When is it okay to re-gift?
Have you ever re-gifted? You know, take that gift you got at the office party and give it to your uncle? Is it okay to wrap up the cheap cologne your grandma gave you and give it to your teenage son? Are there rules for re-gifting? There IS one important rule.Here’s the rule. Re-gift the gift that was made to be re-gifted. Christmas is about celebrating the arrival (that’s what the word Advent means) of the baby Jesus, God’s gift to humanity. Linus got it right in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. But that message has been buried under an avalanche of consumerism and cultural baggage.This year, in addition to whatever other gifts you may give, I would encourage you to re-gift the original Christmas gift. I’m not suggesting you wrap a baby and put it in a manger. I’m suggesting you share the gift of hope, peace, and life that is found in Jesus. Here are a couple simple ways to do that:
- For families with kids, invite them to Star Source, our PowerHouse production that will take place this Sunday, at all three of our gatherings (8:30, 10:00, and 11:30)
- For anyone at all, invite them to one of our Christmas Eve gatherings. On Tuesday, December 24th, we’ll have special candle-light services at 4:00, 6:00, and 7:30 pm. The theme for this Christmas Eve is, “Yet in the dark streets shineth.” Our world is searching for the light that arrived in the manger in Bethlehem. We’ll pull back the curtains and proclaim that light on Christmas Eve. For those who’ve never experienced the power of the real Christmas gift, this could be that defining moment for them. And you have a chance to give that gift, simply by re-wrapping the original Christmas gift!
You can click here for an electronic invitation to Star Source, and here for a Christmas Eve invitation. You can also check our social media feeds to find and copy the info there. Send it to your neighbors, your friends, your classmates, and your colleagues. This is one re-gifting rule you can’t mess up. Together we can shine that light into every dark street in our community!-Pastor Mark
Decrease the surplus population?
There’s a dreadful line from Charles Dickens’ character Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. When presented with the need for donations to support those living on the edges of society, Mr. Scrooge responds with this heartless dialogue:
Scrooge asks if the prisons and workhouses are still open for business. When told that they are, he declares that those in dire need should go there instead of begging. The men seeking his financial help respond:
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
The “surplus population.” Few of us would choose such cold, heartless language, but it’s easy to think that way. The surplus population are those who get in the way of whatever it is I have in mind to do. The surplus population are the nameless masses of people which I believe want something from me. The surplus population are all those whose existence puts a burden on me.
But to think of anyone (or group of individuals) as “surplus” is illogical. A surplus means that there are too many of something for the needs at hand. And people cannot be surplus because the God who created each and every person has a unique purpose FOR that person. Only the individual can live out God’s purpose for them. Nobody else can do it.
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:10
There is exactly one person for every purpose in God’s creation. There are no extras lying around. There is no surplus.
When you encounter someone who you’re tempted to think of as a surplus person, remember that they are the ONLY one who can live out God’s purpose for them. And you are the ONLY one who can live out God’s purpose for you. Which, by the way, might include helping the other person discover their purpose.
In the end, Scrooge was not only heartless, he was blind and dumb, because it’s impossible to imagine or think of anyone being surplus in God’s world.
For more details on God’s purpose for you, join us this Sunday at Seneca Creek!
The subversive message of Thanksgiving
You may be reading this while the turkey is cooking. Or while it’s digesting. Or maybe while the fire department is taking care of the turkey fryer situation on your deck. But regardless of how or when you celebrate Thanksgiving, there’s a subversive element of this holiday that often goes unnoticed.
For many Thanksgiving celebrations there’s time set aside to share exactly WHAT it is we’re thankful for. Family, food, friends, good health, surviving another year, laughter, football, etc. If you don’t answer the question, “What are you thankful for” you risk being labeled a selfish, ungrateful clod. Maybe you wouldn’t even get invited back next year.
But in the cornucopia of things for which we ARE grateful, where are we to direct our gratitude? Is it just to good luck, or good genes? That hardly seems a fitting recipient for our heart-felt gratitude. Is it to the farmers who raised all the delicious food, because they couldn’t succeed without fertile soil, abundant rain, energy from the sun, etc. For many, including myself, our real gratitude is directed at the giver of all good gifts, our Creator God.
Here’s where it gets subversive. In an increasingly secular and non-religious society, there’s still a desire, almost a need to be grateful. And while certain holiday greetings have fallen out of favor lest they come across as too religious, Thanksgiving stands out like a beacon pointing beyond ourselves. Those who may not darken the door of a church or synagogue or mosque will no doubt declare their gratitude on this festive holiday. And in so doing, they’re almost unwittingly pointing to the giver of all good gifts.
Does God acknowledge those gestures of gratitude, even if the address on the envelope is left blank? I believe he does. And I believe that he can work in the hearts and minds of anyone who will start with gratitude. Because ultimately, everything we have, and everything we see, and everything we long for comes from our heavenly Father.
Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:18
This year, I’m thankful for all those who are giving thanks, even if they’re not sure whom they’re thanking. Here’s to another subversive campaign of gratitude!
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?
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.
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?
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?
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:
- Following Jesus is a lifelong lesson in humility.
- It’s good to let Scripture and the Holy Spirit review and revise my most deeply held beliefs.
- Listening to people who disagree with you is the only way to grow.
- Following Jesus is the best way to avoid getting lost.
- God never fails to show up on time. Not my time, but his time.
- 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.
- 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.
- Jesus is better than you imagined. (Thank you Jonathan Merritt)
- Being right is not the most important thing in life.
- Everyone has a story that involves pain; until they share it you don’t really know them.
- We often expect superhuman qualities from our leaders, then wonder why they fail.
- It’s easy to overestimate our abilities, but impossible to overestimate God’s.
- Everybody wants to be fruitful, but nobody wants to be pruned.
- Jesus is the most misunderstood person in our culture.
- 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.
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.
- He became the new high priest
- He became the ultimate sacrifice once for all
- He left only the traditions of baptism and communion
- He became the new Temple, the meeting place with God.
- He consolidated all the rules into one: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
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.
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!
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