Body positivity in church?

There’s a movement that encourages people to accept their physical bodies as beautiful and reject the artificial stereotypes of what they should and should not look like. Body positivity is pushing back against the voices of shame, disgust, hatred, envy, stereotypes, and more. The church needs to hop on board this movement.

Here’s what I mean. The church is described as the “Body of Christ.” And oddly enough, we evaluate our church “body” in some of the same ways we do our physical bodies.

  • We compare our body to other church bodies that might be taller, stronger, younger, prettier.
  • We compare our church body to its younger self, or some dreamy version of a younger self that may or may not be grounded in reality.
  • We learn to loathe certain parts of our church body. “This part is too prominent. That part has a limp. Those parts over there need to be hidden from public view. This part is embarrassing.”

But what if we embraced body positivity for our local church? What if we began to see this body as Christ does, as his bride?

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. Ephesians 5:25-30

It’s easy blame a church for not living up to some ideal standard. It’s easy to fall into self-loathing and body hatred/dislike. It’s hard to embrace body positivity when parts of the body don’t do what you want them to do. When they don’t say the right things, communicate the right way, serve faithfully, or even care about the same issues that are important to you. But just like the problems with self-loathing of our physical bodies, the problems of loathing our church body is equally destructive.

Does this mean that we turn a blind eye to real problems? Nope. But it means we learn to accept that this body is God’s creation, and Jesus’ bride. As such, we long to make her beautiful, and to love her in the process, even if that process takes a lifetime. That applies to individual expressions of the body (a.k.a. the local church) as well as the church universal.

Do you have body positivity toward the Body of Christ?

-Pastor Mark

Finishing the fight

That was the slogan since May.  Finish the fight, which the home team did in fantastic fashion this week.  (Go Nats!)

As I write this the entire DC region is awash in the euphoria of winning the 2019 World Series!  Allow me to borrow a little from the world of baseball.  Like the Nats, we’re in a fight.  To the finish.  Here’s the way I understand it:

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.  (2 Corinthians 10:4)

The guy who wrote that would comment at the end of his life,

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  (2 Timothy 4:7)

What is the fight?  How do we finish it?  In short, the fight is with the enemy of God.  It is the fight against the dehumanizing agenda, that which seeks to diminish or destroy the image of God in any person.  It is the forces aligned against God’s good creation.  It is the malevolent one who appears in the pages of the Bible, and who is sometimes known as the deceiver, the tempter, the accuser, and a roaring lion.

We fight the fight with the truth of who God is, and the truth of his love for his creation…ALL of his creation.  In the passage above Paul points out that our weapons are “not the weapons of the world.”  Those would be weapons of violence, vengeance, dominance, and destructive thoughts/words/attitudes.  Those are the weapons we’re tempted to reach for.  When we’re threatened.  When we’re fearful.  When we’re confused.

But those weapons won’t demolish the strongholds the Enemy has surrounded us with.  Because those are the raw materials used to build the strongholds in the first place.  No we need different weapons.  We need the weapons of truth. We need the weapons of faith, hope and love.  We need the weapons that are listed in the checklist of Ephesians 6:

  • Belt of truth (truth of who God is, and who we are)
  • Breastplate of righteousness (the power to make right that which is wrong)
  • Shoes of peace (grounded in the gospel [good news] of Jesus mission)
  • Shield of faith (wholehearted allegiance to Jesus as king)
  • Helmet of salvation (meaning rescued/delivered/redeemed)
  • Sword of the Spirit, a.k.a. the Word of God

This is how we’re called to fight.  How’s your armor looking?  When we’re missing part of the armor, the fight doesn’t go well.  That’s when we’re tempted to pick up the “weapons of the world.”  Which always cause grave damage to the victim and the one using the weapon.  This is part of the problem we addressed last Sunday.

It’s time to recognize we’re in a fight.  And to quote someone I’ve long forgotten, “There is an enemy, and it’s not the other person.”

It’s time to finish the fight.

-Pastor Mark

P.S. If you’d like to understand better how to demolish strongholds, check out the next Rooted Experience, where among other things we learn exactly WHAT our strongholds are and HOW to demolish them!

The most powerful magnet in the world

Ever notice how easy it is to avoid the important thing and focus on the stuff that matters less? Like when you finish folding the clothes instead of having the hard conversation with your spouse?

As our church (Seneca Creek) celebrated our 30 year birthday last week, we began an exploration of what Jesus said was the Most Important Thing (MIT). Namely, love God and love your neighbor. Or, as the apostle Paul summarized it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)

It’s staggering to contemplate what would happen if Jesus’ followers could focus on that. Too often, though, we focus on stuff that matters less. How old is the earth, how should baptism be performed, who should you vote for, what kind of church traditions are best, etc.

There’s a time and place for the other conversations and discussions. But not when they replace the MIT. We want to focus on the important stuff.

To help us stay focused on that, we made T-shirts available last week so we can be reminded by the message on our chests, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” But the real kicker was the magnets. You know, those things you put on the back of your vehicle so everybody behind you knows who you cheer for and what you stand for? And the magnets simply say, “I ♥ MY NEIGHBORS.”

Here’s what I’ve noticed. Every time I get in my truck I walk past the magnet. And it reminds me that other people (including my actual neighbors) are able to see this message. And they’re no doubt developing expectations. Those expectations are that I will act in loving ways toward my neighbors.

So now the bar has been set, and I’ve got to live up to it. It’s a challenge. It’s relentless. And it’s incredible accountability. All from a simple magnet. This magnet has the power to actually change my life!

I could take the magnet off, especially when I’m having a bad day. But that would be to avoid the MIT. And that seems like moving the target instead of improving my aim. So the magnet stays. And the power of the magnet begins to do its work.

What about you? Is there a (powerful) magnet on your car?

-Pastor Mark

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