder if any of it is even real.

The good news is that you can cultivate your own spring-time for your soul.  That’s essentially what Lent is about.  During the next several weeks (beginning next Wednesday, March 6th) you can till the soil of your soul and plant and nurture the seeds that will burst into full bloom on Resurrection Sunday.

Maybe Lent has left a bad taste in your mouth.  Let me encourage you to try it again.  But try it as a gardener who is cultivating a fertile plot of soil in your soul, not as a drudgery or duty that you’re forced to fulfill.

  • If you choose to abstain from some activity or luxury, do it because it will make your heart more receptive to your heavenly Father.
  • If you want to add some spiritual practice to your routine, do it with the expectancy that it will help you hear your Creator speak into your life.
  • And if you’d like to use a helpful resource, you can check out one of the following:

A Bible reading plan on YouVersion

A downloadable 9 week study plan

In light of our recent message on building a better posse, why not invite someone else to join you in your preparation for Spring?

You may be experiencing a winter time in your soul, but spring is just around the corner!

-Pastor Mark

When your hero makes the headlines

This week our nation celebrated Presidents Day. It’s a time to honor those who’ve played a crucial role in the founding and direction of our country. But Presidents come with baggage.

When you start to dig into the lives of our most revered Presidents, you discover they all had “feet of clay.” Maybe it was the way they treated women. Or animals. Or people of color. Or their political opponents. Maybe it was their view of education, or science, or immigrants, or the economy. Dig very far and you’ll likely unearth some unflattering truths about the leaders you hold in high regard.

I’ve watched over the years as heroes of the Christian faith have likewise been exposed as flawed, sometimes fallen leaders. The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements have simply been one more nail in the coffin of our heroes.

It can be disheartening to discover that your favorite historical hero had an ugly side. Maybe they were simply a product of their time. Maybe they were victims of bad circumstances or bad advice. Or maybe they were like all of us: deeply flawed.

Turns out that even the heroes of the Bible suffer from the same fate. Noah walked off the boat and fell off the wagon. Abraham believed God, except when he didn’t. Moses had a temper and a rap sheet. David covered up his infidelity by murdering an innocent man. Peter struggled to keep his promises. The list goes on and on.

Does this mean we shouldn’t make heroes? Probably. And probably not.

If we want heroes to inspire us to be courageous, compassionate, and victorious over injustice, then yes.

But if we want someone else to fulfill our dreams of the perfect human, then no. Because none of our heroes can do that consistently. Well, except one. But we don’t often think of him as a hero. He was, though. Jesus’ own life was the epitome of courage, compassion, and justice. There are no skeletons in his closet, no peccadillos in his past.

So we should make a hero out of the one true hero. We should look to him to inspire us to become a better human. And we should listen when he says, “Come, follow me.” Because who else is better qualified to be our hero/leader?

-Pastor Mark

A valentine poem

I’m not really into poetry. I don’t mind it, but I usually don’t get it. I’m sure it’s not the poem…it’s me.  But sometimes we click, poetry and me.  Like this one.

(A poem about love)

Love cares more for others than for self.

Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.

Love doesn’t strut,

Doesn’t have a swelled head,

Doesn’t force itself on others,

Isn’t always “me first,”

Doesn’t fly off the handle,

Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,

Doesn’t revel when others grovel,

Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,

Puts up with anything,

Trusts God always,

Always looks for the best,

Never looks back,

But keeps going to the end.

Stirring words indeed.  Something to seep down past the mental defenses and penetrate into the heart of the reader (me).  Words to live by.  Words to live up to.

I’m writing this on Valentine’s Day, a day in which our nation turns itself inside out to gush about love.  Much of the gushing is just a lot of hooey.  Because real love is the kind of stuff in the poem.  If the words in that poem ring a bell, perhaps you’ve heard them before.  Maybe at a wedding.

They’re not really about romantic love and weddings and stuff.  They’re about real life.  They’re part of a larger explanation of real love that was written a long time ago.  Here’s the entire section:

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self.

Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end.

Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled.

When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good.

We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!

But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.  (The Message, 1 Corinthians 13)

So in the shadow of Valentine’s Day, the question for each of us is this: Do we know what real love is?  Are we able to really love someone else?  Are we living the valentine poem?

-Pastor Mark

Love vs. trust

Who doesn’t love Jesus, right?  He’s kind, he’s powerful, he stands up to injustice, and would do anything for you.  But do you trust him?

I recently listened to another preacher who pointed out that it’s easy to say we love Jesus.  But there’s a difference between that and trust.  If you trust your doctor you’ll follow his advice.  If you trust your mechanic you’ll maintain your car according their instructions.  Do we actually trust Jesus?

  • Do we trust him when he gives instructions on how to forgive?
  • Do we trust him when he gives guidelines on how to serve?
  • Do we trust him when he flat out tells us to love our enemies?
  • Do we trust him when he says that real life can’t be found without taking up our cross daily (i.e. dying to the self-directed life)
  • Do we trust him when he upholds a counter-cultural, sexual ethic?
  • Do we trust him when he calls us to live with radical generosity?
  • Do we trust him when he challenges our beliefs about people who are different than us?
  • Do we trust him when he says things like “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile”?
  • Do we trust him when he demands that we surrender our entire life to him?

Do we trust that his teaching is really, truly the best way to live?  Or do we trust our own intuition, or our own appetites, or our own traditions, or our own tribe.  To trust him means to trust that he is speaking the truth, and that he desires what is best for us.  Do we really trust him, or do we just content ourselves with “loving him”?  Because if that’s the case, we may not be loving the real Jesus.  The real Jesus is after all the one who said,

If you love me, keep my commands.

Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.

Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.

Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching.

It appears that Jesus equated loving him with trusting him.  Do you trust him?  Or do you merely “love” the parts of him that fit your lifestyle.  In which case, it might be time to ask, “who’s really the god in my life?”

-Pastor Mark

75 reasons to smile

When Seneca Creek put out the word that we were collecting supplies for last Monday’s MLK Day of Service, our church responded with enthusiasm. The snowstorm that cancelled weekend gatherings didn’t slow things down.

One of this year’s service projects was to assemble “Market bags,” for families in high need communities who are transitioning out of homelessness. We partnered with an extraordinary organization called “A Wider Circle” for this project. One of the best qualities of Seneca Creek is the generosity of our church family when presented with needs like this. Even though we lost a week of collection due to the snow cancellation, you all purchased and delivered enough supplies for the project. Then on MLK Day, our community volunteers came in and filled over 75 Market Bags!

Let that sink in for a moment. 75 families living in food and service deserts will have many of the core personal items they need to successfully step out of homelessness. It’s practical. It’s tangible. It exactly the kind of thing Jesus had in mind when he told the story of the Good Samaritan.

So this week you’ve got a reason to smile. In fact, you’ve got 75 reasons to smile. One smile for every family that receives a Market Bag and takes that next exciting step toward the future God has for them.

Thank you for being a generous church in these crucial times. Thank you for exemplifying the story Jesus told when he said,

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (Matthew 25:35-40)

I have to believe that Jesus is smiling, too.

-Pastor Mark

Does this spark joy?

There’s a popular fad and phrase making the rounds this January. It’s connected with the famous organizer Marie Kondo, and her new television series. In order to help people de-clutter their lives, Ms. Kondo instructs them to pick up every item in their house and answer the question, “Does this spark joy for you?” If no, it has to go.

This got me thinking about other areas of life where we’re inclined to accumulate clutter and lose the script. In particular, the spiritual practices that shape our interior lives. Things like worship, fasting, prayer, tithing, and even Scripture reading. What if we asked of each of these areas (and others like them), “Does this spark joy?”

