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

The sermon you’ve always wanted to hear?

Do you enjoy January?  Does it give you that invigorating sense of starting something new?  Do you get all dreamy about what you’re going to do differently this year?  If you’re like me, this time of year seems so filled with opportunity.  Speaking of which, here’s a New Year opportunity for you.

What if you could pick a sermon topic?  If you could choose just one sermon that you’d like to hear preached this year, what would it be?  Maybe some book or passage of the Bible?  Or some hot topic?  Or some favorite verse?  Or some perplexing question that you’ve carried around for decades?

If you’ve got an idea, I’d love to hear what it is.  I can’t promise that I can preach that exact sermon, but I’ll do my best to try to boil down the key ideas and areas of interest.

I know, some will say, “Aren’t you just preaching what people want to hear…doesn’t Jesus warn about that?”  Nope.  I’m preaching the life-changing gospel of Jesus.  But the gospel affects every area of life.  And some of those areas are in greater need of clarity or encouragement than others.  This is simply a way of letting me know where those areas are in your life.

So hit me up on the comments section below, and we’ll chart a course for a life-changing year together!

-Pastor Mark

Hopes and fears

What’s your favorite Christmas carol? Maybe Silent Night? Or O Holy Night? Do you ever find yourself being captivated by a simple phrase from one of the timeless classic carols? It happened to me this week.

The words came wafting out of my truck speakers, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” It’s the end of verse 1 of the carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” That song was written shortly after the Civil War by an Episcopal priest named Philips Brooks. And the lyrics are compelling.

The phrase about hopes and fears caught my attention because I hear people expressing their fears on a daily basis. Fears about job security (can you say “government shutdown”?). Fears for safety in their neighborhoods. Fears about health problems. Fears about children who are making bad choices. Fears about student debt. Fears about the political direction of our nation. Fears about racial strife and tension. Fears about marriages that are teetering on the brink of destruction.

The songwriter says that hopes and fears are met in Christ. The hope of the nations. The hope of the disenfranchised. The hope of the homeless and the helpless. The hope of the addict and the abused. The hope of the lonely and the left behind. The hope of all the years of all the people. Including you. What are you truly hoping for this year?

As you finish your last minute preparations for Christmas, let that phrase echo in your mind.

“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”

Every hope will be met. Every fear will be conquered. In the words of the angel:

Fear not! I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:10-11

Our deepest hopes are met only in the Messiah. To be loved for who we are. To be valued for who we are. To be known at the deepest level. To be forgiven for the secret and shameful past. To be gifted and called for a life that matters. All these hopes and more are met in Jesus.

If you know someone who’s dealing with fear, or whose hopes are dwindling, be sure to share the earth-shattering good news that the angel proclaimed. And while you’re at it, why not invite them to join you for a Christmas Eve gathering at Seneca Creek. You can get the details here.

-Pastor Mark

Giving a risky gift

Have you ever tried to give someone a gift that you weren’t sure they’d like? I remember giving my mom a smart home speaker, which I KNEW could be very helpful. But she was as far from a tech person as you could get. No computer experience, no email, no cell phone. Nothing. How would it go?

To my surprise, it went better than I could have ever expected. (I actually thought she might sell it at a garage sale because it was just taking up space!) After about five minutes it was a smashing success. And she’s never looked back. That little device has changed her daily life in numerous ways. But it all started when I took a chance on giving a gift that may or may not be well received.

This week you have the opportunity to take that kind of risk. You know people who would benefit from what God has for them in a local church like Seneca Creek. Maybe they’re as far from a “religious” person as you could get. Maybe they’ve even had some really bad experiences with churches, or with people claiming to be Christians. What would happen if you invited them to a Christmas Eve gathering?

The truth is, you don’t know. Just like the smart home speaker I gave to my mom, there’s a risk. It might not be well received. But you won’t know until you try. And the stakes are sky high, because what they really need is what you’re offering them.

So let me encourage you this week to take a risk. Reach out to that person who you know could use the gift of Hope. You can pick up an invitation card on Sunday, or use this link and invite them electronically. Take a risk. Change a life. Change an eternity. Give a gift that matters.

-Pastor Mark

Thoughts from the waiting room

We sat together in the hospital waiting room this week. Waiting on progress reports from the surgeons. Waiting for any kind of news. Waiting. And it occurred to me that most of us hate the waiting room.

We avoid the waiting room. Because, well, we don’t like waiting. We want things to happen sooner. Now, preferably. The irony wasn’t lost on me as I sat there with family members who like to get things done, who like action, who like going places. And we were all waiting.

Waiting reminds us that we’re not in control. It reminds us that there are forces we can’t understand. It reminds us of our creatureliness. Because of this, the finest feature of the waiting room is that it forces us to pray. To turn our attention toward the Creator. To be reminded that we do, in fact, have a loving and all-powerful heavenly Father. To take our eyes off the present (and the mundane?) and be reminded that something bigger than me, something bigger than us is taking place. Waiting can be instrumental in restoring us to a flourishing “Creator-created” relationship.

There’s no better time of year for this either. The arrival of Messiah was the culmination of centuries spent in the waiting room. The waiting room of earth was finally filled with the joyous sounds of a newborn King. Tears of joy. Shouts of excitement. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given.” Simeon was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” (Luke 2:25) And from the waiting room he uttered this words:

My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel. (Luke 2:31-32)

You may be stuck in a waiting room in some area of life. But Christmas is the annual reminder that the wait is over. So this week, let the joyful noise from your waiting room fill your life.

-Pastor Mark

Winning the war on Christmas

Have you found yourself wondering if it’s okay to say, “Merry Christmas”? It’s a controversial greeting in many places. Some have characterized this as part of a “war on Christmas,” a war that includes vanishing nativities, more Santa and less Jesus, etc. What’s going on here?

There are voices in the Christian tradition who view many of these developments as a concerted attack against Christmas, complete with godless atheists who are upset at the mention of a deity. Is there really a war on Christmas?

I think so, but not in the way we might have been told. I think the war on Christmas is more stealthy than that, and we might have been inadvertently coopted into fighting for the enemy. The real war is a creeping tendency to see Christmas as primarily about gifts, goodies, and get-togethers. It’s the tidal wave that’s all about trees, traditions, and tacky lawn ornaments.

While those are not bad things, they often crowd out the real Christmas. They plunder from us the wonder of Christmas. They occupy the land that Christmas was supposed to invite us into. They place a tyrant on the throne instead of the good King. That’s the real war on Christmas, a war which we often don’t realize is taking place and may in fact be taking us prisoner.

Christmas is the shocking and scandalous appearance of God in human form. It’s the world-altering, life-changing reality that God visited us as one of us. It’s the breath-taking fulfillment of centuries of prophecies that told of God’s plan to begin to set the world right. And not just so we could have a day off every December, but so we could have every day “on” as it were. So we could live freely as we were designed to live. The little baby born in Bethlehem went on to show us exactly HOW to live. Every day.

So when you hear Christmas music on the radio, or at the mall, take a minute to reflect. Have you become a casualty of the war on Christmas? When you hear or repeat the greeting, “Merry Christmas,” ask yourself, “Am I really living in the reality of Christmas…of God in human form?”

And if someone wants to say, “Happy Holidays,” wish them well. After all, the origins of the phrase, “Merry Christmas” are rooted in an excessive, alcohol-infused celebration, whereas a holiday is a derivative of “holy day,” which Christmas most certainly is. 😊 For the win!

-Pastor Mark