If I’m honest, sometimes the answer is, “Nope.” Sometimes these practices spark other things. Things like regret, remorse, repentance, and even lament. Other times they spark questions, or doubts, or speeches I want to give to somebody who has offended me.

But before you’re tempted to let these things go because they don’t spark joy, allow me to point out something. These practices are intended to create within us the kind of person who DOES experience joy, the kind of joy that Jesus promised.

I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:11)

Jesus is promising his joy. A deep, infinite, bigger-than-my-circumstances kind of joy. So what did he tell them so they could experience that joy? Well if we look back just before this verse, here’s what he says:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. (John 15:9-10)

Remain in his love…which happens when we “keep his commands.” And not to get too complicated, but the command he stresses is “love one another.”

So here’s the key: To be the kind of people who can consistently live this way, who can consistently “love one another,” who can have Jesus’ joy inside us, we need to embrace the practices and habits that Jesus did. Things like worship, fasting, prayer, tithing, Scripture reading, etc. These practices, which may IN THE MOMENT not spark joy will transform you and me over time into the kind of people who are more and more like Jesus, and more and more living in his joy.

The question for today is this: Are you engaging in the kinds of spiritual practices and habits that will ultimately make you a joyful person? It seems to me like that’s the kind of joy that we really want to spark. Let’s lay the groundwork for lives that are a fountain of joy, with sparks flying all over the place!

-Pastor Mark

Inspired to fight fiercely

Sometimes it takes a life-threatening situation to open our eyes.  In case you didn’t get the memo, that’s what’s taking place right now.

For those who are connected with our church, you probably heard the news that Pastor Jeannette is battling cancer.  As I write this note she’s going thru her first round of chemotherapy (there are 15 more rounds to go).  And as she faces the battle of her life, I couldn’t help but be inspired by her thoughts and comments that she has shared on social media.  I want to copy them here in case you haven’t read them yet. (this I from her CaringBridge site)

Feeling Strong, Optimistic, and Ready to Go

by Jeannette Cochran

Tomorrow chemo begins, and the battle intensifies. Eddie asked if I was scared, and to my surprise, I’m really not.  I’m sure I will have some anxious jitters when I actually sit in the chair for the first time. But for now, I’m feeling strong, optimistic, and living in the moment instead of worrying about what’s ahead. The sooner we get started the sooner it will be over. I’ve calendared all the dates and, barring no unforeseen roadblocks, I will be done on May 23rd.

I’m healing well from surgery, and I feel like myself again. I’ve been eating healthy and loading my body with nutrients through juicing and green smoothies. This week, I had an echo-cardiogram to ensure my heart is healthy enough for chemo and saw my dentist for a routine cleaning before chemo starts.

Eddie packed the bag we’ll take to chemo. It’s filled with books, an iPad, earbuds, snacks, drinks, and a cozy pink blanket marked with positive, uplifting words. This blanket was a gift from a dear friend, and I’m planning to take it every time so that when I sit for chemo, I will always be wrapped in hope, faith, peace, strength, blessing, and courage.

God continues to be faithful and gracious to equip me for the battle ahead. Earlier this week I was reading Romans 8, a chapter dense with hope and courage building truth. Paul closes this chapter with a forceful declaration that no matter what trouble or hardship we face we can be sure that we can conquer it because nothing will ever separate us from God’s love.

“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Not even cancer.

I have everything I need to endure this season because I have the matchless power of Jesus within me and His love surrounding me. It might be hard.  And I’m sure I will probably experience moments of sadness, doubt or fear. But in the end, I will win because in Jesus I am a conqueror.

Thanks for your continued prayers.

Much love to you all,

Jeannette

If you’re not inspired by Jeannette’s faith and her story, you might want to check your pulse.  And while you may not be fighting cancer, chance are you’re fighting your own battles.  I urge you to adopt the same mindset that Jeannette has.  God is still faithful.  He will equip you for the battles he’s called you to.  And NOTHING will separate you from his love.  Nothing.

Fight fiercely.  God is on your side.

-Pastor Mark